- The Natural History of Latin American Independence
América no ha sacudido aún sus cadenas … Su civilización es una planta exótica que no ha chupado todavía sus jugos a la tierra que la sostiene.—Andrés Bello (2000)
The concept of nature is a potent ideological mechanism that has been instrumental in defining the course of Latin American history. The very idea of the independent Latin American nation-state, and the politics of liberation conditioning its invention, depends on nature, and the possibility of total historical rupture that it represents. Nature in its modern guise—an interpretation of wilderness as the lasting trace of a prehistoric or nonhuman origin in the present—has been the secret motor behind the repetition of a self-defeating claim of independence and difference within Latin American discourse.1 In light of the growing influence of eco-criticism in the field, and [End Page 211] forays by its purveyors into a perpetual debate surrounding the problem of incomplete decolonization, it has never been more important to critique nature. To recognize nature's ideological effect, it is necessary to remember nature's role in incomplete decolonization, tracing its history in Latin American discourse back to the original rupture with Spain during the early nineteenth century. Here, I revisit José María Heredia's poem "En el teocalli de Cholula" ( 1990), which shows that Latin American independence thinking conceives itself as "natural history," or as an interrogation into the nature it sees as its own discursive ground and condition of possibility.
In spite of claims to the contrary, the contemporary debate about decolonization is a continuation of a conversation that was initiated by independence thinkers in the nineteenth century, when they called for Latin America's cultural autonomy from Europe, and elaborated a vision of America as a site of nature to consolidate a radical break with both its Spanish and indigenous pasts.2 A contemporary decolonial movement articulates a sense that the original attempts to decolonize America failed, or remain incomplete, and elaborates itself against Creole Eurocentric tendencies by seeking to recuperate indigenous and subaltern histories. Nevertheless, it continues to be informed by a sense that total rupture with Western modernity is both possible and desirable. Furthermore, it continues to look to nature as a potentially redemptive political and cultural resource. In these ways, decolonial thought buys into an impossible fantasy of independence whose true function is to conceal ongoing ties to Western modernity, and thus, falls into the very trap that it seeks to avoid, writing another chapter in the futile pattern of disavowal that Octavio Paz called Latin America's "tradición de la ruptura" (Paz 1981, 17).
In Dos etapas del pensamiento en Hispanoamérica (1949), Leopoldo Zea critiques a Creole imagination of America as "a virgin land, a new country," and describes the closely linked belief that the "man who inhabited it lived in a complete state of nature, that is, without history" (Zea 1966, 10). There is little question that this fantasy is linked to the political claim of independence from Spain, the dream that Creole political autonomy would initiate a new historical line completely divorced from his cultural and genealogical past, which he saw as decadent and corrupt.3 José Martí's thinking toward Cuban independence (achieved in 1898) and Rodo's Ariel (1900) are perhaps the most [End Page 212] influential and recognizable exemplars of this form of thought. The political writing of Martí in particular, which inextricably binds Latin independence to nature, continues to act as the foundation of a Latin Americanism oriented by resistance.4 His influence can be felt in the many ideas of Latin American difference that have been elaborated ever since; Lugones's gauchesque nationalism, Guevara's "hombre nuevo," and Carpentier's utopian dream in Los pasos perdidos—perhaps even, perversely, da Cunha's Backlands—seem to echo the Cuban's vision of a resistant Latin American identity rooted in nature. But Martí's writing in support of independence didn't originate this mode of thought, but rather synthesized and responded to the thinking of Creole intellectuals before him—Simón Bolivar most explicitly, but...