Cleopatra’s nose

If famous figures had been different, would history have been the same? Samuel Brunk and Ben Fallaw examine Latin American heroes


Heroes and Hero Cults in Latin America
Edited by Samuel Brunk and Ben Fallaw
2006, University of Texas Press
318 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

‘WHEN you cannot measure, your knowledge is meagre and unsatisfactory,” said Lord Kelvin, his words inscribed in 1929 below the bay window of the social science research building at the University of Chicago.

By this aspiration, social science has long sought to emulate the scientific paradigm of physical measurement.

But a significant fault line in social scientific method has, as a result, been precisely this reluctance of scholars to engage with anything that cannot be measured, at least by quantitative indices.

We might argue that this methodological flaw – and it is a flaw, particularly apparent in Anglo-Saxon scholarship – is implicitly addressed by some postmodern approaches to the extent that these, at least sometimes, eschew empirical observation in favour of interpretation and interdisciplinary innovation, putting more of an emphasis on culture, political discourse, symbols and rituals.

The ‘will to measure’

We might also argue that the “will to measure”, as it might be called, is in fact a hidden engine of the industry of academia itself, by which scholars eager to justify their existence, special status – and presumably their grants – can provide concrete results to feed the book-keeping addiction of their overseers.

But we would almost certainly accept that what is the apparent strength of confining the analysis of a phenomenon to its measurable criteria may, also, be its weakness – that is, it is confining. The great value of analysis that shakes off this straitjacket and adopts what by a rarefied scientific method might be seen as a looser framework of evaluation is that it can shed light on phenomena that might otherwise remain invisible on the radar of physical measurement. Such phenomena may be much more nuanced and subtle than that radar’s power to detect objective trends – a kind of invisible particle physics in social science by which interpretation and deduction are the only available tools we have for analysis in place of physical measurement.

As Samuel Brunk and Ben Fallaw point out in this absorbing collection of historical essays about heroes in Latin America, the problem faced by historians seeking to evaluate what particular qualities turned men and women into heroes or heroines are these “je ne sais quoi” factors that comprise charisma. They write:

“Such elements of charisma – if that is what they are – are historical contingencies, and historians often refer to French philosopher Blaise Pascal’s famous remark about Cleopatra’s nose when they want to talk about such contingencies. Pascal was discussing the je ne sais quoi (the unknowable quality) of love… The problem is the je ne sais quoi. What does a historian do with something that cannot be recognised, cannot be described?”

Heroes and Hero Cults in Latin America is an effort to address this quality in a reasonable way by making a case for the return of prominent individuals to the centre of historical analysis. It is an attempt, if not to reverse, to qualify a trend in contemporary historical analysis that has viewed the concept of the hero sceptically, both on methodological grounds but also based on a sense that, when examined, such individuals were so often (like the rest of us) deeply flawed.

This has been a negative development in the study of Latin America, not least because of the strength of personalism in the region’s history but also in its contemporary political developments. If the caudillos of old do not still exist, that is not to say that crucial elements of caudillismo do not persist in Latin American politics. One only has to look at George Grayson’s excellent Mexican Messiah about Andrés Manuel López Obrador to recognise this.

Heroes and Hero Cults in Latin America examines the cults surrounding ten prominent and recognisable men and women from Latin American history, from Simón Bolívar to Emiliano Zapata and Evita Perón. Particularly interesting inclusions in this list are the Peruvian caudillo Agustín Gamarra, the Yucatán socialist Felipe Carrillo Puerto and Frida Kahlo, usually recognised more for her art and Bohemian lifestyle than her politics (see our review, “The two Fridas”).

Ben Fallaw’s chapter on Carrillo Puerto restores this important figure, excised form nationalist historiography by virtue of his detachment from the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, to the pantheon of Mexican heroes. Nancy Deffenbach’s chapter on Frida Kahlo makes valuable observations about this celebrated artist’s social and feminist postures, although might have taken her practical involvement in political activity a little further. Samuel Brunk’s contribution about Emiliano Zapata makes the core observation, a theme that recurs in the book, that that this individual was turned into a hero by what fed into him: the historically conditioned expectations and aspirations of those who became his followers. Such is the potency of the Zapata hero cult that it was a central influence in the most recent rebellion to shake the Mexican countryside in Chiapas in 1994.

This is a valuable and, more importantly, accessible foray into a dimension of Latin American history that is ignored at its peril, and the editors have probably got the balance between a broad regional focus and a more specific concentration on Mexico right. But one important question needs to be asked: why was the Che Guevara hero cult excluded?

Not only is Guevara far and way the most instantly recogniseable “hero” to have gained cult status internationally, and therefore a perfect candidate for deployment in any comparative study, but it is a good time to consider lessons from the Guevara case as history returns to Latin America and the Cuban regime falters. Most importantly, the Guevara story continues to inspire new generations of writers, poets and activists to this day (see Che in Verse). What’s more (and what is less forgivable) is that the University of Texas Press has placed Che’s image on the cover of this book (as it has that of Marcos, who is also not considered in any great detail).

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