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The question of race in Romulo Gallegos's Pobre Negro.

IN 1937, Romulo Gallegos published Pobre negro, a historical novel that traced the social history of Afro-Venezuelans in the Barlovento region beginning in the period immediately preceding the abolition of slavery in 1854, continuing through the post-emancipation period of high unemployment, the abandonment of the cacao plantations, and the physical suffering of the populace, and ending in the devastating anarchy of the Federal Revolution of 185963 in which most blacks sided with the Federalists against the Conservatives in hopes of achieving social equality, political recognition, and economic justice. In the foreground of this broad historical tableau, two strands of a single family drama gradually converge. The first of these recounts the Alcorta family's benign treatment of slaves on its cacao plantation, the progressive thinking Cecilio Alcorta's grooming of his racially mixed illegitimate cousin Pedro Miguel Candelas as a plantation manager, and the family's inability to continue agricultural production amidst the chaos of the civil war. The other is the biography of Pedro Miguel, who is fathered by a runaway slave and conceived by the Alcorta's negrophobe daughter Julia on the very night of that slave's escape. After his mother's death in childbirth, the baby's identity is hidden by the ashamed family, which places him in the loving adoptive care of a black couple. As a youth, Pedro Miguel befriends a politically radical priest who instills in him a thirst for social justice and liberal political teachings. The young man secretly instructs slaves about the injustices of the Venezuelan social system with the aim of fomenting revolt. Learning the true identity of Pedro Miguel, his cousins Cecilio and Luisana educate him and assign him to manage one of their plantations. When he achieves commercial and agricultural success, he becomes so attached to the land that, in an abrupt political about-face, he seems to abandon his aims of revolution. He falls in love with Luisana, however, and believing that she does not love him, he changes direction again and, together with other black combatants, joins the Federalist army, where he distinguishes himself in combat. After a few years, seeing that the Alcorta plantation and its owners are in danger from his own army, and discouraged by what he now perceives as the senseless violence of war that has failed to secure its political aims, Pedro Miguel changes direction yet again by going to his cousins' aid. They reveal to the hero his true family identity just as Cecilio dies. Luisana and Pedro Miguel then declare their mutual love and sail away from the war-ravaged mainland.

Literary critics and historians have paid relatively little attention to Pobre negro compared to Gallegos's more famous novels, Dona Barbara, Cantaclaro, and Canaima. In some studies that claim to encompass the totality of his novelistic production, this late narrative either has not been mentioned at all or has been granted a few perfunctory lines of purely thematic commentary. (1) Other scholars have examined specific aspects of the work, such as the author's espousal of black emancipation, (2) the psychology of the characters, (3) the novelist's missed opportunity in not making Pedro Miguel a tragic hero when the plot and his characterization logically dictate such an outcome, (4) the presence of elements of African culture in the depiction of customs and manners, (5) and the control and recycling of black "otherness" by white liberal intellectuals in a process of ambivalent coexistence that is a structuring principle of nation building. (6) Owing to the themes of mixed-race marriage and children, four critics have analyzed the concept of mestizaje. (7) While all these studies discuss the question of race because of its crucial role in the narrative, none has made Gallegos's racial ideology and 1930s Venezuelan political issues the principal focuses of its analysis.

Although Pobre negro does not commend itself to critical attention on the strength of its artistic qualities, its publication in the political context of Venezuela in the late 1930s raises some interesting social and political questions. Given the recognition of the positive role of Afro-Venezuelans in the nation's economic development and the implicit and explicit condemnation of slavery and racism by Gallegos's obvious spokespersons in the novel, and keeping in mind the policy of Accion Democratica--the political party of Gallegos, who was later elected president under its banner--to massively integrate blacks and Indians into the nation's political life, why is the novelist's depiction of Afro-Venezuelans so stereotypically racist, and why does he make racially linked qualities function as determinants of character? My study attempts to account for Gallegos's ambivalence with respect to race by considering Pobre negro in the light of the portrayal of blacks in the Venezuelan literature of the 1930s, the Accion Democratica party's espousal of black and Indian rights in that period--including its involvement in the national debate about immigration--, and the influence of late nineteenth-century European positivist thought on Gallegos at the time of his intellectual formation, as it manifests itself in his early writings.

By virtue of its overt political ideology and the timing of its publication, Pobre negro is a response to the racial attitudes and policies of the Venezuelan political elite at a particular historical moment. The most complete study of that nation's racial politics is to be found in Winthrop R. Wright's Cafe con leche: Race, Class, and National Image in Venezuela. On the one hand, the elite espoused "the widely accepted myth of racial equality that had become an official doctrine in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America during the twentieth century" (1). In reality, however, they
   advocated the whitening of their population ... in two ways. First,
   they openly encouraged the immigration of white Europeans, while
   they excluded the entry of nonwhites. Second, they called for
   miscegenation, along with cultural assimilation, as a means of
   reducing the size of the "pure" black racial minority. The latter
   they hoped would either blend gradually into a whiter mix or
   retreat to isolated enclaves in the less populated regions of the
   nation (2).

Wright recounts how racially mixed middle-class Venezuelans formed the populist Accion Democratica party whose black, mulatto, Indian, and mestizo members espoused "a cultural nationalism that recognized the tri-racial nature of Venezuela's masses" and "expressed pride in the contributions of Indians and blacks to the formation of Venezuela's society and clearly understood that most Venezuelans had mixed ancestry" (11). In the period from 1945 to 1948, when AD led the government, it opened the bureaucracy to black and pardo employees and fought discrimination in public accommodations and immigration laws.

According to Wright, in the 1930s, despite the ready availability and proximity of a surplus of Afro-Caribbean labor, "[h]owever much Venezuelan elites wanted agricultural workers to settle the interior, they virulently opposed the free entry of nonwhites ... what they called 'culturally inferior' persons" (100-01). The mainstream press supported this blanqueamiento project. In El Luchador, Alfredo Pardo argued that blacks would contribute to the degeneration of the nation. Panorama editorialized that Afro-Antilleans were taking jobs from Venezuelans. In El Universal, Arturo Uslar Pietri blamed black inferiority for the laziness of mestizos and predicted that if Asian and black immigration were permitted, it if allowed, would hinder the development of Venezuelan civilization (Wright 101-02). In Las guerras internas de Venezuela. Como han perjudicado su poblacion, Antonio Lacle wrapped himself in the mantle of national hero Simon Bolivar whose racist views he quoted in defense of his own:
   La inmigracion factor determinante en el crecimiento y el
   desarrollo economico, cultural y social de las poblaciones.... Del
   Libertador "grande entre los grandes" ... trascribimos ... una
   prueba mas de su grande vision politica: "Se debe fomentar la
   inmigracion de la gente de Europa y America del Norte para que se
   establezcan aqui trayendo sus artes y su ciencia.... [L]os
   matrimonios con europeos y angloamericanos cambiaran todo el
   caracter del pueblo y lo haran ilustrado y prospero." (11)

In his Labores culturales, Vicente Davila's racism was subtler as he made a highly selective historical argument that ignored both the early arrival and the indispensable agricultural and mining labor of Africans: "En Venezuela los inmigrantes deben ser campesinos europeos, apropiados a los cultivos que ha menester la zona de la cordillera ... La llanura venezolana se poblara ... cuando las fallas de la cordillera se encuentren habitadas por los descendientes de los primeros inmigrantes."

At the very beginning of Pobre negro, the narrator recalls the importation of enslaved Africans and the essential work that they did in Venezuelan gold mines and on sugar and cacao plantations. Later, in the central section of the novel, Cecilio Alcorta urges his father Fermin to prepare blacks for their posemancipation freedom by granting them sharecropper status on a portion of his land, teaching them agricultural management, and paying them for the products that they grow. Whites, he says, should be grateful to blacks for farming their lands, working their mines, cooking and sewing for them, nursing their babies, and caring lovingly for their families. He eloquently persuades the skeptical slave-owner to accept this plan by arguing that blacks are authentic Venezuelans, not foreigners, and that they must therefore be acknowledged as compatriots and integrated into the nation.
   -- Hasta cuando se empenaran ustedes en cerrar los ojos ante un
   hecho fatal? Nuestro negro es una raza en marcha, pero no un
   forastero de paso por nuestro suelo y si mal hicieron los que lo
   trasplantaron del propio, peor hacemos no cultivandolo como una
   planta ya nuestra. (468)

Throughout the text, Gallegos's narrator stresses the industry, productivity, dependability, and loyalty of the black women and men who work on the Alcortas' plantation as well as the resultant profitability of that enterprise. He also makes a point of former slaves' seeking employment immediately after abolition and of vengeful planters' refusing them jobs. Moreover, while some newly emancipated Afro-Venezuelans do turn to banditry, others establish homesteads in previously uncultivated areas, presumably as subsistence farmers. When Cecilio and Luisana Alcorta place their racially-mixed cousin in charge of one family plantation, he increases the area under cultivation, intro duces bio-diversity, and produces high revenues. By means of these narrative elements, Gallegos is clearly weighing in on the Accion Democratica side of the immigration debate, the assertion that Afro-Caribbeans are in every way suited to immigrate to Venezuela in order to enhance agricultural development.

Throughout the novel, slavery and racism are condemned, both implicitly and explicitly. Ana Julia Alcorta's obsessive fear and hatred of Afro-Venezuelans is characterized by the narrator as a psychosis and the girl's mother, portrayed as a reasonable burguesa, disapproves of her pathological notions and behavior. The narrator clearly signals his disapproval of Fermin Alcorta's paternalism toward his slaves, satirizing the hacendado's infantilization of them in his form of address: "De cuando en cuando se encontraban con cuadrillas de esclavos ... bajo la caporalia de los mas ancianos.... --Buenos dias, muchachos--respondiales el senor Alcorta, menos viejo que varios de ellos" (444-45). Gallegos's liberal portavoz Cecilio Alcorta recognizes slavery as an unjust deprivation of freedom and himself as a failed seeker of justice because he has not, as a legislator, succeeded in abolishing that institution:
   La sonrisa bondadosa ... se convirtio en mueca triste porque al ver
   a los esclavos de su casa se acordaba de cuando ambicionaba ser "un
   hombre con las soluciones de los problemas de los hombres en sus
   manos abiertas para todos". Pero ya el pensamiento comenzaba a
   escaparsele ... de los revuelos fugaces sobre las miserias de
   aquellos hombres privados del mayor de los bienes.... (445)

The narrator negatively presents Fermin's skepticism about blacks' intellectual capacity when Cecilio proposes teaching them ideas and good habits: "-- Ideas! Valgame Dios! Esto si no me lo esperaba! Ideas en la cabeza del negro!" (468). Antonio de Cespedes, who serves throughout the text as antagonist to protagonist Pedro Miguel, first as his rival for Luisana's affection and then as a commander of the enemy Conservative army, and whose racist ideas are clearly meant to be rejected, belittles the black revolutionaries' fighting ability, "... nada que en realidad merezca ser llamada campana. Facciones, montoneras bisonas, bochinches de negros ..." (552), and calls blacks unruly, destructive rabble worthy of their former enslavement, "... amotinamientos de populacho al grito de mueran los blancos; ayer, esclavitudes que se sublevaban contra sus legitimos amos y les daban muerte atroz y hoy facciones que hacen la guerra del vandalismo" (553). Cecilio and Luisana's proposal to establish a school for slaves implies an intellectual capacity in blacks that subverts the rationale of slavery as a civilizing mission. Finally, the narrator recognizes the essential role played by economic exploitation and racial oppression in the exacerbation of black violence in the Federalist Revolution: "... las poblaciones de Barlovento, donde la pugna politica habia sido desbordada por los tremendos caracteres de la lucha de clases, agudizada por la desigualdad racial" (639).

Despite the novel's condemnation of racism, its insistence that AfroVenezuelans are true citizens, and its portrayal of them as hard and loyal workers, Gallegos's characterization of blacks feeds into the very racist stereotypes that elite white Venezuelans have in mind as they seek to blanquear the population. Blacks are depicted as essentially sensual and primitive rather than rational, as is reflected in the descriptions of their music, for instance: "Ya el alma negra vuelca en el grito sensual que le arranca la musica barbara ... el alma frenetica de la musica negra" (339-40). They are characterized as libidinous: "Cotizas de estreno, enaguas almidonadas, panuelos de Madras oprimiendo las grenas rebeldes, brazos desnudos, buenos para el mordisco de la lujuria ..." (340). Black women are shown as imbued with rapturous sexuality as they dance: "Una mujer avanza ... el ritmo de la danza ya le sacude las caderas haciendo sonar las enaguas, ya le estremece los pechos, ya lo respira la boca sensual, ya lo resuellan las narices dilatadas, ya esta en el blanco de los ojos en extasis" (340-41). The portrait of Saturna makes her exclusively an object of male desire: "Mueve ... sus ancas potentes, erguido el torso y al peso del cesto asentado estremece bajo el corpino mugriento de los senos virginales de pezones erectos" (352).

When Negro Malo escapes from the Alcorta plantation clutching his grisgris to ward off frightening spirits, he is said to be participating in timeless black irrationality: "Abrieronse totalmente en el alma del negro los abismos de la supersticion milenaria" (347). Adult blacks are depicted as childlike in their innocence, which serves as a code-word for their non-intellectuality: "La luz del candil acentuaba con reflejos cobrizos los rasgos salientes de los negros rastros atentos .... Tenian una expresion ingenua, de ninos ante un juguete prometido, aquellos hombres ya viejos..." (410). Pedro Miguel's education of his fellow slaves does not take the form of the careful systematic exposition of political ideas, but rather of jokes and insults that ridicule the Conservatives, the implication being that his black peasant audience is incapable of comprehending abstract reasoning.

Even when Afro-Venezuelans engage in Christian worship, it is depicted as ecstatic, frenetic, and hallucinatory, that is, "primitive": "Giraban las coplas revueltas en el torbellino de los rudos acordes, sonaba el furruco con ronco jadeo de bestia rijosa, y en los negros y sudorosos rostros de los cantores blanqueaban los ojos fijos en la cruz con alucinante expresion de extasis" (456). In a religious ritual enacted on Corpus Christi day, blacks dress as devils, dance to drums, and simulate satanic possession with physical convulsions. They attempt to enter a church but are repulsed, an outcome that symbolizes the Church's resisting evil.
   La danza general, sin ritmo ni compas, solo para meter ruido los
   tambores, torbellino de saltos, esquinces y agazapamientos que
   cubria todo el espacio del atrio. Africa primitiva, aunque tal vez
   reproduciendo en America une escena de la Europa medieval, poseidos
   por la farsa ya los ponia freneticos el asalto rechazado por la
   virtud de las puertas del templo y de este frenesi participaban los
   espectadores, cuyos gestos y ademanes copiaban las peripecias de la
   zarabanda. (534)

Even though the narrator momentarily abolishes the racist dichotomy between European civilizacion and African barbarie by acknowledging this ritual's debt to the Old World carnival tradition, he immediately reinstates it by attributing to blacks' inherent primitivism the frenzy that easily possesses them.

In the period immediately following abolition, some liberated blacks form marauding bands while others adopt a settled life-style in the forests, yet both these impulses are presented as "primitive" responses to freedom: "[R]otos los diques que contenia la libre y genuina manifestacion del alma negra--Africa yuxtapuesta a America-- no incorporada a la vida espiritual de la Colonia, que se prolongaba en la naciente Republica, la libertad dio ocasion a dos modos primitivos de su ejercicio ..." (492). When the narrator contrasts "Africa" with "America," that is, black Venezuelan culture with white, instead of using the terms "Africa" and "Europa," he establishes "America" as essentially European while Afro-Venezuelans are implicitly defined as outsiders who ought to adapt to the culture that Europeans have transplanted onto the continent as a kind of unquestioned historical destiny. This idea contradicts Cecilio's impassioned assertion that blacks are true Venezuelans.

The funeral of a black baby is sympathetically evoked in a tableau of local color. As the ceremony unfolds, the narrator stresses the ceremony's sensuality and emotionality.
   Reanudo sus alaridos la madre dolorosa.... [S]e acerco Tilingo a su
   negra llorosa y la saco a bailar, sin que ella dejase sus
   gimoteos.... Los imitaron las demas parejas... extasiados en la
   sensacion de la carne penetrada de musica.... Sensualidad
   enardecida por la presencia de la muerte.... Alma negra, simple y
   todavia enigmatica. (537-38)

The notion that blacks are "enigmatic" seems to flow from their funerary rite's being different from that of Euro-Venezuelan Catholics in that it is non-liturgical and consists rather of laments, music and dance. "Gemia la madre dolorida entre los compases del golpe, cuidadosa de no perderlos, pena y gozo en un mismo sentimiento ..." (538). The narrator is surprised by what he perceives as the black mother's ability to simultaneously experience pain and pleasure, feelings that Europeans consider to be mutually exclusive, and he implies that the ability to have such undifferentiated emotional experience is incomprehensible.

It is in the depiction of the Federalist Revolution, however, that Gallegos's racist ideas are most clearly expressed. At first, his narrator summarizes that conflict in cultural and political terms, classifying black Venezuelans among the "barbaric" popular masses but also asserting that the ruling elite is disguising its self-interest beneath a mask of constitutionalism.
   En lo hondo y verdadero de las cosas obedientes a la voluntad vital
   de los pueblos, seria el duelo a muerte entre la barbarie genuina
   en que continuaba sumida la masa popular, con sus hambres, sus
   rencores y sus ambiciones, y la civilizacion de trasplante --codigos
   y constituciones aparentemente admirables-- en que venia amparando
   sus intereses la clase dominadora. (573)

This balanced political analysis soon gives way, however, to a burlesque caricature of black soldiers and white war victims. In saying that "[e]l centinela Deogracias practicaba las ordenanzas con un fervor fetichista muy de origen africano" (596), the narrator devalues this soldier's military discipline by attributing it to his racial bent for fetishism and fanaticism.
   Este ultimo ... lema [Dios y Federacion] ... habia sido un acierto
   de su inventor como medio de fanatizacion de los adeptos a la causa
   y lo demostraba el culto que le rendia Deogracias, mentalidad
   representativa de una inmensa mayoria, en cuya alma lo politico se
   habia amalgamado con lo religioso, primitivo y fetichista.... (597)

Here the black combatant is declared to be non-rational and capable of military commitment only via an emotional appeal rather than a reasoned analysis of his social and political interests.

The malevolence of the black rebel commander El Mapanare is illustrated by his rape of captive white women after mock marriages are performed by intimidated Catholic priests who also hear the rapist's confession and pardon these sexual violations. "Me gusta procede de acuerdo con la Santa Madre Iglesia, de donde resulta que apenas le echo la mano a una blanca que me guste, cuando ya estoy buscando un cura pa que me case con ella como es debio" (607). The image of an older, corpulent, drunken black man violating a succession of defenseless young white women, intimidating priests, and perverting a Christian sacrament appeals to the most terrible racist fantasies of white Venezuelans.

As the civil war rages ever closer to the Alcorta plantation, the black women who live there react with what is described as an "inquietud supersticiosa" (625) rather than a well-founded, reasonable recognition of danger, and with "el terror colectivo" (626), as if irrationality were infectious while rationality were individual. Their fear is intensified by what they take to be an omen of evil, another proof of their lack of intellectuality: "[H]abian presenciado el vuelo extrano de un pajaro nunca visto por alli, cuyo impresionante graznido decia clara, distinta y espantosamente: -- Corran, corran, corran!" (626).

The highly negative stereotyping of black characters in Pobre negro despite the novel's unequivocal anti-slavery and anti-racist social messages might possibly lead one to believe that Gallegos is simply adhering to the conventions of his time in the literature that depicts the experiences and customs of Afro-Venezuelans, but that corpus is far from uniform and it often depicts blacks rather sympathetically.

Guillermo Meneses's 1934 novel Cancion de Negros paints a sympathetic and nuanced picture of his black characters' psychology as they react to the frustrations of rural exodus and racial segregation. (8) Meneses peoples his second novel, Campeones (1939) (9) with poor blacks, Indians and mixed-race men who try to climb socially by dint of their athletic prowess. While some of them are characterized as hard-working and virtuous and others as vice-ridden, there is none of the stereotyping that one sees in Pobre negro. Although the protagonist of Meneses's 1936 short story "Borrachera" (10) is a poor old black man, the issue of race is of no importance, but rather his alcoholism, his social isolation, and his terror when faced with death. The same author's beautiful and touching 1938 novella La balandra "Isabel" llego esta tarde confers on its Afro-Venezuelan personages a quiet dignity of character and a nobility of suffering.

In his short stories "El negro Gertrudis" and "Manrufo," (11) Julian Padron depicts Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Venezuelan characters--peasants and poor townspeople--with a deep understanding for their emotional suffering and their capacity for pleasure without either idealizing or demeaning them. Manuel Rodriguez-Cardenas's 1938 poetry collection Tambor (Poemas para Negros y Mulatos) deserves a mixed verdict on the issue of black stereotyping. His poems pay homage to Afro-Venezuelans, condemn slavery, recognize the industry of black petroleum workers, denounce their exploitation by employers, fault the institutionalization of racial discrimination, and justify black armed revolt, all without caricature. Black women, however, are highly sexualized and de-intellectualized and thereby trivialized.

On the other hand, there are works that appeal unabashedly to the racism of a portion of the Venezuelan readership. Arturo Uslar Pietri's 1931 novel Las lanzas coloradas, set at the time of the War of Independence, paints blacks as victims of impoverishment whose impulsive and vulgar behavior is nevertheless explained more in terms of race than of material deprivation. (12) One character that Uslar Petri exploits is a stereotype calculated to strike fear in white women, "el negro-animal cuyas actitudes instintivas padecen las mujeres blancas que son violadas en una afirmacion de libertad y revancha" (Marina Moadas 94). This writer uses his mulatto protagonist as a mouthpiece to characterize blacks as bestial, repugnant, smelly, and filthy. (13) In his 1932 novella Urupagua, Agustin Garcia displays the same ambivalence on racial issues that one finds in Pobre negro. The author clearly satirizes a paternalistic white plantation owner and condemns his lustful pursuit of black women, especially his bragging that his mating with his employees serves to blanquear, and thus improve, the population. At the same time, however, he depicts the black woman protagonist as so inherently drawn to sexual activity that she cannot resist her employer's advances, a defect that eventuates in her husband's tragically murdering her seducer.

We can thus see that Venezuelan literature in the 1930s furnishes Gallegos with two models of black characterization: a dehumanizing, racist caricature and a complex, deeply human image. With few exceptions, he opts for the former, thus perpetuating a harmful racial stereotype. In order to understand his racist portrayal of blacks in the face of the progressive ideas of his Accion Democratica colleagues and the non-racist representation of Afro-Venezuelans in so much contemporary national literature, one must seek a strong countervailing influence deeply rooted in his beliefs. This is to be found in the positivist social philosophy that the young Gallegos encountered in his university education and in the thought of writers with whom he shared the pages of newspapers and journals in his early adulthood.

The most candid study of Gallegos's racist ideology is Wilfredo Hernandez's article, "Del desprecio del pueblo a su conquista: Un estudio de los personajes como ilustracion de las concepciones ideologicas de Romulo Gallegos," yet even this critic erroneously credits the novelist with overcoming his earlier racism in the later novels, Canaima (1935), Sobre la misma tierra (1943) and Pobre negro. Other critics have shied away from this subject, probably because of their reluctance to accuse the nation's greatest writer and an outstanding political leader of harboring such embarrassing beliefs. Hernandez's intention is to fill that critical void: "Por tal razon resulta pertinente analizar como el racismo contenido en sus ensayos iniciales aparece ilustrado posteriormente en sus cuentos y novelas" (99). Citing Gallegos's analysis, in his article entitled "Las causas," of the Venezuelan people's lack of political party affiliation and its strong attraction to caudillismo,
   En estas multitudes amorfas, de origen hibrido, formadas por la
   fusion aun no realizada de diversos elementos etnicos, en la que
   luchan atavismos y supervivencias de todas las razas, es tan inutil
   querer edificar nada solido y estable (103),

Hernandez identifies Gallegos's error: "Asi, explicada, la incomprension se originaba en factores biologicos, no culturales; debido a que el pueblo era un producto amorfo de grupos inferiores mezclados, estaba entonces incapacitado para entender la importancia de las organizaciones politicas" (100). The critic goes on to show how the novelist's social thought is contaminated by the same racism.
   Coincidentalmente, para Romulo Gallegos, las mezclas etnicas eran
   la causa principal de casi todos los males de la Venezuela de
   principios del siglo; por ejemplo, al comentar la inestabilidad
   politica, asi como el atraso economico, tecnologico y cultural del
   pais, el escritor afirmaba que eran consecuencia de la conformacion
   genetica inferior de sus compatriotas. (100)

While Gallegos affirms the presence of ineradicable racially linked negative characteristics, he believes that these can be attenuated by means of education, a notion first proposed in his essay "El factor educacion" and that is illustrated in Pobre negro.
   Corregir nuestro sistema de educacion, sera hacer la primera
   enmienda ... y la mas fecunda en resultados positivos porque aunque
   la influencia de este factor social no baste a extirpar ... muchas
   de las condiciones que tienen su origen en las raices mismas de la
   raza, haciendo desaparecer las herencias perniciosas, si las atenua
   en mucho y prepara su desaparicion final. (Quoted in Machado de
   Acedo 132)

Clemy Machado de Acedo's is the most thorough study of the intellectual influences to which Gallegos was exposed. In the Universidad Central de Venezuela around 1905, he would have read Louis Gumplowicz's Precis de sociologie and Elias Toro's Antropologia general y de Venezuela precolombina, both of which declare the superiority of the white race. Toro proposes a principle of natural selection that will also find its way into our novel.
   El contacto de una raza de civilizacion inferior o incipiente con
   otra mas civilizada, determina la degeneracion y extincion
   definitiva de la primera, por virtud de la seleccion, natural, que
   da supremacia y supervivencia al elemento mas vigoroso y resistente.
   (Quoted in Machado de Acedo 151)

When Gallegos was publishing articles in 1909 in La Alborada, he shared the pages of that journal with Julio Planchart who, in an article entitled "El Origen del mal," attributed different characteristics to different "razas" using a blend of biological determinism and a socially constructed concept of race reminiscent of Gobineau's Essai sur l'inegalite des races humaines of a half-century earlier. In that piece, Planchart attempted to define the Venezuelan national amalgam in the following way:
   Del blanco tendria la fuerza de los centros nerviosos [here read
   "la inteligencia"], del indio esa constitucion ensonadora, esa
   sentimentalidad que hace a esta casta de hombres, fundadora de
   religiones y de altos preceptos de moral; y del negro la fuerza
   muscular, la resistencia al trabajo manual. (Quoted in Machado de
   Acedo 129)

Planchart reiterates the principle of the greater influence of higher racial order characteristics over lower order ones: "En la fusion de razas lleva siempre preeminencia la mas fuerte, la raza-senor, la que posee centros nerviosos de dominador, la blanca" (quoted in Machado de Acedo 130). He goes on to blame the black component of the Venezuelan people as its chief obstacle to national development: "El elemento negro, si bien trae consigo fuerza de musculos y resistencia a la accion climaterica, quizas ponga en nosotros, la insuficiencia nerviosa [here read "la falta de inteligencia"] que nos incapacita para el trabajo continuado que causa el engrandecimiento y prosperidad de las naciones" (quoted in Machado de Acedo 130). He then proposes increased European immigration as the means to "ahogar en sangre de razas fuertes ... nuestra probable morbosa ineptitud para llegar al punto ideal de la civilizacion" (quoted in Machado de Acedo, 131).

It would be easy to discount the influence of the ideas of Gallegos's early intellectual colleagues and of the authors of his sociological readings if those notions were not so identifiable in the plot of Pobre negro. Throughout the novel, a hierarchy of races is implicitly elaborated. I have already detailed Gallegos's narrator's portrayal of Afro-Venezuelans' sensuality, irrationality, innocence, superstition, fetishism, penchant for violence, and intellectual limitations.

The white characters who are most favorably portrayed--Cecilio el joven, Luisana, their mother dona Agueda, Padre Mediavilla, and the eccentric intellectual uncle Cecilio el viejo--are reasonable, sensitive, and just, not so much by virtue of their education and upbringing, but rather by their very nature. Even the white characters who are morally flawed are shown to be reasonable some of the time and at those moments able to command the respect of other reasonable people. These characters are the Alcorta patriarch don Fermin, who is at first skeptical about blacks' being educable, but who is convinced by his children to allow his slaves to be schooled, and the racist aristocrat Antonio de Cespedes, who, as a Conservative army officer, displays tactical military brilliance during the civil war.

The project of young Cecilio to educate slaves in preparation for their eventual economic independence after abolition is in conformity with Gallegos's idea, advanced in "El factor educacion," that learning will lessen the influence of the baser instincts that inhere in the darker races. Left to themselves and without the civilizing influence of whites, as are the newly freed soldiers in El Mapanare's Federalist army, blacks will slip into irrational violence and adherence to caudillismo.

The racially-mixed Pedro Miguel, by virtue of his mother's whiteness, is intelligent and educable. The radical priest, Padre Mediavilla, teaches him the subtle points of Venezuelan party politics and gives him political newspapers and pamphlets that he comprehends without difficulty. From his cousins, he learns enough reading, writing, accounting, and agricultural management to suc cessfully administer a family plantation. Cecilio and Luisana, respectively, recognize enough of their own race in him to integrate him into the family business and to marry him.

Moreover, torn between the destructiveness of the Federalist Revolution and his allegiance to the family that first rejects and then embraces him, his rationality and sensitivity eventually gain enough ascendancy over his violent tendencies for him to abandon the war effort and to protect his white benefactors. By means of some tortured and implausible reasoning, the narrator explains away the hero's participation in a mostly black military force whose leaders indiscriminately terrorize white planters. Invoking the argument of social conditioning over nature, that is, negative social pressures that temporarily conquer Pedro Miguel's essential--and eventually triumphant--positive white characteristics, the narrator interprets the hero's engagement in antiwhite violence as a response to what he has misunderstood as Luisana's initial rejection of him as a romantic partner:
   Su odio al blanco no era, en realidad, sino una ficcion de si
   mismo, una maniobra de engano propio, de la cual se le escapaba el
   artificio, sin duda por no ser todo creacion de su espiritu
   atormentado por la preocupacion de su inferioridad ante el objeto
   de su amor, sino en gran parte influencia del ambiente de lucha....

Thus it seems that the hero's dominant traits, those associated with whiteness, succeed in overcoming the ones related elsewhere in the novel to blackness, in conformity with the positivist Julio Planchart's principle of the dominance of the characteristics of the superior race over those of the inferior race when racial mixing occurs.

Pobre negro appears to have been written largely as a partisan response to some contemporary social and political debates. At a time when the Accion Democratica party was recruiting large numbers of black Venezuelans into its political base, Gallegos stressed that population's essential contributions to the country's economic life in the colonial and post-independence eras and the legitimacy of its aspirations to full participation in the political process as symbolized by its adherence to the nineteenth-century Federalist cause. When racist nationalists were espousing a whites-only immigration policy, Gallegos illustrated blacks' capacity for hard work and denounced the slavery and racism that were the earlier historical manifestations of racial prejudice. Nevertheless, his unfavorable depiction of blacks in most other contexts, in conformity with the racism of one tendency of contemporary Venezuelan literature and with seeming indifference to the more favorable characterization of blacks in the nation's opposite literary inclination, as well as his adherence to a reactionary theory of racially linked, biologically transmitted, and socially manifested traits in the determination of character show how the racist think ing that he had acquired in his early intellectual formation persisted even in the novel that many critics have deemed to be his greatest display of advocacy on behalf of Afro-Venezuelans.


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by Henry Cohen

Kalamazoo College


(1) See Waldo Ross, Jose Antonio Galaos, Jaime Peralta, Richard F. Allen, and Pedro Diaz Seijas.

(2) See Giuseppe Bellini.

(3) See Raul Ramos Calles.

(4) See Ulrich Leo.

(5) See William W. Megenney.

(6) See Antonio Isea, "La narracion ..." and "Pobre Negro ...".

(7) Hilda Marban lays out Gallegos's theory of "el mestizaje como la forma de integrar la sociedad venezolana, solucionando asi el problema racial y dando un paso de avance en lo cultural" (159) and the politician's faith in the progressive democratization of his nation. Yolanda Salas de Lecuna argues persuasively for the novel's being a perfect literary example of "el mestizaje de la transgresion y de la violencia" in her sociological analysis of race relations: "Se percibe ... un concepto de mestizaje que es un producto contaminante y desestabilizador de un orden social en el que priva la limpieza de sangre como norma ideal, sin que se impida el desacato a tal norma en la practica existente" (80). By contrast, Otto Morales Benitez demonstrates only a feeble understanding of Gallegos's concept of cultural mestizaje and he glosses over the racist elements in the novelist's ideology. Lowell Dunham interprets the biological mestizaje formed out of the marriage of Pedro Miguel and Luisana as the novelist's idea that onto an insecure, suspicious, and resentful, yet physically vigorous mulatto stock it is necessary to graft a disappearing "superior tradicion cultural" in order to produce a healthy, hybrid Venezuelan society. He understands Gallegos's concept as more cultural than biological, however, an interpretation that ignores the novelist's belief in genetic, racially linked determinism.

(8) See Maurice Belrose, 95 and Jose Marcial Ramos Guedez, 44-47.

(9) Belrose 95 et seq.

(10) 3 Cuentos venezolanos.

(11) Julian Padron, 740-64, 819-48.

(12) Ramos Guedez 50.

(13) See Richard L. Jackson, The Black Image ..., 55.
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