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Thunder Over Latin America

ISSUE:  Winter 1939

A History of Mexico. By Henry Bramford Parkes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.75. The Coming Struggle for Latin America. By Carleton Beals. Philadelphia: J. B. Uppincott Company. $2.50.

Since the World War, most of the Latin-American countries have suffered profound changes. As a result, the attention of the United States has been drawn forcibly—and sometimes painfully—toward our sister republics and their doings. Many people in this country have come to the conclusion that we imperatively need to revise most of the ideas we have been cherishing about what life was, and is, in those republics. Every day that passes adds to our conviction that such a revision must be made.

Not many years ago, authors who wrote about the Latin-American countries took imperfect notice of the fact, or ignored it, that in the majority of those states there were two distinct cultures which did not fuse—the culture of a European, a Spanish, element and its allies; and a culture that descended from the days before the Spaniards arrived. Hitherto, most of our books were written from the point of view that the European culture elements were the only ones of importance, in spite of the fact that the European population responsible for those elements constitutes a very small minority of the total population in all the countries except Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. Haiti, of course, is sui generis, being populated mostly by Negroes having a French base for their civilization. To put it another way, there are four countries whose population is of almost uncrossed European stocks. The rest (excluding Haiti) are what must be called Indian countries, upon whose native institutions a small element of Europeans has tried to impose a European type of culture.

Until relatively recently, too, the small European element in the Indian countries was without question the dominant class, controlling all political and military forces of the state, holding nearly all the wealth, having nearly all the education, and considering itself—and being so considered by outsiders —as the true “nation.” Writers, generally, acted on that theory, and their readers perused their books without learning anything about the life and importance of the Indian and mixed-breed groups, although these made up around eighty-five per cent of the population.

It was assumed by the writers of such books that European culture and civilization could, would, and should replace the native forms that existed in any particular country. But as a result of the fact that the elements of predominantly native American type have uprisen and are trying, in the role of underdogs, to modify radically or even to eliminate the European elements, writers are composing their books more and more from the point of view of the population as a whole; and a large number of them are writing with a decided bias in favor of the idea that culture and civilization in such countries ought to be based on Indian and mestizo elements, with as little of the European as possible. Another thing that has happened is that conscientious writers have abandoned the pretense that true democracy exists in any of the Indian republics (or anywhere else in Latin America, for that matter), and are now working on the assumption that these countries have a sort of feudal organization, deriving from Spanish feudal ideas, with some admixture of Indian feudalistic notions. The European elements of the population, and their allies, make up the ruling class; the Indians and mestizos (sometimes Negroes and mulattoes, as in Cuba), the “vassal” class.

A chronic war between these two classes has gone on in Latin America since colonial times. And today it is further complicated by the intrusion of foreign elements seeking to impose their systems for various ends—Fascism, Communism, true democracy, for example. So that in the struggle for dominance within these countries there are five adversaries at least: partisans of the feudal system (who tend to sympathize with Fascist principles); the “vassal” elements (who lean sometimes toward democracy, sometimes toward feudalism, sometimes toward Communism, but with the control in their own hands); and the three foreign, intrusive elements. And there is a further possibility that one or another of the foreign elements may be thinking of trying to do a bit of conquering there! In all this mix-up, the role of the United States is the most obscure of all. And since the heat of the struggle is so intense, no one seems to be able to write about it without more or less bias, so that it is extraordinarily difficult to find out just what the United States is really doing—or wanting to do—in Latin America, or the dangers that arise out of our actions or failure to act.

“A History of Mexico,” by Henry Bramford Parkes, is written from the point of view of the population as a whole, and is one of the few works on Mexico of the kind. It is shaped on the theory that the historical process in Mexico has been conditioned, since the coming of the Spaniards, by the unremitting efforts of the Indian and allied elements to shake off the European, feudal-type civilization imposed by Spain, and to create a civilization whose base should be Indian. Such an approach throws interesting light on Mexican history, and forces a re-appraisal of all historical personages and events. While the work is in no sense a “last word” production — and probably was not meant to be so — it is worthy of high praise because of the skill and restraint with which it is composed, and for its uncommonly pleasant style. It is an excellent exemplar of the “new school” of Mexican historical writing.

“The Coming Struggle for Latin America,” by Carleton Beals, as the title indicates, is based on the theory that there soon will develop a decisive struggle for command over the Latin-American countries. Mr. Beals has gathered a world of evidence to show the activities of all the elements working to control them. Some of his evidence is disturbing. And his picture of the role of the United States is a shocking one, whether we accept it as true or not.

Mr. Beals’s conclusions as to what will ultimately happen in the struggle that he foresees are extremely interesting, and must be received with respect in view of his long experience in and vast knowledge of Latin America.

The book is badly put together. There is little order, much repetition, and a great deal of the effect that the material might have produced if it had been more digested and better stated, is lost. For once, Mr. Beals’s usually effective impressionistic method played him false.


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