Reforming Chile. Cultural Politics, Nationalism, and the Rise of the Middle Class


PATRICK BARR-MELEJ: Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Patrick Barr-Melej urges the reader to use culture to understand the efforts of the emerging middle class reformers to deal with two conflicting ideologies: the aristocratic attempt to preserve "traditional" values and the efforts of men, such as Luis Emilio Recabarren, to alter dramatically Chile.

The author believes that these middle class figures - "intellectuals, educators, bureaucrats, and politicians" - seized the middle ground, fashioning "an agenda of cultural politics and elaborated a nationalist imagination that altered Chile's cultural landscape, infused politics with a new constellation of images, symbols, and meanings, and influenced how many Chileans thought about themselves and their nation" (p. 2). The movement received support from authors who spurned European literary models and, like the early proponents of criolloism, instead emphasized Chilean themes.

No longer would Chileans have to ape the European cultural values. Their writing began by praising "lo chileno," using the nation's natural beauty and countryside as a source for inspiration. Later, the literary movement manifested itself by depicting the Chilean huaso, its cowboy, as the embodiment of simple but nonetheless laudable values. The Chilean rustic came to symbolize basic, immutable, and positive values which writers contrasted with the pseudo-cosmopolitan and crass city slicker.

And, thanks to men like Joaquín Edwards Bello, even the urban poor, the roto, became a metaphor for the systematic destruction and subjugation of the nation by foreign economic interests and their domestic allies. By the 1930s, politicians, including some unlikely champions, began to incorporate these themes into their political propaganda. Perhaps the finest example of this trend was the attempt by Gustavo Ross Santa María - a financier who spent a good portion of his life in France - to employ the huaso to win votes in his ill-fated 1938 campaign for the presidency.

The author argues, moreover, that middle class reformers, particularly the members of the Radical Party, used cultural motifs and nationalist symbols to inculcate a sense of pride in Chile and as way of incorporating into the nation the popular sectors who, for decades, had remained marginalized and outside of the political process. To accomplish this task, the Radicals argued for free, compulsory, and secular education, which via text books, primers, and the classroom would integrate the previously neglected Chileans into the nation. This movement would eventually not simply break the aristocracy's hold on culture and politics, but become itself a movement for change. Patrick Barr-Melej's book, while very useful, suffers from some flaws: the author never adequately explains what composed the middle class. In fairness, this is an extremely difficult task. Still, he should have explored it a bit more.

Second, while the author's use of various novels and short stories was an excellent device to illustrate his thesis, he failed to consult certain earlier schoolbooks, like those of Esteban Muñoz Donoso, Orestes Tornero, or Luis Pérez, which would have helped flesh out his work. He might also have consulted various secondary works, such as the article of Rafael Sagredo and Sol Serrano, "Un espejo cambiante: la visión de la historia de Chile en los textos escolares," Boletín de Historia y Geografía, 12 (1996), 217-244.

Finally, Barr-Melej should have devoted more space to studying Chile's "heroes" - Arturo Prat and the soldiers of the Chacabuco Regiment at La Concepción, or later José Manuel Balmaceda, the martyr president. Had he done so, he would have seen how these symbols, which became part of Chile's popular culture and the tool of certain political organizations, actually antedated the establishment of the Criollismo School. Indeed, in some cases the state independently and deliberately incorporated these men into the popular culture of nationalism and the educational system, years before the middle class reformers embraced the huaso and roto.

These suggestions aside, Barr-Melej has written an interesting, well researched, and innovative monograph. It certainly provides a different vista of Chile, one that serious historians should consider.

William F. Sater California State University,
Long Beach




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