The Other American Exceptionalism


As the bus headed North leaving Mendoza, Argentina behind, I looked out my window at the mountains in the distance. In the seat next to me, my wife sat transfixed. The Andes impose their beauty on you. It’s no wonder they have inspired poets and novelists like César Vallejo, Mario Vargas Llosa and Pablo Neruda, who remarked about his trip across the mountain range to return from exile, “Todo era a la vez una naturaleza deslumbradora y secreta y a la vez una creciente amenaza de frío, nieve, persecución.” (Everything was simultaneously a dazzling secret natural world and an increasing threat of cold, snow and abuse). Even from the relative safety of the highway I understood him. The mountains seduce you with an otherworldliness and a capacity both to sustain life and to destroy it.

Not everybody enjoys the song of the unknown, those tempting murmurs of another world. A comfortable life is incompatible with multiple truths. But for those who do, its call is rapturous.

My tastes had always been a bit out of step. In college I was an odd kid who walked around campus with a hollowed out gourd filled with wet ground up leaves and danced salsa by himself in the middle of the quad. They must have thought I was crazy. I started describing myself as “half-Irish, half-Jewish, gringo by nationality, and latino at heart.” The phrase perfectly embodied the estrangement I felt at home in the US and the affinity and affection I felt towards Latin America. Nevertheless it’s a phrase I’ve recently come to see as inadequate.

My interest in Latin America began with funny words printed on plastic packaging and mysterious overheard conversations. What were these opaque jumbles of sounds?

It soon turned into stubborn hunger. So I improved my vocabulary and grammar, started watching telenovelas, chose a Mexican soccer team, ¡Vamos Águilas!, started drinking mate and tereré, devoured online newspapers, and struggled through books full of paranoid dictators, bitter intellectuals, shrunken-head exporters and bunny rabbit vomitters. I interned at a laboratory in Chile and befriended Mexicans, Argentinians, Brazilians, Colombians and Peruvians. Back home I deejayed a Latin American music show on the college radio and learned Portuguese, allowing me to study abroad in Brazil and have my heart-broken.

I even wrote a sprawling mess of a manifesto inspired by Cuban novelist and essayist Alejo Carpentier declaring the Americas the future center of the art and literary world. He was confident that Latin American artists would produce “los clásicos de un enorme mundo barroco que aún nos reserva, y reserva al mundo, las más extraordinarias sorpresas.” (the classics of an enormous Baroque world that would still reserve to us, reserve for the world, the most extraordinary surprises). And how could I disagree?

Where else could you find Indians speaking Dutch, Japanese speaking Spanish, Arabs speaking Portuguese and Germans speaking Guarani? Where else could you see the medieval, the colonial, the modern, the indigenous and the natural world mix together with such ease? Where else could you find nations, founded on the whip and the gun to bring fast gold and cheap sugar to European shores, that kept on living anyways like a condor nesting in the crevices of the side of a mountain, because humans were born to dream and not to serve? As Cuban poet and patriot José Martí said:

“De factores tan descompuestos, jamás, en menos tiempo histórico, se han creado naciones tan adelantadas y compactas… no hay patria en que pueda tener el hombre más orgullo que en nuestras dolorosas repúblicas americanas… vencedora veloz de un pasado sofocante, manchada sólo con sangre de abono que arranca a las manos la pelea con las ruinas, y la de las venas que nos dejaron picadas nuestros dueños.”

(From such disjointed elements, never, in less time, have such precocious and compact nations been created… there is no homeland of which man can be more proud than our painful American republics… the speedy victor of a suffocating past, stained only with the blood from a payment that strips the hands of their fight with ruins, and the blood from the veins that our masters left perforated).

Great art starts with the siren call of the unknown and the promise of a better world, and in Latin America, both were all around me. How could Europe and the US, lost in their futile self-indulgent search for the end of history, compete?

I reinterpreted the pan-Americanism of South American liberator Simón Bolivar and later Martí to include the US, dreaming of a future great continent with no economic, political or cultural center, and with pride, I declared myself just as much a Guatemalan, a Chilean or a Brazilian as an American.

Then I moved back to Brazil, fell in love and got married.

But as I settled into life in São Paulo, adjusted to living with somebody with a different view of the world and traveled more, something changed. I realized what was novel and romantic for me could be oppressively familiar to someone else. My wife didn’t have much patience for a foreigner extolling the beauty and virtue of her national traditions. From early childhood she’d been hearing variants of it. She wanted more.

I rethought my fervent Latin American boosterism. I didn’t want to be a cheerleader helping governments attract investors, helping travel agencies attract tourists. Nationalism needs myths to survive, but myths don’t need nations to grab us and make us wonder. My regional preferences were getting in the way of seeing what it was that I truly loved.

I looked upon the mountains now covered in an ethereal orange and thought about the people who were still loving and dancing and fucking and making music and writing poetry and taking care of each other and dreaming of more in spite of everything, in spite of every flaw outsiders claimed they had. That’s the America I wanted to be part of, a place that exists wherever people struggled to live together and overcome a cruel past.

Someday the frigid winds will come for me and bury me under the snow. They won’t ask me for my papers. They will only roar, and I’ll be gone. Just like everyone else. A memory of an unknown world, a whisper of what might have been. I hope when that day comes, I’ll be able to say I danced and dreamed and fought by my neighbors’ side.