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The Argentine Folklore Movement: Sugar Elites, Criollo Workers, and the Politics of Cultural Nationalism, 1900-1955.

Oscar Chamosa The Argentine Folklore Movement: Sugar Elites, Criollo Workers, and the Politics of Cultural Nationalism, 1900-1955 Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2010, xi + 271 pp.

In this volume, Argentine-born historian Oscar Chamosa presents a detailed examination of some previously overlooked aspects of the folklore movement that developed in Argentina during the first half of the 20th century. Beyond following the trajectories of the actors and expressions defining this movement, Chamosa concerns himself with the entanglement of financial, ideological, and political interests that framed this particular moment in the history of Argentinean popular music. It was at this time when immigration and urbanization were radically altering the country's social structure that the traditions of a historically marginalized social group--criollo peasants from the country's northwest--were recast as symbols of genuine national culture. Chamosa combines historical, ethnographic, and sociocultural analysis to shed light on the intertwining of the three main currents that, he argues, led to the movement's emergence: cultural nationalism, the actions of the sugar mill owners of the country's northwest region who promoted local folklore research and education as a means of protecting their nationwide economic and political interests, and the work of a number of media producers and artists.

The concomitant emergence of folklore as an academic discipline is also critically examined. Chamosa focuses primarily on the various ways in which financial and institutional support from the sugar industrialists of Tucuman province predetermined the direction of the research conducted by those folklorists who would collectively come to establish the canons of Argentine folklore.

Bracketed between a short introduction and a conclusion, the book is divided into seven chapters that try to balance, although not always effectively in my view, thematic organization and chronological narrative. In Chapter 1, Chamosa begins by situating the intellectual discourses that shaped the rise of Argentina's nationalist and folklorist movement within the larger ideological frames established by the prevailing nation-building ideologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The author offers a concise description of the various and, at times, conflicting discourses existing within Argentina's nationalist movement. He argues, though, that beyond evident discrepancies, all currents of the movement evolved rooted in the belief that "the nation sustains itself on a spiritual force linked to the soil and expressed through ancient traditions" (39). Chamosa then traces the local evolution of these romantic ideals and examines how they influenced the conceptualizations that were giving momentum to the work of early folklorists. The chapter closes with an emphasis on the contradictions that existed between these sentimentalized views and the positivist, progressive ideologies at the forefront of Argentina's intellectual life at the time.

Chapter 2 focuses on the National Folklore Survey commissioned by the National Board of Education in 1921. Conceived with the aim of "creating an archive of popular culture while strengthening national feelings among students" (47), the study commissioned rural teachers across the country to document the customs of those living in their respective school districts. Upon examination of historical documents, Chamosa shows that the enterprise was in fact part of a broader plan where educating modern Argentines in criollo (i.e., mixed European and indigenous) traditions was thought of as a remedy against what the chair of the National Board of Education defined as "the subversive propaganda that attempted to undermine the unity of the nation" (47). Despite its ideological motivations and its many methodological flaws, the survey offered valuable insights into the life and customs of numerous communities. The most interesting section of this chapter is Chamosa's description of some of the traditions as described by the teachers that conducted the survey.

At the core of Chamosa's examination are the actions of a group of sugar industrialists--"sugar elites," as the author calls them--from Tucuman province (Chapters 3, 4, and 5). Formed by an alliance of a few landholding families, this group of politically savvy businessmen controlled what by the end of the 19th century was the fourth-largest sugar cane production site in the western hemisphere. By the mid 1910s, however, foreign competition, unionized labour, and the expiration of protective legislation put an end to the industry's unrivaled prosperity. It was at this particular time of economic uncertainty and growing nationalistic fervour that criollo themes began to be increasingly present in the rhetoric and plans of the sugar elites. While not denying a sincere appreciation for the traditions of those whom they exploited, Chamosa stresses that Tucuman industrialists approached local culture as a form of "symbolic capital" that could be used to promote their economic and political interests.

In Chapter 3, focusing primarily on the figure of Ernesto Padilla, a sugar mill owner and governor of Tucuman province from 1913 to 1917, the author describes how industrialists learned about criollo culture and how this knowledge was put to work toward their regional and nationwide interests. Chapters 4 and 5 centre on the inextricable ties that existed between Padilla and his allies and the emergence of folklore as an academic discipline. Chamosa convincingly links their support for higher education and academic research to their quest to project the northwest region and the idyllic values they attached to it to the rest of the country. Furthermore, upon close scrutiny of the pioneering work of folklorist Juan Alfonso Carrizo, a protege of Padilla's circle, Chamosa provides evidence of the extent of the ideological influence patronage exerted over how early folklorists understood and studied criollo culture. The author then discusses the financial involvement of Padilla's group in later research projects, particularly the support extended to musicologist Isabel Aretz. Interestingly, the ideological-theoretical stance that informed her work is not thoroughly assessed.

Chapter 6 offers an initial examination of the processes that, beginning in the 1930s, turned a series of cultural expressions from Argentina's northwestern region, especially music, into an immensely popular entertainment genre. Chamosa focuses primarily on the pioneering work of a number of radio impresarios, the recording industry, and the work of two of Argentina's most important folklorists: Andres Chazarreta and Atahualpa Yupanqui. Unfortunately, there is little serious discussion of the music styles mentioned; only lyrics are analyzed with any depth. As a consequence, readers unfamiliar with the traditional music of Argentina's northwest may find it difficult to grasp what set apart the "clean-cut" versions that resulted from the recasting of criollo folklore as "respectable music" (142). The book closes with what the author recognizes as a very limited recounting of the evolution of the folklore movement under the Peronist regime.

Although clearly oriented toward an audience of scholars and students with a particular interest in the folklore and cultural history of Argentina, the book will be of interest to anyone concerned with the political use of culture. In the last decade an increasing number of scholars have focused their attention on the complex relationship between culture and politics in Argentina. Although differentiated by their subjects, periods studied, and methodological approaches, the works of Pablo Vila (2000, 2002), Deborah Schwartz-Kates (2002), Esteban Buch (2003) and Florencia Garramuno (2007) represent key contributions to the growing literature on the subject. These works evidence a pressing need to improve our understanding of the relationship between the evolution of Argentina's cultural expressions and the country's convoluted political history. The Argentine Folklore Movement brings a helpful perspective to this compelling line of inquiry.

Works Cited

Buch, Esteban. [Richard Miller, trans.]. 2003. Beethoven's Ninth: A political history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Garramuno, Florencia. 2007. La experiencia y sus riesgos. In Experiencia, cuerpo y subjetividades: literatura brasilena contemporanea, edited by Florencia Garramuno, Gonzalo Aguilar, and Luciana Di Leone. Rosario, Argentina: Beatriz Viterbo Editora.

Grimson, Alejandro, and Pablo Vila. 2002. Forgotten border actors: The border reinforcers. A comparison of the U.S.-Mexico border and South American borders. Journal of Political Ecology 9: 70-88.

Schwartz-Kates, Deborah. 2002. The popularized gaucho image as a source of Argentine classical music, 1880-1920. In From Tejano to tango: Latin American popular music, edited by Walter Aaron Clark, 3-24. London, New York: Routledge.

Vila, Pablo. 2000. Crossing Borders, Reinforcing borders: Social categories, metaphors, and narrative identities on the U.S.-Mexico frontier. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Alberto Munarriz, York University
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Author:Munarriz, Alberto
Publication:Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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