Jorge Camacho’s Etnografía, política y poder a finales del siglo XIX: José Martí y la cuestión indígena (2013)


Jorge Camacho analyses in this book Martí’s chronicles on Native Americans applying anthropological theories by Geertz, Clifford, Fabian, and Bartra. He explores the idea of “assimilation” of the indigenous put forward by the liberals in Latin America and pro-indigenous groups in the United States. In the 1880s, activists and politicians in the U.S. held the view that the indigenous and foreigners had to assimilate to the life in the U.S. and adopt the Western forms of civilization. The “Others” had to adapt to the new way of life to be able to participate in U.S. citizenship and survive in a society whose fundamental values consisted of private property and individualism. While acculturation implied the loss of cultural identity of a minority group, its proponents defended it as a “benefit” because the new culture would integrate the “Others” or “lift” them to the level of a “citizen.”

Camacho points out some of the strategies of representation used by ethnographers and travellers from the end of the 19th to the first half of the 20th century. One of those views was to see the history of humanity following a linear and ascending course. Another one was to denigrate the world of the “Others”—blacks, indigenous, and Asians—because they belong to a culturally backward society and they were physically and psychologically different.

To dispel any notion of Martí being racist, Camacho refers in his theoretical introduction to social Darwinism, Herbert Spencer, and to anthropologists such as John Lubbock and Edward Burnett Tylor, who applied Darwin’s ideas to society. These scientists were not racist. They believed in the concept of “inferior races” that were still going through different stages of civilization (savage state, barbarian, civilized). 

Martí adhered to this school of thought and supported the acculturation of “savages” because he believed in the progress of humanity. He viewed the “inferiority” of races not in biological or anatomical terms, but from the cultural point of view. 

The author examines the process through which Martí represents events of the lives of the “Others” and converts them into narratives. One of his mechanisms is the discourse of perspective [discurso perspectivo], a device whose goal was to differentiate some cultures from others and/or to demonstrate unity, progress, or backward movement of humankind.

Camacho demonstrates that Martí characterizes the indigenous in two ways: first, as a “lazy” being averse to economic progress propagated by the liberal elites in the U.S., and then as a bearer of natural “goodness” corrupted and reviled by others. Both versions express different forms of judgment and are rhetorical inventions that permit the chronicler to confront the government policies, which were intended to instruct the natives about the new value system and to incorporate them into its plan of agrarian development. Literary criticism on Martí has focused on the latter of these two views, and therefore the Cuban Apostle has been represented as a defender of the indigenous cause (Sacoto, Retamar, Lamore, Acosta, Lomas). It is certain that representing natives or blacks as full of natural goodness implies a sense of rebellion because this discourse already started during the Spanish imperial project in the 16th century and was later developed by philosophers of the Enlightenment, such as Jean J. Rousseau. However, toward the middle of the 18th century, this image of the indigenous began to disappear and was replaced by the Indian as a lazy and indifferent being. This was the vision that was repeated by Montesquieu, Buffon, and Turgot. It was also the explication that accompanied the era of imperialistic colonialism that has reached until the 21st century (Leclercq 82).

Camacho lays out in his book that Martí’s work includes the representation of the indigenous as “kindhearted” people, but one can also find a deep resentment toward them because he views them as indifferent, “uncultivated,” “lazy,” bestial,” enemies of economic progress, and, what is worse, inclined to reject the civil institutions of the government.

In the first chapter, “La ‘pereza inaspiradora’ del indígena,” Camacho explains that Martí agreed with the hopes of a long list of Cuban intellectuals who tried to advance the country and to stop the idleness of the indigenous. Martí’s views must be seen in the context of demands of liberal intellectuals who formed the governments of Mexico and Guatemala, of the laws that were passed to bring about those changes, and of the disastrous consequences as a result of those plans. There was consensus on the power of free market, on private interests, on the value of immigration, on homogenizing the country, on exploiting the natural resources, and on educating the indigenous. These have to be convinced, and, if necessary, be forced, to comply with the plans of the government.

In the second chapter, “Los ‘indios hostiles’ en los Estados Unidos y Argentina, Camacho continues to explore Martí’s favorable view of economic progress, of free enterprise, and of the need to acculturate the indigenous. He refers to Martí’s chronicles, in which the Cuban reflects on the North American Indians and on the political and territorial changes that were happening in Patagonia. His way of representing the Cheyenne, the “hostile Indians,” and those marauding around the capital of Argentina reveals his acceptance of government policy and his support for Nelson Miles and Julio Roca. Only by means of the army and a military campaign against the enemies of the government was Argentina able to end what it considered a problem. In this text, therefore, Martí links Latin American independence with the project of the liberal elites represented by Roca. The conquest and the industrialization of the territory formally occupied by the “indios invasores echados de las faldas de los Andes” (OC VII, 322) becomes the last chapter of the liberation of the continent. For the U.S., however, Martí favors a more just system for the natives and supports the idea of converting them into people who are useful for the nation.  

To highlight Martí’s antiracist views, Camacho compares him to the 19th century Argentinian writer Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who championed the annihilation of the indigenous population. Both Martí and Sarmiento looked at the indigenous as savages and as a relict from the past, but Martí was less prejudiced and more compassionate with the natives. He rejected racial inferiority even though he believed that the Indians needed to abandon their customs, their erroneous forms of thinking, and they needed to accept the idea of culture imposed by the liberal elites.

In chapter 3, “Hombres útiles: ‘Los amigos de los indios,’” Camacho points out that from 1884 on Martí begins to assume a more critical position toward government policies regarding Indians, and his chronicles testify to this change of mind. He criticizes government brutality against the Indians because the latter “no guerrean por apoderarse de la tierra del vecino, sino para defender la propia” (OC XIII, 447). Martí suggests here the notion of self-defense, maybe even that of the “just war,” an argument that the critics of the conquista used to attack Spain and to defend the rights of the indigenous people. Bartolomé de las Casas was one of them who resorted to this concept, and Martí, who profoundly admired the Dominican friar, was certainly able to remember him.

Camacho makes it clear that Marti always opted for educating the Indians and integrating them into U.S. culture. But in spite of his sympathies for the natives, there is in his writings a recurrent desire to “desindianizarlos.” The Indian would remain at an “inferior” level of development as long as he did not abandon his practices and “erroneous” concepts and move to a superior “state” of social behavior. With adequate laws, Martí argues in his North American chronicles, the natives would recover their freedom, they would turn into landowners [“terratenientes”], and they would join the rest of the country.

In chapter 4, “Originales, misteriososos y pintorescos: el espectáculo de Buffalo Bill, el ‘oeste salvaje,’” Camacho demonstrates how Martí’s chronicles on Buffalo Bill’s wild west shows use the mysterious and the spectacle to offer the spectators a unique experience removed from their work and the daily routine of modern life.

Martí’s representation of the indigenous fluctuates between extreme and sometimes contradictory positions. On the one hand, the chronicler acknowledges the Indians’ role of victims within North American society, but on the other hand, he considers it appropriate that they participate in a spectacle like that of Buffalo Bill, which perpetuates the triumphant vision of the United States and obligates the Indians to reenact their tragedy. Martí recognizes their humanity, but at the same time he underscores the opposite: their fierceness and their behavior mimetic of animals. This discourse is reminiscent of colonial stereotypes enforcing opposite concepts, such as man/animal, culture/nature, head/body, which were also supported by contemporary scientific views.  Camacho makes it clear that literary criticism that intends to approach the totality of Martí’s oeuvre cannot ignore these aporias. To insist in the beauty of texts by Martí and other modernistas without considering this double process of exotization/differentiation of the Other, which correlates with the mercantilization of the figure of the Other (black, indigenous, and foreigner) in the U.S. and in the scientific discourses of the epoch, means to leave aside one of the fundamental characteristics of his writings. It also implies to ignore the pragmatic trait of his thoughts, the influence of scientific discourses on him, and the needs of the market, which required him to embellish his text in order to differentiate his chronicle from that of other journalists. In other words, Martí created a “style” and played with “fantasy,” just like Buffalo Bill and the Indians played in the arena. 

Chapter 5 of this book, “La posesión del pasado: arqueología, americanismo y modernismo,” deals with the organization that was founded in Nancy, France, in 1875, and which included scientists from Europe and the two Americas. Its fundamental goal was to study pre-Columbian civilizations, collect valuable artifacts, and create a new awareness and vision of America. The European scientists had already done the same with the Orient, and the American archive would represent another component in the database of knowledge of foreign countries. Jorge Camacho explores the importance of that organization and its connections with the American continent, and he links both aspects to modernist literature. He points out the disagreement and resentment that Latin American intellectuals held against archeological research in Latin America and against the intention of various art collectors to carry their finds to Europe or North America. In this context, Camacho refers to José Martí’s and Ruben Dario’s nationalism and anti-imperialism. But these concepts haven’t prevented Latin American governments to use violence against their own indigenous people, as the Sandinista Administration in Nicaragua has shown.

In chapter 6, “’Cosa magnífica y sangrienta’: La invasión de Oclahoma,” Camacho refers to Martí’s reviews of the Dawes law, in which the Cuban reiterates his confidence in the americanización of the natives, which would supposedly effect gaining better rights.  Camacho analyses the forces that led to the colonization of Oklahoma and Martí’s ideas toward the indigenous in 1889. The historians who have researched the events of April of that year agree that the “invasion” of the colonizers in Oklahoma was chaotic and from the beginning was fuelled by the interests of the railway agents and by those who for years had tried to gain the best spots (David Payne, William Couch).

Martí writes to his friend Enrique Estrázulas that the events in Oklahoma were a “magnificent and bloody affair” [“cosa magnífica y sangrienta” / OC XX, 204], and the “invasion” of Oklahoma turns into another “espectáculo” like the fire or the blizzard in New York. As the letter shows, Martí enjoys and fears those scenes at the same time. They were “magnificent,” but also “bloody.” They spiked the Cuban poet’s attention because they were epic and violent, and they moved history. Besides, they satisfied his “nostalgia for the heroic deed.”

But Martí also criticized the U.S. through these “scenes” and defended the cause of the indigenous. However, Martí opined that acculturation and the adoption of North American citizenship were the best means to achieve progress. In other words, he criticizes the U.S. for breaking their pact with the Indians and for opening their land to colonization, but not for trying to educate them in their own culture and values.

In chapter 7, “La cabeza socrática: ‘Los fieros’, los ‘incultos’ y la política práctica en Nuestra América,” Camacho analyses Martí’s defense of the education of traditionally marginalized groups, among them the indigenous, and how the Cuban proposes to include them in order to avoid friction with modern institutions.

Since the end of the 1880s, Martí saw with concern the social differences in Latin America. A very cultivated [“cultísima”] class coexisted with another one that was not interested in progress and that was primarily composed by indigenous people and by “incultos.” As Martí affirms in “Nuestra América,” this problem was not new. It stems from the colonies, but since the middle of the nineteenth century, the elites had decided to solve it: Annexing those territories and justifying it with the ideology of progress and racial superiority.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Martí proposes therefore to include those ethnic minorities into the new republics, educate the “uncultivated” classes, and thus avoid that they might revolt. In addition, they might start a dialogue with the higher classes about their differences through the right to vote and through active participation as citizens.

Nuestra América” proposes a democratic pact between the wealthy classes and the traditionally dispossessed, but this pact also facilitated the imposition of the culture of the liberal elites of their time. By including the natives, the elites were able to protect their property and to contribute to what they considered progress. This is why the situation of the indigenous didn’t change for such a long time. On the contrary, in all likelihood the differences became more acute and the natives had no other choice but war.    

The merit of Camacho’s book lies in the fact that it is the first comprehensive study on Martí’s views of America’s indigenous population and that it highlights seemingly racist tendencies in Martí’s writings, thus questioning the traditional vision of the Cuban Apostle’s humanistic ideals. But far from portraying Martí as a racist, this critic concludes and points out in his “consideraciones finales” that the Cuban writer was a man of his time and like most Latin American liberals vacillated between two poles: He criticized and tried to change the situation of Native Americans within the U.S., but at the same time he could not escape the conceptual frame imposed by the philosophy of the 19th century, i.e. the emphasis on material development, on education, and on Europe as the model for culture.

Georg Schwarzmann

Lynchburg College