Blog Post

Connecting in Cartagena: Latin America and the Classics

Literature seems to be everywhere in Cartagena and not just because Gabriel García Márquez still has a house there.

I was prepared to find a literary city as I had recently read Ilan Stavans’ biography of García Márquez. But as I rambled through the jewel of the Caribbean with two local poets, René Arrieta Pérez and Pedro Blas Julio Romero, poetry seem to cascade down from balconies like bougainvillea.

René had just returned home after a long absence in Spain, and Pedro, a former sailor, now gave literary tours of his birthplace. (Pedro was happy to tell me that he once worked for a ship owned by Christina Onassis, knowing that my trip to Colombia had been supported by a grant from the Onassis Foundation.)  

They were pleased to point out colonial structures that had poetry inscribed on the walls in tile. We visited bookstores with sizable sections devoted to literature. Everywhere we went people seemed to know them and their work.

René said that when his first book of poetry came out, he gave a reading in a local hotel whose hall was full of poetry lovers. There existed a hunger for poetry in Colombia, he insisted. Would it become a pastime for specialists, as it is in North America, I asked. He thought not.

He also indicated that classical culture too was received in a different manner. Indeed, we began our walk with René declaiming in the hotel lobby his poem, “Mientras Penélope tejía” (While Penelope wove.)

Here I was in the lobby of what was a former eighteenth-century convent, the fans above us churning the sodden air, listening to verses about Homer in Spanish.

But that too should not have surprised me not only because of the Caribbean’s famed syncretism but because I could see the neoclassical buildings in Cartagena and nearby Getsemani, which gave the impression of an Athens with a taste for guanábana.

Carla Bocchetti, a scholar from Bogota, has argued that the development of the classics in Latin America diverged from that in North America and Europe. In La influencia clásica en América Latina, she points to the unique status of classical antiquity in the Latin American imaginary. You see this not only in the architecture of Latin American cities, in classic films, like "Orfeu negro" (Black Orpheus) and “Edipo alcalde” (Oedipus Mayor) but also in people like Francisco de Miranda, one of the forerunners of Latin American independence.

Born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1750, Miranda died in 1816 in Cádiz, Spain where he had been jailed for his subversive activities. A revolutionary and visionary, he aspired for the liberation of Latin America years before Simón Bolívar. Indeed, he launched the first battle for independence in 1806. Within 15 years after his death, much of this dream had been achieved. 

What was remarkable about him was the not only his role in the development of Latin American nationalism but also the place of classical culture in his political theory and practice. Miranda was an adventurist and amongst his many travels was an influential journey to the Greek territories, then held by the Ottoman Empire, in 1786, forty years before Greeks themselves had ignited their own revolution.

Being 36 at the time, trained in ancient Greek, and indeed having had one of the most extensive libraries in the Americas with over six thousand volumes (the classical section of which he bequeathed to the University of Caracas), Miranda sought both inspiration and practical models for his revolutionary mission. It was his Latin American background that differentiated him from other European travelers to the area.

With few exceptions, the Europeans regarded the modern Greeks as a degenerate race and a sorry decline from their classical ancestors. But more often than not, these visitors disregarded the modern inhabitants, airbrushing them from their views of classical monuments. Indeed, their principal aim was to tour the antiquities, study them, and plunder the treasures for their own collections or for the recently created national museums. Their diaries contain many racist references to lazy and thieving Greeks and make orientalist generalizations of Greek society at the time.

In contrast, Miranda took an active interest in the lives and manners of the modern Greeks, making a connection between their struggle for autonomy from the Ottoman Empire and that of the creoles of Latin America seeking freedom from European powers. In other words, he saw both peoples as enslaved and as engaged in a project of liberation.

Unique for his time, he actually bought a house in Athens, in the foothills of the Acropolis, and got to know many of the leading Greek intellectual and political figures. For him the Acropolis represented a promise of liberty, unity, and equality, a vision he wanted to realize in Latin America. Unlike Europeans, he did not hack off bits of Parthenon to take back to Caracas.

We can say that Miranda had a postcolonial understanding of Greece, ancient and modern, centuries ahead of his time. He used the classics in his own project of anti-hispanidad.

Bocchetti argues that, thanks to Miranda, the people in Latin America appropriated the classical world in a manner that did not imitate European paradigms. Indeed, they created an alternative vision of the classics distinctly Latin American which they then used to interpret their own political experience.

We normally think of the classical tradition as an exclusively European phenomenon. But this indicates only the narrow straits we swim in. There are divergent traditions. If we look through the mists we could make out a Penelope mulata, listening to the strains of cumbia as she weaves and waits.

Gregory Jusdanis's picture
Gregory Jusdanis teaches Modern Greek literature and culture at The Ohio State University. He is the author of The Poetics of Cavafy: Eroticism, Textuality, History (1987), Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature (1991), The Necessary Nation (2001), and Fiction Agonistes: In Defense of Literature (2010), A Tremendous Thing. Friendship from the Iliad to the Internet (2014). He is currently working on a biography of C. P. Cavafy.