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Radical History Review 89 (2004) 36-48

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Latin America:

A Story in Three Movements

A landscape is made up of many variations on the notion of variety itself: tenuous, thick, light or heavy, inert, alive, sensitive, social, whether it touches the common or separate edges of the air and the ground, whether in far-off regions or connected by collective and individual joy. It is a multiply contingent variety in that sense . . . a landscape as strange as a completely constructed body. We often sleep in its deficiencies and emptiness.
—Michel Serres, Los cinco sentidos. Ciencia, poesía y filosofía del cuerpo

The consciousness of space, that is to say, the subjective relationship between place and meaning, forms part of that group of processes and fixed truths not usually submitted to self-reflexive questioning. Perhaps this is because the subjective consciousness of space tends to affix itself to what we might call, provisorily, "emotional memory." Like an old scar that one lives with daily and that now and then remains tender to the touch, space simply exists without the need for a more detailed explanation. It precedes us, it contains us—we think—and in its suspicious transparency it demands only the daily tribute of the glance that views it, the body that inhabits it, the word that names it, or the dream that dreams it. In this lies its power, in the deceitful gratuitousness of its existence.

How then do we bore into the depths of the complex meanings of Latin America—the space object of our reflections, pains, toils, and passions—in order to retain an image that does not reduce its complexity nor confuse its parts with the [End Page 36] whole? How can we tell the story of the painstakingly slow process in which the space object we view, and from which we view the world, has been sketched, without falling into the trap that emotional memory hands to us? We can neither avoid being subjective nor evade the scars and tattoos now making up the skin that unavoidably covers and forms the surface of a Latin America of multiplicity and profundity.

Perhaps the only way to approach the question of space is, paradoxically, through inverse movements: a point of view constructed by distance and displacement. I will try, then, to turn this individual memory into a social narrative, like an ethnographer that looks for and believes that a small, focused case study is an analyzer of a much broader reality. I propose here three reading strategies organized into three movements: the political, the cultural, and the intellectual.

First Movement: Strangeness, Bodies, and Event

Perhaps it is appropriate to begin with a brief autobiographical note for the purpose of clarifying my starting point. Being Mexican is not an easy task, and not because of the reasons suggested by an old dictator: "Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States."1 Even though the maxim undoubtedly applies, it is not an easy task because learning to be Mexican in the second half of the twentieth century demanded the construction of two incompatible and opposing certainties. On the one hand, there was an unequivocal affirmation of pride in an irreducible national identity. Everything (schools, textbooks, songs, folklore, and customs) colluded to create the feeling or idea that being Mexican was a nonnegotiable, predestined outcome. On the other hand was a deafening embarrassment, silent and uncomfortable, because being Mexican implied, in some strange way, an impure mixture. One could never be white enough, and one's task consisted of erasing all vestiges of any indigenous impurity. Pride and denial represented a constituted tension of identity reinforced by an industrial culture that would offer the requisite keys to endow with distinctiveness that which was considered properly Mexican. Music, most principally, would add special effects to our "idiosyncratic" way of feeling. Film taught us how to be urban and modern without forgetting to show us the "beauty" of our indigenous, rural past. Radio would reveal to us how our country was related to...


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pp. 36-48
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Archived 2004
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