If I say this to my Latino friends, or even hint at it – they get furious. What do I mean by saying they are inferior?
But being a backward country has its advantages – as well as its disadvantages. They are painfully aware of what they perceive as their inferior status (their relative poverty) – and that is why they are so sensitive about it.
They are not so aware of the advantages of their culture – at least consciously. But many of them want to have it both ways – live for awhile up North, and then back for awhile in the South. And they used to do this frequently, before the border restrictions (imposed by the North) became more severe.
I can see the advantages clearly enough. The South is still people-oriented, while the North has become machine-oriented. Few Americans are aware of this – and almost no Latinos – who would like nothing more than become like the North – and cannot understand why they have not made this transition already.
Their culture has two layers. Basically it is derived from the Spanish and Portuguese cultures of the 16th Century – late Medieval cultures. This is covered by a layer of American popular culture – American clothing and music. They have no awareness of this split – and strongly resist any such knowing. Because their basic culture (late Medieval) forbids it.
Northern culture, by contrast, is used to social criticism – and indulges its intellectual and artistic minority – who have been doing this for centuries.
You may immediately counter this by saying that Latino intellectuals and artists have been doing this also. And you would be right – but you would also be wrong. And I will spend the rest of this posting explaining this.
I will concentrate on Literature, because that is something I know about – and because I have writers from the South and the North on my desk that I can compare easily.
The first book is Children of the Days by Eduardo Galeano, translated by Mark Fried – which I just bought because of an enthusiastic review in TomDispatch. After reading it for awhile, I can only wonder why he was so crazy about it. And be forced to the conclusion that has no understanding of Western literature – or of the West itself. In other words, he is a typical American of his time – understanding very little – and satisfied with that.
For comparison, I want to contrast the book Dickinson by Helen Vendler – about the American poet Emily Dickinson. I picked the poem The Tint I cannot take is best (page 298) simply because this is the next poem I planned to read before I set the book down and neglected it. As usual, Vendler’s comments are much longer than the poem itself. It begins this way:
Dickinson’s attempt to grasp the “Graspless” import of Nature begins in delight (as Frost says it should) but end in bitterness. Just as music seems to both elude and solicit formulation in words, so Nature keeps offering tints and arrays to the eye that seem to demand that the poet find their verbal counterpart.
She then goes on to refer to Emerson and Whitman and Keats – to put Dickinson into the larger cultural context of the West. This is easy because the North represents the West – the developed part of it. The North developed some heavy metaphysics - part of its cultural infrastructure - that the South (in the Inquisition) rejected entirely. And therefore does not have.
You may object that Latin America has its poets too – but they have not been not adequately appreciated by the North. I have just such a book on my desk – one that I got at a used book store – From Eve’s Rib by Gioconda Belli. A bilingual edition with Spanish on the left and the English translation on the right.
Gioconda also wrote the book The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War - about her experiences in the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. It is excellent.
What it does not say is that since then she has lived mostly in the States – and only returns to Central America to visit occasionally. She knows that the States are where it is at. She still writes, but her audience is limited to Latin America.