- The Return of the Native: Indians and Myth-Making in Spanish America, 1810-1930
Nations, like the privileged elites who dream them up, are riddled with contradictions, the republics that came into being in the nineteenth century throughout Spanish America perhaps more so than most. Rebecca Earle makes this abundantly clear in the tour-de-force that is The Return of the Native, a thoroughly researched and skillfully argued treatise that will reward any scholar, not just Latin Americanist geographers, interested in the ideas, and ideologies, of nationalism and nation-building, especially the distortions, exclusions, and selected borrowings that charge the project.
Not far into the book I was reminded of an observation a colleague once made while visiting the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. "I had toured the inside," he told me, "and was most impressed. Outside, about to leave, I turned to admire the architecture yet again, only to see a group of Indians be led into the building not via the main thoroughfare, but a side entrance."
My colleague's observation strikes to the heart of Earle's thesis: not even in a monument extolling the cultural achievements and enduring legacies of their late ancestors and living relations can indigenous peoples expect to gain rightful admittance, or be afforded dignified representation. Though the National Museum post-dates Earle's temporal frame of analysis, other examples of native manipulation abound, with Mexico but one nation among many held to critical scrutiny, if not moral accountability.
Earle's stated aim "is to understand the ways in which 'Indians' were incorporated into the elite idea of the nation in Spanish America" (p. 2). This she achieves in stunning fashion in seven substantive chapters, after which come a short Epilogue and an even more concise Appendix, both of which serve as points of departure for further study rather than statements of conclusion or closure. Thereafter follows her scholarly apparatus – not merely a listing of archival or published materials consulted but a treasure trove of notes and commentary on sources that constitute one-third of the book, testimony to [End Page 204] assiduous inquiry and a formidable intellect. What is the fruit of such dogged labors?
In Chapter 1 ("Montezuma's Revenge") and Chapter 2 ("Representing the Nation") Earle shows how creoles (she prefers this term as opposed to the less problematical criollo) who led the independence movements in the early nineteenth century aligned themselves metaphorically "with the indigenous heroes of the conquest and pre-conquest eras." This "passionate self-identification" on the part of "creole insurgents" struck more than a few observers later on as decidedly odd, not least because, after the wars of independence had been won, "our fathers the Indians" were also emblazoned on state paraphernalia such as coins, medals, flags, and coats of arms. Creole infatuation, however, did not last for long, as indigenous icons "began to disappear from state emblems in the decades after independence." By 1836, for instance, the Venezuelan government decided to replace the bow and arrow on its state shield, 'which today are exclusively the weapons of savage peoples,' with a European sword and lance intended to denote 'the triumph of civilized and cultured peoples over their antitheses. What Earle calls "indianesque nationalism" was, by the end of the nineteenth century, erased and replaced by homage to the true "padres de la patria," whom she discusses in Chapter 3 and who in the case of Mexico (to Francisco Cosmes at any rate) could count among their ranks "none other than the conquistador Hernán Cortés" (p.79). When it came time to celebrate the centenary of independence, elites "no longer linked the creole present to the preconquest past" but rather to a "united colonial and national history under a single umbrella of Hispanism."
In Chapter 4, "Patriotic History and the Pre-Columbian Past," Earle establishes that, in the 1840s, the project of nation-building entailed "sustained scholarly efforts at composing...