Published On: Mon, Jul 30th, 2012

Facing the Yucateco of Yucatecos: Justo Sierra O´Reilly

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Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Merida, Yucatan held a press conference on Friday, July 27, for the recently published work of Justo Sierra O´Reilly, who´s monument is found on Paseo de Montejo at the round-about that meets Avenue Colon.

Terry Rugeley Professor of Mexican & Latin American History, University of Oklahoma

Present at the press conference and one of the panel´s distinguished speakers was the Presidential Professor, Terry Rugeley from the University of Oklahoma.

Professor Rugeley recently received the Regents Award for Superior Research. He has published four books since 1996, including his recent translation of an Austrian botanist’s German-language memoir of travel in nineteenth-century Mexico. His monographs explore many of the intricacies of nineteenth-century Latin American culture—religion, popular culture, ethnic conflict, and the problem of violence figure all prominently in his work and his forthcoming book, Rebellion Now and Forever: Mayas, Hispanics, and Caste War Violence in Yucatan, 1800-1880, continues his explorations of these complex themes. Professor Rugeley is a past president of the Southwest Council of Latin American Studies and offers a wide variety of courses on Latin American history at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and serves as Director of Graduate Studies. Professor Rugeley earned his Ph.D. from the University of Houston.

His critique of this famous yucatecan author was so impressive that we are offering it here in writing and in its entirety. Originally given in Spanish, the speech has been translated.

Justo Sierra O´Reilly,

Impresiones de un viaje a los Estados Unidos de America y al Canada

By Terry Rugeley

Justo Sierra O´Reilly

After more than one hundred and fifty years, Justo Sierra O´Reilly continues to be the most well-known yucatecan writer. Such a situation would have surprised him, since he saw himself as an initiator, just as much as he saw his province as a society in formation, a political entity searching for models of virtue and public spirit that helped Yucatan take its place among the illustrious nations of the world. An illegitimate child of a priest from the microscopic village of Tixcacaltuyu, Sierra climbed the social ladder by talent, industry, and the purest of luck, achieving his studies in the Colegio de San Ildefonso, in Mexico. He married the daughter of Santiago Mendez Ibarra, who was a merchant from Campeche and twice the governor of Yucatan who strongly opposed the marriage. Sent to the United States while the army of General Winfield Scott occupied the capital city, Sierra achieved some of his objectives. The United States occupation was ended without his intervention and the indigenous offense that constituted the first phase of the Caste War collapsed under its own internal weaknesses. However, Sierra was permanently marked as the man who tried to offer Yucatan as a colony of the United States. Far from inhabiting the republic of virtue that he imagined in his dreams, he was forced to be content filling a series of positions such as journalist, writer, and at times a politician of low importance. At the moment of his death in 1861, his beloved province was found submerged in the aftermath of the Reform War, and the peace and prosperity that our author longed for, resulted in a society of landowner-oligarch that in many ways mocked his original hopes.

The printing that the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico completed this year of Impresiones de un viaje a los Estados Unidos y al Canadá, the reader has a new edition that in many ways is the master work of Sierra O´Reilly. It could be a bit ironic that the master work of a man that represents the intellectual elite of Yucatan, is actually the description of another country, but there are many reasons to consider Impresiones as his creation most ambitious and complete. It is more original than the translation done by John Lloyd Stephens, greater in his ambitions and scope of his several articles for El registro yucateco, and more profound than his purely historical productions, (for example, Los indios de Yucatan). For reasons that we will explore later, this work was more representative of his personal literary orientation than La hija del judio o Un año en el hospital de San Lazaro. We can say that for nothing more than its immense size, Impresiones has finally given him the opportunity to say what he needed to say. Thanks to the distinguished work of Dr. Manuel Sol, we can read in our own libraries, or on the beach, or during those prolonged trips on the ADO bus, or in the large waiting periods at the airport, without the necessity to isolate yourself with a large collection of antique and valuable books.

What is contained in this text? Without presuming to recount the endless number of observations, I would like to call attention to the tendencies of Sierra O´Reilly, the good, the idiosyncrasies, and the simply wrong things of a man that has generous portions of each of these three ingredients. Certainly the positive attributes retain more impact than the defects, and for this we will explore them first.

Sierra O´Reilly had a mind with an impulse to understand and describe situations multi-dimensionally. He looked for the complexity and not the simplification. At the same time, I was impressed by his ability to consider, at an emotional distance, the politics of the United States, considering the enormity of insults that had just happened. He offered portraits of the most ardent expansionists such as Sam Houston of Texas, John Freemont of California, Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, and in terms of the invasion of Mexico, the guiltiest of all, James Polk. Time after time, Sierra avoided sarcasm and satanizing in favor of objective and even appreciative observations.

His memory has too many charming passages to recite the list in its entirety, but it is possible to mention one of his most brilliant. Sierra described, with certain humor, the first time he met a Jesuit. Informing with a vision that essentially mocked the politics of his time, he viewed the father with fear, but at the same time made fun of his own fear. The intrepid yucatecan was absolutely astonished by the new technology of the age. The text offers a few detailed descriptions of the trains and the telegraphs. He was fascinated by the level of development that he found in places such as Philadelphia and New York.

Unquestionably, the tribute most profound and deserved that we can give him today is that Sierra O´Reilly fulfilled the role of a published writer. A role that is more or less hard to find today. He was a man determined to record his experience and reality in writing. It is difficult to identify exactly what defines the writer. But, among other things, we can show someone who worked in multiple languages and who explored diverse genres and Sierra meets both parameters. More importantly was his ability to live in the scope of his text, a capacity nothing less than enviable, especially in our time period, where at times, it appears that all forces have been combined to destroy and reduce our concentration, where the thoughts most developed that many read during the course of their day is a tweet.

At the same time, Justo Sierra O´Reilly had unusual characteristics, eccentricities that define him just as much as his strengths. Beginning with the silences found in the text; things that Sierra never mentions.  In a narrative of 700 pages, it sounds rare to think of the omitted, but in this case, what is avoided spoken about reveals quite a lot.

We can begin with the trivial. I find it curious that rarely food is mentioned, something so essential to life, and something that normally forms a part of travel narratives. From a series of thousands of foods that he enjoyed, or maybe not so much enjoyed in the United States, he only mentions what is today known as pancakes.  He has relatively little to say about the music, clothing, or popular entertainment. Maybe the food was not worth mentioning or maybe Sierra invested with a certain sense of self that constituted a part of his time, thinking that it was below his dignity to descend to that level.

Another curious omission is the lack of commentary or interest, about the major authors of the northern republic. There are no references to Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of famous novels such as The scarlet letter (1850) or The house of seven gables (1851), and established in his appropriate day as an educated artist. Despite his knowledge of Baltimore, he never mentions the spirit that still haunts this city, the author Edgar Allen Poe. More comprehensible, unquestionably, is the lack of reference to Herman Melville, now considered the most important novelist of the nineteenth century, but for Melville´s time, was in total isolation that evolved into a master piece that would fail financially and destroy his reputation: Moby Dick, published in 1851.

Paradoxically, Sierra O´Reilly didn´t look for the company of these individuals and showed a key point of personality and the career of the distinguished yucatecan, in the end, the social world -meaning politics- interested him more than the arts. Appropriate for a man attracted to the role of the public intellectual, it appears that he preferred the content of newspapers, or memories of foreigners living in Yucatan, such as John Lloyd Stephens, who Sierra greatly admired, and on the contrary, the detested B. A. Norman, whose portrait of the peninsula Sierra considered defamatory.

Sooner or later, the path of the intellectual public arrived at the palace of politics, and in the case of Sierra, this happened sooner. At times his fascination with politics makes the text walk a fine line between information and filling. For example, Sierra insisted in presenting summaries of State constitutions in all of the places he visited: Louisiana, Delaware, etc. One is left with the impression that Sierra collected copies of these documents for future use. The reader receives the impression also that he is looking for models for a future republic, but that does not mean this resulted in a literature exceptionally powerful.

In Impresiones the reader finds himself in the rise of nineteenth century sentimentalism and also the cult of virtue. The idea behind this cult is simple; by reading the lives of people with exemplary virtue, we learn virtue, and this builds a republic of virtue, much like the style of Greek writer Plutarch. Few people exist today that are innocent enough to accept this idea in its entirety. We have seen too many horrors to trust in the healthy power of celebrated biographies. In respect of this peculiar orientation, I believe the hagiographies of the grand heroes of the United States constitute the poorest part and most tiring of the text. Especially lamentable in this aspect is the biography of George Washington of which covers 35 pages. This celebration, like that of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson´s, appears curious today, after so many biographies that have divulged the darker sides of these men.

Some of these sketches of virtue were so poorly placed that today they would even appear as offensive. For example, Sierra O´Reilly allied with William Claiborne, the first Anglo-American governor of Louisiana. What is not mentioned is the role of Claiborne in the cruelest suppression of the slave revolt of 1811, and his attempts to erase the uprising and the retaliations. In a similar format the intrepid yucateco had much to say in favor of the head of the supreme court, Roger Taney, who today is remembered for the decision most lamented in the history of the republic: the case of Dred Scott, in which Taney declared that the northerners where responsible to return the fugitive slaves to their owners.

The text has omissions, notes that during that time were probably not possible to know. With respect to Sam Houston, Sierra O´Reilly attributed his exit of politics in the state of Tennessee as part of a premeditated plot, a secret mission. We know that Houston left his young and beautiful wife, for reasons that are still unknown, and a secret that Houston took to his grave. Inconsolable and having a liking for the rustic life and a bit greater liking for rustic liquor, Houston hid with the Cherokee´s of Oklahoma, who named him Big Drunk. It appears that the instructions from Andrew Jackson reached him after this unorthodox phase of life of this grand Texas statesman.

For the modern reader, the offensive side of Justo Sierra O´Reilly is indisputably, his overwhelming racism, especially regarding the indigenous people of the western hemisphere. Time after time, the man from Tixcacaltuyu spoke of “savages” and “barbarians”.  At times like these, the reader does not know whether to feign insanity, flip the page, or close the book completely. Of course we must remember that none of this is unusual, and his point of view could be compared with thinkers like that of Karl Marx or the pre-anthropologists that preceded Franz Boaz. What complicates the case of Justo Sierra is the Caste War, our resident ghost, which shaped the creation of this narrative. But the context however, is his words, a surviving testimony to his way of thinking and his way of living. Ways that bring us so clearly, the echoed voices of the white Africans, or the Frenchmen in Indochina, or the settlers of the Wild West, who longed for the demise of the Comanche and bison with equal impatience.   Whatever the context and interpretation may be, Sierra O´Reilly cannot escape the accusation of racism.

Curiously, Sierra limited his commentaries about slavery. He did recognize and mention it. Such as the sentence “a nefarious practice” but avoids further explanations.  Such omission is very curious, especially that his point of entry was the southern and segregated city of New Orleans. Time and again, Sierra attributed the growth in the United States to the industrialism of its citizens and the liberality of its laws, highly passing over the astronomical amount of value that the slaves added, under compulsion, to the economy.

Curiously he did not say much about Cuba, a case he surely knew well; during the nineteenth century, some 700,000 Africans were taken to the island, and due to affluent traders, we know that Cuba had a large influence in the affairs of Yucatan during Sierra´s life.

In the broadest sense, the most noted image in the author´s mind is the absence of doubt in his own society, an absence that is difficult to share. The way of our era is much more self-critical. To discern more clearly the difference in climates of opinion, it is worth buying prints of a travel narrative written a hundred years later, Tristes Tropiques by Claude Levi-Strauss, where the famous French anthropologist speaks of the forces of modernity, the search for exploitable resources, decimating people and cultures. Relatively to his own society, Sierra O´Reilly did not find anything objectionable. In his mind, the failures of that culture -in other words, the Caste War- were not the result of lack in virtue, or the Spanish heritage, or the persistent presence of barbarism.

Please, I do not want anyone to misinterpret my words. If we limit ourselves to read only the perfect, then we read nothing. This is precisely why Justo Sierra O´Reilly presents a panorama so complete for its time that the text invites us to think critically, just as much as it forces us to study with appreciation. It is completely thanks to the work of Doctor Sol, that we can now do these things, facing the yucateco of yucatecos once again in all of his contradictions, after a century and a half.

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