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Indigenismo - The 1920s And 1930s

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While indigenismo should and must be contextualized among the many discourses on the Indian produced during the colonial and Republican periods, its defining moment occurs with the explosion of voices on indigenous matters in the 1920s and 1930s. The movement's seminal novels, such as Alcides Arguedas's (1879–1946) Raza de bronce (1919; Bronze race), Jorge Icaza's (1906–1978) Huasipungo (1934), and Ciro Alegría's (1909–1967) El mundo es ancho y ajeno (1941; Broad and alien is the world), should nevertheless not overshadow the significant and arguably as important critical and scholarly production on the Indian in the same period. Works such as José Carlos Mariátegui's (1894–1930) Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (1928; Seven interpretative essays on Peruvian reality), Pío Jaramillo Alvarado's (1884–1968) El indio ecuatoriano (1936; The Ecuadorian Indian), Hildebrando Castro Pozo's (1890–1945) Nuestra comunidad indígena (1924; Our indigenous community), and José Vasconcelos's (1882–1959) Indología (1926) purported to study "the indigenous question" in a scientific light. These critical works, perhaps more so than their aesthetic counterparts, reveal the ways in which the importation and acquisition of foreign theoretical models fomented new perspectives on the indigenous problem and thereby offered novel solutions. Marxism, for example, played a central role in giving the defense of the Indian a distinctly revolutionary flavor. On the whole, novelistic, poetic, and critical discourses on the Indian had a profound impact on social and political movements, such as the APRA (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana) in Peru and the Mexican Revolution, which sought to challenge the standing political and social order. A full study of the impact of the indigenista project on Latin American politics remains to be carried out. It should also be noted that the indigenistas were generally not progressive in terms of gender and that in fact most indigenismo is rife with stereotypical representations of femininity and masculinity.

Though extraordinary, the life of José Carlos Mariátegui (1894–1930) illustrates the contradictions that riddle indigenismo. Impoverished mestizos from the provinces, the young Mariátegui and his family emigrated to Lima, Peru's capital city, in hopes of bettering their social condition. Having dropped out of grade school in order to work, the crippled Mariátegui rose to prominence within the growing journalism industry with virtually no formal education. He did not turn his full attention to the problem of the Indian until his return from Europe in 1923, when he famously stated that his exile had allowed him to see Peru for the first time. This vision, filtered through his study of Marxism, led to his groundbreaking Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (1928; reprint. Mexico: Era, 1993), in which he declared:

la literatura indigenista no puede darnos una versión rigurosamente verista del indio. Tiene que idealizarlo y estilizarlo. Tampoco puede darnos su propia ánima. Es todavía una literatura de mestizos. Por eso se llama indigenista y no indígena. Una literatura indígena, si debe venir, vendrá en su tiempo. Cuando los propios indios estén en grado de producirla. [indigenista literature cannot give us a rigorously truthful version of the Indian. It has to idealize and stylize him. Nor can it give us his own soul. It is still a literature made by mestizos. That is why it is called indigenista and not indigenous. An indigenous literature, if it is to come, will come when it is ready. When the Indians themselves have the capacity to produce it.] (p. 306)

Conscious of his place within this dynamic, Mariátegui facilitated the forging of an indigenous voice through his publication of Labor, (1928–1929) a paper for the working class, and through his encouragement of indigenous self-organization.

The Uruguayan critic Angel Rama has presented the most compelling analysis of the social dynamics behind the effervescence of indigenismo in the 1920s and 1930s. In his seminal Transculturación narrativa en América Latina (1982; Narrative transculturation in Latin America), largely concerned with the problem of representing autochthony in the region, Rama argues that the indigenismo of this period is in fact a product of the rise of the mestizo middle classes to power. In Rama's scheme of things, indigenismo is a kind of Trojan horse that, while addressing authentic social concerns regarding the Indian, nevertheless makes inroads against the dominant land-owning oligarchies to the benefit of mestizos—persons of mixed European and American Indian ancestry—and not especially the indigenous peoples. This observation reveals a crucial feature of indigenismo that has been taken for granted by most criticism, although notably not that of Mariátegui and his interlocutor Luis Alberto Sánchez (1900–1994). It demonstrates that while indigenismo claims to speak of the Indian's plight, it is in fact a phenomenon that occurs almost entirely within the majority mestizo culture of the continent. In the end, then, indigenismo benefits what Rama calls mesticismo, or the empowerment of the mestizo.

This observation rests primarily on the cultural and social heterogeneity that undergirds indigenismo. Indigenismo's mode of production reiterates the paradox at the center of the indigenistas' intellectual production: through its expression in the dominant language and culture, it tends to exclude those very subjects it represents. As such, indigenismo should be viewed less as a window on the indigenous people of Latin America and more as a complex example of how intellectuals have imagined alterity, or otherness, in the continent. Indigenista production can and must be read against the grain, as it certainly provides a vast and detailed portrait of the urban mestizo middle classes at the beginning and throughout much of the twentieth century. Indeed, the more recent writers in the indigenistra tradition, including Rosario Castellanos (1925–1974), Miguel Angel Asturias (1899–1974), and José María Arguedas (1911–1969), have since 1950 transformed the indigenista vision into one that increasingly considers the role of indigenous culture in relation to mestizo society.

See also Mestizaje.


Aquézolo Castro, Manuel, ed. La polémica del indigenismo. Lima: Mosca Azul, 1976.

Cornejo Polar, Antonio. Literatura y sociedad en el Perú: La novela indigenista. Lima: Lasontay, 1980.

Kristal, Efraín. The Andes Viewed from the City: Literary and Political Discourse on the Indian in Peru (1848–1930). New York: Lang, 1987.

Mariátegui, José Carlos. Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality. Translated by Marjory Urquidi. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.

Rama, Angel. Transculturación narrativa en América Latina. Hanover, N.H.: Ediciones del Norte, 1982.

Jorge Coronado

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almost 11 years ago

Interesting and well-done article. Though literary indigenism is not homogeneous, so some differences can be explained more thorughly. At the end of the article there is already an allusion to this difference that can be expanded.It would be very important to talk more about Asturias, Arguedas and Castellanos