Latin America as a Civilizing Meridian: Fondo de Cultura Económica and the Tierra Firme Series

Henri'quez Urena said it pointedly: ‘Until 1936, the unity of the Spanish language in the Americas was based on a single cultural centre: Madrid. Now this cultural epicentre is divided between Mexico and Buenos Aires, the main hubs of publishing production. After establishing this fact and acknowledging the significance of books in the Hispanic American intellectual sphere, we must recognize that the Fondo de Cultura Economica publishing house holds a privileged position; by fulfilling the inherent requirement of a book company, it surpasses all other cultural centres in Latin America, and certainly the world, insofar as it is also a publishing institute of higher and popular education and it is not guided by commercial goals.

Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, “The FCE, publishing institute of higher and popular education”. La Gaceta del Fondo de Cultura Economica (V) 61: 1,1959

After the dissolution of the Spanish Republic and amid the Second World War, Latin American intellectuals dreamed of the region becoming a global civilizing meridian. This could only be accomplished through institutions and material forms of imagining and communicating such a reality. Mexico City and Buenos Aires became the poles from which cultural ideas and projects emerged. The two cities were places where intellectuals not only contemplated the notion of Latin America as a Pa- tria Grande (Great Homeland) - an ideal that Jose Marti, Jose Enrique Rodo, and other influential modernist intellectuals had envisioned at the end of the 19th century - but also sought to construct that continental culture as a reality. As expressed by Martinez Estrada, the Fondo de Cultura Economica (FCE) publishing house took the lead in bringing the Patria Grande into fruition. Specifically, its Tierra Firme series, which is still operating today, set out to become the first encyclopaedia of the continent; it gathered together cultural elites from across Latin America to produce a powerful pedagogical tool that would put the region’s historical, social, and political potential on display for the world.

Tierra Firme (‘Mainland’) raised awareness of “the problems of the Americas”. It embodied, especially in its first decade of existence, one of the most significant projects in the construction of an American culture} Conceived by Daniel Cosio Villegas and promoted by an extensive network of intellectuals from all over the continent, it first materialized in 1944 with the publication of Tupaj Katari, a book by the Bolivian writer Augusto Guzman portraying the Aymara Indians’ resistance against the Spanish invasion. The following publications included titles such as Este pueblo de America (This People of America) by the Colombian essayist German Arciniegas, Interpretacion del Brasil (Brazil: An Interpretation) by the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, and La musica en Cuba (Music in Cuba) by the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier. The project was truly ambitious: its aim was to publish 300 original books about the continent and to translate the main titles into (and from) Portuguese and English. It represented a millionaire investment with clear economic losses but a high symbolic yield. The vast majority of the texts in the series were written at the request of the publishers, a task that involved travelling and gathering intellectuals with vivid Americanist utopian visions from all Latin American countries. Tierra Firme guided the continental promotion of the FCE and slowly began the symbolic unification of the Latin American intellectual and publishing spheres. Given this, an analysis of the historical roots of this series not only sheds light on the role of the Fondo de Cultura Economica in the construction of the Ibero-American publishing market but also allows us to understand how publishing practices crystallized key ideas, including that of “America”, “Latin America”, and “the South”.

A publisher and its catalogue are crucial points of analysis to understand a book’s launch and its diffusion in the universe of written culture. At its founding in 1934, the FCE focused on a plan of translations of key titles into Spanish as a way of renovating university education. This academic and scientific renewal revolved around several disciplines in the process of institutionalization: economics, political science, anthropology, and sociology. While these disciplines spread knowledge about cultures and societies, they often did so at the expense of the historiographical and literary tradition, which lost its once central position. As the catalogue established its innovative academic profile, it slowly incorporated more essays, literature, and historical texts: the “untranslated” genres of the Hispanic-American tradition. The Biblioteca Americana and Tierra Firme series, which appeared in the mid-1940s, were the first to fulfil this role. Biblioteca Americana republished “pre-Hispanic literature”, “colonial writings”, books on independence movements, and “Hispanic-American scholarly masterpieces”. The catalogue also included studies written by “specialists in ideas”, classical writing, and art history (Marcel Bataillon, “Biblioteca Americana”, in FCE 1980: 161 et seq.). The first volume in this series was the Spanish version of Popol Vubr Subsequent publications included works by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Antonio Vieira, Simon Bolivar, Domingo F. Sarmiento, Lucio V.

Mansilla, and Ruben Dario. Tierra Firme sought to revive “the forgotten dream of a continental humanism” that would enable “confrontation with our own specific problems” (Mariano Picon-Salas, “Tierra Firme”, in FCE 1980: 164 et seq.). By selecting key texts to create a continental heritage of ideas, Biblioteca Americana reinvented a tradition. Tierra Firme, under the criterion of publishing “original works”, mobilized the past for the present, positioning its authors at the forefront. The series was developed in a period when Western civilization was in crisis, in which societies were prompted to rethink the New World and generate a new type of intellectual. It was not the only series of its kind in Hispanic- American publishing history, but the time and place of its emergence made it stand out. It was a series that was effective in bringing together intellectuals from different Latin American countries, deepening their connections with one another and promoting a feeling of continental unity rarely achieved in a long tradition of Americanist utopian projects (see Myers 2006).

The sense of continental unity fostered by publishing production revolved around two poles: Mexico and Argentina. The Mexican Americanist projects were invigorated from Argentina. The first 26 titles of Biblioteca Americana were planned by the Dominican essayist Pedro Henriquez Urena while he directed the Institute of Philology at the University of Buenos Aires (FCE 1980: 17-24). In order to devise the Tierra Firme plan, Daniel Cosio Villegas (1898-1976), director of the FCE,

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