Some Characteristics Of The South American
( Originally Published Early 1912 )
UNTIL very recently, the average newspaper article and the talk of the average person, so far as it went, took it for granted that South America was a region devoted to revolutions and fevers, where individuals called South Americans spent their time in a cheerful state of anarchy. There are novels and plays that still maintain this pleasing fiction, although, thanks to a recent enlightened secretary of state and an energetic director of the Bureau of American Republics, we know much more about South America than we did. In fact, we are beginning to distinguish to a certain extent between the stable republics of Argentina and Chile and the troublesome ones like Venezuela, but we still speak of the people as "South Americans," and it is fair to do so.
A race is rising in South America that is different from anything that the world has yet seen. It is a hybrid product composed for the most part of the blood of Spaniards and South American aborigines, such as Quichuas, Araucanians, and Abipones. There is also an infiltration of various European stocks. It is true that there are differences between the peoples of the several South American republics, just as there are differences between the aboriginal Indian tribes.
At the same time, there is so much of the blood that came from the Hispanic peninsula and this has been for so many generations the dominant factor, that it is possible to consider the people of South America more or less as a whole.
It must also be admitted at the beginning that there are many South Americans who can not be included in any general criticism. There are many families of pure Castilian ancestry who rightfully resent any implication that they are hybrids because they are South Americans, although the latter constitute a majority of the population in the several republics, notably Bolivia and Peru. We ought easily to be able to appreciate the fact that such a broad term as "South American" must include many diametrically opposite types, for foreigners are finding it increasingly difficult, nay, almost impossible, to define and fix the limit of our own characteristics as "Americans." A hundred years ago it was simple enough. People of English descent dominated things everywhere. Today we are a mixture of fifty races, and it is hard to say who has the right to be considered the typical Bostonian or New Yorker, he of English or Dutch extraction, or he of Jewish or Irish ancestry.
Things are not quite so bad in South America, for the most of the republics have seen but comparatively little immigration and the politics of South America are today directed by men of Spanish and Indian descent. Even in Argentina, where the census shows a more cosmopolitan population than in any other republic, the game of politics is controlled almost exclusively by Argentinos whose ancestors were Spaniards and Indians. In another generation this may be changed, for thanks to an increasing and extensive immigration, the Argentine type is becoming more and more Europeanized. In Bolivia and Peru, on the other hand, owing to scarcity of available and accessible agricultural lands and the consequent lack of immigration, the typical politician is nearer a simple cross between Spaniard and Indian. In Chile there is more Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic blood, while in Venezuela and Colombia there is very much less. In Brazil there is more African. In fact, one is almost inclined to leave the Brazilians out of the case, for their ancestors have been of a very different stock from that in the Spanish-speaking republics; Portuguese instead of Spanish, Amazonian Indian instead of mountain Indian, and far more African blood than in any other republic. Nevertheless, they, too, by the very fact of their being a mixture of Caucasian, American Indian, and African, living under similar geographical conditions, have many of the same traits that are found elsewhere on the continent.
Making due allowance for the exceptions, what are the characteristics of the South Americans of today?
As one travels through the various South American republics, becomes acquainted with their political and social conditions, reads their literature and talks with other American travelers, there are a number of adverse criticisms that frequently arise. I shall attempt to enumerate some of them, to account for a few, and to compare others with criticisms that were made of the people of the United States fifty years ago. The period of time is not accidental. The South American republics secured their independence nearly fifty years later than we did. Moreover, they have been hampered in their advancement by natural difficulties and racial antipathies much more than we have. Although the conditions of life in the United States as depicted by foreign critics seventy-five years after the battle of Yorktown, were decidedly worse than the conditions of life in South America seventy-five years after the battle of Ayacucho, the resemblances between the faults that were found with us fifty years ago and those that are noticeable among the South Americans of today are too striking to be merely coincidences. It is surely not for us to say that there is anything inherently wrong with our southern neighbors if their shortcomings are such as we ourselves had not long ago, and possibly have today.
The first criticism that one hears and the first one is likely to make after getting beyond the pale of official good breeding in South America, is that the manners of the ordinary South American are very bad. Let the traveler who is inclined to take such a state of affairs too seriously, read what Dickens wrote about us and our ways in 1885 in American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit. It was a faithful picture of a certain phase of American life, and, furthermore, it paints a condition of affairs worse than anything seen in South America. It must be remembered, too, that these criticisms had to do only with certain phases of American life, and when Mr. Dickens, the traveler and incidental observer, applied the description to the whole of American life, there was naturally an indignant protest from the better bred class, just as there is today from the cultured, refined class of pure Castilians in South America, when adverse criticisms are made to apply to South Americans in general.
It is hard indeed to overlook the table manners of the average South American. But how many years is it since North Americans were all reading and conning Don't! A Guide to Good Manners? To one inclined to criticize the speed with which a company of South Americans will dispose of their food, let me recommend a reference to Dickens' description of an American boarding-house table, where "few words were spoken ; and everybody seemed to eat his utmost in self-defense, as if a famine were expected to set in before breakfast-time tomorrow morning."
The conversation of a group of young South Americans is not such as appeals to our taste. There is usually too much running comment on the personal qualities and attractions of their women acquaintances. To them it seems doubtless most gallant. At all events, it is not sordid, as was that conversation which Dickens describes as "summed up in one word—dollars."
Another one of Dickens' criticisms of North Americans was the frequency of the expression Yes, sir, and he made a great deal of fun of us for our use of it. Singularly enough, the Spanish "Yes, sir"—Si señor—is so extremely common throughout South America as to attract one's attention continually.
Another thing that Dickens notices was our tendency to postpone and put off from day to day things that did not have to be done. Yet there is no more common criticism of Spanish-Americans than that known as the Moñona habit. You will hear almost any one who pretends to know anything at all about Spanish-America say that the great difficulty is the ease with which the Spanish-American says "Mañana." Personally, I do not agree with this criticism, for I have heard the expression very seldom in South America. It is true that it is hard to get things done as quickly as one would wish, but I believe the criticism has been much overworked. Dickens was undoubtedly honest in reporting that the habit of postponing one's work was characteristic of the "middle west" as he saw it, but such remarks would be greatly resented today and would be untrue. So we should use care in accepting criticisms made on South Americans by travelers of a few years ago as being true today.
In many South American cities one is annoyed by the continual handshaking. No matter how many times a day you meet a man, he expects you to solemnly shake hands with him just as did those western Americans who so annoyed "Martin Chuzzlewit."
We also dislike intensely the South American habit of staring at strangers and of making audible comments on ladies who happen to be passing. Unfortunately, this is a Latin habit which will be hard to change. The South American has a racial right to look at such customs differently. But if some of his personal habits are unpleasant and even disgusting from our point of view, there is no question that we irritate him just as much as he does us. Our curt forms of address; our impatient disregard of the amenities of social intercourse ; our unwillingness to pass the time of day at considerable length, and inquire, each time we see a friend, after his health and that of his family; our habit of elevating our feet and often sitting in a slouchy attitude when conversing with strangers are to him extremely distasteful and annoying. Our unwillingness to take the trouble to speak his language grammatically and our general point of view in regard to the "innate superiority" of our race, our language and our manufactures are all evidences, to his mind, of our barbarity. We care far too little for appearances. This seems to him boorish. We criticize him because he does not bathe as frequently as we do. He criticizes us because we do not show him proper respect by removing our hats when we meet him on the street.
Furthermore, he regards us as lacking in business integrity. We are too shrewd. Our standard of honor seems low to him. In fact, a practical obstacle with which one accustomed to American business methods has to contend in South America, is the extreme difficulty of securing accurate information as to a man's credit. Inquiries into the financial standing of an individual, which are regarded as a matter of course with us, are resented by the sensitive Latin temperament as a personal reflection on his honesty. It seems to be true that the South American regards the payment of his debts as a matter more closely touching honor than we do. He is accustomed to receiving long credits ; he always really intends to pay sometime and he generally manages to raise installments without much difficulty. Yet when pressed hard in the courts, he is likely to turn and resent as an intentional insult the judgment which has been secured against him. I have known personally of a case where a debtor informed his creditor that it would be necessary for him to come well armed if he accompanied the sheriff in an effort to satisfy the judgment of the court, for the first man, and as many more as possible, that crossed the door of his shop on such an errand would be shot. This we criticize as defiance of the law. To the South American, the law has committed an unpardonable fault in venturing to convict him of neglecting his honorable debts.
It is unfortunate that the South Americans themselves are generally quite unaware of their failings—a species of blindness that has frequently been laid at our own doors. It is due to a similar cause. South American writers who have traveled abroad and seen enough to enable them to point out the defects of their countrymen, rarely venture to do so. The South American loves praise, but can not endure criticism.
It makes him fairly froth at the mouth, as it did the Americans in the days of Charles Dickens' first visit. So the pleasant-faced gentleman from Massachusetts, Mr. Bevan, told young Martin Chuzzlewit :
If you have any knowledge of our literature, and can give me the name of any man, American born and bred, who has atomized our follies as a people, and not as this or that party; and has escaped the foulest and most brutal slander, the most inveterate hatred and intolerant pursuit; it will be a strange name in my ears, believe me. In some cases I could name to you, where a native writer has ventured on the most harm-less and good-humored illustrations of our vices or defects, it has been found necessary to announce, that in a second edition the passage has been expunged, or altered, or explained away, or patched into praise.
There is a story in Santiago de Chile of a young American scholar who spent some time there studying localisms. When he returned to New York he ventured to publish honest but rather severe criticisms of society, as he saw it, in that most aristocratic of South American republics. As a result, the university from which he came received a bad name in Chile, and his visit is held in such unpleasant memory that his welcome, were he to return there, would be far from friendly. This seems narrow-minded and perverse, but is exactly the way we felt not long ago toward foreigners who spent a few months in the States and wrote, for the benefit of the European public, sincere but caustic criticisms. American sensitiveness became a byword in Europe. Possibly it is growing less with us. However that may be, South American sensitiveness is no keener today than ours was fifty years since.
It is particularly important that we should realize that the political conditions of the larger republics are very much more stable than our newspaper and novel-reading public are aware of. Lynchings are unheard of. Serious riots, such as some of our largest cities have seen within the past generation, are no more common with them than with us. It is true that the Latin temperament finds it much more difficult to bow to the majesty of the law and to yield gracefully to governmental decrees than the more phlegmatic Teuton or Anglo-Saxon. But the revolutions and riots that Paris has witnessed during the past century have not kept us from a serious effort to increase our business with France. The occasional political riot that takes place, of no more significance than the riots caused by strikers with which we are all familiar at home, is no reason why we should be afraid to endeavor to capture the South American market.
Climatic conditions and difficulties of rapid transportation have had much to do with the backwardness of the South American republics. With the progress of science, the great increase in transportation facilities and the war that is being successfully waged against tropical diseases, a change is coming about which we must be ready to meet.
There is not the slightest question that there is a great opportunity awaiting the American manufacturer and exporter when he is willing to grasp it with intelligent persistence and determination. South America is ready to take American goods in very large quantities as soon as we are ready to take time to give attention to her needs. Germany teaches her young business men Spanish and Portuguese and sends them out to learn conditions in the field. American universities long ago learned the advantage of adopting Germany's thoroughgoing methods of scientific research. American business men have hitherto failed to realize the importance of adopting Germany's thoroughgoing methods of developing foreign commerce.
There is one characteristic of the South American that is to be deplored, and that is their disregard of accuracy in giving information. This has been attained by their seven centuries of association with the Arabs and Moors. The student of the East realizes that Orientals, including Turks and celestials, have no sense of the importance of agreeing with fact. They have, furthermore, a great abhorrence of a vacuum. If they do not know the reply to a question, they answer at random, preferring anything to the admission of ignorance. If they do know, and have no interest in substituting something else for what they know, they give the facts. When they have no facts to give they give something else. They not only deceive the questioner, they actually deceive themselves. The same thing is true to a certain degree in South Americans. Sometimes I have thought they are too polite to say "I don't know."
In South America, as in the East, it is of primary importance to reach the men who know and to pay no attention to any one else. No one really knows, who is not actually on the spot, in contact with facts. The prudent observer must avoid all evidence that is not first hand and derived from a trustworthy source.
I do not bring this as a charge against the South Americans. I state it as a condition which I have found to be nearly universally true. So far as the South Americans are concerned it is an inherited trait and one which they are endeavoring to overcome. They are not to be blamed for having it any more than we are to be blamed for having inherited traits from our Anglo-Saxon ancestors which are unpleasant to our Latin neighbors and for which they have to make allowance in dealing with us.
In offering these adverse criticisms of the South American as he appears to me today, I must beg not to be misunderstood. There are naturally many exceptions to the rule. I know personally many individuals who do not have any of the characteristics here attributed to South Americans in general. I have in mind one South American, a resident of a much-despised republic, whose ancestors fought in one of the great battles of the Wars of Independence, who has as much push and energy as a veritable New York captain of industry. He has promoted a number of successful industrial enterprises. He keeps up with the times; he meddles not in politics; he enjoys such sports as hunting with hounds and riding across country. The difference between him and the New Yorker is that he speaks three or four languages where the New Yorker speaks only one or two, and he has sense enough to take many holidays in the year where the New Yorker takes but few. I know another, a cultured young Chilean lawyer who gives dinner parties where the food is as good, the manners as refined, the conversation as brilliant and the intellectual enjoyment as keen as any given anywhere. He, too, speaks four languages fluently and could put to shame the average New York lawyer of his own age in the variety of topics upon which he is able to converse, not only at his ease, but brilliantly and with flashes of wit. I know another, a distinguished historian, who has been described by a well-known American librarian, himself the member of half a dozen learned societies, as the "most scholarly and most productive" biographer in either North or South America.
The South Americans of today have so many of the faults of the Americans of yesterday that all our dealings with them should be marked by appreciative understanding and large-minded charity. Any feeling of superiority, like that "certain condescension" which we have noted (and hated) in foreigners, will only make our task the harder, and international good-will more difficult to achieve.