Week 8: On “Signs of Crisis in a Gilded Age”

In this chapter, the crises of Latin America during a period of remarkable economic development were social unrests invoked by two underprivileged groups: the peasants, as in the Mexican rebellion, and the working class, as in the Argentine strike. However, it is the other group that became my center of interest: the elites, the statesmen, the constitutionalists, the liberals, the intellectuals, the modernizers…you know who I’m talking about. Generally speaking they are people who have a say in national decisions or who can exert direct influence upon the path the nation takes, and to simply I’ll just call them elites. They are of great interest also because they stand in the middle: on one side there are the underprivileged, to whom they pose as superior; and on the other side there are the Americans, to whom they feel inferior.

The peasants and the working class, by their nature, did not have so much interest in national movements as in their personal welfares. They shaped history with consequential events. The peasants fought for land, wealth, and freedom in the sense of regional autonomy, but they did not intend to rule even they had taken over the capital. The working class made strikes for better working condition and higher wages. These were all reasonable requests that the social elites should have dealt with properly, but what was proper is hard to judge. What actually happened involved much violence, where the elites eventually got the upper hand with military technologies. They would take the lesson, though, that enlarging hierarchical distance or maltreating and oppressing the lower class for their interest is not the wise way to govern a nation. They make mistakes, but the nation’s future still depends on them. Among them are the most patriotic nationalists who care the most about their nation’s future, or even the future of human kind. José Vasconcelos, for instance, engaged himself in the progression of the whole mankind. Despite his philosophical and quasi-scientific approach to the biological problem of heredity and sociological problem of civil unions, his interest and passion for a better race is admirable.

Latin American elites’ attitudes towards the United States are very interesting. Mostly it’s a mixture of admiration and despise, of acceptance and rejection. In Rubén Darío’s poem we see acknowledgement and praise of North American power, but also self-assertion about Latin America’s love and faith, which North America reportedly lacked. In José Vasconcelos’s essay we can taste some bitterness towards Americans that probably rooted in jealousy and sense of inferiority. The elites struggled with the inescapable gravity of American power, and also the inevitable responsibility to build a stronger state. That kind of struggle, I dare say, continues today, and not only in Latin America but also in many countries all over the world.

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  1. I agree with you that Latin America is still facing a struggle for autonomy from the United States. However, I do not find Vasconcelos attempts for a better race admirable. I understand that you likely meant that given the context of racial superiority for him to even consider a society without race and accepting interracial sexual relations is admirable. However, if you don’t mind me doing so I’m just going to rant because I found the reading highly disconcerting regardless of its ability to rise above race. It’s highly problematic because it is an ideology rooted in a concept of superiority in order to replace a concept of superiority! Regardless of the United States imperial crusades in Latin America. Latin America should not found itself by attempting to be superior and the new imperial race.

    • Hi Michelle! Thank you for understanding the context of my “admiration”. Indeed Vasconcelos had his own limitations even though he was among the most educated Latin Americans at his time. However, I don’t think his limitation lies in his intention to build a new superiority. In fact he is clearly aware that all the superior races in history, the Hebrews, the Romans, the English, were only temporary, and that no single race is the culmination of human evolution and suffices by itself. He neither intends for Latin America to be the next superiority. On page 163, about 1/3 from the bottom, he says “We do not claim that we are, nor that we shall become, the first race of the world or the most illustrious, the strongest and the most handsome. Our purpose is even higher and more difficult to attain than temporary selection.” He indeed had a very lofty goal. Yes he favored Latin America over the north, but that’s because he saw Latin America a land with better condition and opportunity for producing “the cosmic race” (although this is questionable because his assertion is partly grounded on religion). According to him, such a race is not supposed to condescend over other races; it is the ONLY race that the entire humankind should evolve towards.

  2. I agree with your point that according to the poem North America lacks a sense of religion and faith. That although they may be powerful, they will never be able to overcome the sense of community and religious beliefs that the people of Latin America have.

  3. Bitterness toward the United States is certainly a common thread throughout history and the world. As much as the United States has been a cultural leader, those same people who admire US cultural influence simultaneously have a distain for it. Perhaps the rest of the world feels a lack of control and influence. There may be a measure of jealousy for sure. And, as we have seen again and again, there is hostility as well.

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