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Revista Interamericana de Bibliografía (RIB)
Número: 1-4
Título: 1997
Sección: Artículos / Articles

Latin America

The diffusion of Turnerian thought into Latin America paralleled its spread through Canada. Many Latin American thinkers tested the frontier hypothesis for their region. While revealing some similarities, their works generally concluded that Turner’s version of the frontier did not operate in Latin America.

Interestingly, some Latin Americans anticipated Turner’s thinking. In 1888 the Brazilian-born French writer Emilio Daireaux described the powerful effect of plains frontiers. He argued that plains frontiers around the world “imprint” their inhabitants with common characteristics, including a “passion for independence.”17

João Capistrano de Abreu (1853-1927) focused on the dry inland plains of Brazil’s northeast, the sertão, just as Turner focused on the frontier. This rugged “backlands,” lying between the narrow coastal plain and the Amazonian Basin, became central to his explanation of Brazilian history. Capistrano viewed the sertão as a place of racial and social democracy. His nationalism and “New Worldism” resonate well with Turner’s vision.18

In 1923 Victor Andrés Belaúnde examined “The Frontier in Hispanic America.”19  He contrasted Spanish and British colonial settlement patterns. He pointed out that the Spanish quickly built cities across their vast continental empire. The English, in contrast, colonized only the Atlantic coastal strip. Not until the late eighteenth century did Americans push westward across the Alleghenies.

Belaúnde also contrasted the history of the Mississippi river valley with the Amazon Basin. The Mississippi basin yielded fertile soils for farming and easy riverain access. The Amazonian tropical rain forest provided no such bounty of arable land. Access to much of the region proved difficult owing to the Andes Mountains and the nature of the rain forest itself.

Belaúnde concluded that only the Río de la Plata and southern Brazil offered regions appropriate for comparison with the U.S. The flat topography and water access made them readily accessible to European immigration. The temperate climate, coastal farm land, navigable rivers, and lack of high mountain barriers paralleled conditions in the U.S.

Despite the geographical similarities, however, Belaúnde identified significantly different frontier effects. Spanish policy purposefully created large estates. In contrast, individuals and settler families established a tradition of smaller land parcels in the U.S. “Individualism and equality of opportunities, the two great derivations of the frontier principle” did not arise in the Río de la Plata as they did in the U.S. Belaúnde presciently linked land tenure and politics: “large estates continue to be the great obstacle in the way of democracy.”

Silvio Zavala, familiar with Belaúnde’s essay, shifted his focus to Mexico’s northern frontier. He asked whether the northern frontier “may be considered a source of the Mexico national type.” He concluded that the “North can be considered only a source of social peculiarities,” not of Mexican national identity. He found no Turnerian parallels for Mexico.20

In contrast, in a 1940 essay Arthur Scott Aiton found a significant basis for comparing frontiers in Latin America and the U.S. Aiton recognized the preexistence in Latin America of highly developed, sedentary civilizations. He also noted that, unlike Anglo-Americans, the Spanish absorbed indigenous populations into a new mestizo society. Despite such differences, he reached a Turnerian conclusion: “Frontier conditions in Latin America, as elsewhere, developed individualism, self-reliance, democracy, initiative, and willingness to experiment despite closer controls.”21

While not as prevalent as in the United States, frontier images have influenced Brazilian historiography. A number of scholars, including Caio Prado, Junior, Gilberto Freyre, and J. F. Normano, pondered the nature of frontier characteristics and influences. Freyre, for example, wrote in Turnerian language that “the ‘moving frontier’ in Brazil has meant the creation of new ways of life and new combinations of culture.”22

Turner, of course, concerned himself with explaining the influence of the frontier on American national character. In 1981, Argentine historian Hebe Clementi examined “National Identity and the Frontier.” Unlike most recent scholars, she supported Turner’s linkage of the frontier and national identity.23

Clementi compared the role of the frontier in the formation of national identity in the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina. She focused on the Brazilian slavehunter and explorer, the bandeirante, the Argentine gaucho, and the U.S. pioneer. She concluded that each “helps to define his nation’s character through his participation in the appropriation of empty land, and through his contact with the frontier.” Neither Clementi’s argument nor evidence is very convincing.24