Book Review

Alternative “Latino” Modernities

Raúl Coronado, A World Not to Come: A History of Latino Writing and Print Culture (Harvard University Press, 2013) 555 pages.

Introduction to the roundtable can be found here. Yesterday’s post, written by Philip Lorenz, can be found here

Review by Tamar Herzog, Harvard University

In this book A World Not to Come, Coronado examines ideas and concepts that circulated in Texas between 1810 and the 1850s. His story begins with the legitimacy crisis in Spain following the Napoleonic invasion (1808) and continues throughout the breakup of the Spanish empire. Allowing the formation of what are now the various Latin American states, this process, he argues, also produced important developments in the territories now belonging to the USA. In Texas, it saw locals declare their independence and elaborate a republican constitution (1813), repression and conquest by royalist forces, obtaining independence in 1821 as part of a Mexican nation, and experience neglect, revolution (1835-6), annexation by the US (1845), and war (1846-8). During this period, local Spaniards failed to construct a state, successfully imagine a nation, or obtain recognition as legitimate participants in a public debate that could also be conducted in Spanish. In the following decades, these Tejanos were also gradually stripped of their elite status. Their contributions denied and their attempts to forge alliances with Anglos rejected, they were converted into members of a marginalized group and racialized as “Latinos.” Although he laments this result, Coronado is not interested in explaining how this happened. Instead, his aim is to recall an earlier (forgotten) time, in which this outcome was not foretold.

He does so by questioning the literature that too frequently and too quickly assumed that a ‘true’ enlightenment never reached Spain or Spanish America and therefore a ‘true’ modernity did not either. Accepting the truism that modernities are multiple rather than singular and wishing to deviate from an earlier generation that measured all things as modern or not according to a unique formula mostly based on the Protestant, Northern European, example, Coronado traces the emergence and development of a Latino intellectual community that was truly transnational.  He concludes that this community –even its illiterate members– cared deeply about ideas, were profoundly immersed in a modernizing process and indeed contributed to it. Like others around them, while Tejanos attempted to make sense of their lives, they also gradually came to view the world as a produced, rather than a pre-ordained, order. They were, in this sense, profoundly modern.

Coronado does a wonderful job at insisting on the openness of all historical processes and at cautioning us against marginalizing ideas, sources, and people only because they did not come to dominate.  He is right in insisting that Hispanos existed in the now-territory of the USA before the war with Mexico (1846-8) and that their contributions were disregarded by a triumphalist history that insisted on a particular type of liberty ‘made in the USA.’ He is also correct in pointing out that dreams of reform were not nationally bound, but instead circulated in, and were supported from, a variety of locations. He joins a long list of scholars who insist on ‘multiple modernities’ and who describe two diverse strains of natural rights, one that focuses on the individual, and another that centers on the community or, in his words, the social body (32). Like many others, he distinguishes a aworldnotocomeProtestant from a Catholic theory of rights. Yet, while his monograph is bound to decenter some of the major narratives of US history and rightly so, it may be less surprising for historians of Spain and Spanish America. These historians have long argued for a Spanish enlightenment, modernity, and liberalism. They surveyed in great detail the political fervor and debate that followed the Napoleonic invasion. They, too, lamented the marginalization of Spain and the reading of history on the inverse, making the results explain the origins rather than the contrary. Even the issue of colonialism, internal and external, which preoccupies Coronado (391) had been frequent on their minds, as they attempted to uncover whether Spain had a colonial empire and as they battled with the question whether former Spanish territories in Spanish America, the Netherlands, Portugal, or Italy (to mention just a few examples) were postcolonial or not.

Though Coronado is right that US historians have relied too often on models of modernization coming from England and thus associated with the Protestant revolution, the hegemony of another modernity that emerged in a (very) Catholic France is completely absent from his narrative.  This is not a trivial matter. For most historians, the divide was not necessarily between a Protestant, individualistic North and a Catholic, communal south (24) but between a modernity that heralded continuity (Britain and the USA) and one that advocated a complete rupture (France); one that pretended to look to the past (even when it did not) and another that argued in favor of changing everything (even when it failed).  If this would have been the division Coronado would have adopted, the story he would have told had been quite different, as it would have placed a greater emphasis on what Anglos and Hispanic shared rather than on what they did not. It would also have to explain why Catholicism produced such radically opposed models of modernity.

That Coronado chose to tell the story of the nascent Spanish-American/Tejano modernity as the ‘natural’ result of political processes is also intriguing. Modernity might have been, as he argues, a “historical trauma” (26) but it was hardly the case that (as he also suggests) contrary to what happened in the North, Hispanics did not experience throughout the eighteenth century “processes of disenchantment and the creation of secular states” (27). Studies of the Bourbon reforms suggest, for example, that Spanish American local elites conceded to the payment of higher taxes in exchange for an ample autonomy and a greater control of the countryside that converted them into mini-states. They insisted on local citizenship and rejected giving rights to outsiders. Economic historians tell us that this period also saw the diversification of most local economies, with local merchants and entrepreneurs gradually controlling the Spanish-American monopoly trade. New centers of power were created throughout the Americas, as were new universities and law schools. Public debate could be intense, as witnessed, for example, in the heated discussions and abundant pamphleteering regarding the wisdom and justice of the 1750 border treaty between Spain and Portugal. Otherwise said, if ideas did not emerge out of a vacuum as Coronado rightly demonstrates, neither did a sense of community, or structures of government. There was a reason why insurgents all over the Hispanic world respected existing political and juridical divisions and indeed imagined their future as tied to their continuation, even if under a different regime. Furthermore, although the Napoleonic wars did end up generating a major upheaval, this result was not necessarily foretold. Here too one could imagine, if one wanted, a ‘world not to come’ that would have had Spaniards react differently to the crisis by accepting French occupation (because they had no choice or because they supported the French revolution) or by resisting it differently (appointing and maintaining, for example, a regency). This said, the writing of Latin American independence into Tejano and thus US history is an important and laudable enterprise. It is surely a welcomed addition to a growing literature that reminds us that things are often much more complex and murkier than we have been told in the past.

Tamar Herzog is Monroe Gutman Professor of Latin American Affairs and Professor of Spanish and Portuguese history at Harvard. Jurist and historian, she is the author or editor of multiple books including Frontiers of Possession: Spain and Portugal in EuropeHerzog-5123 and the Americas (Harvard University Press, 2015); Defining Nations: Immigrants and Citizens in Early Modern Spain and Spanish America (Yale University Press, 2003); The Collective and the Public in Latin America. Cultural Identities and Political Order (Sussex Academic Press, 2000).

One Thought on this Post

  1. Though Coronado is right that US historians have relied too often on models of modernization coming from England and thus associated with the Protestant revolution, the hegemony of another modernity that emerged in a (very) Catholic France is completely absent from his narrative. This is not a trivial matter. For most historians, the divide was not necessarily between a Protestant, individualistic North and a Catholic, communal south (24) but between a modernity that heralded continuity (Britain and the USA) and one that advocated a complete rupture (France); one that pretended to look to the past (even when it did not) and another that argued in favor of changing everything (even when it failed).

    A couple of comments on this thought-provoking passage. France does seem to have charted (or so one could argue) a distinctive course in several respects, even before the Revolution. For instance, under Louis XIII and Richelieu, Catholic France entered the Thirty Years War on the Protestant side (this being largely a consequence of the long-running conflict between France and the Habsburgs). By de-linking religious identity from French foreign policy, Richelieu got the reputation, probably somewhat overblown in retrospect, as the person who made ‘reason of state’ an operating principle in the European context. And ‘reason of state’ ties in again with the issues of Catholicism and Protestantism via, for example, the reception of The Prince, which was attacked by both Protestant and Catholic writers (even though Machiavelli himself never used the phrase ‘reason of state’, he was associated with it).

    On another point (but still related to the quoted passage), it seems to me the position of the U.S. in its early years to the French ‘model’ was ambivalent (or is ambiguous a better word?). On the one hand, the American Revolution was not a “rupture,” not a sociopolitical upheaval along the lines of the French Revolution. On the other hand, several of the ‘founding fathers’ were, as is well known, admirers of the French Revolution, and the imagery of the ‘sister republics’ played some role in debates in the early U.S. republic over politics and foreign policy. So the U.S. was arguably torn in its allegiances, sharing a Protestant heritage with Britain but a republican (i.e., non-monarchical) form of government with France. Eric Nelson’s recent book on the American Revolution argues, or so I gather, that the U.S. was not really anti-monarchical at all, but even if George Washington as first President was sort of like a king, he was still not a king.

    Now that I’ve written this comment I realize it doesn’t have much to do with Coronado’s book (which in any case I haven’t read), but since no one had yet commented on this review, I figured I might as well.

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