That Discerning Eye: Vision, Race, and the State in Modern Latin American Literature

This series of overlapping essays examines the articulation of race and the state as it appears in literary and cultural discourse in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Authors and works discussed include Brazilian authors Aluízio de Azevedo (O Mulato), Mário de Andrade (modernismo, canonicity and ethnography), Gilberto Freyre (Casa-Grande e Senzala and other writings), and Spanish American and Chicano/U.S. Latino writers from Simón Bolívar through Jorge Isaacs to Gloria Anzaldúa. The title engages a line from Cirilo Villaverde’s novel Cecilia Valdés (1882), whose narrator proposes that it takes a “discerning eye” to see race and color as Caribbean life requires. Errors in perception arise here from insufficiently subtle understandings of racial mixture and hierarchy. The foreign observer fails to navigate his place and loses his footing. The criollo subject understands that race and color must be seen and taken into account, yet realizes that the knowledge which permits effective action within the existing hierarchy is useful only so long as it is concealed.

My central insight for this project is that when at Angostura (1819) Bolívar proclaimed “La sangre de nuestros ciudadanos es diferente; mezclémosla para unirla” he makes a double gesture: the new nations are conceived in racial terms, but are expected at the same time to move, at least at the level of public discourse, beyond race. The mestizaje that would become the signature of many Latin American nations is neither a mixture that dissolves race nor a transgression against racial hierarchies, but a hyperracial strategy to unify the nation and contain the lower classes; it does so by maintaining hierarchies at the same time as it blocks discussion or analysis of these. This double gesture is echoed and struggled with in literary and cultural texts for the next nearly two hundred years. Several studies from the past decade have presented strong critiques of the mestizaje paradigm; this work does not need redoing, but work on race itself has only just begun (Andermann, Lund, Poole, Sanjinés).

Rather than rework now canonical discussions of hybridity and its relationship to national identity, this project examines racial hierarchy and state power as these inform the conflictive terrain on which writers have articulated racial meaning and the idea of the modern. The project considers race as a fundamental element in modern state formations (David Theo Goldberg) and perhaps in modernity itself (Denise Ferreira da Silva). From this perspective hierarchization is not simply a vestige of the past but a structuring axis in current social processes as well. Literary works are not only respresentations or programmatic texts but also interventions pointing beyond the interpretive frames in which they arise. The 19th and early 20th century articulations of race and state may not in fact be resolved by the exaltations of hybridity of the 1920s and 1930s, and a second look at configurations of these matters predating the “reajuste cultural” (Osorio) of modernismo and vanguardia may shed light upon the ways in which race, state, nation, identity, color, and culture rearticulate each other today.


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