To understand the character of the poetic hero in Hispanic American literature, one must begin by considering the evolution of specific poetic elements as they have been incorporated into the fabric of literary expression. Although the indigenist novel has been only one of several modes of literary expression over the first half of the 20th century, it has taken poetic structures as a point of focus with more explicitness and regularity. This was due to the fact that the indigenous peoples which it sought to portray were themselves representative of such poetic structures in their worldview and beliefs. For this reason we shall begin with a consideration of the evolution of the indigenist novel. While our treatment of these texts will neither be in-depth nor exhaustive, our focus will concern itself with myth, legend or poetry, in their relation to language, or with the ever changing degree of assimilation between indigenous people and the mestizo world of Hispanic America.
During the 1930’s, the Hispanic American novel exhibited a tendency toward social commitment. With respect to the indigenist novel, this tendency can be seen in terms of what Gonzales Prada has called the trinity of terror: the landlord, the priest and the government representative. In this context, Huasipungo (1934), by Jorge Icaza, has been described as the most violent denunciation of injustice against the Indian (Brushwood, p. 110). The scenario of this novel is very familiar to the indigenous peoples of Hispanic America. The landlord plots with the priest to exploit Indian and mestizo labor to build a road which will bring greater personal wealth to the conspirators. with the loan and future promises of land by the landlord, good blessings by the priest and police coercion by the government representative, the trio manage to exploit an ancient custom of free communal labor. By the end of the novel the land is taken back by the landlord, the Indians rebel and the road which has been built with the blood of the Indian is used by the military who massacre Indian men, women and children in the name of law and order (Muñoz: p. 120). The oppression and exploitation of the Indian took many different forms in the indigenist novel during the 1930’s.
In the novel El Resplandor (1937), by Mauricio Magdaleno, social criticism took the form of showing the contrasting lifestyles between poor Indian villages and the hacienda system. By the time of its publication, revolutionary reforms had gained momentum in Mexico and the concern with indigenous culture, its history and the Indians’ social status, were common themes. Joseph Sommers, in After the Storm (1968), identifies the unending repetition of the Indians’ exploitation as the main theme of this novel. The story is about a child named Saturnino, the son of a peon named Olegario who had been involved in the turmoil of the 1910 Mexican revolution. A paternalistic governor selects the mestizo child from the village to be educated in the state capital. After he has grown, Saturnino decides to run for political office. He returns to his village for the purpose of obtaining the much needed support of the Indians. He makes the Indians a number of promises and as a result he ultimately wins the election. Unfortunately for the Indian, his secret plan is to restore the hacienda system and exploit Indian labor for his personal gain. When the Indians finally resist and Saturnino’s administrator is killed, troops are called in and the mass hanging of Indians quickly ensues. Magdaleno makes his point about the unending repetition of Indian exploitation by ending his novel with the selection of a new child from the village to be educated in the state capital.
We see that during the 1930’s, the exploitation of the Indian was one of the primary concerns of indigenist novels. Through these novels we learn that some amount of assimilation had taken place in the presence of the mestizo. From Magdaleno we learn that the mestizo is even capable of running for public office and winning the election. Ironically, we also learn that the mestizo is willing to exploit the Indian for personal gain. The tone of the two novels we have considered is paternalistic in its plea for the acceptance of indigenous culture and the assimilation of the Indian into the mestizo’s world. At this stage in the development of the indigenist novel, reference to Indian speech and culture was made primarily for atmosphere. Thus in terms of our desire to understand the evolution of poetic elements in the indigenist novel, the 1930’s is more useful in signaling the emergence of the Indian as a subject within the developing Hispanic American novel, rather than the less novelistic and more anthropological treatment of the Indian in earlier times. In this context, the poetic consciousness of the indigenous is understood as the worldview of the “other” and not yet transformed into an element of the novel as such. However, even to this lesser degree, we can still say that the Indians’ poetic consciousness has established a presence within the indigenist novel of the 1930’s.
A change began to take place in the indigenist novel as early as the mid 1930’s, but did not reach full maturity until the 1940’s. This change is seen as a shift which strives to express an indigenous worldview by entering the world of indigenous culture, rather than approaching the Indian world as an object to be paternalistically described in terms of its exploitation. Perhaps the best example of this shift is Yawar Fiesta (1940), by Jose Maria Arguedas. In this novel the reader is invited to participate in Indian culture by entering from the outside. Arguedas accomplishes this shift by providing us with a narrator that starts outside the Indians’ culture and proceeds very quickly to enter, as part of the narrative unfolding of the novel. However, because Arguedas himself had been raised by the Indians, the reader comes to perceive that the narrator is not really an outsider (Brushwood, p. 113). This is evidenced by his use of Indian words and his intimate description of the Indian community and culture which an outsider could not have captured with such sensitivity. What is important about this novel, for our purpose, is Arguedas’ depiction of man’s relation to nature as it is understood within the Indians’ culture. In this context, Arguedas makes a distinction between the Indian’s and the white man’s understanding of nature. The Indian sees himself in close relation to nature, believing himself to be an extension of it. The white man, by contrast, is depicted as alienated from nature and more interested in material possessions. By portraying such a difference in the relation to nature between Indians and white men, the indigenist novel is able to bring part of the Indians’ mythic past to the present.
Another novel which sought entrance into the Indians’ world and culture was El Mundo es Ancho y Ajeno (1941), by Ciro Alegría. The story is of an Indian settlement named Rumi, and presents issues of social injustice in relation to the settlement as such and to those of its members that venture out into the larger world. When the Indians of Rumi are dispossessed of the land, many of them set out in a variety of directions to find new life. Some go to work in the mines, others cultivate cacao and still others enter the city. After a failed attempt to rebel, which typically ends in the wiping out of the rebels, the novel loses its indigenist tone and, as Alfonso Gonzales has pointed out, becomes a novel of social protest like others written in the style of the proletariat. However, what is important for our consideration is its linguistic change. Gonzales points out that at the beginning of the story, when the Indians are still within the peace and comfort of their own community, we find lyric passages. Alternatively when we reach the final chapters of the novel, after the intrusion of the white man’s world, the language becomes coarse. It is not simply a case of being subdued for having been dispossessed of their land which has affected their language; it is as if the spell or enchantment of the indigenous culture had been broken (Brushwood).
The indigenous understanding of the relationship between language and magic (or myth, legend and poetry) has taken many forms in the indigenist novel. The idea, perhaps only suggested by Alegría, that the linguistic community of Rumi constituted a sort of verbal orb which served to define the boundaries of their world, does not deviate from accepted notions of language. However, if the Indians understood this verbal orb as an internally generated spell, such a relationship to language does exceed the bounds of Occidental linguistics. Jorge Icaza, in Hijos del Viento (1948), makes a similar point about the Indians’ relation to language. For Icaza, when the Indian community becomes threatened, the peasant can be transformed into a warrior with the cry “Huacrapamusheas” (Sons of the wind). Icaza tells us that this word unleashes the tragic memory of the bearded men who came with the bad wind, with a vengeance. In such a view, of course, the distinction of past, present and future time is collapsed by the utterance, and the Indians’ consciousness glimpses and confronts essential time in which the past is always future yet always disposed to being present.
Hombres de Maiz (1949), written by Miguel Angel Asturias, represents an explicit exploration of indigenous mythology. The story constitutes a clash of two cultures; the Indians’ and the mestizos’. In this novel we begin to see another shift in perspective emerging which will mature during the 1950’s. That is, by this point in time it was no longer necessary to seek entrance into indigenous culture. Enough time had transpired since independence was won that the entire face of the Hispanic American social reality had changed. The days of domination and control by the pure blooded Spaniard had passed. Hispanic America fully belonged to the mestizo and any clashing of values to be expressed from the Indians’ point of view would have to be directed against them. In this context, Hombres de Maiz can be taken to signal the end of the indigenist novel as such. In this novel, the clash between the two cultures surrounds their different relations to nature and land. Part of the mythology of the Indians of Guatemala, which is portrayed in this novel, is that they are made of maize. The conflict, then, centers on the mestizo’s desire to exploit the land and the Indian’s desire to defend it. Munoz observes:
“The mestizo’s concept of land use, his relationship with nature in general, is in total contrast to the Indian’s. If he only burned the bushes to plant corn to eat, as Indians do; but no, he plants corn to sell, and often he even burns for the benefit of others”.
As revealed in the above quote, the indigenous view of nature and land implies a sort of reverence on the part of the Indians which is fundamentally based on the belief that they themselves are made of maize. The mestizo’s relation to nature and land is totally impersonal and even subordinates nature to man as a resource to be exploited. What is interesting, for our purpose, is the reaction of Gaspar Ilom, the novel’s protagonist, and the projected outcome of the Indians’ eventual demise.
When Gaspar Ilom prepares to go to war with the mestizos over their treatment of the land, he drinks of a liquor which transforms him into a fearless warrior. Thus, like other Indians portrayed in indigenist novels, “Gaspar is transformed from a passive Indian into a warrior through a medium, in this case liquor” (Muñoz, p. 257). From Icaza we learned that the Indian could be transformed through language. In Asturias we also learn that such a transformation is possible through liquor as well. What is significant about this is the way in which it is used to explain the Indians’ continued cultural influence over the mestizos’ worldview even after their eventual demise. Thus, Asturias does not restrict this transformation of consciousness to the Indian. As seen in an earlier quote, Asturias tells us of an old mestiza woman explaining the creation of myths to a young mestizo man:
“We often think we’ve invented things that other people have forgotten,” she tells the young man. When you tell a story that no one tells anymore, you say: I invented this, it’s mine. But what you’re really doing is remembering–you, in your drunkenness, remembered what the memory of your forefathers left in your blood”.
What we find in this quote is the expression of Indian beliefs in the mestizos’ worldview. Thus, Asturias seems to think that even though the Indians face eventual demise it is nevertheless the case that elements of their worldview will be retained in the memory of the mestizos and can be triggered by such altered states as drunkenness, myth or the poetic. What can be said of the poetic elements of indigenous consciousness which have been incorporated into the Hispanic American novel? The indigenist novel has served to present us with indigenous culture as viewed from within and this, in turn, has provided a basis for eventually shifting our perceptions of the Indian from “our other” to “us.” We have also been given accounts of Indian mythology, such as their beliefs regarding man’s relation to nature and the land. But most importantly, it has been suggested that such beliefs are part of the mestizo’s heritage which can be brought to consciousness through the transmutation of time that can be triggered by drunkenness, legend, myth and the poetic. Thus, one way to understand how the poetic elements of indigenous consciousness have been incorporated into the Hispanic American novel is in its use of the mythic, the legendary and the poetic as well as in its expressed relation to time.
In 1958 Carlos Fuentes wrote a novel entitled La Región Mas Transparente. By this point in the evolution of Hispanic American literary expression the indigenist novel, as such, had already come to pass. According to Muñoz, the indigenist novel, as part of a larger indigenist movement, contributed to the progressive elimination of the Indian as Indian in Hispanic America. The Indian was transformed into “a ghost lurking outside the world of the recently welcomed New Man; the mestizo”. In, La Region Mas Transparente, Fuentes offers us a view of Mexico City which not only reveals the superficial aspects of western culture, but also reflects all the social classes, economic levels and moral beliefs found in the city, with the Indian as one of many different characters in the novel. In the opinion of Joseph Sommers, through this novel Fuentes is ultimately posing the question, “Who are we? If he can answer that question, perhaps he can also answer the other that faces all modern man, “Who am I?” What is interesting about the novel, for our purpose, is the character of Ixca Cienfuegos. The question of Mexico’s identity is played out between Robles, the self-made tycoon of the revolution; Zamacona, the intellectual poet; and Ixca Cienfuegos, whom Sommers describes as follows:
“Ixca Cienfuegos, half-real, half-spirit, partly witness, partly active character. . . a shadowy figure whose strange aura of cold forcefulness commands entree to all, he is able to interview Robles, Pola, and many others. . . . Ixca’s drive to revive a consciousness of ties with Mexico’s prehispanic culture roots colors his relationship with other characters, so that he channels dialogue toward the past, evoking from them memories and half-forgotten accounts which serve to identify the keys to each personality . . . . His probing infuses myth and irreality into a work which otherwise might have been a realistic novel of social criticism”.
Although the Indian as such no longer appeared in the novel as he had before the emergence of magicorealism, Fuentes believes that a resolution of the question, “Who are we?” must necessarily take him into account. As a fictionalized representative of the indigenous, Cienfuegos is able to interview other figures in the novel and command entree to all precisely because he represents no structured identity which can be taken to oppose the structured lives of others. That is, he is not bound to the constraints of any western system of thought and can evoke memories in others through language in much the same way as poetry. The key to each individual personality may well consist of his ability to render utterances in the channeling of dialogue which serves to collapse the western distinction of past, present and future time to evoke the half-forgotten experience of essential time which is a past that is always future and always disposed to being present.
I would like to conclude this section with a consideration of part of a prose poem written by Octavio Paz and offered in his text, Aguila O Sol (1969):
“Music and bread, milk and wine, love and sleep: free. Great mortal embrace of enemies that love each other: every wound is a fountain. Friends sharpen their weapons well, ready for the final dialogue to the end of time. The lovers cross the night enlaced, conjunction of stars and bodies. Man is the food of man. Knowledge is no different from dreaming, dreaming from doing. Poetry has set fire to all poems. Words are finished, images are finished. The distance between the name and the thing is abolished; to name is to create, and to imagine, to be born”.
The disappearance of the Indian as Indian in Hispanic American literary expression signals a transformation in the influence of indigenous poetic consciousness. That is, as the Indian disappeared from within the literature, as the subject of focus, the poetic consciousness of the indigenous was transformed into language itself. In the final dialogue to the end of time, to which Paz “refers, we can detect an immersion into the essential time of indigenous consciousness and ideology.. The Tlamatinime lives in the language of the mestizo. “Man is the food of man,” is the mestizos’ way of symbolizing their capacity to recuperate the mythological, to immerse ourselves in essential time where knowledge is no different from dreaming. It is in this consecrated moment when the distance between name and thing, between Indian and mestizo, is abolished. The poetic consciousness of the Indian lives through the mestizo’s language, in the mestizo’s efforts to imagine and to be born.