Literary Patriotism in Ecuador's Juan León Mera and Juan De Velasco

By Willingham, Eileen | Humanities Research, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Literary Patriotism in Ecuador's Juan León Mera and Juan De Velasco


Willingham, Eileen, Humanities Research


Nineteenth-century nation builders in Ecuador looked to the past for models of national unity and identity. The prolific writer and government servant Juan Le?n Mera served the theocratic state of ultraconservative President Gabriel Garcia Moreno, whose rule extended from 1860 to 1875, and contributed to shaping Ecuador's national imaginary in his literary and journalistic output. Mera found many elements for his vision of Catholic triumphalism in Ecuador in the work of eighteenth-century exiled Jesuit historian Juan de Velasco. This article traces genealogical ties between the two writers, from the Creole historian's elite patriotic history La historia del Reino de Quito en la Am?rica meridional of 1789 to Mera's many novels, stories and essays.

As was the case for other post-independence Spanish- American nations, in Ecuador, the experience of nation building in the nineteenth century was tumultuous. After the independence wars, the colonial-era Audiencia de Quito joined Gran Colombia as the Distrito del Sur (1822?30), but broke away as Bolivar's dream of a unified South American state crumbled. In Ecuador's case, after 1830, conflicts among regions and competing oligarchic interests led to continued instability, as traditional landholding elites in the highlands ? themselves divided between northern and southern zones ? and export-oriented landholders in the coastal region struggled to establish both a nation-state and a sense of nationhood in the ethnically stratified territory. Between 1860 and 1875, as Ecuador was drawn more closely into the global export economy, the nation was ruled by Gabriel Garcia Moreno, who supported his modernising program with a repressive regime closely allied with the Catholic Church.1 Writer and government official Juan Le?n Mera made significant contributions to Ecuador's nation-making project, both by backing Garcia Moreno's 'theocratic state' and by shaping Ecuador's sense of national identity through his literary output.2 Just as Garcia Moreno looked to colonial models of social control ? for example, by renewing the Church's role in 'civilising' the people and by reintroducing colonial-era labour arrangements ? to shore up his national project. Mera turned to a late-colonial historian of Quito, Juan de Velasco, as a source of elements of national identity. Both writers, living in periods of rapid change, attempt to define the essence of the Quite?o or Ecuadorian people by looking to the past to fashion invented traditions for the present.3 Velase o's Historia del Reino de Quito en la Am?rica meridional (1789)4 and Mera's works show that both promise and contradictions lie at the heart of their patriotic projects.

Velasco's eighteenth-century Creole patriotic history played a vital part in Ecuador's national imaginary during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The text was rescued from near oblivion, repatriated from Europe, and published in early republican Ecuador in the 1840s. Post-colonial nationalists found his tale of alternative indigenous agency and Quite?o identity too enticing to resist; in addition, the text provides the prehistory for nationalist rivalry between Ecuador and Peru. Mera's work is deeply indebted to Velasco's history of the Quito region, because of its heroic tale of an indigenous royalty that outshone the Incas; its description of the region's territory, resources and population; and its model for establishing and perfecting Catholic civilisation in America. Mera saw continuity between various periods and actors of his nation's history, as did Velasco with the colonial Kingdom of Quito, and both have been instrumental in institutionalising the unbroken narrative of Ecuadorianness (or 'Quite?oness') that elites wished to tell. Mera's concerns with national and territorial unity, national origins and cultural history resonate with the earlier attempt by Velasco, written during the Jesuit's exile in Italy after 1767. To take one example, if Mera's 1879 novel, Cumand? …

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