The Latin American Intellect

By Reyes, Alfonso | UNESCO Courier, May 1995 | Go to article overview

The Latin American Intellect


Reyes, Alfonso, UNESCO Courier


The Mexican writer Alfonso Reyes, a passionate humanist, historian, poet and critic, was one of the leading Latin American thinkers of the first half of the twentieth century. He was among the first intellectuals of Latin America to take an active interest in the International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation. The text published below consists of extracts from Reyes' opening address at a meeting entitled "Europe-Latin America" that was organized by the Institute and held in Buenos Aires from 11 to 16 September 1936. In it he brilliantly defines the distinctive nature of Latin American culture and its place in the world.

This is not the place to talk about Latin American civilization: that would lead us off into the field of archaeology, which is outside our subject. To speak of Latin American culture would be somewhat ambiguous: it would make us think only of one of the branches of the European tree, transplanted into the soil of the Americas. We may, however, speak of a Latin American intellect, its outlook on life and its impact on life. This will enable us to define, albeit tentatively, the subtle gradation that is specifically Latin American.

A DIFFERENT TEMPO

Our drama has a stage, a chorus and a protagonist.

By stage I mean not a space but rather a time, in the almost musical sense of tempo or rhythm. A latecomer at the banquet of European civilization, Latin America made up for lost time by cutting corners, quickening the pace, hurrying from one form to another without giving the previous form time enough to mature. The leap is sometimes a bold one, and the new form comes out, as it were, half-baked. Tradition weighed less heavily, which explains the boldness. But the question needs to be asked as to whether the European rhythm, which we try to follow by making great strides - being incapable of the measured steps with which one should properly keep up with it - is the only historical "tempo" possible, and there is nothing to show that it is unnatural to speed up the process somewhat. Therein lies the secret of our history, of our politics and of our life, one of the watchwords of which is improvisation.

As to the chorus, the Latin American population is drawn mainly from the old indigenous elements, the massive influx of Spanish conquistadors, missionaries and settlers, and the subsequent immigrations from Europe as a whole. Clashes between the different bloodlines, problems of interbreeding and attempts at adaptation and absorption have all ensued. Depending on the region, it is sometimes the Indian and sometimes the Iberian element that predominates; the intermediate colour of the mestizo, the white of the European immigrants and the vast patches of African colour introduced into our land by the former colonial administrations in centuries gone by - every shade is included. Gradually, and not without effort, this heterogeneous substance has been absorbed and mixed in the bowels of Latin America, and now there already exists a Latin American humanity characteristic of this Latin American spirit.

This is where our actor, our protagonist comes in: the intellect.

AMERICANISTS VERSUS HISPANISTS

The Latin American intellect operates on a series of alternatives. Fifty years after the Spanish conquest, in other words as early as the second generation, a Latin American identity was to be found in Mexico: under the combined influences of the new environment, the different economic system, the contact with the Indian sensibility, and the proprietorial instinct originating from the previous occupation period, the Mexican Spaniards developed a colonial-aristocratic attitude that was at odds with the arriviste inclinations of the Spaniards coming straight off the boats. Literary criticism has picked out as central to this phenomenon, like a light source, the person of the Mexican dramatist Juan Ruiz de Alarcon who, via Corneille, influenced Moliere and the French theatre of manners.

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