By Ori Preuss, Tel Aviv University
“The enthusiasm with which he described what he calls the ‘the major phenomenon of the Latin race in the nineteenth century,’ his endless admiration for a growth unmatched by any other people of our origin, made me embarrassed for having been so many times in Europe and for not having visited yet the River Plate,” thus wrote Joaquim Nabuco in an article that appeared in a popular Rio de Janeiro newspaper in 1887. The piece narrated travel impressions recounted to Brazil’s foremost abolitionist leader by Portuguese author Ramalho Ortigão, who had gone from Rio to Buenos Aires and back that year. I first came across it in one of the scrapbooks of Argentine statesman-writer Estanislao Zeballos. It was a Spanish version, published in the Buenos Aires press under the title “Ramalho Ortigão in the River Plate / Enthusiastic Concepts / The United States of South America / An Article by Nabuco / From O País of Rio de Janeiro,” attesting to the circulation of both people and information between the two capitals.
As I continued to leaf through Zeballos’s scrapbook it became apparent that Argentina, and especially its capital, had turned into a pilgrimage site of sorts for Brazilians around the turn of the century. There they were, cut and pasted from Brazilian newspapers, single and serialized travel accounts by political and intellectual figures, including Nabuco himself, who followed in the footsteps of Ortigão and visited Buenos Aires . In fact, Zeballos’s collection of travel notes provides an insight into a particularly overlooked textual corpus, which forms part of a more broadly neglected issue, namely the intimate relationship between travel across national boundaries inside Latin America and the region’s intellectual life since independence in the early nineteenth century.
These trans–Latin American crossings in general, and the travels of lettered Brazilians to turn-of-the-century Buenos Aires in particular, sit uncomfortably with the fixation of Edward Said and his disciples on encounters between Western and non-Western societies, colonizers and colonized, whites and non-whites, modernizing elites and traditionalist populations. Zeballos’s newspaper clippings do not belong in what Mary Louise Pratt, an influential heir to Said’s tradition, has called “contact zones,” that is “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination such as colonialism and slavery.”
It is not only that encounters between Brazilians, Argentines, and other Latin Americans from the European-descended Creole upper-class of the continent were more equal in terms of power relations, but it is also highly doubtful that they belonged to distinct cultures. In fact, ethnic, linguistic, religious, and historical factors suggest low levels of cultural distinctiveness among the region’s educated urban dwellers, or even none at all. Moreover, Orientalism-inspired scholarship does not only assume a pre-existing alterity between cultures but also tends to reify it by focusing on strategies of othering. Even studies such as Pratt’s Imperial Eyes that highlight the reciprocal nature of cultural encounters and their transcultural effects usually emphasize the production of otherness rather than the production of sameness among the groups that come into contact, and are less attentive to new formations that might arise from the process of exchange between those groups, which is the main focus of my research, inspired by the histoire croisée approach.
The new formation in this case was a transnational urban space in the western South-Atlantic that evolved in tandem with a local consciousness of Latin American modernity, encapsulated in Nabuco’s above-cited words. As the Argentine historian José Luis Romero has noted in his classic Latinoamérica: las ciudades y las ideas (1976), travelers to Latin America’s major cities during the period of their internationalized modernization detected a new way of life, heavily marked by Europeanizing imitation, but nonetheless unique, product of discrete social and cultural processes. However, what Romero and other historians have largely ignored, due to their fixation on the nation-state as the main unit of analysis, and/or their focus on external links to the North Atlantic as the main sphere of cultural exchange, is the entangled history of some of Latin America’s urban centers. It has mainly been Latin American literary critics, such as Ángel Rama and Susana Zanetti, who have drawn attention to how modernization, and particularly improvements in transportation and communication, together with a systematic effort on the part of writers, contributed to the expansion and tightening of literary connections between Latin American cities from the 1870s to the 1900s.
This trend, which Zanetti and Rama have designated “religación” (tying up), was especially strong in the port-capitals of Rio and Buenos Aires, which in 1880 had 350,000 and 290,000 inhabitants respectively (growing to 800,000 and 1.2 million, in 1910), with their intense economic activity, expanding governing apparatuses, large white-collar sectors, and burgeoning public spheres. Five hundred ships a year cleared Buenos Aires for overseas ports during the mid-1850s, a number that grew to more than four thousand by 1880. These boats, often passing through the port of Rio, also carried the latest editions of newspapers and magazines, as well as journalists themselves who went in both directions to report and to actively participate in numerous international meetings: official, semi-official, and private. Likewise, telegraph lines and news agencies enabled the press of both capitals to report yesterday’s events on the other side regularly. Urban readers along South America’s Atlantic coast were thus brought ever closer not only to Paris, London, and New York, as is often discussed, but also to one another, in a process that bears many similarities to the one described by historians James Gelvin and Nile Green, in their book Global Muslims in the Age of Steam and Print (2014).
Travel formed an important part of this transnational circulation which gathered pace after the abolition of slavery (1888) and the fall of the monarchy (1889), two institutions which had distinguished Imperial Brazil from republican Spanish America and whose destruction paved the way for cultural and political rapprochement. Motivations varied from leisure, curiosity, and business, to journalism, scientific conferences, and diplomacy. Yet the narrated experiences of Brazilians had much in common: a double focus on the material and aesthetic aspects of “progress” at the level of physical description, and a sense of amazement, admiration, and even infatuation with the Argentine capital. Importantly, they often contrasted Buenos Aires favorably to Rio, which they found far inferior, in much the same way that they placed Argentina on a higher rung of the civilization ladder than Brazil. By contrast, Argentine travel accounts of Brazil were scarcer and lacked the enthusiastic focus on the advent of modernity and shamefaced comparisons that characterized the writings of their counterparts. This imbalance owed much to the greater “whitening” effect of European immigration—a coveted goal of Latin American Creole elites—on the racial composition of Argentine society. In Brazilian eyes their backward neighbors had miraculously transformed themselves into “the Yankees of the South,” and their capital city into “Paris of South America.” In Buenos Aires they witnessed the emergence of what they perceived as a “neo-Latin” civilization below the equator, combining European and North American qualities, but nonetheless unique, representing an alternative model of South American modernity. So much so that upon his return from Buenos Aires Joaquim Nabuco allegedly declared: “There is no need to go to Paris anymore”—a statement that reveals a lesser known spatiality of late-nineteenth-century globalization.
Ori Preuss is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of Bridging the Island: Brazilians’ Views of Spanish America and Themselves, 1865-1912 (Madrid, 2011), and Transnational South America: Experiences, Ideas, and Identities, 1860s-1900s (New York, 2016).