Improvised Continent: Pan-Americanism and Cultural Exchange

Improvised Continent: Pan-Americanism and Cultural Exchange

Improvised Continent: Pan-Americanism and Cultural Exchange

Improvised Continent: Pan-Americanism and Cultural Exchange


How does a country in the process of becoming a world power prepare its citizens for the responsibilities of global leadership? In Improvised Continent, Richard Candida Smith answers this question by illuminating the forgotten story of how, over the course of the twentieth century, cultural exchange programs, some run by the government and others by philanthropies and major cultural institutions, brought many of the most important artists and writers of Latin America to live and work in the United States.

Improvised Continent is the first book to focus on cultural exchange inside the United States and how Americans responded to Latin American writers and artists. Moving masterfully between the history of ideas, biography, institutional history and politics, and international relations, and engaging works in French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese, Candida Smith synthesizes over seventy years of Pan-American cultural activity in the United States.

The stories behind Diego Rivera's murals, the movies of Alejandro G. Inarritu, the poetry of Gabriela Mistral, the photography of Genevieve Naylor, and the novels of Carlos Fuentes--these works and artists, along with many others, challenged U.S. citizens about their place in the world and about the kind of global relations the country's interests could allow. Improvised Continent provides a profoundly compassionate portrayal of the Latin American artists and writers who believed their practices might create a more humane world.


In March 1945, Brazilian novelist Érico Veríssimo stopped in Abilene, Texas, as part of a three-week tour of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Kentucky, where he spoke at nineteen locations about the place of pan-American unity in the global fight against fascism and militarism. Abilene was then a medium-sized town of fifty thousand in the middle of the cattle and petroleum country of northwest Texas. Some six hundred people showed up for an afternoon’s activities at Abilene Christian College. the meeting ground was decorated with U.S. and Brazilian flags, as well as cowboy gear from Texas and Brazil. After singing the “Star Spangled Banner,” the audience was led in singing the Brazilian national anthem in English translation. a program of North American and Brazilian folk songs followed. Once again the audience sang along with translated lyrics projected onto a screen. Two songs were performed in Portuguese, so the audience could hear how they sounded in the original language.

After the cultural program, Érico Veríssimo presented a fifty-minute talk with slides entitled “Brazil, the Gentle Giant.” Veríssimo’s talks were humorous, but he also used the opportunity and the goodwill he seemed to generate from his listeners to present them with his friendly criticisms of the United States. He insisted on talking about the country’s long history of racial hatred and the damage that segregation laws did to the quality of human relationships within the United States. He confessed that he always had trouble filling out official forms in North America that required him to check the appropriate box for his race. He told his U.S. audiences, “In a melting pot like Brazil (and let it be said in passing, the same is true for the United States), none of us know for sure the lines of blood running in our veins.” He decided to respond to such questions by writing in the only reply that he could say with certainty: “I am a human being.” He compared the situation in the United States with his own country’s legacy of racial mingling, though he frankly admitted, unlike official representatives of his government, that Brazil needed to do much more to assure that all citizens enjoyed full equality. He also talked about misinformation in the U.S. media about Latin America, using examples of recent portrayals of Brazil in movies and the press. He hoped that communication between the two countries, such as represented by the day’s event, would increase, and . . .

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