Cultural Identity, Religion, and Globalization in Latin America: Our Lady of Guadalupe and Saint Martín de Porres as Clear Examples of Interculturalism and Instruments of Mediation Among Different Weltanschauungen

  • Leonardo Sacco


Latin America is a part of that Global village where—according to Marc Augé—places, time, and space exist in abundance and where the presumed unique nature of the Western model clashes with the image of the “other”. (Augé (2009); Salgues (2016), p. 114) Thus, while the formation of a multiethnic and multicultural society—one based on the principle of tolerance, in which diversity and homologation should coexist without conflict—is hoped for, the spread of such categories as ethnicity and minority underscores the dissimilarities of our time. Starting from such basic concepts as, for example, religion, culture, otherness, and identity, and with the analysis of two case studies—Our Lady of Guadalupe and Saint Martín de Porres—the aim is to raise a problem: does a Latin American cultural identity exist? And how can it be identified?


History of religions Anthropology Latin america Cultural identity Religion Globalization 

When speaking of a Latin American identity, it must be noted that, over time, a consciousness of identity has formed, planned by the shared events of the nations that underwent Spanish and Portuguese conquest. More precisely, a collective identity has been created, modelled along three centuries of Spanish/Portuguese domination, thanks to the language and religion adopted from the two countries and by virtue of unique cultural factors1: in this sense, it may be stated that there is a precise Latin American cultural identity, but not everyone agrees on the theme that unifies the various continental ethnicities.2 In my assessment, the historical and religious events connected with Our Lady of Guadalupe and Saint Martín de Porres are clear examples of interculturalism and offer an opportunity to more easily penetrate into Latin American identity issues, with a glance towards globalization.

Devotion to the Virgin Mary was explained with the need to be able to evoke an accessible mediation between the human and the divine. The Indios, however, had at least one more reason than Europeans to develop a privileged devotional relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary3: the natives intuited that Marian appropriation could be a tool for redemption (in the eyes of those who considered them merely pagans) and a way to neutralize—through this rehabilitation—the spiritual motivations for the Conquest (which often endorsed abuse and violence).4

Therefore, it is no accident that precisely the apparitions and messages that the Virgin (with brown hair and face) appeared to bestow upon the Indios initially raised the hostile reservations of the Franciscans, who perceived the dangers (and not only doctrinal) of indigenous appropriation of Marian mediation5: after all, at least until the dawn of the seventeenth century, the place where the Virgin of Guadalupe was worshiped still held deep echoes of a prior native cult that worshiped an ancient Aztec female deity,6 with the risk of inappropriate idolatrous convergence; in fact, some decades after the Conquest, Bernardino de Sahagún was to observe that a widespread rebirth of native religious traditions was taking place.7 It thus happened that a cult of importance in the New World, transforming and enriching itself over time with native elements of identity, rose, after the initial cultural/colonialist trauma, through the polysemantic medium of a particular national/popular reality.8 In a study on the relationship between Indios and right to citizenship, it has been found that, at times, certain strictly Western categories are used and appropriated by the original cultures.9 Even though the Indios always thought of and defined themselves specifically, and never simply as Indios, the Indio category, as it was created by our Western culture, has nevertheless been incorporated by certain groups of natives, who use it as a tool of identity in the process of defining their position vis-à-vis the dominant culture. Being Indio, defining oneself as Indio, thus means not only recognizing oneself as different from the civilized world, but also discovering a relationship of similarity between different groups of natives—a similarity that lies precisely in the distance that separates the Indio from the civilized world and that can at times be a tool of power with regard to the civilizers. The Virgin Mary therefore became the linchpin of a social and political reality that, starting from the seventeenth century, was to acquire more and more consciousness of its own cultural autonomy.10

The events, summarized here, that spread the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Catholic world foreshadow a surprising, intercultural logic. This cult, in fact, was able to adjust (with no traumatic clashes) to the new cultural circumstances, offering itself as an instrument of fertile encouragement for the various stakeholders.11 In defiance of the historical events of its own time, the cult turned out to be a long-lived cultural reality; secondly, the cult dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe presents a developing function of representation: it need only be considered, to draw an example, how in Spain, the cult of Guadalupe was affirmed in combination with the progressive redemption of Iberian soil from the rule of the so-called “infidels”, thus becoming the keystone of an expansive, victorious Catholicism.12 It appears clear that, right from its origins, the ideology inspiring this Marian cult gave support to social and religious demands unaligned with a conservative orthodoxy, respecting the same foundation myth: almost as if the Black Virgin had always preferred dialogue with the ethnically marginalized. Moreover, at the political and cultural level, the Virgin Mary plays a role going against the current: those who look at colonization with a critical eye consider the Marian cult as an instrument of revitalization of an indigenous identity, if not indeed of native religiosity. And at any rate, the Virgin Mary—by spurring the search for her own cultural uniqueness—helps towards rethinking the many contradictions of the past and fostering the multicultural integration of the various diversities, to the benefit of an original synthesis: a synthesis open to a not entirely homologating reality.

The phenomenon of Guadalupe must be studied with a view to the broader phenomenon of Amerindian Marianism, the provisional outcome of a historical process that first saw the production of a forced acculturation, followed by an attempted reconstruction, in part autonomous and in part hetero-directed, of the identity of the subjugated groups: the figure of the Virgin Mary represented previously all one of the necessary points of encounter—perhaps the privileged one—among initially opposing cultural models, then becoming a means of resignifying histories, existences, and destinies of societies at risk of losing sense.13 In addition to this, the Tepeyac Guadalupana was taken as the founding emblem of the young Mexican nation, the centre of a myth that justifies, and actually sublimates, the apparent paradox of a cultural multiplicity that aims to make itself one again. The construction of Mexican identity thus passes through the revaluation of Indian identity, of which. Our Lady of Guadalupe makes itself an instrument.14 It is in this passage, both necessary and shaky, that the aporia of the whole deological construction resides: the holy investiture of the Indio becomes, according to the various perspectives of interpretation that interest has been taken in providing for it, the legitimization of an entire nation, then of its individual ethnic components, and then of specific, supranational social groups as well.15

St. Martín de Porres (1579–1639)—patron saint (with Santa Rosa de Lima) of Peru—is the object of great devotion in that Andean state, embodying all the ambivalence of those who, over time, had to take on the responsibility of having to mediate between two different cultural traditions: the Hispanic/Catholic one and the indigenous Andean one.16 Today, Martín de Porres is proudly cited by Peruvians as an example of overcoming any ethnic and racial prejudice and any cultural discriminant: however, things are not as simple as one may believe, if it is true that, in Peru, there are distinct places and ways to venerate this saint.17

For example, on the first Sunday of November, the city of Cusco holds a solemn celebration commemorating San Martín’s ascent to heaven. The festival is organized and led by the city authorities and by religious congregations that hew explicitly to Quechua traditions; the Catholic hierarchy appears considerably sidelined, while the place’s public spaces hold folkloristic events aimed at ridiculing the customs of the Spanish colonizers.18 In this regard, it may be deduced how Martín de Porres was recovered by the Andeans as the paradigmatic protagonist of their presence in the modern Peruvian State: Martín represents a typical example of organic syncretism, which is to say aimed at achieving an interculturalism within Christian reality.19 It is therefore a matter of an adaptive reshaping of differently patterned religious and cultural traditions. According to María de Díez Canseco Rostworowski:

An accumulation of beliefs, symbols and roots of a remote American past crystallized. With these [images] the triumph of Christianity over the pre-Hispanic deities was established; however, antique gods did not lose their importance for people.20

On the other hand, what were considered in the West, until only a few decades ago, barbarian civilizations at any rate yet to be homologated are now experiencing our modernity. but they do not do so passively, since they are interfering with the so-called West, accompanying it with a perspective bearing unknown conflicts.21

To examine otherness and understand its difference is the primary task of human sciences, which actually raises the problem of understanding the whole story of humankind. By virtue of this privileged path, one ends up analysing, over time, an enormous diversification of means and forms of organization with which each society has dealt on the one hand with the natural conditions that it has found itself coping with and on the other with the distinct groups of persons that it was connected to. And consequently, it may be stated that many differences between societies are functions of their relationships.22

It may be widely agreed and held plausible that analysing the privileged discriminants for interpreting diversity leads to outlining a history of conceptualizations that helps us comprehend the cultural identity of the observers themselves, even before the observed. But if it is true that, in judging others, we tend to be conditioned by our own categories, Western culture has, however, managed to relativize its parameters of judgement and to expand the field of observation. It follows that it is legitimate to attempt a study of the approaches and relationships between exponents of diverse cultural horizons: one may actually hope to attempt this diachronically, if in the new globalized world, we intend to represent awareness historically grounded upon rules of worldwide communication and upon the possibility of thoroughgoing cooperation through dialogue. At any rate, diversity, both natural and cultural, is an asset that is indispensable to and necessary for the maintenance of ecosystems and human systems alike, because it enables the relating and dialogue that are the stimulus for growth and the source of life, against the risk of homologating decay. It is important, then, that diversity not only exist, but that it be known as well.

By virtue of what has been set out thus far, and—in part—in dealing with the two case studies briefly analysed here (Our Lady of Guadalupe and Saint Martín de Porres), it seems clear that the problematizing of the relationships existing between the Western and the Latin American conceptions of identity raises non-uniform arguments. The technological factor (and that which is linked to it), for example, may be considered both a cultural watershed and a homologating and globalizing factor23: it may in fact help us understand the reasons for the refusal by Latin American culture to accept the Western intellectual inheritance wholesale.24

In 1900, the Uruguayan thinker José Enrique Rodó wrote a brief and insightful contribution that would significantly influence the perception of the relationship between the USA and Latin America.25 The scholar drew a distinction between two identities that were respectively homogeneous but at the same time incommensurable: those of the English-speaking and Hispanic worlds. Anticipating some of the themes developed by Heidegger, Rodó spoke of two separate cultural spaces with distinct perspectives, deducible from forms of human organization that cannot be likened to one another.26 The history of Latin American civilization developed by Rodó does not substantially deviate from the matrix of Hegelian idealism or from Weber’s sociology of religion. According to that construct, the civilizations of both South and North America derive in turn from Greek and Roman civilization. However, while the USA received this inheritance via Nordic Protestant humanism, Latin America received its own by way of Latin Catholic humanism.27 As Rodó explains, the key difference between the two American Weltanschauungen is essentially cultural in nature: while the supreme values of identity in the English-speaking world are working and earning, the distinctive values of Latin culture are organic solidarity and aesthetic contemplation. In Durkheimian terms, Rodó saw in Latin identity a greater propensity towards tolerance, participation, and, in fact, organic solidarity; on the contrary, the English-speaking world places greater emphasis on everything involving technology.28 The entirely Western intuition that economic development is the only way to measure the level of a culture fatally leads to the belief that Latin America is not an integral part of the West, but instead belongs to the Third World29: this is of course a materialistic and unilateral conception that considers wealth as the most important index of a nation’s growth.

On these bases, Horacio Godoy observed that:

Some countries or parts of countries in Latin America may have per-capita incomes as low as any in Africa or Asia. But Latin America differs from them in that its basic social, political, and economic values come from the European tradition. Three hundred years of colonization by Spain and Portugal, more than one hundred and fifty years of independent life inspired by European and American ideals, and the important contributions by European immigrants, have produced a continent of many races unified by a common set of values inspired by Western Christian culture.30

This prejudicial limit is conceptually similar to the “error of economism” identified by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Laborem Exercens: that of assessing human labour solely on the basis of its productive purpose:

This way of stating the issue contained a fundamental error, what we can call the error of economism, that of considering human labour solely according to its economic purpose. This fundamental error of thought can and must be called an error of materialism, in that economism directly or indirectly includes a conviction of the primacy and superiority of the material, and directly or indirectly places the spiritual and the personal (man’s activity, moral values and such matters) in a position of subordination to material reality. This is still not theoretical materialism in the full sense of the term, but it is certainly practical materialism, a materialism judged capable of satisfying man’s needs, not so much on the grounds of premises derived from materialist theory, as on the grounds of a particular way of evaluating things, and so on the grounds of a certain hierarchy of goods based on the greater immediate attractiveness of what is material (13).31

In these terms, not only Latin America, but any other country that defined itself based on the level of economic and technological development, would be making a clear, Western-oriented cultural declaration32; this intent is well summarized by Huntington:

During the past decade Mexico has assumed a position somewhat similar to that of Turkey. Just as Turkey abandoned its historic opposition to Europe and attempted to join Europe; Mexico has stopped defining itself by its opposition to the United States and is instead attempting to imitate the United States and to join it in the North American Free Trade Area. Mexican Leaders are engaged in the great task of redefining Mexican identity and have introduced fundamental economic reforms that eventually will lead to fundamental political change. In 1991 a top adviser to President Carlos Salinas de Gortari described at length to me all the changes the Salinas government was making. When he finished, I remarked: “That’s most impressive. It seems to me that basically you want to change Mexico from a Latin American country into a North American country”. He looked at me with surprise and exclaimed: “Exactly! That’s precisely what we are trying to do, but of course we could never say so publicly.33

There are various reasons as to why Latin American cultures—at least since the nineteenth century—have minimized the scope of the European (and therefore Western)34 inheritance: beyond native (pre-Columbian) cultural claims, there is the idea that Western culture is almost exclusively the product of scientistic technicalism and that Western history is therefore the history of a progressive manipulation of nature, to the detriment of all the particular traits that define a traditional society in the ways raised by Walt Rostow, according to whom:

A traditional society is one whose structure is developed within limited production functions, based on preNewtonian science and technology, and on pre-Newtonian attitudes toward the physical world. Newton is here used as a symbol for that watershed in history when men came widely to believe that the external world was subject to a few knowable laws, and was systematically capable of productive manipulation.35

Following this hermeneutical line, the so-called “barbarity” of non-Westernized cultures becomes a polysemantic sign of resistance against political, religious, economic, and, in the end, cultural colonization—that is to say, against Western globalization.36 From this standpoint, some essays by Fernández Retamar present a particular and rather relevant philosophical/religious and historical/cultural itinerary for reflection on Latin American identity. These essays quite convincingly analyse the ambivalent role of Spanish culture in the processes of forming South American national identities.37 In particular, Caliban and Ariel are the two main characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: the former is the rebellious slave, and the latter is the “airy spirit” at Prospero’s service. Ariel was used by the Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó as the prototype of Latin American culture, capable of readapting the classical and humanistic values of Western culture, in precise opposition to Caliban who is instead held to embody the materialist spirit of North America.38 Retamar overturns the perspective and sees Caliban as a metaphor for an America enslaved and raped by the conquering West and thus more disposed—in spite of the young Ariel more inclined to mediation—to rebellion and emancipation. Rodó and his significant contribution are also discussed by Leopoldo Zea, who interprets the concept of progress not in the sense of acquiescence to the Western colonizing spirit, but with regard to the possibility of utilizing the Western intellectual inheritance for the purpose of the liberation of the Latin American peoples.39

The cultures other than us attempt to delimit a space/time of their own to raise in opposition to homologation and to seek a permanent secession from a world dominated by Western categories—and to achieve this, a cultural conflict against the dominant civilization is implemented.40 Resistance to Westernizing singularity has taken on the features of a “transplant rejection”, which is to say a refusal to be decultured, to lose any sign of identity in traditions and customs: is it perhaps an accident that, in 2009, the statue of Christopher Columbus was removed from the El Calvario park in Caracas?41 The relative and progressive disappearance of national boundaries, and the birth of a world interconnected by markets, in accordance with the frenetic logic of production/consumption, is inflicting a mortal blow against regional and national cultures and against the traditions, customs, myths, and habits that determine the cultural identity of each country or region. Since most of the world cannot resist the invasion of the cultural products of the developed countries, and in particular of the superpower par excellence (the USA), which inevitably attracts large, transnational societies, Anglo-American culture is therefore imposing itself (real cultural imperialism), thus standardizing the world and annihilating the lively landscape constituted by the multitude of originally different cultures. In this way, all other peoples, and not only small and minority communities, are losing their identity and their soul, reducing themselves to mere colonies of a “globalizing empire”. At any rate, how could one hope for civil regard for cultural diversities while at the same time having to bear powerless witness to an inexorable planetary homologation that takes account of nothing that is not inextricably linked to profit, in a game where the strongest always comes out on top? The contradiction lies in the facts themselves: our world—despite centuries of colonialism—is to this day formed by interlocutors that intend to pursue their own cultural models and therefore the current forced globalization risks suffocating the many (and quite different) cultural realities, despite the fact that what is termed “globalization” is in and of itself arrogantly homologating and, if we prefer, alienating, even for those who claim to cope with it. In light of these considerations, it appears unquestionable that, in this century, the world will be less quaint than the one we have left behind: the rites and beliefs that in the past had provided humanity with its demological variety are gradually disappearing and/or confined to minority sectors, while most of society is abandoning them and is adjusting to homologous models.42 All countries are going through this process, and some more quickly than others: but this is not due simply to globalization, but to that modernization process of which globalization is a clear and highly visible effect.43

Structured remote exchanges already existed in pre-modern times, but only the cultural creativity of European modernity—whose keywords were said to be reason, organization, industry, and communications technology—enabled the establishment and development of relationships of previously unseen extent and intensity. Instead, from the beginning, European modernity expanded in a global dimension. Asia, the Islamic world of the Middle East, and later on the two Americas, Africa, and the South Seas—all provided points of reference for Europe’s self-determination as universal civilization. When these same regions were explored, colonized, and harnessed into the global trading networks, they too accepted the thrusts towards modernization originating from Europe and North America by way of the globalization channels, were transformed, and produced—with differing intents and outcomes—their own ways of expression, termed “multiple modernities”. 44

The process thus described appears at any rate inevitable. Not even the so-called totalitarian regimes—albeit fearing that any opening might destroy them, thus isolating themselves while at the same time issuing every type of prohibition and censure against modernity—appear to remain unscathed, with their so-called cultural identity gradually undermined.45 In theory, perhaps, a country might today conserve this identity, but only if—like rare and remote tribes in Africa or in Amazonia and/or Oceania—it decided to live in an artificial and depressing segregation, cutting off all exchanges with other cultures and practising a desperate self-sufficiency. One thinks of certain indigenous Australian groups that, to cope with colonization by white people, created a new myth, quite articulated and ideologically complex, to confirm the impossibility of applying their own codes to a reality completely overturned by European domination.46

However, while modernization leads to the disappearance of many forms of traditional life, at the same time, it creates new opportunities as well. This is why, when they can choose freely, peoples—contrary to what their leaders or traditionalist intellectuals may wish—sometimes choose modernization.47 What would be needed is a homologation culturally reformulated in other terms: not a respectful coexistence, but a full-blown strategy of coexistence based on a reasonably balanced and harmonious cooperation. This, then, appears to be the great wager looming before us Westerners today: abandoning our acknowledged position of strength (and of presumed superiority) in favour of the weakest. But how?:by humanely managing a cultural sea change, and by not swallowing up the other, guilty only of having asked not to perish before the advance of a cultural (and religious) model to which it does not feel it belongs. It is thus a matter of avoiding the universal cultural flattening and/or homogenization, connected with the widespread and all-pervasive affirmation of a single thought.48

Actually, the question, although inescapable, is at the same time quite disputed. The myth (or the imminent reality) of a world at peace because it is culturally homologated is disquieting and appears geopolitically dangerous, like any holistic/planetary system whose nature would be intrinsically totalitarian. Homogenization is intimately associated with the acculturation process (introduction of outside elements into the cultural fabric) that runs in parallel with inculturation and has been understood as the chief cause of cultural changes.49 Ethnographic urgency, anthropology’s fear over the possible disappearance of its very object of study (pure and authentic cultures), and the more recent idea that global processes are a menace to cultural identities arise from an inadequate and uncomfortable conception of the notion of culture.50 Conversely, a more complex and nuanced thought than that of cultural homogenization, like globalization or even cultural reformulation, as an instrument for focusing the processes that involve all contemporary societies, leads to identifying a threat no longer to anthropology (which in fact glimpses new tasks), but to the very idea of culture: the notions of globalization and cultural reformulation in fact indicate the processes by which a society sees its own local values transformed, even dizzyingly, as the result of something coming from the outside, but that is not contact with another vision brought by another society: these are planetary and transnational phenomena. These two poles (cultural homogenization and localized cultures on the one hand; globalization of culture and cultural delocalization on the other) find multiple references of their own: one in the tendency to survey and study the elements of stability and cohesion in a society and the other in the tendency to emphasize the points of tension, contradiction, and conflict (Marx); one in the idea of culture as mass culture, as a container, as a precondition of experience and the other in the idea of culture as communicative environment, movement, and practice; one in Lévi-Strauss (who sees the advance of the Western model in the world as filth tossed in the face of humanity51) and the other in James Clifford (who instead sees it as fertilizer for new orders of difference52); one in localization and the other in delocalization; one in depicting a fixed world of ethnicities (in which place, culture, religion, and identity coincide) and the other in depicting a world in flux, made of ethnic landscapes; and one in the notion of belonging and the other in the notion of presence.

To think of culture as something linked to a place, to a people, to a society that would strive to reproduce it identically and to absorb extraneous elements by neutralizing them is no longer of use either for studying cultural processes or for analysing culture in general.53 The legitimate doubt arises that, with respect to the ethnographic retreat that characterized twentieth-century anthropology, a global idea of the discipline, like that of Edward B. Tylor, may be of greater use in order to better understand the cultural process. We might—building on concepts that Huntington aimed to distinguish—state that it is a thought inspired by Western and therefore liberal democratic (but not Christian—or only superficially so—given the radicality of the current secularization process) modernization which, although it does accept and tolerate any other, different culture, in actuality absorbs and marginalizes it as a mere subculture. However, excessive a fear it may seem to be, the idea that precisely the spread and the deep consolidation of the aforementioned secularization process have for a long time been particularly characteristic of the West54 does not appear totally unfounded. It follows that even one of the very bedrock components of Western civilization—Christianity—risks being metabolized (and virtually emptied of its most authentic eschatological nature), in a materialistic normalization process, inspired by an atheism more practical than theoretical, which may lead to regarding Christian faith itself as a “subculture”. 55 If this happens, we may paradoxically speak of a “West without the West”

Declarations against globalization and in favour of an original cultural identity reveal a static conception of culture that—for better and for worse—has no historic bases: what culture, at any event, has remained identical and unchanged over time56? To find one, we must perhaps turn our attention to those mythical/ritual communities that live (or, actually, lived) in huts and caves: but precisely due to their immobility, they became increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and extermination.57 The fact is that the concept of cultural identity may appear ambiguous and multivalent.58

This concept, if not used on an exclusively individualistic scale, is reductive by its very nature: a collectivist and ideological abstraction of all that is original and creative in the human being, in all that was not imposed by inheritance, by environmental conditioning, or by social pressure. True identity, rather, is born from human beings’ ability to resist these influences and to counter them with free actions, the fruit of conscious creativity.59 On the other hand, the concept of collective identity may appear to be ideological overreach.60 For many historians of religion, ethnologists and anthropologists, collective identity does not represent the actual truth, even among the most archaic communities. Common customs and practises can be important for a group’s defence, but the margin of the initiative and creative spirit of individuals may be of use to the community, helping attenuate a great many conditionings.61

In the debate over the past two centuries, three currents of thought may be identified that explain—each in its own way—the phenomenon of identity: Hispanismo, Indigenismo, and Mestizaje.62 At any rate, what could Latin America’s cultural identity be? What portion of the coherent collection of beliefs, customs, traditions, practices, and mythologies would have endowed this region with a singular, unique, and non-transferable personality63? History, as is known, was forged by heated intellectual polemics, some of which certainly intransigent, that sought to answer this question. One of the most important was the one which, in the early twentieth century, brought Hispanists and Indigenists into opposition with one another and reverberated throughout the continent.64

For Hispanists like José de la Riva Agüero, Victor Andrés Beláunde, and Francisco García Calderón, Latin America was born when, thanks to the discovery and the Conquest, it adopted the Spanish and Portuguese languages and, by accepting Christianization, joined Western civilization.65 The Hispanists observed that pre-Hispanic cultures were only a “stratum”—and not the primary one—of that subcontinent’s social and historic reality that perfected its nature and personality thanks precisely to the West’s enlivening influence.66 However, despite the desire to be like the Spanish,67 on the one hand, they gave value to the process of Mestizaje, and on the other, they denied accepting their indigenous origin.68

The indigenists, on the other hand, indignantly refused the presumed benefits that Europeans were supposed to have brought to Latin America.69 For them, South America’s cultural identity has its primary roots in the pre-Hispanic cultures and civilizations, whose development and modernization were brutally halted by external violence and subject to censure, suppression, and marginalization70, and this was not only during the three centuries of colonization, but also later on, after the advent of republicanism and of national democratic regimes. According to the current of indigenist thought, the authentic “American expression” (to borrow the title of a book by Lezama 1910-1976)71 lies in all the cultural manifestations—from native languages to popular customs, arts, rites, and beliefs—that resisted Western cultural oppression and survived to our own times.72 One of Latin America’s most original novelists, José María Arguedas, recounted, in stories of great delicacy and vibrant moral protest, the epic of the survival of Quechua culture in the Andean world, in spite of the Christian West’s suffocating and distorting presence.73

There is no doubt that Hispanism and Indigenism produced admirable historical essays and extremely creative works of fiction, but, if judged according to a modern historical and cultural perspective, both appear analogously sectarian, reductionist, and ahistorical.74 Neither perspective can completely fit Latin America’s expansive and dynamic diversity into its ideological straitjacket, with both interpretative orientations showing the reflections of a certain cultural racism.75 The Mestizaje current, unlike those just examined, does not disregard the existence of the other76: to the contrary, the Latin American should seek his or her own identity in the Indio-Hispanic cultural mix. However, despite the novelty on the inclusionist level, this current—like Hispanismo and Indigenismo—also appears to be essentialist in nature, as it declares that the identity of the American subcontinent exists but must be sought in the sum of indigenous and Spanish cultures.77

In the face of these three currents of identity, an alternative proposal emerges that speaks of Latin America as a new human family resulting from the universalization of the history begun in the sixteenth century.78 This expression is based on the fact that Latin America is not only a geographical nuevo mundo, but also a nueva sociedad, so it needs to build its own identity in a dynamic and not statically fossilized way. The term that best indicates the nueva propuesta is transculturación.79 The concept appears all-inclusive and capable of bringing together the religious/cultural blend made by the constant migratory flows that continue to amalgamate the various ethnicities in a natural manner, as in the sixteenth century.80 Even though it is hard to maintain that only what is Hispanic or indigenous legitimately represents Latin America, the search to shape and isolate a presumed autonomous cultural identity continues to this day, forgetting that to attempt to impose a cultural identity outside history upon a people is the same as shutting that people in a sort of prison, denying it the most precious of freedoms: that of being able to choose what and who it wishes to be. Latin America has not one but many cultural identities81: none of them can claim more legitimacy or purity than the others.82 Of course, it still evokes the pre-Hispanic world and its cultures which, in Mexico, Guatemala, and the Andean countries, raise suggestions of the past and create an original social support. However, Latin America is a vast multitude of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking people, with a five-century background, whose presence and actions were decisive in giving the continent its current features. Also, does Latin America not include a bit of Africa, which arrived there—for the most part unwillingly—along with European domination83? Has the African presence not perhaps left its indelible mark on the skin, music, idiosyncrasies, religion, and society of all Latin America84? Moreover, with the massive emigrations over these past two centuries, the cultural, ethnic, and social ingredients that constitute Latin America now link us to almost all the regions and cultures of the world. There are so many cultural identities that it is as if none were originally native. This reality, contrary to what nationalists believe, is a great asset that helps people live in freedom and to reduce the heavy mortgage imposed by the more recent globalization.85 But in what way?

A typically Western commonplace holds that indigenous claims for self-determination express the natives’ desire and intent to relive their ancestral culture, by anachronistically reconstituting something that is outmoded and irrecoverable. Those who interpret these demands so summarily show yet again that they have adopted only the exotic background underpinning their obsolete image of the Latin American Indio. But a careful reading of the documents, including the less recent ones, proposes a transculturalist framework in which transformations and adaptations are accompanied by instances of recovery.86 To be more precise, what is so clearly being claimed is by no means the refoundation, intact and crystallized, of the ancient system of living, but the valorization of an open conception that, drawing from a historical past and without disregarding the traditional forms consolidated over the centuries, takes in what Western culture proposes that is new and acceptable, so as to adapt, in a process of genuine evolution, to the real needs of the current era.87 For this reason, the Indios must rid themselves for good of the role that we have attributed to them as a metahistoric and exotic people, but this is an operation that we must carry out together, because they too, in this game of roles, projections, and collective imaginations that are reflected and modified in a complicated play of mirrors, have ended up being confused and in danger of losing their way.88

Certainly, the proposed integration model regards only the elements of Western culture compatible with indigenous culture and follows the principle of complementarity and not overlaying. Self-determination demands no more than the possibility of carrying out autonomously, through intercultural dialogue, which is to say through the circulation and exchange of cultural resources, one’s own civilizing project.

As a side note, it appears necessary to rid the field of certain views very much in vogue until some time ago: we are referring to the relationship between the globalization process and the presumed Americanization of the world.89 The fear that this prospect is a concrete one is more ideological paranoia than reality. On the one hand, Puerto Rican scholar Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has written:

“We are All Americans!90

But on the other hand, it is precisely American society (and, therefore, the West, or a driving fraction thereof) that gave Europe (and the world) two things: the model to be protested, and the model for protesting.91 This double gift corresponds to the dual image of America that currently circulates with us: the Bad America (imperialist, consumerist, polluting, etc.) and the “other America”. The other America, in fact, comprises the good Indians and good people like Marcuse, like ecologists, like the students in the protests of 1968, and so on. It thus happens that Europeans hostile to American cultural dominance protest America by adopting an American style of protest; they protest in blue jeans; they Americanize to protest Americanism. In the end, we Americanize also by “Indianizing”, by espousing the anti-American theses of the natives of North America. These theses are still “American-made” in the cultural sense of the expression.92

The disappearance of tribal and national boundaries, and an increasingly interdependent world, has created for new-generation incentives to attempt to understand other cultures and religions: the ability to speak several languages and to comfortably navigate in different cultures has in fact become a crucial turning point.93 One need merely consider the case of the Spanish language. Half a century ago, the Spanish language community was an isolationist one that quite limitedly ventured beyond its traditional linguistic boundaries. Today, Spanish is dynamic and flourishing, establishing solid beachheads on all five continents.94 This is why the best defence of our cultures and our languages lies in promoting them in dialogue in this new globalized world and not in persisting in the naive claim of inoculating them against the threat of a dominant language (English, for example).95 Those proposing a remedy of this kind hide behind the false armour of cultural defence while clearly having other designs: a jealous and limiting nationalism.96 Cultures and religions, to the contrary, must (or at least should) dialogue freely—although they do not always have the strength and tools to do so. This process renews and regenerates them, allowing them to evolve and not to lag behind in life’s continuous flow97: only by accepting the idea of a continuous world can we enter into contact with others and reach a mutual understanding.

At any rate, if we use a notion of culture that is more flexible and oriented towards the dimension of symbolism and communication, it perhaps becomes possible to rethink the entire problem of pluralism from a new perspective. In this form, we may hypothesize a new strategy: a multiculturalist strategy in which the choice of policies of cultural accommodation is no longer the result of an ex ante assessment of what different cultures look like but responds to a communication process that involves the cultures themselves, in accordance with a deliberative vision of democracy intended as conversation and negotiation—at times animated—between different forms of life and different ways of being in the world.98

In ancient times, Latin did not kill Greek; to the contrary, the artistic originality and intellectual profundity of Hellenic culture permeated Roman civilization, and through it, the poems of Homer and the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle survived their authors and reached the whole world. In the same way, it may be hoped that present-day globalization will not cause local cultures to disappear99; it may actually be hoped that, in a setting of global opening, all that is precious and deserves to survive in local cultures might find fertile ground to thrive100: this is what appears to be taking place in Europe today. Particularly noteworthy is once again Spain, where regional cultures are reemerging with special vigour. During the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (1892–1975), regional cultures had been suppressed and condemned to a clandestine existence. But the return of parliamentary democracy unshackled Spain’s rich cultural diversity and allowed it to develop freely. In the country’s regime of autonomies, local cultures have seen an extraordinary boom, particularly in Catalonia, Galicia, and in the Basque countries, but also elsewhere on the Iberian Peninsula.101

Thomas S. Eliot (1888–1965), in his famous essay Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (Faber Publisher, London 1948), foretold that in the future, humankind would see a renaissance of local and regional cultures.102 Although his prediction appeared rather risky at the time, globalization is paradoxically promoting this intuition.103

Moreover, a renaissance of local cultures would restore to humanity the multiplicity of behaviour and expression that the nation-state annihilated precisely in order to create the so-called national “cultural identities” (towards the late eighteenth century and, above all, in the nineteenth century).104

National cultures were often forged in fire and blood, by prohibiting the teaching or publication of vernacular languages or the practice of religions and customs dissenting from those that the nation-state considered ideal and characteristic. In this way, in many countries in the world, the nation-state imposed by force a dominant culture over local ones, which were suppressed and banned from official life.105 But, contrary to the alarmism raised by those fearing the ultimate effects of globalization, it is problematic to completely eliminate cultures—however, much a minority they might be—if lying behind these cultures is a rich tradition and a people that lives them.106 And today, due to the weakening of the nation state, we are seeing how local cultures—cultures that are forgotten and marginalized and were reduced to silence in the past—are reemerging and showing dynamic signs of life in the great concert of this globalized planet.107 However, there is no lack of different opinions: from the cultural standpoint, globalists speak of the formation of a global culture fostered by the IT revolution and by the pervasiveness of the mass media heralding the birth of a “Global Civil Society”, while we appear instead to be witnessing marked phenomena of hybridization,108 which is to say of synthesis between local cultures and Western universalism, but they also speak of Creolization, which is to say of distortion of native cultures by foreign cultural models, represented by the models of Western development and by the creation of third, deterritorialized cultures.109 The words of Gilberto Mazzoleni, who stated, in long ago 1975:

“the West will be westernized by what it still considers (in some way) different”,110

appear to be coming to pass, and the emergence of so many traditions originating from civilizations once exploited and colonized (consider, for example, Japan, China, and India111) appears to bear him out.112 At any rate, in a historical/cultural perspective, the only way that the developing countries have at their disposal today to compete with the West and to cause it a fair amount of discomfort is precisely that of proving that they can compete with it in the anthropological arrangement of reality (which is, in fact, more and more extensively subject to technological and therefore human intervention).113

As history teaches us, the so-called “progress” of Western civilization was never the exclusive and final prerogative of this and/or that nation. On the other hand, while civilizations have entered and left the scene, Civilization (with a capital “C”) has, each time, managed to be reincarnated into new specimens of the same type; this is because, however, immense the social distractions caused by wars and class struggles may be, they have never extended so far as to become universal and total. The West continues to spread its seed without accepting being contaminated in any way; it continues to appropriate resources without recognizing any debt, and above all, it avoids learning cultural lessons from the other. Who knows whether, precisely by virtue of their specific features, the cultures denied today will not be more suitable for coping with the challenges of history tomorrow?


  1. 1.

    Hale (2001).

  2. 2.

    Roniger and Sznajder (1998).

  3. 3.

    Ricard 1933; O’Gorman (1958) [1958]; Botta (2010), pp. 59–96.

  4. 4.

    With regard to these historical events, see Noguez (1993); Sousa et al. (2016) On the atrocities committed by the Spanish Conquerors, see Saint-Lu (1987) [1552]; Arias (2015), pp. 47–64.

  5. 5.

    Lentz (1987); Rodriguez (1994); Poole (1995).

  6. 6.

    Hauke (1995), pp. 203–204; Erdoes and Ortiz (1984).

  7. 7.

    As evidenced by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe developed in a place where a few years before there had been a temple dedicated to the female deity Tonantzín Cihuacóatl (Our Revered Mother Snake Woman). See Garibay (1982) tomo I, libro I, capitulo XI. The Indios appealed to this indigenous deity, calling her Tonán (Our Mother) and Tonantzín (Our Revered Mother), attributes that—in pre-Columbian Mexico—were conferred to those deities of the Earth, considered procreative of the gods and mankind. See Nebel (1995), II, pp. 90–91; p. 130; p. 135. The temple of Tonantzín Cihuacóatl was in Tepeyac, atop a summit north of Tenochtitlán, precisely where the shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe would be built. This comes as no surprise, since Christian devotional centres usually arose on the ruins of pagan worship sites.

  8. 8.

    Wolf (1958) Baquedano-López (2001), pp. 343–358.

  9. 9.

    Durham (1983), pp. 11–19.

  10. 10.

    Lafaye (1987); Rotker and Lane (1998), pp. L-LI; Nebel (1995), pp. 159–163; Monaco (1997), pp. 97–101, p. 119, p. 126, pp. 132–147, pp. 150–155.

  11. 11.

    Garcés (2015).

  12. 12.

    Kemper (2003).

  13. 13.

    Arrupe (1978); Campbell (1982), pp. 5–24; Collier (1986); Shorter (1988); Westerfelhaus (2004), pp. 105–120.

  14. 14.

    De La Maza (1953); Fernández Poncela (2012).

  15. 15.

    Zires (1994).

  16. 16.

    Cussen (2005).

  17. 17.

    Mazzoleni (2006), precisely, pp. 411–413. Martín de Porres was the illegitimate son of a Spanish father and a former African slave mother who had been born in Panama. In 1962, he was canonized as a saint and is revered today as the patron of racial equality and social justice. But how did this marginalized individual come to achieve such recognition? See Cussen (2014).

  18. 18.

    Radcliffe and Westwood (1996), pp. 126–130.

  19. 19.

    Sacks Da Silva (2004), p. 386.

  20. 20.

    Rostworowski De Díez Canseco (1992), p. 173.

  21. 21.

    Ortiz (1995); Sharman (2011).

  22. 22.

    Sahlins (1993).

  23. 23.

    James (2002), p. 55.

  24. 24.

    The matter was wittily investigated by Zea (1992), pp. 169–172; Hale (1997); Sperling (2013).

  25. 25.

    Rodó (1900). See also Bruit (2003); Oliver (2015).

  26. 26.

    Miller (1999), pp. 174–210.

  27. 27.

    I find it useful to point out some readings that may facilitate the understanding of the issues as recalled in the text; in particular, see Eisenstadt (1968); Morse (1974), pp. 25–69; Laird (2010), pp. 222–236.

  28. 28.

    Mazzotti and Zevallos-Aguilar (1996), p. 12.

  29. 29.

    Germani (1968); Furtado (1974).

  30. 30.

    Godoy (1968), pp. 165–185, exactly, p. 167.

  31. 31.

    Ioannes Paulus PP. II, Laborem exercens, en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091981_laborem-exercens.html

  32. 32.

    Boatcă (2015), pp. 81–116.

  33. 33.

    Huntington (1996), pp. 42–43. See also Zermeño (1991).

  34. 34.

    In this perspective, it may be useful to point out some essays of proven interest: Brunner (2004), pp. 291–309; Flores (2004), pp. 606–622; Achugar (2004), pp. 669–685; Richard (2004), pp. 686–705; Kraniauskas (2004), pp. 736–759.

  35. 35.

    Rostow (1971), p. 4; Strange (1988).

  36. 36.

    Matos (2012), pp. 220–229.

  37. 37.

    Fernández Poncela (2002).

  38. 38.

    Mannoni (1990).

  39. 39.

    Zea (1976), pp. 71–75.

  40. 40.

    For an extensive discussion of this topic in the Latin-American context, see Fernández Retamar (1976); Friedman (1994); Senghaas (2002), pp. 13–23, pp. 78–91.

  41. 41.

    See, i.e., Kingsbury (2016), p. 430.

  42. 42.

    Guss (2000).

  43. 43.

    Tsing (2002), pp. 453–486, exactly, pp. 455–456.

  44. 44.

    Zea (2001), pp. 73–92; Ringmar (2005) Bokser (2015); Phillips (2016).

  45. 45.

    Holländer (2002), pp. 361–376.

  46. 46.

    Tullio-Altan and Massenzio (1998), p. 258.

  47. 47.

    Huntington (2000), pp. 144–156.

  48. 48.

    Bhawuk (2008).

  49. 49.

    Rodríguez (2016).

  50. 50.

    Clifford (1994).

  51. 51.

    Lévi-Strauss (1955).

  52. 52.

    Clifford (1994).

  53. 53.

    Behrens (2009), pp. 11–13.

  54. 54.

    Bruce (2002).

  55. 55.

    Warner (2010), pp. 44–48.

  56. 56.

    Naylor (1996), pp. 138–216.

  57. 57.

    Belay (1996), pp. 319–346.

  58. 58.

    Preston (1997), pp. 65–70.

  59. 59.

    Adler (1998), pp. 225–246, exactly, pp. 229–237.

  60. 60.

    Smith (1998), pp. 70–96.

  61. 61.

    Grossberg (1996), pp. 87–107.

  62. 62.

    Serna (2011); Cabrera (2015); Menezes de Jesus (2015).

  63. 63.

    Tulchin and Espach (2001), pp. 1–34; Van Klaveren (2001), pp. 117–140.

  64. 64.

    Hulse (2002).

  65. 65.

    Gruzinski (1988), pp. 39–56; Mignolo (2005), pp. 1–50.

  66. 66.

    Moraña (2005).

  67. 67.

    Vasconcelos (1977), pp. 25–26: «Nosotros no seremos grandes mientras el español de la América no se sienta tan español como los hijos de España».

  68. 68.

    Larraín (2001), p. 62: «Para los criollos de raza española las civilizaciones precolombinas son extranjeras y peregrinas, y nada nos liga con ellas; y extranjeras y peregrinas son para los mestizos y los indios cultos, porque la educacion que han recibido los ha europeizado por completo».

  69. 69.

    Ramos (1990), exactly p. 135.

  70. 70.

    With regard to of these notions, see Barre (1983).

  71. 71.

    Lezama (1957).

  72. 72.

    Canessa (2005).

  73. 73.

    Arguedas (1949). According to the scholar Eduardo Galeano, Latin America could find the energy to build the future in the most ancient sources of its culture: “A system lethal to the world and its inhabitants, that putrefies the water, annihilates the land and poisons the air and the soil, is in violent contradiction with cultures that hold the earth to be sacred because we, its children, are sacred. Those cultures, scorned and denied, treat the earth as their mother and not as a raw material and source of income. Against the capitalist law of profit, they propose the life of sharing, reciprocity, mutual aid, that earlier inspired Thomas Moore’s Utopia and today helps us discover the American face of Socialism, whose deepest roots lie in the tradition of community”. See Gale Galeano (1991), pp. 13–17, exactly, p. 14.

  74. 74.

    Canessa (2006); De la Cadena and Starn (2007).

  75. 75.

    Machín and Spadaccini (2001), pp. 433–444.

  76. 76.

    Cornejo (1994).

  77. 77.

    Lipschutz (1967), pp. 315–354.

  78. 78.

    Podetti (2004).

  79. 79.

    Rama (1982); Sobrevilla (2001).

  80. 80.

    Quijano (1988), pp. 17–24.

  81. 81.

    García-Canclini (2000), pp. 67–94; Costa (2016).

  82. 82.

    Morandé (1984); Leander (1986).

  83. 83.

    Martínez-Echazabal (1998); Olliz (2010).

  84. 84.

    Fraginals (1984); Martínez Montiel (1995).

  85. 85.

    Roniger and Herzog (2000), pp. 299–308.

  86. 86.

    Arguedas (1989).

  87. 87.

    Lipschutz (1953); Martí i Puig, Ma Sanahuja (2004).

  88. 88.

    Calderón (1993).

  89. 89.

    Tomlinson (1991).

  90. 90.

    Bonilla-Silva (2002); Achugar (2007), pp. 201–209; Gasbarro (2004).

  91. 91.

    Jackson Lears (1985); Bellah (1998).

  92. 92.

    See, i.e., Lopes de Sousa (2016).

  93. 93.

    Hall (1996), pp. 339–351, exactly, p. 341.

  94. 94.

    Mar-Molinero (2007), pp. 155–172.

  95. 95.

    Wilson (1995).

  96. 96.

    Arnason (1990), pp. 207–236.

  97. 97.

    Geertz (1973).

  98. 98.

    Parekh (2006); Glazer (1995).

  99. 99.

    Beyer (2006), pp. 23–29; Pathak (2006), pp. 81–83; Tehranian and Jeannie Lum (2009). Redner (2004).

  100. 100.

    Redner (2004).

  101. 101.

    Bukowski (2003), pp. 157–180.

  102. 102.

    Quoted in Gorringe (2004), pp. 36–37.

  103. 103.

    Albrow (2004), pp. 133–140.

  104. 104.

    Gould and Pasquino (2001); Kennedy (2010), pp. 223–229.

  105. 105.

    Holton (1998).

  106. 106.

    Alcantara (1999); Fernandes and Herschmann (2013).

  107. 107.

    Cvetkovkh and Kellner (1997); Moreiras (2001), pp. 49–75, pp. 239–263; Bird et al. (2012).

  108. 108.

    Stockhammer (2012).

  109. 109.

    Glissant (1997); Safa (1998); Paolini (1999), pp. 172–175; Chaudenson (2001), pp. 194–197; Keane (2003); Amselle (2007), pp. 79–94; Robertson (2010), pp. 334–346.

  110. 110.

    Mazzoleni (1975), p. 130; in this perspective, see also Santos (2006); Nederveen (2009), pp. 7–23.

  111. 111.

    Rüsen and Laass (2009); Nederveen (2009).

  112. 112.

    Swidler (1986).

  113. 113.

    Jervis (1998), pp. 310–341.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dipartimento di Scienze Giuridiche - Biblioteca della Sezione di Diritto Pubblico (Departement of Juridical Sciences - Library of the Section of Public Law)Sapienza Università di Roma (Sapienza University of Rome)RomeItaly

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