Americans are awaking to the fact that Colombia is not Uruguay and that Mexico has more to offer than enchiladas. The Latin American sections in U.S. bookstores are becoming more well-stocked, and films from our southern neighbors are receiving highly favorable reviews. And though the establishment press maintains its customary lethargy in covering Latin American news, a steady stream of material written by less traditional journalists is finding its way into magazines and journals.
Much of the increasing attention paid to america latino stems, no doubt, from the experiment in democratic socialism conducted in Chile by President Salvador Allende. But interest runs much deeper than that as more and more people are studying Spanish and general Latin American history. A new generation of American wanderers, turning to the south to expend their wanderlust in place of the traditional Europe, travel not only to Santiago but also to Quito and Lima, to the Brazilian northwest and the Andean highlands. American students talk not only of Allende but also of Peron and Echevarria.
For students of history, political science, sociology and economics, Latin America is appealing as a new testing ground for ideas and theories, hopes and aspirations that remain decaying on bookshelves in the Western world. After the accumulation of fact and the compilation of interpretation, students search for a future to be shaped. But in the Old World, history has ossified like the concrete highways that crisscross Europe and the U.S.
Germany is no longer the land where the 1918 revolution hinted at the promise of a society where radical workers would own the factories they labored in. Now the Social Democrats of the Brandts and Schmidts vie with parties of the right and center in a race to see who can most quickly bring down the inflation rate. France is no longer the nation of the 1930s when the Popular Front government of Communists and Socialists stood for economic equality. Now French popular government means either Gaullists or centrists who celebrate the French past rather than work to spread the wealth more equitably among Frenchmen. Britain is no longer the country where a nationwide strike in 1926 shut industry down for months in a move to force employers to grant workers a more equitable share of the nation's wealth. Today's Labour leaders are matched only by the heads of the Conservative Party in calls for unity between labor and management.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the American Dream is close to realization. The Melting Pot has done its work, and all today join together in complaining that the Internal Revenue Service is overtaxing us. Those who might differ are ringed off into compact enclaves, like blacks squeezed into downtown Detroit or the Italians ringed off by expressways and skyscrapers in Boston's North End. Ideological differences take the form of squabbles between Democrats and Republicans in the House Ways and Means Committee. The American future is mirrored in the tree-lined streets of Bethesda and Grosse Point and Scarsdale, insulated from the glare of the crime lights on the other side of the city line.
In most cities in Latin America, a drive the commuter makes from his office in Boston to his home in Newton would pass through neighborhoods separated not by miles but by centuries. In the distance one walks to get from the McDonald's in Central Square to the Brigham's in Harvard Square, a Bolivian could walk from the luxury hotels of downtown LaPaz to the adobe huts of Aymara Indians who chew cocoa leaves and eat dried potatoes like their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. Ill-clad Indian children sell two joints of marijuana for ten cents behind the 35-story Hilton Hotel in downtown Bogota, Columbia, and recently-arrived mothers from the mountains beg in the shopping district of Lima, Peru, so their children can eat.
Streets dividing neighborhoods in Bogota and Lima are lines dividing past and present, and the peasants migrating from the countryside to live in the poblaciones or favelas that surround these cities are re-enacting the demographic changes of 18th century England, when displaced weavers and field laborers streamed into Manchester, Birmingham and London. The crooked spines of the early factory workers are recapitulated in the stooped backs of the Bolivian peasants who carry huge baskets of oranges on their backs. The small farmers of Yorkshire forced off their lands by acquisitive members of the gentry are resurrected in the masses of unemployed who have recently arrived from large haciendas or plantations. The shameful slums of the new industrial towns of London are repeated in the festering sewers of the streets of Latin American slums.
The past these slum-dwellers live in is a tenuous one, and as it is increasingly exposed to the pressures of industrialization prevalent throughout Latin America, it will be assimilated into the national, Western-like culture the cities represent. The children of the women who speak Indian tongues in the markets of LaPaz are learning Spanish and the metric system. The Mexican workers who come to Mexico City to pray to an icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe will soon take the eucharist and mouth their pleas to a transubstantiated God. The tiny craftsmen of Quito, Ecuador, who sell shoes, hats and cabinets in front rooms of their houses will soon be replaced by mass-producing factories.
But this legacy from the past that presses on modernizing cities is a radical, not a reactionary one. In the brutal confrontation between old and new, the impoverished urban masses are rooted in traditions that translate into visions for the future. In Mexico, land-hungry paracaistas ("parachuters") in the cities pounce on haciendas and overnight divide them up into the plots that decades earlier their parents and grandparents farmed. In Bolivia peasants farming in the countryside set up blockades in the nation's highways and throw stones at army troops in protest of arbitrary price rises instituted by the military government. Like Emiliano Zapata, who 60 years ago helped fuel the Mexican Revolution by fighting to recover land which for centuries had belonged to his village, the unintegrated masses remain a constant threat to the impersonal process of industrial growth.
It is in this sense, of a future blossoming from the seeds of a past, that the experiment of Chile has so firmly grasped the minds of people in the Western world. Workers accustomed to slaving in factories for subsistence-level wages seized control of their places of work and planned common ownership. Field laborers in the rural areas forced their way onto large plantations and marked off plots of land they could cultivate themselves. And, in the slums surrounding Santiago, Chileans took a new pride in their past, setting up schools and community centers to make their children aware of their cultural heritage.
Chile has now fallen victim to a further swing of the pendulum ever-moving between past and future. Those who would use the past to create a new future have temporarily succumbed to the indiscriminate forces of the modern age. But the hope of Chile, in its fading from reality into history and from life into literature, becomes a new piece in a puzzle perpetually being pieced together. While in Europe and the U.S. the horizon is circumscribed by the steel and concrete of ever-rising skyscrapers, in Latin America the vistas for the future are unlimited. There the mills blaze away, and men are currently fighting over whether or not they will be satanic.
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