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Rutgers University Press
Mestizo Modernism: Race, Nation, and Identity in Latin American Culture, 1900-1940

Mestizo Modernism: Race, Nation, and Identity in Latin American Culture, 1900-1940

by Tace Hedrick


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We use the term “modernism” almost exclusively to characterize the work of European and American writers and artists who struggled to portray a new kind of fractured urban life typified by mechanization and speed. Between the 1880s and 1930s, Latin American artists were similarly engaged—but with a difference. While other modernists drew from “primitive” cultures for an alternative sense of creativity, Latin American modernists were taking a cue from local sources, primarily indigenous and black populations in their own countries. Although these artists remained outsiders to modernism elsewhere as a result of their race, nation, and identity, their racial heritage served as a positive tool in negotiating their relationship to the dichotomy between tradition and modernity.

In Mestizo Modernism Tace Hedrick focuses on four key artists who represent Latin American modernism—Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.  Hedrick interrogates what being “modern” and “American” meant for them and illuminates the cultural contexts within which they worked, as well as the formal methods they shared, including the connection they drew between ancient cultures and modern technologies. In so doing, she defines “modernism” more as a time frame at the turn of the twentieth century, marked broadly across the arts and national boundaries, than as a strict aesthetic or formal category. In fact, this look at Latin American artists will force the reconceptualization of what modernism has meant in academic study and what it might mean for future research.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813532165
Publisher: Rutgers University Press
Publication date: 05/28/2003
Edition description: None ed.
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

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Excerpt from Mestizo Modernism: Race, Nation, and Identity in Latin American Culture, 1900-1940 by Tace Hedrick

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"We need . . . to present ourselves as a strong people, hard-working, intelligent, and intrepid, to that other people who abound in these conditions, and who only respect those who possess them. They take us for a kind of female of the American race, and it continues to be urgent that they see us in virile labors: especially when it's certain that, without the same condition of activity, labor, and ingenuity, the men of the North will take advantage of us." -José Martí, Obras Completas
This is a book about a sense of modernity as it was both negotiated and imagined, between the years of 1910 and 1940, by four very different artists: Peruvian poet César Vallejo, Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral. To say that, at the beginnings of the twentieth century, these artists understood themselves to be modern will not, certainly, startle Latin American scholars reading this book; but to say that these individuals were modernists, in what I am proposing as the English-language sense of the term, might surprise Latin Americanists as well as scholars of European and United States esthetic modernism. In part, of course, this surprise owes to the difficulty of crossing the disciplinary, not to say linguistic, boundaries separating scholars of Latin American literature and culture from scholars of European and United States modernism.1
That crossing disciplinary boundaries isdifficult is obvious; but it is the difficulty of moving between the sometimes very different perspectives of Latin American and Euro-American scholars that I wish to emphasize here. European and United States scholars have been engaged in what some have termed a "new modernist studies" conversation of the last fifteen years or so; this discussion has greatly expanded the idea of what it means to be modern or a modernist, either in Europe or in the United States, largely by insisting that race, gender, and sexuality-and not merely esthetic or formal considerations-be the foci of modernist studies. Such a discussion has been built on groundbreaking studies like Houston Baker Jr.'s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Rita Felski's The Gender of Modernity, and Michael North's The Dialect of Modernism. On the other hand, as we will see, theorists such as George Yúdice, Néstor García Canclini, and Neil Larsen have framed, often via a rereading of postmodernism and globalization, a somewhat different take on the problems of modernity that nations to the south of the United States have encountered and on the relation of such problems to the esthetic movements of the first part of Latin America's twentieth century.
The differences between these two perspectives are not inconsequential, and it is important to delineate them-but such differences are not, I am convinced, insuperable. My study takes critical insights from both groups-from the new modernist readings by United States and European critics engaged in opening up the conceptual framework of esthetic modernism and from Latin American critics occupied in reframing older ways of reading Latin America as peripheral to modernity and hence only belatedly modern. This is not, hopefully, to bring to Latin American texts a reading legitimated on the basis of the North's interest in the South's ability to "revitalize and revalorize the aesthetic culture of [Western] modernism and the avant-garde" (Larsen 6). The challenges that a reading of Latin American artists of the early part of the twentieth century will bring to the scholarship of European and U.S. modernist critics will perhaps open spaces for new thought about the dominance of assumptions, for instance, that modernity has already, and everywhere, happened-even if for some it always comes a little bit late.
This introduction lays out a generalized context for the claims about the connections between race, gender, and modernity, claims which I will be making in the rest of the book. Again, much of this contextual situating will be familiar ground to Latin Americanists; it is intended to bring to the forefront ways the nations to the south of the United States negotiated and represented to themselves the profound social, cultural, and economic shifts in self-perception brought about by modernizing influences, and to confront possibly unconscious Euro-American notions about who and what was (or is) modern-and why. Such a confrontation begins with the knowledge that as Latin Americans grappled with the rapidity of changes brought by successive waves of industrialization and modernization, there was an increasing backlash against the growing economic and political imperialism of the United States as well as against a Europe which was still, in the 1920s and 1930s, perceived as the cultural capital of the world.
It is also part of my argument, however, that the very backlash against Europe and the United States was itself caught up within, even while it tried to transform, the confines of widely shared Western assumptions about the meaning of being modern and future-oriented. In insisting, against outside perceptions of the so-called primitive or timeless character of Latin American nations, that, in fact, they were progressive, many Latin Americans-the majority of them from elite sectors of society, it must be noted-began to examine their own societies by means of vocabularies of modernization. Paradoxically, these vocabularies themselves often came directly from both European and United States centers of social, cultural, and economic hegemony. However, I suggest, one of the results of adapting new ways of talking, thinking about, and representing the intertwined categories of race, gender, and nationhood was that, beginning around the 1880s, there began in Latin America a decided shift in historical feeling-one that included a new and increasingly technological and scientific sense (and lexicon) of progress; a feeling of, as Peruvian intellectual José Carlos Mariátegui would put it in the 1920s, "belonging to the century" (256). This shift also meant that men and women were experiencing the significance of gender and racial roles in a changing, politicized, and necessarily embodied way.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing, especially in places like Mexico, into the 1940s, the fact of a long heritage of racemixing was of increasing concern to discussions of national character and harmony. How were indigenous or black populations supposed to feel national unity with white (European-derived) groups? How were European- identified whites of the middle and upper classes to feel an indigenous sense of pride in their nations? Fueling a growing attention paid not only to the then-ubiquitous Indian question but to women (as producers of racialized bodies) was a larger series of questions centering on the reception of scientific eugenicism in South America.2 In the face of the fact of Latin American racial mixture, called mestizaje when it referred to Indo-Hispanic crossings, policy makers and scientists alike set about to rework the ideas of scientific eugenics, which for the most part had deemed mixed-race individuals weak and degenerate. Instead, the mixedrace individual would come to serve for many as a symbol of racial and therefore national unity. Thus, eugenics rhetoric in Latin America often used the genetic theories of both Lamarck and, later, Mendel to propose an analogy between the vigor of hybrid plants and animals and the similar vitality of mixed races: as José Vasconcelos, the widely influential Mexican minister of education (1920-1926) maintained in 1926, "If we observe human nature closely we find that hybridism in man, as well as in plants, tends to produce better types" (Gamio and Vasconcelos, Aspects 85).

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