Saturday, November 07, 2015

Book Review: "José Martí y la cuestión indígena" by Jorge Camacho

The greatest reverence that can be shown to any historical figure is to desire to know everything about him. The most faithful biographer is the one who provides the most complete picture of his subject, not the myth-maker or repeater of the accepted pieties who wishes us to know only what he believes will elevate our opinion of his hero. These hagiographic histories can be sincere and well-intended, and those who are satisfied by them would no doubt reject less orthodox treatments as sacrilegious or at least mischievous. So it is that the true historian, who hides nothing and puts the truth before his own interests, is often ostracized by those that hold that the truth must always be subordinate to the greater good (as they perceive it) and that to smash an idol is worse than to worship one.

No figure in Cuban history, and, indeed, few figures in world history, have been more victimized by their self-appointed "champions" than has José Martí. Indeed, it can be argued that it was not until the advent of the late Carlos Ripoll that the many coats of varnish that had been slapped on Martí's portrait were finally stripped away and the original exposed to the light much to its advantage. That work of restoration is an ongoing one, in exile, at least, if not in Cuba, where the opposite process has been underway for 56 years, resulting in a mutilated and falsified depiction of Martí which serves the purposes of the island's ruling elite, whatever those purposes happen to be at any given time: whether Martí as the "Intellectual Author of the Revolution," the somewhat slow disciple of Marx, or the nationalist cum socialist (precursor of Hitler?).

Following in the tradition of Ripoll, but now far ahead of him in the extent to which he is willing to challenge, and, indeed, decimate popular misconceptions about Martí, Jorge Camacho has authored a landmark study about José Martí y la cuestión indígena (Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 2013). This until now marginal but essential subject will change forever not only our interpretation of Martí's famous essay but even Martí's relation to "Nuestra América." Camacho has demonstrated that practically everything that is standard received knowledge on this subject was not only wrong, but wrong in the worst possible way, that is, the truth was the opposite of the popular belief supported by popular scholarship. Martí was not a latter-day Bartolomé de las Casas, the "Protector of the Indians" (in truth, even las Casas is not really the canonical las Casas admired by Martí, since he saved the Indians from extinction at the price of African slavery).

Martí romanticized the indigenous peoples of the Americas and strongly castigated the Spanish for their depredations on them, especially the systematic destruction of their culture and its literary monuments. He said that the Spaniards had torn a leaf from the Book of Nature. Their descendants, however, he saw as a retrograde people that would become extinct if they did not assimilate to the dominant culture and join the concert of civilization. Assimilation was no longer a choice, but an imperative since "America will not move until the Indian moves." Getting the Indian "to move" is no easy thing and a lot harder if you are trying to make him move where he doesn't want to go. At the time that Martí was writing his crónicas for La Nación, Argentina was engaged in the systematic extermination of its indigenous population. The Argentines did not even try assimilation. As Camacho shows, Martí did not reproach his Argentine friends (all of whom were connected to the government) for their conduct, but supported their course of action both publicly and privately, even going so far as supervising the committee that translated into English for international arbitration the documents supporting Argentina's claims to the Indians' lands, which were disputed by Brazil. Martí's enthusiastic support for Indian assimilation in the United States after all the tribes had been subjugated and confined to reservations by the federal government proved in the long run almost as catastrophic as genocide: the Indians were allowed to live but "educated" out of their languages and cultures at Indian schools (such as Carlisle, which Martí praised in the highest terms). Shorn of their identity, these assimilated Indians were still racially unacceptable to whites and rejected as renegades by other Indians.

Although Martí always advocated that Latin Americans embrace their indigenous roots and not copy European models blindly and to the detriment of what was "ours," it is undeniable that he was Eurocentric to the core of his being (and what else could he be given his origins and education?). Camacho also identifies and presents credible evidence for charging Martí with cultural racism, ethnocentrism, and even racial biases. These prejudices, of course, are not the sole province of those who denigrate the Indian. His champions, too, like Martí, tend to objectify and judge him according to their own idealized conception of the noble savage and are often disappointed that the less savage the Indian becomes, the less apparent his nobility appears. And when the Indian is finally civilized — that is, no longer an Indian except in external appearances — they will mourn the loss of everything which they once desired the Indian to lose.

I am not as bold or as forthright as Jorge Camacho — not by half, which is not to say that I would have withheld the facts which he discloses; but, rather, that I would have presented them in such a way as to mitigate Martí's blame whenever possible by contrasting his attitudes to the really genocidal ones of his contemporaries (like Sarmiento's and Mitre's). In the context of his time, if not ours, Martí is among the least culpable (which is not the same as saying blameless). My approach, I suppose, shows that I am still not an impartial commentator on these matters and perhaps I never will be; but I admire Jorge Camacho for telling the truth without qualifiers or palliatives because I recognize that this is what we need. Indeed, what Martí needs and would want.

Originally published in Linden Lane Magazine, October 2015

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