América: what’s in a word?


John Charles Chasteen’s latest historical epic raises serious
questions about one country’s monopoly over the word


Americanos: Latin America’s Struggle for Independence
John Charles Chasteen
2008, Oxford University Press
218 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IN A LETTER published in the Financial Times earlier this year, a Canadian reader pointed to a repeated flaw in the esteemed British newspaper’s description of the western hemisphere.

“Collectively,” he wrote “we hate the expropriation of the use of ‘America’ to describe one of our neighbours, who themselves like to lay their hands on the name for their sole use. For many of us, they are a least popular neighbour for many, many reasons.”

While this correspondent was banging a political drum, the point was eloquently made, for the term “America” has been appropriated by the United States and duly adopted within much of the English-speaking world as the correct way to refer to that vast and diverse republic straddling the hemisphere south of Canada and north of Mexico.

One of the merits of John Charles Chasteen’s epic history of independence, Americanos, is to establish from the outset the key importance of this term to Latin American history and, by implication, to chide the English-speaking world for its sloppy use of an identity that seems, in fact, to sit far more comfortably within an Iberian inheritance.

Chasteen writes: “For Latin Americans, América has never been synonymous with the United States, nor are americanos simply Americans, and the distinction becomes important in the story told here.”

Importance magnified

That importance is arguably magnified in the contemporary era more than ever, as the US people themselves square up in an election that tests, for the first time, the country’s dominant Anglo-American political identity. It reveals the key role in historical explanation played by “imagined communities” and how they are defined.

As the author explains in his eloquent prologue, a subtle evolution in the use of this term in the lands under Iberian imperial control at the end of the eighteenth century and during the independence era would have significant implications, defining the direction of world history for the next two hundred years.

He writes: “…the semantic evolution of the term americano marks a pivotal moment in world history, something no less momentous than had occurred in the English colonies of America decades earlier.” This is because the overwhelmingly white patriot leadership of Latin America’s independence movements began to embrace a new, broader meaning of the term that allowed it to incorporate everyone on the highly diverse populations of these societies created by the mingling of European, indigenous and African populations. More importantly, “To define América’s rainbow of castes as the americano people recognized the truth on the ground, but it also created a new truth, an airy but potent abstraction. That abstraction was the Sovereign People…”

As Chasteen goes on to argue, that momentous abstraction incorporated for the first time non-white subject peoples in the “white” patriotic community, by stark contrast with the experience of large sectors of the population in the United States in the 1780s. This was the constitutional, republican template in practice, and evidence of Latin American history’s irrevocable links with the notion of popular sovereignty, even though subsequent political developments in the region departed as they did elsewhere from this ideal.

The author adds: “In order to theorize popular sovereignty, it was necessary to define the Sovereign People, which meant defining the nation. And the new nations of América were defined from the outset to include people of indigenous, African, and mixed descent.”

Key personalities

Chasteen proceeds to examine some of the key personalities of the independence story in Latin America from this ideal of inclusivity, not least lesser-known revolutionary patriots such as Manuela Sáenz , Simón Bolívar’s mistress, and African-Americanos such as Vicente Guerrero and Manual Piar, Bolívar’s most skilful pardo general who was rewarded by the Liberator for his exploits with an invitation to the firing squad.

The central theme of this book is the contribution made by Latin America to the consolidation of popular sovereignty as the ideological ballast of western democracy, and how – for a brief but enlightening period during the independence era – the region’s elites were forced to practise what they preached. In his epilogue, the author sketches out the lessons of the Latin American experience: the difficulties of creating inclusive identities and political institutions that truly embody popular sovereignty; yet the tenacious insistence on liberal republicanism, despite its chronic and persistent violation.

He also points to the singular contribution of Latin American independence to our history: “…to establish the sovereignty of the decolonizing world, not as a functioning reality but as an undying aspiration, a basic principle of Western political culture.”

The faint hearted might be exasperated by the epic scale of this book, its dizzying pace and its biographical flavour, but it is precisely that distinctive, narrative and enthusiastic style and his ability to highlight key historical lessons that makes Chasteen’s work so readable and, as a result, the job of learning and teaching history so enjoyable.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books