Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 290 | Septiembre 2005


Latin America

Father Knows Best: A Key to Understanding Us

In Latin America we “sense” the ruler to be a father figure, and the ruler “senses” his power as if the country he rules were his own hacienda. The army and church hierarchy are powerful models of untouchable power and customs have more weight than laws. We aren’t democracies. Why is this? What can help us explain it?

Guillermo Nugent

Attempting to discover why, even though the ideals of societal modernization are relatively well known in Latin America, the state so passionately resists public discourse on sexuality and sexual rights, I discovered a set of problems related to a political concept that has been little explored, but has great practical efficacy: tutelage, or guardianship. It seems to me that understanding the concept of “tutelary order” could help us formulate arguments to defend sexual and reproductive rights and promote sentiments of civic equality.

The new order of the new republics

The formation of the Latin American republics created the need for a new type of institution to succeed those of the Spanish empire. It has been repeatedly argued that this new republican order did not create a public culture that even aspired to be modern. The assumption is that the Spanish colonial order continued, suggesting that nothing changed. But that’s a bit off the mark. The formation of our republics did indeed create a new order very much of the region’s own making and so far insufficiently theorized: tutelage.

The term tutelage originates with family rights and essentially consists of a form of representation. When someone is unable to represent his or her own interests, another entity is required to adequately represent them. The exercise of such protection generates the juridical figures of the protector, or guardian, and the ward. It is interesting that the description of the conditions under which someone ends up being protected in this concept are considerably more detailed than the conditions required to be a protector. In other words, tutelage requires no special merit other than recognized incapacity.

The legal figure of tutelage was traditionally applied in the domestic sphere: to women—especially widows—and to orphans, minors and people with some mental infirmity or severe physical limitation. Nonetheless, it was and remains singularly apt for understanding the established power relations in Latin America’s public sphere. By definition, it eliminates any truly private sphere, especially that of sexuality—the most private of all—because the “ward” has no power over his or her own interests and hence no private sphere.

Cultural pessimism with picturesque guardians

Two important consequences can be extracted from tutelage. The first is a sustained form of cultural pessimism that consists of noting people’s incapacities precisely to justify the need for guardianship over collective groups supposedly unable to take care of themselves. A good part of the official cultural elaboration in Latin America was dedicated to designing a set of characteristics to demonstrate that populations were incapable of taking responsibility for their own interests. This was accompanied by nationalist exaltations, which usually consisted of adulating a caudillo, a sort of mega guardian.

The second consequence was the tendency to abandon any ideal of moral excellence. Those who were supposed to govern didn’t have to be the best; it was good enough to confirm the protected status of the governed. This partly explains that facility for the picturesque gesture that one usually finds in those holding government posts in numerous societies of the continent. Just as the guardian doesn’t have to account for his acts to the one under his wing but rather to outside entities, the colorfulness of public figures is simply a result of not being accountable to a civic auditor. To whom are they accountable, then? To the two hierarchical models of the social order: the armed forces and the Catholic Church, Latin America’s two influential “artificial societies.”

The hacienda model and
the hacendado’s authority

How is this tutelary order formed? In our opinion, the central factors are found in servitude and the persistence of the hacienda. Both the military caudillo phenomenon and Catholic cultural hegemony are hard to explain without recurring to this model, whose characteristics have not been discussed as much as they should have. The hacienda, especially the vast landed estate known in Spanish as latifundio, served as a model in that it was an experience of successful hierarchical social integration: the benevolent and fair or crass and abusive pronouncements of the hacienda owner, or hacendado, compensated for the absence of a judge or police commissioner. Even marriages among the peons required the approval of the hacendado, the true incarnation of the local authority.

The hacienda’s hierarchical order had real capacity for social representation. The central figure of the hacendado is somewhat like the pater familias. With respect to biological paternity, he was frequently a literally valid figure among the hacienda workers. His force as a symbol of authority was exceeded neither by the industrialists nor by the bankers, notwithstanding the growing economic power of both in the 20th century.

What power relations were condensed in the figure of the hacendado? He personified authority. Beyond the cases of unlimited abuse and cruelty, the hacendado had the last word in judicial and police affairs. Former peons frequently declare even today that judges and police weren’t necessary in “the good old days” because the hacendado took care of everything. His power was based on merciless violence toward those outside his sphere of power and unappealable paternalism on the hacienda. When police officers or soldiers showed up, it was only to reinforce his authority. In addition, there was no hacienda that didn’t have a chapel on the grounds, an expeditious way to prevent the peons from leaving on the excuse of having to attend the parish church.

Where is the father, and where the women?

This distant paternal figure had as a counterpart the absence of nearby ones. The hacienda owner’s authority was like that of a pater familias, but in a context where the workers’ families frequently had no day-to-day experience of a tangible father figure. Even in those families where the wife and children were accompanied by a father, the absence of any legal status for that family substantially reduced his presence relative to that of the “master.” In this model of authority, there was minimal family or domestic space for the processes needed to make each person an individual.

How was the absence of the paternal function in daily life covered? One provisional answer is that the typical hierarchical organization—the army and the church—took responsibility for that work. Right up to today, military parades and church processions are the street activities that best express the image of this hierarchical order. The gender frontiers could not be more sharply drawn than in these arenas of authority. The hacendado was an exclusively masculine function, and on the few occasions that a woman filled that role, it was in exchange for masculinizing her image. Both the military institutions and the clerical ones closed off any posts of authority to women, as they still do today.

The consolidated authority model was a kind of extension of the domestic sphere, articulated around the hierarchical axes of generation and gender. In this extended domesticity, in which there was no truly public dimension, any separation or distinction between the person, almost invariably a man, and his position of authority was unimaginable. Authority emanated from him and became a collective norm. The imagination of authority was the hacendado’s voice and the military officers and priests provided the “formative” presence. Although extended domesticity did not exclude women, it did ensure their subordination.

No reading, writing,
shared symbols or personal dreams

Such personalized forms of authority didn’t require literacy. All that was needed was the boss’ presence or the sight of a military uniform or religious habits and imagery. The absence of law went hand in hand with the absence of education. One of the most surprising features of the first century of Latin America’s independent republics was the very slow literacy process. Access to reading and writing was systematically postponed, above all due to the potential threat it represented to the strongly personalized order of this extended domesticity.

Reading and writing implied access to shared symbolic referents, to one or more narratives of collective existence. It also meant the possibility of individual fantasy through reading. Above all, literacy would have meant that writing ceased to be a privilege, especially in the typical area of disputed interests: laws and judicial processes. That is the very source of that curious privilege that lawyers or notary publics usually have in Latin America as the ones who know “how the paperwork functions.”

The communicative conditions for exercising this authority were based on an entrenched local sense and little attention to long-distance communication. As a consequence, the state of the roads and highways, as well as the expansion of railroads, was relatively modest. Given that the dissemination of written material requires a road network, unlike the audiovisual media, the state of a country’s roads is a good indicator of the outreach of the printed word and the length of society’s legal arm.

Yet the lack of laws didn’t imply unbridled war, but rather a hierarchical ordering strongly fragmented into local powers. With the emergence of centralized power in nation-states, the alliance with local caciques was inevitable. It was the beginning of a systematic state strategy of delegating powers, in which care was taken to ensure that the exercise of legality did not enter into conflict with the big landowners. Thus, for example, what defined a property as “big” could vary considerably according to the locality. The logic of this delegation was to ensure and reproduce the mechanisms of hierarchical integration. If domestic authority was delegated to the master of the hacienda, representation of the nation was given over to the military and education to the clergy.

A far-reaching order still present in our cities

This laid the groundwork for a far-reaching tutelary order, as we can effectively see today in the majority of Latin American societies. The civil and lay nature of the republics was negotiated and ceded to ensure a society that could have contact with the Western modernizing processes, but without civic egalitarianism being able to claim its own modern institutionality.

These complex networks involving military nationalism, a clerical education and local authorities—made up of hacendados or their cronies—provided consistency to that image still frequently found in various Latin American countries. There are poor city neighborhoods—or even whole cities—that are otherwise modern or even have cosmopolitan pretensions in which populations live in completely different conditions, not necessarily due to a cultural or ethnic difference or even a difference in per-capita income. It’s “something else,” a human treatment that seems to be from another era, lifted from another time. This “other time” is precisely that of hierarchical immobility, of the tutelary order. As can be seen, social inequality can’t simply be solved with a technocratic redistribution of income, although such measures are necessary. The political-cultural component of tutelage has shown a capacity for survival that is easily underestimated.

Extended domesticity:
Wage workers still treated as “sons”

In this universe, where access to the law and the use of writing was for a long time a privilege rather than a right, the handiest elements of identification were provided by the military order and clerical institutionality. Thus, even in the “modern times” of the factory, the workday was adapted during time off to the needs of the tutelary order. In effect, although wage laborers might actually be given the day’s wages, they were treated as a “son” or “daughter” for all other day-to-day purposes. In Peru, for example, it is still common in the military institutes for officers to call soldiers “son.” And in public hospitals, son or daughter is a common way to address patients during a physical examination. The expression underscores a subordination that extends to the person’s whole being.

Despite the market mechanisms introduced into the economy, the hierarchical immobility was preserved. This socialization logic is so entrenched that it has barely merited attention in the public debates. Extended domesticity was a powerful element that neutralized the individualizing tendencies promoted by capitalist economic organization. The anonymity of the productive function never completely replaced people’s hierarchized condition outside the workplace. This factor could be one of the reasons why the rationalization of individual impulses was never elaborated to any great extent, since the instances of social control were those derived from the domestic model and shaped by the external constraints of the military-clerical tutelary order.

Workers might be able to adapt very well to the logic by which the production shop functioned during work hours, but the public morality surrounding these activities showed few signs of promoting a process of individual autonomy among the members of society. When some foreign companies, particularly Anglo-Saxon ones, were nationalized and came under local administration a few decades ago, it triggered mixed feelings in the workers. On the one hand were the nationalist feelings of vindication and on the other the daily sense of organizational deterioration that frequently led to nostalgia for the former managers. This was one of the factors—although not the primary one—that led to support in the eighties and nineties for the anticipated privatization of public companies, generally to foreign owners.

A domestic order that compensates
for family and educational vacuums

This extended domesticity has a dominant compensatory nature. It isn’t that the family organization overflows the domestic sphere to govern relations in public. It is rather that faced with family life that largely lacks structure either due to paternal abandonment or because of free union—which until recently had no legal validity and thus offered no legal protection—the world is imagined as if it were a domestic order. Given the power embodied in the ruler, who turns voters into children, the models of hierarchical efficacy are represented in the closed and corporative world of the religious and military ranks.

The emotional economy of this compensation translates into something like this: it doesn’t matter that the primary socialization, which is within the family, is incomplete and has little generational differentiation (where it falls to mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts and uncles to raise the children, all under the same roof), or that the secondary socialization, which is mainly schooling, has been systematically sidelined and has suffered a continuing drop in quality. And the reason it doesn’t matter is that the main signs of public recognition do not come from those factors, as would ideally be hoped in a culturally modern setting. The socialization arena of the tutelary order has other priorities: the idea that the best sign of order in a school is that the students behave with military discipline and that the sources of morality—i.e. of individual responsibility and solidarity—are found in religious teachings and the corresponding ceremonies.

This tutelary order is the great organizer of collective emotions, of fears, threats, dissimulation, double standards, silences and threatening insinuations, destructive euphoria and Ash Wednesdays. It isn’t a dictatorship or even an exposed religious fundamentalism. It is rather an array of retaining walls, the “world” that precedes daily activity. This situation helps us understand the interdependence that exists between the democratic public sphere and private life. In the tutelary order, the public sphere is restricted to forms of domestic subordination, to being treated as if the others and the collective “we” were children in need of a guardian. The objective is to produce a persistent illusion that autonomous public order just isn’t viable.

The most autonomous field: Artistic creation

This tutelary order involves a kind of systematic abolition of privacy, of the possibility that people could come up with psychic and emotional spaces to recognize their own humors, develop their own tastes and value themselves as something clearly differentiated from the sphere of relations with others. Historically, one way to achieve all this was the practice of reading, the possibility of establishing an emotional distance from the surrounding reality and tackling the written message with individual discernment and decisions. Reading implied academic dissemination and recognition of the legitimacy of individual desires over the norms of hierarchical obedience.

The field that achieved the greatest autonomy from this order was that of artistic creation. Modern art was indeed expressed in Latin America, in both its cult and pop versions. It was a space in which the gender frontiers were also diluted from very early on: artistic vanguards, especially in the plastic arts, as well as in popular music and literature, ended up not only distancing themselves from aspects of the tutelary order in the second half of the 20th century, but also managed to give form to ways of feeling more individualized. Bolero lyrics and radio plays permitted the first explorations of intimacy and endowed with reality a whole world of acts and emotions that had been systematically ignored by extended domesticity.

Painting, singing and acting were the first public activities that offered women a lead role. They were arenas of emotional expression in which women participated in a non-hierarchical format, very different from that of military parades or religious processions.

Military discipline and the
monopoly over consciousness

If in Latin America the private and public spheres are more interdependent than differentiated, we can understand the place occupied by the tutelary order in the social world: the last rearguard of the public scene is the military presence, the well-known “states of emergency” that serve to remind people how fragile individual guarantees are. Similarly, autonomous private space is blocked by a clerical culture that systematically dictates how people should conduct themselves even within their own private, particularly sexual, jurisdiction. The campaigns of bishops insisting on the obligatory teaching of the Catholic religion in public schools and sabotaging any attempt to introduce sexual education give an approximate idea of the political-cultural model that the tutelary order sets in motion.

The common feature in both spheres is to reinforce the idea of people’s inability to take charge of their own interests as citizens and individuals. A culture that systematically promotes fear, shame and other inhibiting sentiments around sexuality—the nucleus of intimate life—has as its counterpart in the public sphere the obedience of “children” as a basic resource for maintaining the hierarchical social order. This generates the conditions for the monopoly of moral consciousness to be unequivocally clerical, while the subordinated obedience produces the sensation that the best guarantee of order is military discipline. The result: both institutions are considered the pillars of social organization, without whose presence society would crumble. As we can see, democracy as a civil and secular project in Latin America faces obstacles from a configuration that is different from the processes that took place in Europe and the United States.

Colorful dictators, heads of state
and heads of household

The tutelary order may not stand out so much in daily life, but whenever some conflict arises, when some problem has to be “dealt with,” the solution is to make the guardianship explicit and trust in the direct intervention of the two ideals of hierarchal society. Why do these resources appear so forcefully as the “natural” way to handle conflicts? It is certainly not because a military or an especially pious predisposition forms part of people’s daily lives. Neither the military nor the clerical institutions enjoy “militant” adhesion on the part of the population. They are only appreciated for their function of effective replacement

What is missing that makes them the ultimate guarantors of the social order? We can probably find some answers in the home. It’s not just that the Latin American household is a space marked by paternal absence, unrecognized children and generational domination, features that predominate in many societies. Even when the nuclear family is complete, its value as a social referent, a model, is very restricted; in fact the neighborhood probably has more importance as a socializing element. Despite this, however, the importance of the home is affirmed at the same time it is recognized as incomplete and without defined limits.

The social world is likewise envisioned as based on domestic relations of familiarity and hierarchy, but also as incomplete. The father may not be present but his absence is charged with meaning and forms the angle from which to seek an ideal hierarchical order. The scenes in The Feast of the Goat in which Vargas Llosa describes the eagerness of dictator Trujillo to have sex with the wives and daughters of his cronies—who considered it a privilege—not only express unbridled sexual impulses that are extremely humiliating and painful to the victims, but also speak to how the fantasy of the incomplete domestic arena is put into practice, and realized.

Extended domesticity explains why the majority of Latin America’s dictators have been remembered for their colorful acts. This picturesque effect is produced by giving domestic gestures or commentaries the value of public pronouncements. Dictators rarely have a strictly political profile. They rather appear as the heads of a great home, where their whims need no rationalization to become a domestic reality. While their gestures might be unusual, the emotional subtext underlying them is a stable element in most of the continent’s public cultures.

It is interesting to observe that in the sinister boom of military dictatorships in South America in the seventies, the tutelary model and reduction of the public arena to a literal domesticity required very visible figures to give the dictatorship “a face.” The exception was Uruguay, one of the continent’s few countries that had succeeded in generating a culture that differentiated the public sphere from the private intimate one. The Uruguayan military dictators committed acts as barbarous as any of their colleagues from neighboring countries, but there was no space for the appearance of a “domestic” figure to simultaneously play the role of head of government and head of household.

The root of why a dictator appears as head of the house in periods of crisis must be sought in the configuration of the domestic arena as a radically incomplete dimension. The world is seen to be based on domestic hierarchies, especially gendered and generational ones, at times due to the father’s abandonment, at others to the simple inexistence of law and at still others to the compensation found in the neighborhood.

An unlimited familiarity that
blocks individuality and responsiblity

It would be wrong to judge this picture as intrinsically authoritarian. On the contrary, it stimulates an almost unlimited air of familiarity. The difficulty arises on the side of individuation, which is necessary for democratic participation or active citizenship. That’s where the extended domesticity scenario falls short. The limited generational differentiation makes it difficult to imagine historical time and think of one’s own life as anything different from that of one’s parents or children. Tradition and destiny tend to become confused and condensed into a single emotional entity. The domestic setting is dominated by the presence of women, who bear the entire burden of organizing the household but have been deprived of such elemental resources as the right to vote and have restricted access to education, even today. Historically, women were the classic objects of tutelage—together, of course, with minors.

Both the undifferentiated generations and the gender subordination made the domestic space one in which the possibilities of access to privacy and exploring intimate sentiments were virtually impossible. This was reinforced by the “artificial societies”—the military institutions and Catholic Church—because they produced the emotional image of “timeless societies” in which the hierarchies are not subjected to any process of elaboration, maturation or extinction, but are always there, unmovable. Those holding the posts may change, but the hierarchical permanence is assured.

Does this mean that the army and the Catholic Church would have had less influence on the social order had there been a legalized process of family organization, buttressed by law, with a family culture that individually differentiated its members and with an adequate generational separation? Probably. Conscientiously obeying laws, and, above all, trusting in others are attitudes very different from the requirements of subordination via physical and mental violence usually established by the tutelary institutions. But it would also be an oversimplification to explain the tutelary institutions’ active role in reproducing the social order by attributing a constrictive orientation to them. In certain extreme situations they may have developed a conspiratorial practice, but their strength does not come from actions implemented in the shadows. They are simply the outlet for this social universe of extended domesticity required by the tutelary order, which systematically blocks individuality and the corresponding sense of responsibility.

Opinionless, with little self and a lot of faith

How were “others” imagined for a social order with these characteristics to come about? The point of departure is a world marked by relations of servitude at various levels. An important element in this was the scant dissemination of printed material and little reading due to limited literacy, and in some cases also to political power’s distrust of reading’s disrupting potential. At the end of the 18th century, it was prohibited to distribute the Inca Garcilaso’s “Royal Commentaries” among the indigenous caciques of the Andean areas—who were educated in elite high schools of the period—for fear that it would awaken indigenous nationalist demands.

For some, the answer to the question “Who am I?” was surely something along the lines of “One of very few.” What encouraged such an answer was not exactly an elitist sentiment, but the conviction that those who were not “the few” were not in a position to take responsibility for themselves. They required protection. In the dominant “climate of opinion,” freedom of expression couldn’t even be proposed as a right of all members of society, since recognizing the possibility of individual opinion implied admitting individuality as a general feature of social life, and this clashed with the norms of hierarchical ideas. That climate of opinion wasn’t limited to the mere verification of momentary things. It had to do with expectations about how others, those who weren’t among the “few,” should behave. State power not only acts through force and crude coercion. It continually defines what the groups in power expect from the others.

These expectations, for example, place very little importance on child-like curiosity as a way to explore knowledge. Promoting experimentation to improve the problems in one’s immediate surroundings is simply unthinkable. It is harder still to encourage young people or adult men and women to keep personal diaries about what happens to them. Personal diaries are a very effective and easy way for individuals to feel that they have an interesting opinion to express. In the absence of any expression of individuality, the corresponding forms of responsibility couldn’t get much of a grip. Compliance with the law was relegated to or subsumed by relations of personal subordination and community celebrations, especially those of a religious or military nature, became the main factor regulating social life.

That common “Latin American air”

We’re not using this characterization to describe a “backward” or “pre-modern” world. It’s rather the reverse of the modernizing scheme that Latin American states gave such credence to at the moment of establishing a republican order. It was precisely the sensation of “backwardness” that confirmed the need for the tutelary order. Just as democracy did not historically appear as a system of government by express plan but was gradually consolidated through various tests and experiments, something similar could be said of the tutelary order. Its tenacity comes from being the result of a combination of quite dissimilar factors that took root without obeying a previously designed program and to some degree was assumed as valid, as the natural language of reality.

Attempts to modernize Latin American societies have either underestimated the prevalence of this tutelary order, which provides the normative underpinnings of their hierarchization, or else they have simply given it a wide birth. Taking it into account would help us understand how certain common and recurring features can be found even today in both the most prosperous and stable Latin American societies and the most impoverished and chaotic ones. These include the importance given to military institutions as the foundation of the social order or to certain forms of community religiosity in which forgiveness and repentance are used to replace or suppress tolerance and individual responsibility. This common “Latin American air” in the similarity of our problems has to do with the tutelary order, which explains everything from the way of legitimizing economic policies to the resistance to incorporating sexual and reproductive rights into the legal order.

Ruptures in the tutelary order:
Mass media and emigration

Tutelary order is a social language, which means that it is seen as natural not only by those who exercise authority but also by those at the receiving end. Mass culture, especially that which arrived through radio and television, has seriously fractured this order and permitted the formation of differentiated audiences.

The politically innocuous appearance of these audiovisual media made possible a relatively fluid and unblocked flow of new ideas, although not without sparking episodes of serious opposition. For example, people in Lima, Peru, were prohibited from attending a mambo concert by Pérez Prado in the fifties, and the production team of the radio soap opera “El derecho de nacer” [The right to be born] in the same country in the same period had to include a priest to ensure the story line’s morality.

A set of referents was incorporated into Latin American social life through the mass media that was not influenced by caudillismo or by military or religious symbols. Literature, particularly that celebrated by this mass culture, also developed a moral discourse that achieved a certain autonomy from the tutelary requirements. In the sixties, when Vargas Llosa’s novel, La ciudad y los perros [The City and the Dogs], was burned in the yard of Lima’s military school, the book had already escaped the framework of lettered culture to become a mass event. The novelists of the Latin American boom were situated between the traditional educated culture and mass culture. Vargas Llosa, together with Cortázar, sought recognition in both cultural registers.

In the past twenty years, the massive and sustained Latin American migration to the industrialized countries has triggered the other great crisis of the tutelary order. It is a crisis not because it’s provoking a change in the emigrants’ consciousness, but because any hierarchy is a “closed world” and cannot assimilate even the possibility of an infinitely open horizon, such as the one opening up to the emigrants.

When the hierarchical pillars are questioned...

When one tries to understand Latin American societies, or a large part of them, from the perspective of individual responsibility and civil liberties, the panorama is discouraging and few possibilities of change can be seen in the medium run. This initial impression frequently leads to the erroneous conclusion that the social whole would be chaotic with no discernible sense other than frustration. This sensation unquestionably has some foundation in reality, but it does not explain how these societies continue existing despite the relative lack of those two features.

Since they are precisely alien to the tutelary order, the charge that individual liberties and civic responsibility are lacking often appears exotic and certainly does not worry the authorities. But when, in contrast, the hierarchical pillars of this order are questioned, the reaction is often quite harsh, and not only among the members of those two “artificial societies.” Even among the population an emerging sense of threat can become quite intolerable. In our opinion, it is precisely this arena of political-cultural debate and critique that could be the most fruitful.

Linked loyalties and lack of scruples

We have a double moral standard. On the one hand is an effective chain of loyalties that not only appear in the area of political relations; in fact, that’s probably where they matter least. Their true effectiveness is played out in the day-to-day stage. From greater to lesser, from men to women, from old to new… It is a set of linkages that excludes the “outsider,” a condition acquired by the simple fact of being outside the familiar, outside these nuclear forms of extended domesticity. Hierarchical links acquire more relevance than a satisfactorily implemented action. Hence the not so unusual conflict between a job well done as a source of individual gratification and the threat this could represent for the preexisting hierarchical links in a local situation.

The other part of the problem has to do directly with a lack of scruples. The extension of the networks of corruption and common crime—assaults, homicides, kidnappings—reveals an evident limit to the tutelary order. Both the current complexity of public organizations and the sustained growth of the cities require the significant presence of individual self-constraint in one’s social behavior for things to function in a moderately acceptable fashion. The old tutelary vigilance no longer covers the dynamic extensions of the social organization. The spread of common crime and corruption are a very eloquent example of the current moral bankruptcy of tutelage, especially clerical tutelage, which finds it very difficult to design a morality based on individual responsibility.

Good customs and bad laws:
A two-dimensional world

In the tutelary order, this chain of loyalties has its most familiar expression in the concept of having “pull,” which suggests a very influential distinction in social life. We can describe it as the juxtaposition between good customs and bad laws. There is in our societies a set of practices that may be in open defiance of the law, but usually aren’t viewed or experienced as transgressions. They simply form part of the “customs,” a term that refers to the set of expectations others have of a determined act. It is a concept that also explains many modalities of corruption.

The dominant public reference in our societies is not the law, beyond which is the domain of transgression. It is rather a two-dimensional world: on the one hand legality and on the other “what one is accustomed to doing.” While at the beginning, the reach of the law can conflict with very deeply rooted practices in any society, there is a transition period until the law effectively marks the limit of certain practices or the starting point of new ones. In the universe we’re describing, however, laws and customs develop a mode of coexistence that falls on the side of customs. It’s a real problem that acquires greater visibility in societies with an oral tradition and where the practice of reading and writing has been socially very restricted. In such societies, the normal difficulties of reforming customs through law hide yet another reality: the reference for collective expectations is not the written expression of the law, but rather the subordinated loyalties. And where no prior loyalties exist, they are elaborated with a mixture of complicity and extortion.

The videotaped scenes of Vladimiro Montesinos’ corruption during the Fujimori government in Peru didn’t just demonstrate illegal commercial transactions. The atmosphere of camaraderie points very clearly to the formation of these subordinated loyalties. In fact, Montesinos’ blackmail was precisely to ensure such subordinated loyalties in the future. This environment of familiarity and subordinated loyalty that is required to carry out fraudulent operations is described in Andrés Oppenheimer’s book Blindfolded: The United States and the Business of Corruption in Latin America, about the corruption generated by the actions of North American transnationals in Latin America.

Tutelage-free areas:
Radio soaps, sports, ingenuity, cunning...

Customs haven’t always or even necessarily been associated with forms of corruption. They have also permitted the creation of certain areas in which hierarchical attempts at control have been neutralized. The whole world of domestic sentiments, ingenuity and the area of unplanned and surprising solutions has served to create pockets of autonomy in the tutelary order.

In the second half of the 20th century, the peculiar development of mass culture in first radio soap operas and then televised ones helped reverse the meaning of important aspects of extended domesticity, especially those related to the feminine sentiments of both men and women. Sports also created collective cult images that never came under total tutelary control and in fact broke the military and clerical monopoly over the creation of community symbols.

These ruptures did not necessarily have a confrontational air, even in the majority of cases. They simply started covering the public landscape with other communicative elements until they formed a “forest of symbols” so varied that it forced a tendency toward individualized tastes. The literature of 19th century customs also offers testimonies of circumstances in which ingenuity was used to escape the control of that tutelary order. The most notable example of questioning the tutelary order based on ironically changing the sense of customs is unquestionably the movies of Cantinflas, especially those from the black and white period.

The tutelary order has systematically sabotaged the possibility of any full cultural legitimacy for freedom of thought. The means used to achieve this were a deficient public education system, the discouragement of reading and limited institutional space for university research, not to mention a press traditionally complacent toward authoritarian modes and the smashing of opposition newspapers’ printing presses, which were common practices until the first decades of the 20th century. Not much space remained to express legitimately dissident opinions that would help broaden the agenda of the period’s exceedingly restricted moral conversation. Ingenuity, cunning, complexity in the search for new tastes in food were all ways of maintaining tutelage-free areas, although established on the periphery of the officially recognized culture.

It had nothing to do with a critique, but was a form of survival where the elements of the hierarchical universe itself were readapted with unexpectedly novel results. Certainly an alternative way of thinking about life in society was consolidated there.

No less patriotic or religious

Unlike critique, understood as the willingness to subject everything to open scrutiny, this was about an effort to change the context in which the elements acquired meaning: how entirely new things could be created using the same old words, the same old ingredients, the naturally familiar. In fact, this is how we’ve learned to think in this part of the world.

We aren’t so much inventors of new elements, of apparatuses, as inventors of contexts. The critique is not particularly aimed at destroying the obsolete, or even discovering what was previously unknown. We’re more geared to discovering new possibilities using the same old familiar things.

Imagining an alternative to the tutelary order doesn’t necessarily mean starting from scratch, creating something out of nothing. It means working to give a new context to actions and personalities that are already often familiar to us. Questioning the model that makes the military institutes and the Catholic Church into “artificial societies” won’t make people less patriotic or less religious, but will surely permit the emergence of a broader sense of how to understand a national community and a religious experience in a less formal and obedient sense. Our expectation is that those two hierarchical prostheses of the social order will be cast aside, making it possible to live in society with warmth but not subordination, with proximity but without attacking intimacy. Connected but free. In sum, good customs will be able to work in tandem with fair laws.

The nation was imagined
as a great house

The nation, the broader community, was imagined as a great house, or set of houses, rather than a civic community. This image was consonant with the hacendado model of authority, and with the two “artificial societies.” In the nation as house, “everybody knows each other,” which implies very detailed expectations about what people can do in their daily activities. Not only do people know each other—or presume a past—there is also a socially elaborated destiny. A basic condition for maintaining the image of the nation as house is immobility, which is very appropriate for places where land ownership was the main symbol of wealth at the beginning of the republic. The world of the house is also suitable for the representation of the social hierarchies, albeit with the significant absence of the paternal function.

That the model of national house was a static order did not mean that it wasn’t exposed to sudden frights. The model’s most serious flaw was its limited power to maintain periods of peaceful stability. From Mexico to Argentina, the beginning of the republican order was marked by a permanent political instability that soon became a distinctive feature of Latin American political culture. The struggle between caudillos was a struggle between heads of family, a clash that included military confrontations and, above all, the ability to win over allies, to establish some type of loyalty, however ephemeral it might be. These confrontations of varying intensity created the image of countries as a series of “families” that inhabited their particular part of the great national house, or hacienda, in which the idea of nation, as enunciated from the state, had nothing to do with juridical citizenship or even homogeneously shared sentiments.

Peasants and indigenous people:
Just household servants

This image of the great house helps us understand situations that at first could seem very paradoxical, such as the exaltation of homegrown nationalism (as opposed to the Spanish colonial tradition), while simultaneously recognizing that there was an immense indigenous population that was not “incorporated into civilization” and remained submerged in unfathomable savagery and ignorance. How could the latter share a sense of belonging to the nation? They were part of the house, but only in the sense of servants. That was what they were for, and that was their place.

Countries with a significant indigenous population didn’t apply the idea of nation as something shared by a community of citizens. The absence of a democratizing policy of literacy helped cement the prestige and influence of the military institutes and the Catholic Church, which had a dual effect. The military institutes offered a written identity—for a long time the only identity document many peasants possessed was from their military service, which suggests just how bad the situation was for peasant women—while religious services offered membership in another community, although it was not perceptible in daily life.

The house image not only alludes to familiarity, but to the decisive aspect of being a place where inequality is not only an evident feature but also indispensable for domestic functioning. That the nation was full of people, especially indigenous peasants, in an intensely relegated situation did not contradict the ideals of national unity in the slightest. For liberal or radical thinking this situation was scandalous, but their criticism fell on deaf ears given this model’s stability.

A basic factor that explains its permanence is directly related to the dominant modes and means of communication. It must be stressed that the model of nation as house wasn’t the realization of a programmatic proposal or the consequence of a hidden strategy. It emerged as an order that proved to be the most efficacious way to bolster the previous ties of authority, the characteristics of the tutelary order.

The way to access symbols that could evoke a reality beyond this model was through reading. But in this context reading, especially that motivated by desire rather than obligation, was simply stamped out as dangerous or threatening. In many cases—and the real magnitude of this problem is still difficult to assess even today—voluntary reading was almost synonymous with clandestine reading. When the first workers’ unions were formed, an especially valued and seldom missing place in the union hall was the library.

The more hierarchical it was,
the more ceremonial as well

The nation as house was based on a combination of ties of authority and modern shortcomings, especially in the area of communication. If individual reading is suspect, and moreover few read because education is very limited, and if the law and legal action are more associated with dispossession and privilege than with protection and guarantees, then public life is like being at home, without formalities. It is as if this sphere wasn’t differentiated from what Goffman called the “storefront-backroom” regions of behavior.

These are the regions we keep out of other’s sight because they could contradict the image we want to project. The kitchen of a restaurant, where the waiters speak freely about the diners, the backroom of a bakery, the bedrooms of a house when the guests arrive are all examples of what Goffman considered settings removed from the perception of others.

It is almost unnecessary to add that the development of privacy requires a kind of “backroom region,” especially with respect to the expression of certain feelings. The “front region” is what we deliberately reveal because we assume it to be related to the appreciation of others, the façade. A very important part of this region is naturally the face. Showing the face and other parts of the body is directly related to the degree of definition of individual identity. A very slovenly presentation or a largely covered body indicates a severe disproportion between the two regions. Sloppiness and excess coverage tend to coincide with gender distinctions.

One of the greatest difficulties for current societies in achieving democratic recognition is that public formality is still synonymous with ceremony, with pre-defined behaviors and words. A little less ceremony could play an important part in engendering sentiments of equality in daily interactions. An in-depth exploration of the Latin American ceremonial compulsion and its consequences remains to be done.

The more hierarchy there is, the more important the ceremonial aspect. To think that the problem could be reduced to a clash between formality and informality is an important error of perception, as it suggests that formality is not established due to negligence, lethargy, excessive bureaucracy, etc. But informality will remain in good health as long as military-clerical ceremonial moments are the main source of identity recognition. The population, albeit in curlers or an undershirt, can have clout in the neighborhood but will be silent at the public ceremonial. And as is to be expected, women simply disappear from this world of ceremonials, except for the cult to patron sants in the military corps or processions in honor of the Virgin Mary.

The hacienda’s boundaries limit the nation

If the nation was conceived and proposed as if it were the big house of a hacienda, its territory was defended as homeland, something that must be defended or conquered. Most of the wars in the Latin American countries had more to do with territorial disputes between nations than with uprisings of populations wanting to change the kind of state they lived in. Perhaps with the exception of the war of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay in the 19th century, most wars were over lands with some particular economic interest or even over some relatively empty, unpopulated territory.

Why has the question of territory had such an exaggerated importance in the formation of nationalism in Latin America? One possible explanation seems particularly relevant to us: the representation of territory as something that had to be defended or conquered was the most shared thing there was, given the characteristics of a tutelary order that impeded any other shared sentiment among the citizens. In a social universe in which the dividing line, if it can be spoken of that way, was drawn between protectors and protected, the national territory was an imaginary extension of the hacienda. And in haciendas, the property line is all important.

The defense or conquest of territory was much more important for fostering nationalism than discovering common features among the nation’s inhabitants. A nation was recognized more in the form of a map than in the faces and habits of its own people. Territory offered the unifying element as nation with respect to another nation. Everything that needs to be known about the world and the human condition in general is to be found in the relationship between protectors and protected. The provincial rather than cosmopolitan air is explained by that peculiar encapsulation generated by this hierarchical order. In this strict sense, it could be said that the hierarchies of the tutelary order are pre-Colombian and move in the direction of a non plus ultra, as if there were nothing more to explore and nothing of any interest beyond the reach of sight.

Information in the “closed world”
of the national hacienda

In this model, the public culture relegates the knowledge imparted by the educational system. Not all hierarchical orders presuppose an inhibition of creative knowledge or of openness to discoveries. But any cooperative form of intellectual effort remains very limited when a hierarchy depends on the adaptation of the domestic order to the whole of public life rather than a systematized moral or religious system—as in the classic Eastern civilizations.

This is one of the motives that help us understand the growing influence of religious teaching and the transfer of public schools to the Catholic Church in the early years of the Republic and in several cases even in the 20th century. This is interesting on two levels. In the first place, despite some Liberal opposition voices, Latin American republicanism was marked by a strong clerical tendency, or, more exactly, it lacked an explicit secular vocation. Despite the French influence in the formulation of the new republican juridical apparatuses, the dominant temperament was sympathy for systems closer to the constitutional monarchies.

The idea of a universal male citizenry was strange at that time, among other things due to the prevailing backdrop of servitude, and even of slavery in some cases. It wasn’t so much an issue of doctrinaire preference for one school of thinking or another. The decisive point was how to incorporate outside thinking into the “closed world” of the hacienda nation. The formation of that world was proceeding apace and any “extra-domestic” reference was bound to be diluted when not expressly prohibited. The clerical underpinnings for this state of affairs couldn’t have been more opportune. The Vatican’s anti-modernism during the 19th and early 20th centuries was not only radical but frequently highly explicit. It was a period in which lists of censured books were considered normal. Rather than originating from a languid public culture and scant civic vocation, this clericalism was very functional in the formation of the tutelary order. Had clericalism been a leading factor of the tutelage it would surely have formulated distinctly Latin American conservative ideas. But that wasn’t the case. What gave meaning to all the efforts was the consolidation of the tutelary order based on extended domesticity.

A house inhabited by an
untamed and infantile multitude

One of the most important consequences is the formation of the image of the dumb Indian or uncouth people as a stable fact, one might even say a norm of reality. This image wasn’t based on empirical verification; it was rather a declaration of how things must be.

Scientific, academic, learned knowledge wasn’t seen as the expression of opinions that sought to improve the world, or even a strained search for the truth; it was above all a way of affirming what part of society one belonged to. That is the origin of the deep roots of the characteristic cultural pessimism that is endemically present in the continent’s intellectual elaborations, that idea of an untamed multitude, be it to underscore the impurity or to exalt an underlying state of infancy and innocence. In any event it was part of the household inventory.

Modern scientific discourse, and perhaps the reception of positivism, is one of the clearest examples: although it contained anticlerical declarations at times, it was used above all to ratify the perceived abyss between the different sectors of society, whose principal expression was not in income distribution but in the hierarchical order of the great house. There were thus sectors of society that were never going to be equal or have such legitimacy. The cultural creations of modernity and the West in general were put at the service of this insuperable difference.

“A Greek nude isn’t the same as...”

A popular expression that circulated in Lima in the early 20th century was that “a Greek nude isn’t the same as a naked Indian.” The sense of the expression, which can still be heard occasionally, was to stress that a Greek, an Athenian of the 5th century, couldn’t possibly have anything in common with an Indian or half-breed of the 20th.

Moreover, and here’s the core of the meaning, anyone who repeated the phrase was affirming his or her proximity to Greek nudes—who in the best of cases were known through the printed pages of art books—rather than to the Indian or cholo one could bump into on the roadside any day of the week. There was no mention whatever of the female chola, since the expression assumed an admiration of masculine beauty and an omission of the feminine, a typical attitude among turn-of-the-century gentlemen.

In practice, academic knowledge served to confirm what was taught from the cradle: that a country’s population is unsalvageably different because people are grouped into immutable categories that are nonetheless complementary through extended domesticity. In the phrase in question, the Hellenizing imagination ensured that the hierarchical differences that might be put to the test by incipient urban development would not be forgotten.

An unperceived but prevailing order

The cultural framing that formed within the tutelary order through various channels consisted of a sustained renunciation of a democratic and secular republican culture. The question of secularization and the affirmation of a lay culture require laying out a whole set of problems that are quite distinct in certain substantial aspects from those of the European and North American experience. This renunciation did not mean a change in the forms of government, the appearance of a fanaticized religious integration or an explicitly praetorian regime. On the contrary, the republican scenography remained at the level of institutions and explicit ideologies, and contributed little new beyond a diffuse conservatism.

This situation helped the tutelary order form and consolidate unnoticed. Some episodes of extreme cruelty or a general climate of “backwardness” could be glimpsed, but the formation of a civil society subsumed within extended domesticity was less noticeable. The colorful Latin American politicians were generally recognized through an array of memorable anecdotes, from the military ruler organizing a funeral for his leg lost in battle to astrologers acting as the power behind the populist caudillos, without forgetting the recent presidential adviser who taped all the scenes of corruption. This picturesque element is all that remains visible, or is at least the most visible aspect, once civic representation has been pared down to its most minimal expressions.

The tutelary order wasn’t just a way for those who exercised the most important positions of power to structure authority. It was also a way of getting along in social life. This order wasn’t the slightest bit excluding. Its greatest aspiration was to achieve a hierarchical integration at the level of local powers and, if possible, in the central state. Although the tutelary order can still be found with particular vividness in countries with a largely rural and indigenous population, it once extended throughout the continent. In fact, it is probable that the oh-so Latin American concept of “right to asylum” could be so easily formulated precisely because the states assumed their respective nations as “houses.”

The protected are postcard material

The protected received certain cultural prerogatives that were not to be sneezed at. One of them, hierarchical inversion, consisted of glorifying those who in everyday life are in the lower ranks of subordination. The representative figures of the different nations were the typical image of a man, preferably a hacienda worker, who represented the “essence of nationality.” We’re talking here about a movement equivalent to those misogynous discourses that turn women into an object of veneration, including the Vatican, which stokes up the cult of the Virgin Mary at the same time as reiterating women’s exclusion from the priesthood.

It would appear illogical to grant major symbolic representativeness to those who in daily practice are denied any possibility of autonomous political representation. But this represents the most solid nucleus of the tutelary order, as it reveals the modalities of representation involved. When contemporary tourist propaganda wants to show characteristic images of a Latin American country, in addition to the archeological monuments, they generally pick indigenous craftspeople, boys and girls shepherding their flocks...

Every society has such traditional images, which appeal to the expectation of potential tourists. The problem arises when in addition to there being no perceptible continuity between this supposedly typical scene and real daily relationships, an open contradiction exists. We’re faced with a compensation mechanism that seeks to legitimize an order of things that would otherwise have been hard to sustain in so many places for such a long time.

Indigenous glory and
relegated indigenous majorities

Tutelage, subordination, is far from synonymous with disparagement. It can also be the depository of what is most valuable in honorific terms, even if it is completely absent from daily life. In the urban world, where the perspective of social mobility is increasingly taking root, this produces a feeling of perplexity. In some Latin American societies, the postponing of modern demands that implied the possibility of legitimating that social mobility, fostering a culture of expressive individualism and adopting a social time increasingly adjusted to the industrial work discipline, was and still is compensated for with this exaltation of typical figures.

The humanitarian campaigns to improve the situation of the indigenous population in the early 20th century commonly ran up against the firm alliance between the state and the owners of haciendas where the workers faced serious poverty and vulnerability. These campaigns contained a limitation that is at least evident to us today: the voice, the expression of the population in whose name the demands of solidarity were being made was rarely heard. Save some educators who worked in the indigenous areas and had a realistic appreciation of the possibilities of a secular public school model, the dominant attitude favored “benign” tutelary legislation. The urban sense of the indigenous population’s inaccessibility was closely related to the communicative conditions imposed by the wall of their oral dependence. It was only through radio, and later television, that the image of a remote, inaccessible indigenous population was gradually diluted.

The schism between indigenous glory on the one hand and a relegated daily existence on the other is a frequent mark of the tutelary order. It shows how the root of conflicts within this order lies not between opposing individual entities, but in a dense field of complementarities employed to keep the national house in order.

To shake off fear and obedience

The tutelary order we’ve tried to characterize here helps provide a better understanding of why it is necessary and timely to demand a democratic, secular and civic public culture.

Pluralism as a way to transcend the tutelary order stimulates the appearance of new feelings in people, the most important of which could be called a feeling of basic equality. The tutelary order has very efficiently administered feelings such as obedience and fear—albeit a fear that has not always or even in the majority of cases needed to be expressed as terror. Its most common manifestation is an inhibition at times expressed in a tenuous tone of voice with the sharpness of a shout and very rapid way of speaking, as if the words were being pursued by someone. The feeling of obedience has nothing to do with respect for abstract norms, but is expressed in a behavior where arbitrariness and mutual mistrust are the coin of the realm, as if only insubordination, not freedom, were possible.

The trickiest part of the tutelary order is that it no longer takes place in a landscape of farmhouses, military barracks and churches. The hustle and bustle of the cities, the cement and glass buildings, the incessant flow of vehicles, the street lights, the electrical forms of communication, the air traffic, all invite one to believe that Latin American societies have been “secularized” and that extended domesticity is a thing of the past.

The feeling of basic equality

Escaping the tutelage-subordination-more tutelage spiral requires a framework of institutional guarantees that ensure the legitimacy of individual existences, that publicly stated opinions can be heard and responded to in a climate of mutual respect, and that the most individualizing emotions—those linked to sexuality—can be properly deliberated.

Only when there is a shared commitment to these practices will we discover that tolerance is a more important public virtue than forgiveness, and that democracy is a basic sense of equality, not just a label that emerged during the Cold War. With such a state of mind as a backdrop, there will be such a flood of the kind of imagination and energy needed to overcome our social difficulties, headed by poverty, that we will surely surprise even ourselves.

Guillermo Nugent is a Peruvian sociologist and psychotherapist who is professor at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. This text was taken from the document “La trampa de la moral única. Argumentos para una democracia laíca,” Lima, 2005, and was synthesized and edited by envío.

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