Subjectivity and Empire: Representations of Historiography in

Ricardo Palma’s Tradiciones Peruanas


Miguel A. Cabañas

Michigan State University


As Edmundo O’Gorman argues in his book The Invention of America, Spanish Colonial texts weigh heavily on the establishment of American “reality.” (1) Spanish American writers confront that reality in an attempt to make sense of it. In the nineteenth century, the narration of an imperial past both established and problematized national foundations. If on the one hand the imperial past was rejected by liberal intellectuals of the period as a reaction to colonial oppression, on the other hand, the past represented an important source of reflection and knowledge in the countries that had recently liberated themselves from Spanish power. Generally, Latin American fiction avoided Empire as a topic after the wars of Independence. Only in the second half of the century did writing about empire become a decolonizing gesture. As Benedict Anderson reminds us, “the inner compatibility of empire and nation,” also interconnects the discourse of Empire with nation building projects. Through the appropriation of colonial discursive spaces, the “emancipated subject” constructs itself and in the end the “imagined community” can reflect on its location in history. Spanish American authors often revisited colonial times with a historical gaze that was revisionist and was employed as a distancing devise for the examination of the present. The textual recreation and rewriting of empire in Ricardo Palma’s work produces a national subject with a concrete place in history. Palma’s is a gesture of mimicry as defined by Homi K. Bhabha, as it represents: “the sign of a double articulation; a complex strategy of reform, regulation and discipline, which appropriates the Other as it visualizes power” (Location of Culture 86).

Many critics have devoted numerous pages to discuss the formation of the genre known as the “Tradición,” but they fail to mention Mexican writer Guillermo Prieto as a “grandfather” of the genre, even though he has a text entitled “Tradiciones: El Arrollo del Muerto. La Cruz del Sombrero” published in El Museo Mexicano in 1843 (almost twenty years before Palma began to publish his Tradiciones in newspapers). As a familiar essay writer or costumbrista, Prieto addresses the formation of Mexican customs or traditions. In the introduction to these two stories, the narrator proposes to “contar un cuento” and continues:

Así los pueblos, por antiguos que sean, conservan algunos de ellos sus tradiciones como el hombre sus recuerdos infantiles. […]

—Un cuento, un cuento.

—Es una vergüenza: ¿Se divierten ustedes con relaciones de vestiglos y de brujas?…

—Sí, sí, nos divertimos, queremos un cuento. […]

—Allá va, no será un cuento, porque efectivamente no tengo ninguno en la memoria; pero ¿ustedes quieren una tradición?


—Será de mi tierra.

—¡Silencio! Oigan la tradición del zacatecano.

—No, la tradición no es de Zacatecas es de Jerez: sabrán ustedes por qué el Arroyo del Muerto se llama así.

—Ya escuchamos. (212)


The generic difference from the short story is developed in a narrative voice that corresponds with the tone of Palma’s later Tradiciones. The ironic twist of the narrative voice both asserts and questions the verisimilitude of the story. Also, there is a comical presentation of the origin of an expression or name. Finally, the narration finds a causal connection between past and present (normally absent in the “cuadro de costumbres”). What appears absent, when compare with Palma’s texts, are the historical references and metahistoriographical commentary.

This essay’s intention is not to diminish Ricardo Palma’s accomplishments as the writer who “invented” the tradición as a new genre, but to rethink the role of this particular genre and contrast it with other important genres that forged Latin American national identities such as the novel, the essay, and historiographical writing. (2) Tradiciones Peruanas is an encyclopedic project that rewrites the past and present, while projecting a future for Palma’s contemporary Peru. His achievement is not merely to write about the traditions of the past and how they persisted or were eliminated in the present, but something beyond Prieto’s tradición: Palma deconstructs the rhetoric of Colonial historiography and creates a modern reader who would ironically look to all the epochs in Peruvian culture.

After Independence, the colonial past was immediately rejected by writers and intellectuals. Writers were instead interested in the present or in the recent past, in order to exalt the newly formed Republics. However, Andrés Bello proposed the study of Latin American history as a model for “emancipation” from Peninsular or European ways of thinking. Palma went into exile in Chile from 1860 to 1863; it is at this point that he became deeply interested in Peruvian Colonial history. He published Anales de la Inquisición de Lima and some Tradición-like legends soon after his return to Peru. All of this historical material seems to have been recycled in hundreds of tradiciones. His trip to Montevideo and his contact with the school of American historiography established by Andrés Bello seems to be crucial for the transformation of the Tradición as a genre. If for Prieto the tradición was an ahistorical observation on Mexican culture, for Palma it was a historical commentary with instruction on reading Colonial history as one of its main ingredients. Bello had pointed out the need to rewrite Latin American history and to discuss a method or philosophy about America’s past:

Los historiadores formados por el siglo XVIII se dejaron preocupar demasiado por la filosofía de su tiempo… […] Nuestro siglo no lo quiere; exige que se le diga todo; que se le reproduzca y se le explique la existencia de las naciones en sus diversas épocas, y que se dé a cada siglo pasado su verdadero lugar, su color y su significación. […] No he consultado más que los documentos y los textos originales, sea para individualizar las varias circunstancias de la narrativa, sea para caracterizar las personas y las poblaciones que figuran en ella. […] las tradiciones nacionales de las poblaciones menos conocidas y las antiguas poesías populares, me han suministrado muchas indicaciones acerca del modo de existencia, los sentimientos e ideas de los hombres en los tiempos y lugares a que transporto al lector. (231)


On the one hand, Bello indicates the importance of method: the Romantic objective “to individualize” (“individualizar las varias circunstancias de la narrativa”) and the creation of a national allegorical narrative  (“para caracterizar las personas y las poblaciones que figuran en ella”). On the other hand, national traditions or customs and popular literature are represented at the heart of national identity. In this sense, Bello combines historiography and “fictions of the nation” as a basis for the decolonization of the emerging Republics. Palma’s Tradiciones peruanas offer a dialectical negation of colonial historiography, with their ironic ambivalence between past and present, colony and republic, romance and tragedy. (3)

Colonial historiography represented the “truth” of the Spanish Empire, but it was a constructed truth that functioned in favor of the structures of power and institutions that relied on specific interpretations of reality. The Tradición is not simply an antiquarian move of conservation, as many have accused Palma of making, but rather a reframing of history and a way of creating an alternative history of Empire. Palma’s meta-historiographical observations problematize the relation between literature and history, Empire and Republic. José Carlos Mariátegui notes in his Siete ensayos de la interpretación de la realidad peruana: “Las Tradiciones de Palma tienen, política y socialmente una filiación democrática. Palma interpreta al medio pelo. Se burla, roe risueñamente el prestigio del virreinato y el de la aristocracia. Traduce el malcontento zumbón del demos criollo” (221). Palma’s appropriation of the past is quite different from that of other nineteenth-century conservative Peruvian intellectuals, such as his Peruvian contemporaries Felipe Pardo and José Antonio de Lavalle, who looked back with nostalgia to the time of the Spanish Empire. Antonio Cornejo Polar has argued that Peruvian Romanticism tried to nationalize Colonial times [“nacionalizar la colonia”] (56). Thus, the discourse of history was an intellectual space of contention. 

In his Tradiciones, Palma problematizes the veracity and verisimilitude of Colonial historiography. In “El alacrán de Fray Gómez”, the narrator tells the story of the miracles performed by the famous monk. Fray Gómez performs a questionable miracle by placing his habit cord on the head of a rider who has fallen from his horse and the rider gets up, unharmed. Witnesses watching this cry: “Milagro, Milagro” and the narrator comments:

Y en su entusiasmo intentaron llevar el triunfo al lego. Éste para substraerse a la popular ovación, echó a correr camino del convento y se encerró en su celda.

La crónica franciscana cuenta esto último de manera distinta. Dice que fray Gómez, para escapar de sus aplaudidores, se elevó en los aires y voló desde el puente hasta la torre de su convento. Yo ni lo niego ni lo afirmo. Puede que sí y puede que no. Tratándose de maravillas, no gasto tinta en defenderlas ni en refutarlas. (210).


The two alternative versions of the event present the reader with a dilemma. First, the narrator offers the most plausible explanation, which he then juxtaposes with the Franciscan chronicle which mystifies the sanctity of the miracle.  The narrator’s ultimate refutation of this is more than suggested in his ironic “Puede que sí y puede que no.” The text directly attacks the 1882 restoration of a Colonial painting that represents two of the Franciscan monk’s miracles. The fictional discourse rejects the justification of the criollo oligarchy through the use of chronicles that mystify Imperial institutions such as the church, the Viceroy governments, and the Audiencias.

During the second half of the twentieth century, las Tradiciones have always been glimpsed at as a minor genre in the Nineteenth Century. (4) However, this vision does not explain its popularity well into the twentieth century and the amount of “school of imitators and followers” in many other countries who wrote tradiciones as a serious and patriotic literary endeavor. (5) Doris Sommer, for example, has studied the Latin American national romance as the main textual metaphor for the new republics. Also, one could argue it is through the tradición that literary Americanism was starting to turn into the Panamericanism proclaimed by modernista writers such as José Martí and Rubén Darío. As Palma proclaims:

En nuestras convicciones sobre americanismo en literatura, entra la de que precisamente es la Tradición el género que mejor lo representa. América es el teatro de los sucesos; costumbres y tipos americanos son los exhibidos; y el que escriba Tradiciones, no sólo está obligado a darles colorido local, sino que hasta el lenguaje debe sacrificar, siempre que oportuno se considere, la pureza clásica del castellano idioma, para pone en boca de los personajes frases de riguroso provincialismo, y que ya perderá tiempo y trabajo el que se eche a buscarlas en los diccionarios. (1475)


Palma and his followers highlight the local color and linguistic particularities of their own countries, American history and “types.” Many critics find connection with the “cuadro de costumbre”, but the author himself once defined the tradición as the “novela en miniatura, novela homeopática” (1475). Also, Palma at times announces his imitation of the crónica or the leyenda.

The Tradiciones peruanas commentary on Colonial historiography has not been sufficiently explored critically. Many critics still believe that historiography was not clearly distinguished from fiction during the nineteenth century. As Doris Sommer has declared: “For the nineteenth-century writer/statesman there could be no clear epistemological distinction between science and art, narrative and fact, and consequently between ideal history and real events. Whereas today’s theorists of history in the industrial centers find themselves correcting the hubris of historians who imagine themselves to be scientists, the literary practice of Latin American historical discourse had long since taken advantage of what Lyotard would call the ‘indefiniteness of science,’ or more to the point, what Paul Veyne calls the ‘undecidability’ of history” (76). However, reading Palma we perceive that he clearly discerns between history and fiction, even if at times he sought the blending of both for specific aesthetic and epistemological objectives. American history for Palma is the rough stone that the Latin American writer needs to carve. He does believe in history, though.  In his introduction to Clorinda Matto de Turner’s Tradiciones cuzqueñas, Palma comments on the genre in a significantly self-reflexive way:

En el fondo, la Tradición no es más que una de las formas que puede revestir la Historia, pero sin los escollos de ésta. Cumple a la Historia narrar los sucesos secamente, sin recurrir a las galas de la fantasía, y apreciarlos, desde el punto de vista filosófico social, con la imparcialidad de juicio y elevación de propósitos que tanto realza a los historiadores modernos Macaulay, Thierry y Modesto de Lafuente. La Historia que desfigura, que omite o que aprecia sólo los hechos que convienen o como convienen; la Historia que se ajusta al espíritu de escuela o de bandería, no merece el nombre de tal. Menos estrechos y peligrosos son los límites de la Tradición. A ella, sobre una pequeña base de verdad, le es lícito edificar un castillo. El tradicionista tiene que ser poeta y soñador. El historiador es el hombre del raciocinio y de las prosaicas realidades. La Tradición es la fina tela que dio vida a las bellísimas mentiras de la novela histórica, cultivada por Walter Scott en Inglaterra, por Alejandro Dumas en Francia y por Fernández González en España” (1474-75)


For Palma, The tradición offers the aesthetic “new dress” for history (‘puede revestir’). It is implied in the impartiality that history needs to give and the socio-philosophical point of view that he assigns to modern historians. It is in tradiciones that the official crónicas are questioned to develop this modern “scientific” sense of history. One could say that by parodying imperial historiography, specifically the ones that clearly change the narrative for “institutional self-legitimation”, he undoes colonial myths, because his texts show the holes and the inconsistencies of narratives, questioning their validity and creating stories that satirize the falsification of historical discourse, and more specifically, official Chronicles. In a sense, it is a redefinition of history and a newly respect for discerning what is “fábula” and what “history.” Also, in the quote, he links the tradición with the historical novel. For instance, the narrator of “La ‘nariz de camello’” makes ironic remarks about the old crónica: “Aquello de que la primera azúcar peruana se produjo en huanuco no pasa de una novela del historiador Garcilaso, como lo comprueban Feijoo de Sosa y Mendiburu.” (112). His refutation of the Inca Garcilaso proves his critical historiographical savvy that he also wants the “lector” or reader to acquire. (6)

Some critics who have focused on Palma’s representation of the past get to the conclusion that the use of history in the Tradiciones peruanas is at best sui generis. Luis Loayza emphasizes this notion: “La relación entre anécdota y los datos históricos suele ser tenue y a veces es prácticamente inexistente” (523). This suggests that his interest in history is tenuous and that the connection between history and the narrative is not clear. However, Palma provides the reader with plenty of metahistoriographical commentary, to subtly guide the reading. For example, In “Quizá quiero, quizá no quiero,” the narrator sarcástically points out: “La boca se me hace agua al hablar de la Beatriz de mi cuento; porque si no miente Garcilaso (no el poeta, sino el cronista del Perú, que a veces es más embustero que el telégrafo), fue la tal una real moza” (37). This Inca woman defies the edict of the viceroy, which forces all widowed women of power to remarry important noblemen from Spain in order to prevent more rebellions like the Inca Manco’s. She initially resists, but in the end she remarries. The main irony in the story is that after all her resistance, during the wedding ceremony she declares “quizá quiero, quizá no quiero.” She doesn’t mind remarrying if she isn’t forced to share the same bed with her new husband. The narrator notes: “debió doña Beatriz humanizarse con su marido,  porque…, porque…, no sé como decirlo, ¡qué  demonche! Sancha, Sancha, si no bebes vino, ¿de qué es esa mancha? Ella dejó prole…; conque… chocolate que no tiñe…” (40). The story represents the stark reality of Empire and implies the complicity of the Inca elites with the Colonial elites.

Palma’s tradición serves as a device for rewriting historical material while cleverly subverting the dominant position of history by undermining the very basis of the telling of that story. It disrupts the coherence of the past (truth and meaning). (7) For example, en “Un virrey y un arzobispo”, the narrator affirms: “De seguro que vendrían a muchos de mis lectores pujamientos de confirmarse por el más valiente zurcidor de mentiras que ha nacido de madre, si no echase mano de este y del siguiente capítulo para dar a mi relación un carácter histórico, apoyándome en el testimonio de algunos cronistas de Indias” (218). At a superficial level, “el parrafillo histórico” provides textual context and verisimilitude to the fiction. But this “mimicry” of the discourse of history becomes ironic and undercuts the illusion of “truth” in the chronicle.

To illustrate by means of comparison: Esteban Echeverría introduces El matadero with the ironic words: “A pesar de que la mía es historia, no la empezaré por el arca de Noé y la genealogía de sus ascendientes como acostumbraban hacerlos los antiguos historiadores españoles de América, que deben ser nuestros prototipos” (282). In both texts, El matadero and “Un virrey y un arzobispo”, the metahistoriographical strategies call the reader’s attention to the “construction” of truth and discursive coherence only to subvert it. However, while Echeverría denies the validity of the historiography of Empire, Palma imitates its gestures, problematizing it. The humorous and distanced perspective of Palma’s narrator creates a space for readers to explore their own interpretations of a contested past. In this sense, the Tradición is a very anti-traditional genre whose mechanisms create alternative historical narratives. As Bhabha has pointed out:  “Counter-narratives of the nation that continually evoke and erase its totalizing boundaries—both actual and conceptual—disturb those ideological manoeuvres through which ‘imagined communities’ are given essentialist identities” (“DissemiNation” 300).

Palma’s tradiciones historicize the injustices and allegedly “fixed identities” of different levels of society—criollo, Black, mestizo and Indian. Empire shapes identities in the text, yet the narrator and the implied reader carnivalize the hegemonic power of the Church and Colonial administration with a conspiring laugh. We see this clearly, for instance in texts that announce historical parodies such as “Don Dimas de la Tijereta: cuento de viejas que trata de cómo un escribano le ganó un pleito al diablo” and “Tres cuestiones históricas sobre Pizarro: ¿Supo o no escribir? ¿Fue o no fue Marqués de los Atavillos? ¿Cuál fue y dónde está su gonfalón de guerra?” These kinds of Tradición serve as a metaphor for the present as well. They criticize the inequality and injustice condoned by nineteenth-century Peruvian elites who based their privilege on constructed genealogies formed during empire. (8)             

Palma’s texts create a national subject who discerns the “tradition” from past to present, and choose to revoke and satirize injustice and power. Though humor, Palma establishes a fictional and complicit connection between reader (“mi lector”) and the narrating voice of the Tradicionist who distances himself from the past and present with historical savvy and “popular” insight. In this frank and informal conversation, the text locates a modern collective subject, who rejects the Colonial past, but totally does not embrace modernity either. (9) The irreverent and ironic conversation negotiates between historiography, modern understanding, and the mediation of the “popular voice.”(10) Estuardo Núñez has pointed out how the tradición popularized history: “Por la vía de la tradición la historia alcanzó más difusión y atractivo y pudo así llegar a las grandes masas antes renuentes a seguir el curso de los textos históricos especulativos y yertos”  (xvii). In a cyclical form, the Tradición claimed to authorize “popular stories”, and but yet promoted the reading and the studying of national historiography. Also, through the use of this popular stories o “fábulas,” he could break the clear discursive hierarchies established during colonial times. By using collective voice of the “people”, chronicles or crónicas could be satirized and historical events questioned. One could argue that also the Tradiciones give people access to the “noble” historical past for its consumption by the new urban bourgeoisie while they make available the magical and fantastic superstitions of the people for “reform.”               

In conclusion, though we might consider Guillermo Prieto to be one of the first “recorders” of the tradición, Ricardo Palma transformed the genre, embedding it heavily with well-researched history, and going even further. The Tradiciones Peruanas destabilize the fixed collective identities which were solidified by imperial institutions and subsequently disseminated through historiographical discourse. These fictions promoted a rereading of the Colonial past and its pillars of aristocracy for the consumption of a collective bourgeois criollo society. In an 1875 letter to the Argentinean Juan María Gutiérrez, Palma complained of the anti-literary atmosphere in Peru, in contrast to the warm welcome his Tradiciones received in Argentina. At the end of his days, Palma knew that he had influenced many Latin American writers and he had had a considerable effect on the study of Peruvian History. Ricardo Palma employed the “popular” voice of the Traditionist to revisit colonial myths and these new narratives created a sense of a modern Peruvian collective self that both started to consume and question the discourse of History.



(1). For more about the notion of America as a conquerable space see O’Gorman’s The Invention of America, p. 137.


(2). Estuardo Núñez, editor of the Biblioteca de Ayacucho volume entitled Tradiciones Hispanoamericanas mentions Palma as “el indiscutido creador del género o especie ‘tradición’” (XXII).

(3). Doris Sommer also perceives Bello’s words as a call to fictionalize history, but she believes that history is transformed in romance or ideal history: “The glee I surmise in Bello’s exhortation to supplement history surely owes to the opportunity he perceives for projecting an ideal history through that most basic and satisfying genre of romance. What better way to argue the polemic for civilization than to make desire the relentless motivation for a literary/political project?” (84). I would argue that history is fictionalized mostly in the Tradición and very rarely in the novel. See also Raul Ianes.

(4). See José Miguel Oviedo, ed. “Prólogo.” Ricardo Palma. Cien Tradiciones Peruanas. Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1977. There Oviedo observes: “hay que agregar ahora que el arte de Palma es, sin duda un arte menor. Aunque la variedad de asuntos y enfoques es, como queda señalado, muy grande, Palma se repite y autoimita constantemente. El suyo es un arte de mistificación, incluyendo la mistificación de la fórmula afortunada de la tradición” (XXXVIII).  Later, the critic confesses that Palma’s is not “great literature.”

(5). See “Prólogo” by Estuardo Núñez.

(6). Palma’s connection between “fábula” and “crónica” probably comes directly from reading Inca Garcilaso de La Vega’s Comentarios Reales:

y no escribiré novedades que nos se hayan oído, sino las mismas cosas que los historiadores españoles han escrito de aquella tierra y de los Reyes de ella y alegaré las mismas palabras de ellos donde conviniere, para que se vea que no finjo ficciones en favor de mis parientes, sino que digo lo mismo que los españoles dijeron. Sólo serviré de comento para declarar y ampliar muchas cosas que ellos asomaron a decir y las dejaron imperfectas por haberles faltado relación entera. Otras muchas se añadirán que faltan de sus historias y pasaron en hecho de verdad, y algunas se quitarán que sobran, por falsa relación que tuvieron, por no saberla pedir el español con distinción de tiempos y edades y división de provincias y naciones, o por no entender al indio que se la daba o por no entenderse el uno al otro, por la dificultad del lenguaje. (I 46)


Here, Garcilaso playfully alludes to the idea of refutation, truth and fact, all elements present in the best Tradiciones.

(7). Paul Ricoeur explains how humans aspire to coherence of the past and its temporality. See Time and Narrative.

(8). List of families during colonial times and their connection to the present.

(9). Julio Ortega affirms “hecha en el interior de la cultura pluralizada, popular, criolla; […] hay en la tradición operatividades (“tecnologías del sujeto”) de la nacionalidad […]” (430). I would locate this “technology of the subject” in the “constructed” popular perspective  that parodies the discourse of history.
(10). The importance of this concept of “mediation” has been theorized by Jesús Martín-Barbero in De los medios a las mediaciones: Comunicación, Cultura y hegemonía (1987): “De ahí que la importancia histórica de la posición romántica en este debate […] resida en la afirmación de lo popular como espacio de creatividad, de actividad y producción. (18, emphasis in the original). In the case of Palma, he seems quite conscious of the “constructiveness” of tradition.

Works Cited

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