"Samuel Huntington ignored Latin America as part of the West," says Homero Aridjis

Jun 5, 2018

For Homero Aridjis, a distinguished Mexican poet, author, activist, and diplomat, "the West" means countries that follow Greco-Latin culture--not Anglo-Saxon culture, he says pointedly. So why is Latin America ignored? Centuries ago, the Spaniards brought architecture, philosophy, religion, art, and literature to Latin America. In many ways these nations are keeping Western culture alive, he argues, as Europeans lose their Western identity.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Homero Aridjis, I'm very delighted and it's my pleasure to have you on the phone and to talk to you about whether or not Latin America is a part of the West, what Western identity is, and what the Latin American identity is on the other hand. I would love to dive into this interview right away.

There are plenty of narratives about what the West is. In your own words, what are your ideas about the concept of the West?

HOMERO ARIDJIS: For me, it is very clear. What is not clear sometimes is for people from Europe because of their ignorance of Latin America. For us it is very clear because we speak a Western language, we follow the Greco-Latin culture that is the same like in the United States, but not in English, in Spanish.

There are, for example, these questions about what is the concept of the West. Those are very important questions because, for example, when you feel in Mexico that you are living in the West because of language, religion, culture, and human relations, sometimes you find that Mexico is very different; it's a very Indian country.

But there is the mestizaje. What is very important is the definition of mestizaje, that a Mestizo man is part of two worlds, the European world and the American world.

For example, when the Spaniards came to Mexico, they brought religion to the Indians in Latin. They were making even religious images like in Spain, like in the Europe of the time, because Spain was the most powerful country in Europe at the time.

After the conquest, Hernán Cortés' conquest, came the so-called "spiritual conquest" of Mexico that were the friars who came to Mexico to convert the Indians to Christianity. For example, there was Peter of Ghent who was baptizing like 5,000 Indians a day. Then, since this moment, the relationship became very important because many of the names the Indians chose to be baptized were Christian, and especially they liked the Virgin Mary.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: But in our times today, if you look, let's say, into European countries or to Spain, religiosity, religion as a harbor of identity and as a beacon of identity, and, as you say, "We are Christian, and this is what defines the West," it is, I guess, in the decline, whereas in Latin America, Mexico and many other countries, religiosity, the Christian faith, how you profess it, is still in high numbers in society. That seems rather to be a disconnect than a connecting element in our identities.

HOMERO ARIDJIS: There are things in Latin America that the Europeans have forgotten. For example, many concepts of history or culture, etc., they have forgotten because the people who are losing the identity are the Europeans. For example, now you can say the "Islamization" of Europe is stronger than in Latin America. Latin America keeps the same roots, the same traditions. But what is losing identity is Europe. It is becoming more and more like the Middle Ages. For example, when the Muslim world dominated Europe in the year 1000 until the independence of Spain from the Muslim conquerors. The Muslims came to Spain in 711 and they were defeated in 1492—it was almost more than seven centuries.

But the Muslim world came to Mexico through the Spanish. The Spaniards brought things to Mexico, to Latin America, that were architecture, concepts of the world, philosophy, religion, art, literature, many things. For example, what Samuel Huntington said in the book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order; Huntington was very ignorant of Latin America.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Definitely, yes. You were not even mentioned as a known culture. You were not mentioned as a part of the West.

HOMERO ARIDJIS: Exactly. He was ignoring Latin America as the West. That is a complete stupidity because also the Spanish world came to the United States through Mexico with the so-called "religious missions" to California and all that. There was colonization of the United States from Mexico through the Spaniards.

You see that, for example, when the United States didn't exist Mexico was there. They had the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Olmecs, all these civilizations.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: You mentioned quite a few things. Let us go step by step.

One thing you mentioned is about the expansion of Islam, which is totally, as you say, the trigger these days in European politics, be it in Poland or in Spain or in Germany. It's all about immigration.

HOMERO ARIDJIS: And daily life also.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Yes. But then you mentioned—and this seems to be in a similar way also in your thoughts as a man who lives in Latin America, so that would also be an argument for saying that you over there, so to speak, also feel in a very European way, in the sense that you are also inheritors of European history. Is that what you say, that you also can feel with this encounter between the Muslim and the Christian worlds?

HOMERO ARIDJIS: Yes, exactly, in Europe. They came to Latin America through the Spanish. Spain was the empire of the time. It was very important not only for the conquest of Latin America or the new Indies—Indias nuevas as they said—but it was very important for bringing Europe to Latin America. And the United States didn't exist at the time. It was a few colonies later, like the Dutch—New York was New Amsterdam—and there were the French, there were the Dutch, there were the English, and the Spanish. Then the United States was completely a new country.

For example, now in this moment, Trump and the Americans, they don't want to recognize Mexico even as a neighbor. They want to build a wall separating the United States from Latin America. This is a cultural wall worse than the German wall.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: That's interesting because also like in Western concepts, North America—the United States, and Canada for that matter—are part of the West. So now we say also Mexico, and with Mexico the Hispanic-American world is part of the West. But there seems to be, as you just mentioned, a new wall, a cultural conflict, between the United States and Mexico, or Mexico as the symbol for all of Latin America. There has been this claim that has been for years around saying the white Protestant Anglo-Saxon identity which feels soaked up by Catholic Hispanic immigration.

What do you say about that? Mexico is a part of the West and the United States is part of the West, but still what do you make out of this conflict?

HOMERO ARIDJIS: My father is a Greek and my mother a Mexican with Spanish roots. For me, my concept of the West is the Greco-Latin culture, not the Anglo-Saxon culture. Sometimes Anglo-Saxons feel that they are the owners of the Western culture. But you had, for example, living in the 16th century an emperor, Charles V, who was German and Spanish. That was "the West" at the time.


HOMERO ARIDJIS: Through Charles V, called Carlos Quinto, and also Philip II, who was the most cultivated man in the period, because they had all these painters like Hieronymus Bosch, Gilgil [phonetic], Tiziano—all the great painting of the period was in Spain.

Also, Spain had its extension in the New World. For example, in Mexico, before the United States existed as a country, we had already the first university in the Americas, in the New World. We had already cathedrals, churches, monasteries, paintings, the so-called Neo-Baroque. We had a Western country in Mexico before the United States existed.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: That's interesting what you say.

HOMERO ARIDJIS: For example, in the 17th century we had the first library in the Americas. Bishop Palafox founded the first open library in the Americas. It was in Puebla.

Then, to call it Western civilization or culture, what do you need? You need the symbols or the representation of the Western civilization, the culture. For example, the first printers in the New World were in Mexico. Juan Pablos was making books in the early 16th century and came from the connection of Germany, Spain (Sevilla), and Mexico, you see? For me, these are the symbols of Western civilization.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: But that's interesting because you would find many people in Europe who would make the argument that the United States is not part of the West because it's superficial, it's not historic, it doesn't have the features of Western Europe. It is also capitalist and not really Christian.

England is also something in between. But with the new Brexit going on, you realize England is more leaning toward the Anglo-Saxon world that it is part of rather than Western Europe. That is what some would argue.

But this concept of the West—and I'm sure you're familiar with that—that is called the "Occident"—Das Abendland as they call it in German—that is very much emphasizing culture, philosophy, religion, and the arts. Is that what you see as the epitome of Western—

HOMERO ARIDJIS: What I see are the symbols of a culture—civilization—coming from Europe are for me the Western culture. And Mexico has these symbols integrated into their own culture. For me, I never thought that Mexico was not a Western country.

But it's very complex because at the same time that it is a Western country because of the culture coming from Europe, the language—I speak in Spanish, a Western language—and rich in intellect, in philosophy, and also in the arts, but also at the same time Mexico is a very Indian country, very American. That is the duality, the ambiguity, of the culture that sometimes people like Samuel Huntington don't understand.

The United States is for me more than a typical Western country. It is becoming a global country. It's a global country. Because you see, Europe is there, but when you go to the West of the United States, it's China there. The East is there, very rich in Eastern culture, especially Chinese. [The Western United States] is full of Chinese people, and also now New York.

There are also the black people. Where do you put the black people? That is another question. They came [as] slaves to the United States, but they are African in origin. They are not Western. Then you have now in the United States a very strong Afro-American culture.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: But what does that mean? You mentioned Spain. If you go to Spain, you have the Basque country, you have Catalonia, you have Galicia, and you have a big variety.

I would always argue that, especially if you look into Europe, you have so many identities. They are all welcome under this one umbrella of the European ideals and ideas that you are German and you speak German and you have a German European culture, and it is very diverse because even in Germany the Bavarians are different than the people from Hamburg.

So I am not sure if this concept that you lay out—that is to say, just like there are the Afro-Americans, there are the Chinese Americans, and there are the white Americans—I would always try to at least see and perceive that there is a huge overlap.

If you look into, let's say, immigration in Europe—and you mentioned Islam—you have the "third generation," as they call the young people of the immigrants of the 1960s, of the last century, they would in surveys say that they feel Turkish, they feel German, and they feel Muslim. So there is more than just like one identity. You can embrace many. Isn't it so?

HOMERO ARIDJIS: Yes. Probably we are right at this moment in history that the most exclusive or most precise definition of our country's culture is gone because, for example, you go to England now and you have a strong presence of Pakistanis and Indians. In France you have 6 million Muslims. Then it is coming like before, like it was probably in the year 1000, that the Muslim presence in Europe is very strong.

Before the invasions of Europe were armed, and now they are demographic, like you see now with the refugees, etc., a demographic invasion of Europe. The times are changing, and we have not seen these changes in obsolete concepts.

For example, even justice, the concept of justice in Europe has changed. For example, when you see the novels of the 19th century, early 20th century in England, the so-called "detective stories," you saw that there was a case of a crime and the judge and detectives took ages to investigate. They were sitting, coming to their offices, smoking, meeting, walking, and the criminals were sitting just across the street.

But now, in this period, you have this kind of inefficiency. There is a crime—for example, terrorism or anything—and probably in the next hour the criminals leave the country. Then all the concepts of investigation, judges, trials, are gone, because with this slowness—not a very high-speed culture, or periods like you have now in Berlin or London—but now in the next hour you can be in another country. This changes many things.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: You were an ambassador for Mexico to the Netherlands and, I think, to the United Nations in Geneva. You frequently travel to Europe. You have just been a visiting professor in Alicante in Spain. You are a traveler from both sides of the Atlantic, of the West, so how would you—

HOMERO ARIDJIS: I was living in New York for many years. My wife is from New York. My daughter is from New York, was born there, and my second daughter was born in the Netherlands.

I can tell you I am a real Mexican or a real Greek or Greek-European because my father was a Greek and living in Asia Minor, now Turkey. My wife was from New York, and her ancestors came from Europe, Poland and Russia. Then I was living in New York, and then one of my daughters was born in New York, the other in the Netherlands. One is living now in London, the other in Brooklyn, and we are living in Mexico, traveling continuously to Europe.

Then for me I can say: "Oh, I am a real Mexican. I am a real Greek because from Greek is the name and the ancestors, the Greek culture." I can say it, but this is common to many people to have the Greek inheritance.

I was from 1969 to 1972 a professor at New York University and then New York was another city. It is a global city more and more and more, more Hispanic, more Chinese, more Middle Eastern, and then Korean—you can meet many [people] from South Korea.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: What you describe, what makes the Western identity, or what our concept is, is that not like exalting, changing, emerging into a cosmopolitan global sort of identity?

HOMERO ARIDJIS: Yes. Well, it's something unstoppable. I guess we are living in a time of unstoppable changes. Nobody can stop these changes taking place in the world now, this social pluralization and globalization and communications, the Internet, everything. For example, the ships that were bringing the first copies of Don Quixote, Don Cervantes' books, into the New World, were coming to Mexico, to Colombia, to the New World, and they took months to arrive. Now, printing these books is faster than a plane because they send the negatives and they send that, through the Internet you have it the same moment. Before, the travel of culture was very slow; it was the time. Then the mentality, the course of life, was very different, even if we are the same people, no?

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Just to come back for a tiny bit to the West, as in Europe and Latin America, but also we can speak about the United States, I was wondering—because, honestly, if you ask in the streets of Europe, maybe outside of Spain and Portugal, but if you would be asking them about Latin America, let's say, in Germany, where I'm from, there would not be much knowledge about it.

There would also not be much appreciation of Latin America as a part of the West, as in, let's say: "Oh, we are aging societies. Why don't we invite young people from Latin America over to work here, to learn English, German, and whatnot, to re-juvenate our societies?" If you speak about that, what would you say, if you were asked by me now, what can be major contributions of Latin America to the rest of the Western world?

HOMERO ARIDJIS: Well, you have culture, you have art, you have even food. You go to the United States and it is flooded with Mexican food. It is coming also to England. Then you have things coming from Latin America, especially tomatoes, chocolate, things like that, potatoes coming from Latin America. You have in Peru 80 species of potatoes. You have the chili. You have many things coming into daily presences in houses.

For example, when I go to New York or Los Angeles or many places, I can't say anymore, "This is an American city" because sometimes there are Americans—well, New Yorkers like to say that New York is a different city from the rest of the United States because they know that the Midwest is different.

For example, [inaudible] one day in a seminar on politics and humanities in [inaudible], it was presented to me: "How do you find America?"

And I said, "You mean, the United States?" Because for me "America" is from Alaska to Chile; it is the Americas. It is very different in the Anglo-Saxon world and the Spanish-Latin world. Then there are the Americas, but not only one America. It is not only the United States of America.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: You mentioned in the beginning of our conversation—and I would love to go on talking about food, but I think our listeners would just likely just be rushing out of this interview and trying to find some Latin American food rather than just indulging a bit more in our food for thoughts—since you were emphasizing the Christian heritage and tradition, there is the theology of liberation as a contribution from Latin America, I would say, to Christian theology and philosophy in the last century.

Is this something that could help in the West, where we have debates about justice, social justice, redistribution, even about redistribution in the artificial intelligence age where automation will take over our work or workforce? This is all a huge, wide array of topics. But would you say, as somebody who highlights Christian heritage and philosophy, that the theology of liberation is something that in the West we should all look a bit closer into?

HOMERO ARIDJIS: In the 1960s I met Ivan Illich in Cuernavaca. I was staying in his monastery with my wife, Betty. We visited there.

At the time, in the early 1960s, he was one of the early preachers of the theology of liberation. I remember they were telling me that there was a visit of a few Americans from the United States, nuns, to the Ivan Illich monastery. Ivan Illich began to speak to them, and he produced a scandal in the moral of the American nuns because he said, "What do you do for humanity, for earning the, winning the [inaudible] Son of God?"

And they said, "Oh, we pray the whole day in our monastery."

Ivan Illich was very radical and said to the nuns: "You see, a prostitute in a brothel makes more public benefits to people than your praying. They are out in the world, fighting for goodness, dignity, and equality, many things, and you waste your time in a room praying and living in a community that doesn't go out to the world." And he said to them: "Go out to the world. See the poverty, see injustice, see social inequality. But don't waste your entire life in a monastery. Go out to the world."

I remember that I had a friend, a writer, who was dying, who called Ivan Illich to confess to him before dying. My friend, the writer, later told me that he began to confess his sins. Ivan Illich said, "Please stop. I can't listen to these conventional stupidities, trivialities. For me, the only evil is to damage other people. If you make evil or damage other people, then confess that. But otherwise, go relax for a moment, eat well, or see through the window the beautiful landscape, but don't annoy me with these trivialities."

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: So you would say Latin America recommenced through the theology of liberation, also a bit of relaxation, and just being not too stubborn and too focused on the unimportant things?

HOMERO ARIDJIS: You have to work with the human beings, to liberate the human beings from slavery, injustice, poverty, to do something for humanity, for the people.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: And I also think through the whole environment and the nature we live in. And I am not telling a secret when I say that you have been very much involved in environmentalism and also being engaged when Latin America decided under the leadership of Mexico to become nuclear weapon-free.

HOMERO ARIDJIS: We have to be.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Maybe that is something that you would like to talk a bit about as a last remark and answer in our interview.

HOMERO ARIDJIS: Yes. Well, you see, for me, when I began my activism—well, I was born in a village full of nature, where the monarch butterflies taught us everything. I grew up surrounded by beautiful nature. Always since I was a child I loved nature.

But in 1995—my wife was very important in these parts, the Group of 100—they asked me, "Well, are you a biologist?"

And I said, "No."

"Are you a scientist?"

"I am not."

"Are you an economist?"

"I am not."

They asked me those questions. And I said: "I am a human being and I am a poet. As a poet, a commitment to nature, to the defense of the environment, is spiritual, is material. And I grew up in a village where there were many Indians attached to the roots like trees. I come from this activism that this life is your relation with nature, and I don't need to go to the university to study how to defend nature because I have it in my daily life."

In this way, I can say it is not a theology of liberation but it was an ecology of liberation. I understood that in the activity, the defense of nature, mine was very different from the Europeans' or the Americans' because many of these people were in groups and were very, very strict; they had an economy that was very different. My commitment to nature was direct, where I went to the streets to defend a tree, I went to the streets to defend an animal. It was human contact with nature; it was not abstract; it was not an office. I understood that I was different. I went to the forests and I fought with the loggers directly.

For example, when I was defending the sea turtles—there was 100,000 killings of sea turtles in the sea—one day I got a poacher, and he came to me and said to me, "If I see this bastard of the Group 100, I kill him."

And I said, "I am. I am Homero Aridjis. How do you do?"

And he was disconcerted because I was not afraid. And he said to me, "You see, if I need a greenback, a dollar, I go to the water and I take it out because I have killed 10,000 sea turtles."

And I said, "Congratulations, because you are a perfect coward, killing an indefensible, beautiful animal. You must be very proud to be a beast." And he was disconcerted.

But certainly there was a threat to me. It was not this poacher. Close to [inaudible], there was a man with dark glasses, and my friend who was with me said to me, "Watch out. This idiot is not dangerous. The danger is the man there. He is a drug trafficker. Not the environmental disasters, the logging, the many things, but the drug traffickers, these were the dangerous people around because they kill you, the people defending that."

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: I think we could go on for hours in talking about your engagement in environmentalism. But I'm really happy that you agreed to this interview where we talked about Latin America and the West, Latin America as a part of the West, and in what regard it is part of the West.

So, thank you very much, Homero, for your time. I enjoyed this conversation very much. You take care.

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