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Radical History Review 89 (2004) 206-213

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Indigenous Components in the Discourse of "Nuestra América"

In November 1991, during the close of the Spanish American Seminar on José Martí conducted in Seville, Spain, Roberto Fernandez Retamar delivered a compelling lecture, reflecting on the one hundred years since the writing of "Nuestra América." In his closing remarks, he underscored the sadness that for him represented the ceaseless domination exercised against our countries by the Goliath against whom Martí rose with David's sling. As he convincingly pointed out, what makes Martí's essay painfully resonant even today is that in many ways it would seem we now find ourselves in circumstances similar to those of 1891, facing once again the redistribution of a world already divided out amongst an even smaller and more dominant conglomerate of nations, as well as the destruction of the poor countries that dare oppose it.1

Such is the predicament of the Mayan people in southeastern Mexico, who since January 1994 have openly confronted the current political-economic model, demanding more equitable relationships with the national aggregate ruled by the conservative government of Vicente Fox.

Using the text of "Nuestra América," I would like to explore how the application of Martí's nineteenth-century thought regarding the question of indigenous people might lend itself to thinking about how to approach the resolution of ethnic conflicts in Mexico today.2 An initial review of "Nuestra América," published by the Mexican Liberal Party in January 1891, reveals thoroughly developed ideas regarding the identity of the Americas with the fundamental inclusion of the indigenous [End Page 206] element. Martí envisions the role of indigenous culture and identity in ways revelatory and innovative for their time: not as a spirit to be glorified as part of the nation's past, but as an active participant in the shaping of the present. Likewise, a rereading of the essay in light of Martí's previous writings on the indigenous people reveals how these writings were informed by his interest in the ancient civilizations of America, which he furthered through visits to North American museums and through personal relationships with explorers and archaeologists of the era.

In "Nuestra América," Martí concludes in an obscure manner that "the History of America, from the Incas up until now, must be taught with meticulous perfection."3 In essence, his desire is to dislodge the provincialism of village life and the cultural colonialism that continued to weigh heavily on the republics of America.4 However, this statement also reinforces his underlying conceptualization of history: "To know is to solve."5

Indeed, on his arrival in Mexico in February 1875, after fervently affirming the reforms introduced by President Juarez, Martí made his initial attempts to gain a deeper understanding of the Mexican indigenous reality.6 Perhaps heartened by Benito Juarez and his critique of the exclusion of indigenous groups by prominent liberals of the time, Martí wrote an intensely critical article that encapsulated the seed of his indigenous ideology. On January 14, 1876, under the controversial and suggestive title of "The Civilization of the Indigenous People," Martí wrote:

We have made many revolutions of principles; but all of these will remain fruitless for as long as we do not make a revolution of essence. We are at the same time miserable and opulent; men and beasts; literates in the cities and almost savages in the villages; nations are not built with such lack of harmony among their elements. . . . We would not say any of this . . . if there were not among us a criminal indifference toward a race that is still a hope, but that could reach the point of annihilating us with its huge weight. Educated, it will be a great hope; and dull-witted, it is a great hindrance.7

To be sure, in those paragraphs Martí still tends to support the civilizing mission of the Western educational model, for he does not yet defend, as he will later in his writing of "Nuestra America," the meticulously perfect...


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pp. 206-213
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Archived 2004
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