With the publication of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities in 1983, it has become commonplace among scholars to view nations no longer as things natural but as historical inventions.1 Far less ink has been spilled concerning the formation of larger geopolitical entities such as continents. Many still take their origins for granted. Yet as some scholars have shown, the terms “Africa,” “America,” “Asia,” and “Europe” resulted from complex historical processes.2 The concept of the continent emerged in ancient Greece and guided Europeans in their efforts to dominate other areas of the world, especially from the fourteenth century onward. Non-European societies certainly conceptualized their own geopolitical spaces, but the massive spread of European imperialism in the nineteenth century ensured that the European schema of dividing the world into continents would predominate by the twentieth century.3
The invention of “Latin America” nevertheless reveals that contemporary continental constructs were not always imperial products. True, many scholars assume that French imperialists invented “Latin America” in order to justify their country's occupation of Mexico (1862–1867).4 And the idea did stem from the French concept of a “Latin race,” which Latin American émigrés in Europe helped spread to the other side of the Atlantic. But as Arturo Ardao, Miguel Rojas Mix, and Aims McGuinness have revealed, the term “Latin America” had already been used in 1856 by Central and South Americans protesting U.S. expansion into the Southern Hemisphere.5 Less known is the fact that these resisting Latin Americans also feared European intervention, albeit to a lesser extent. Such fears involved not only French designs on Mexico but also Spain's efforts to regain territories it had lost with the Spanish American wars of independence. Opposition to U.S. and European imperialism thus underpinned the idea of Latin America. This anti-imperial impulse helps explain why “Latin America” lives on, in contrast to the concept “Latin Africa,” which was developed by French imperialists in the late nineteenth century but adopted by few Africans.6 The staying power of “Latin America” in today's age of unprecedented globalization underscores Sugata Bose's claim concerning the continuing significance of entities located between the national and the global—especially to advance anti-imperial projects.7
That “Latin America” became a lasting concept had everything to do with the little-known trigger behind the 1856 protest against U.S. expansion: the decision by U.S. president Franklin Pierce to recognize the “piratical” regime recently established in Nicaragua by William Walker and his band of U.S. filibusters.8 Pierce's act shocked foreign governments. On both sides of the Atlantic, it led to talk of war between the United States and the European powers in the Caribbean (Great Britain, Spain, and France). Below the Río Grande, it eventually led governments to forge the largest anti-U.S. alliance in Latin American history. Such an alliance had been demanded by politicians and intellectuals throughout the region immediately after they heard about Pierce's decision to recognize the Walker regime. And it was their transnational campaign on behalf of this alliance that caused the idea of Latin America to spread throughout the continent. The rise of “Latin America” was perhaps the most enduring outcome of one of the first anti-U.S. moments in world history.
The anti-imperial genesis of “Latin America” suggests that the concept cannot be reduced to what some scholars call “coloniality,” and thus to the politics of exclusion. Since the concept continues to have political weight, much is at stake in understanding its origins. This is the case even within the United States, where the idea has shaped the ongoing debate over whether Latina/o is an identity associated with whiteness or multiracialism.9 An influential proponent of “Latin America” as a product of coloniality is Walter Mignolo, who defines coloniality as “the logical structure of colonial domination underlying the Spanish, Dutch, British and U.S. control of the Atlantic economy and politics.”10 For Mignolo and others, the idea of Latin America stymies efforts by peoples of indigenous and African descent to democratize the region. “Latin America” was indeed long identified by elites with whiteness, even though most Latin Americans were—and are—non-white. Still, elites embraced the idea not only to maintain their power but also to prevent the North Atlantic powers from destroying what the Panamanian Justo Arosemena called, in July 1856, “Latin-American democracy”—a democracy directed by white “Latin” elites, yet one that granted greater rights to the non-white masses.11 A tension between inclusion and exclusion marked the idea of Latin America from the very start.
But why did “Latin America” emerge in 1856 and not in 1848, when the U.S. victory over Mexico resulted in the greatest loss of Latin American territory to the “northern colossus”? The answer has much to do with four changes that occurred during those eight years: the rise of U.S. overseas expansion, the democratic opening in various Latin American nations that led to greater non-elite participation in electoral politics, the squashing of Europe's liberal revolutions of 1848, and the transatlantic spread of racial ideologies that gave new force to the politics of whiteness. Together these changes led elites of Mexico, Central America, and South America to imagine a continental community rooted in the European idea of a “Latin race,” a concept that drew more on cultural than on biological criteria. Print media, as Benedict Anderson would have predicted, were crucial to the formation of this entity.12 Yet just as important was the role of actors who are usually overlooked in studies of imagined communities: diplomats. Thanks to their efforts to create an anti-imperial alliance of all independent states south of the Río Grande, a racial identity—the Latin race—was transformed into the name of a continent: Latin America.
Charting the rise of “Latin America” can help us better understand why certain geopolitical constructions thrive while others fade away. Like other such constructs, “Latin America” owed its existence to imperialism and race as well as to the notion of a common culture or “civilization.”13 Another force deemed crucial to the creation of geopolitical entities was the spread of capitalism. For example, the consolidation of the idea of “Asia” during the nineteenth century owed much to the expansion of European colonial trade, which intensified preexisting commercial links among regions between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.14 While the goal of economic integration motivated elites to imagine “Latin America,” economic conditions were not conducive to such integration at the time, as many countries had stronger trade connections with North Atlantic nations than with each other. Far more important to the rise of “Latin America” were political factors, including local struggles for and over democracy.15 As with the remaking of “Asia” in the early twentieth century, “Latin America” resulted above all from the transnational mobilization of an imperial concept—the Latin race—for anti-imperial ends.16
To understand how a “race” became the basis for a geopolitical entity, we first need to explore why Latin American elites came to identify themselves with the Latin race. What did it mean to be “Latin”? As various scholars have shown, the term emerged in Europe in the early nineteenth century, when the rise of romantic nationalism and scientific racism led Europeans to identify their nations with races and languages.17 The Latin race was first linked with countries where much of the population spoke a Romance language and practiced Catholicism (those nations in turn formed “Latin Europe”). In the 1830s, French intellectuals popularized the term to refer to peoples living in the former Iberian colonies of the Western Hemisphere.18 They sought to justify France's imperial ambitions in the New World by stressing that Mexicans, Central Americans, and South Americans, as members of the Latin race, had a natural affinity with the French; and that the Latin races on both sides of the Atlantic were locked in a global struggle against the expansionist Anglo-Saxons of Great Britain and the United States.
In the early nineteenth century, however, elites in the Southern Hemisphere rarely identified themselves and the continent with the Latin race. Initially, their preferred terms were americanos and América. As John Chasteen shows, these centuries-old terms became prevalent in the 1810s and 1820s, when the region waged wars of independence against Spain.19 With this struggle, americano took on an anticolonial meaning and no longer encompassed only people of European descent, but also those of indigenous, African, and mixed-race descent. As U.S. expansionists began to threaten Mexico in the 1830s, elites in Central and South America increasingly adopted the term Hispano-América to differentiate their societies from the United States, which was claiming “America” all for itself.20 They also came to identify themselves with the “Hispanic American race,” which was constructed primarily against the U.S. “Anglo-Saxon race.” This was a two-way process, as U.S. expansion into Mexico (especially Texas) led U.S. citizens to use “Anglo-Saxon” in a racial sense and to denigrate Spanish Americans as “mongrels.”21 But if the U.S. belief in an innately superior Anglo-Saxon race invoked a more biological definition of race and was associated with whiteness, Spanish American elites tended to identify the Hispanic American race with a shared cultural heritage so that it could include Spanish-speaking non-whites. For this reason, some also constructed Hispano-América against Portuguese-speaking Brazil.22 Ever since independence, Spanish American relations with the South American hegemon had been tense. This was not just because of cultural differences but also due to Brazil's expansionist policy and its adherence to monarchical rule, which clashed with the republicanism of Spanish America.23
Spanish American unity was undermined by the formation of nation-states. Still, the idea of Hispano-América was upheld by the region's intellectuals who highlighted their common culture. They had good reason to stress this commonality, for three centuries of Spanish colonialism had transformed the region, as José Moya argues, into “the largest contingent area in the world bound by similar legal practices, language, religion, naming patterns, and the arrangement of urban space.”24 Perhaps the most famous proponent of Hispano-América was the Venezuelan-Chilean Andrés Bello, who in 1847 published a study of Spanish grammar intended for “the inhabitants of Hispano-América … as a providential means of communication and a fraternal link.”25 In addition, the idea was reinforced by efforts to forge a continental alliance against European intervention and to contain conflicts among Spanish American states—which could, in turn, facilitate European expansion.26 The first major undertaking occurred in 1826, when independence hero Simón Bolívar convened in Panama a congress of “all the representatives of America.”27 Although this event failed to produce a lasting alliance, the repeated calls for a similar congress in subsequent decades underscore how the threat of external intervention kept alive Bolívar's call for continental unity. Not until 1847–1848 was a second American Congress convened, this time in Peru. And although the congress took place during the U.S. invasion of Mexico, its main concern continued to be European intervention.
It was also in the late 1840s that elites in the Southern Hemisphere began to identify themselves with the Latin race. Among the first were liberal émigrés in Paris, who were influenced by French utopian-socialist proponents of the idea. One such émigré was the Chilean Francisco Bilbao, who during his Parisian sojourn of 1844–1850 befriended Félicité Robert de Lamennais.28 This leading figure of the French Revolution of 1848 exhorted Bilbao to promote the unity of South America with Europe's “Latin nations.”29 Thanks to émigrés such as Bilbao, the concept of the Latin race spread quickly across the Atlantic. As Tomás Pérez Vejo notes, the term was used in Spanish America as early as 1845, when the editors of Mexico's El Siglo XIX stressed that they belonged to the Latin race after a rival paper had charged that they were nothing but “apaches, comanches or lipanes.”30 By 1853 the term had even made its way to the Bolivian city of Sucre, perhaps the most isolated capital in the hemisphere.31 The concept of the Latin race was also circulating in Brazil by the early 1850s. This reflected the belief of elite Brazilians that their country was “destined to be the France of South America.”32 Yet some also used the concept to highlight their affinity with Spanish Americans.33
While the term appealed to elites across the political spectrum, it meant different things to different people. Most constructed the Latin race in opposition to U.S. “Anglo-Saxons” and believed that it could include the non-white masses as long as they were Catholic and Spanish/Portuguese speakers. This belief in cultural assimilation was weaker among those who explicitly identified the Latin race with whiteness.34 A famous exponent was the Argentine intellectual Juan Bautista Alberdi, who claimed that “in America, everyone who is not Latin or Saxon, that is, European, is a barbarian.”35 Alberdi's anti-assimilationist stance reflected the efforts of Argentine liberals to build, as Nicolas Shumway argues, an “ideological framework for a political system that would exclude, persecute, dispossess, and often kill the ‘racially inferior’ gauchos, Indians, and mixed-bloods”—a process that would culminate in Argentina's genocidal “Conquest of the Desert” of the 1870s.36 These Argentines were hardly outliers, as their views were shared by proponents of the Latin race hailing from other regions. The Cuban Francisco Muñoz del Monte, for example, claimed in an influential essay that the New World could dispense with the non-white races, “the indigenous and African, whose physical and intellectual inferiority inherently subordinates them to the more powerful and civilizing action” of the “Latin” and “Anglo-German” races.37
Elites' varied views concerning cultural assimilation reflected the clash between two racial theories that held sway in the North Atlantic: monogenism, which was rooted in the Christian belief that all human beings originated from the same species and posited that racial differences were a product of the environment; and the new “scientific” theory of polygenism, which stressed that racial differences were biologically fixed and thus questioned the viability of cultural assimilation.38 Polygenism, which emerged most powerfully in the United States and France, helped shape the Latin American scientific racism that reigned at the turn of the twentieth century.39 In the 1850s, however, its influence in the Southern Hemisphere was more limited. Ultimately, whether or not elite advocates of a Latin race believed in cultural assimilation mattered little, for most identified the Latin race with whiteness.40 Nearly all sought to strengthen their young nations via the massive influx of white migrants, especially from Latin Europe. This concern with whiteness would shape the way “Latin America” was initially defined.
Why, then, did Spanish American elites come to prefer the term “Latin race” over “Hispanic American race”? Most embraced it not because they supported French imperialism, but rather out of concern about the post-1848 turn in U.S. expansionism toward the Southern Hemisphere. In the Caribbean basin, this change was noticeable in the proliferation of U.S. filibuster expeditions. In South America, U.S. expansion was more varied. In addition to filibuster invasions, there were attempts to annex Peru's valuable guano islands, plans to create settler colonies in the Amazon basin, and an 1854 effort to turn Ecuador into a U.S. protectorate. Underpinning this expansion was the belief that it was the “manifest destiny” of Anglo-Saxons to dominate the “inferior” races of the hemisphere.41 In consequence, Spanish American intellectuals, politicians, and diplomats increasingly viewed their relations with the United States in terms of a race war. If they had already associated the United States with an aggressive Anglo-Saxon race, they now came to identify their own continent with a besieged Latin race.
But some elites still maintained a favorable view of U.S. expansionism, believing that it involved mainly the spread of U.S. entrepreneurialism, technology, and democracy.42 This belief reflected the longstanding U.S.-based idea of a Western Hemisphere, which posited that North and South Americans shared a political culture that was democratic, republican, and anticolonial—one constructed against European tyranny, monarchism, and colonialism.43 This ideal of hemispheric unity shaped the Monroe Doctrine and found many adherents in the Southern Hemisphere.44 They included Nicaraguan liberals, who justified their embrace of William Walker's band by claiming that they and the filibusters were “the children of a common mother—republican America.”45
Proponents of a Latin race had to work hard to explain the perils of U.S. expansion, especially when it was carried out under the banner of democracy promotion (this warning would be echoed decades later by Asian activists who denounced European imperialism as “bearing the false name of democracy”).46 Consider the arguments made by the Chilean Juan Manuel Carrasco in a speech that exhorted South American governments to form an alliance against U.S. expansion.47 This liberal had long admired the United States for its democratic development. By 1855, however, he concluded that its democratic institutions were pushing the “Anglo-Saxon race” to conquer “Latin” peoples living as far south as Chile. His newfound fear of U.S. democracy clearly stemmed from the rise of filibusterism. But it also resulted from the way U.S. citizens increasingly defined democracy, in the words of George Fredrickson, “as racial in origin and thus realizable perhaps only by people with certain hereditary traits”—traits assumed to be held chiefly, if not exclusively, by Anglo-Saxons.48 Carrasco thus criticized South Americans who continued to maintain that the region could only benefit from being absorbed by the “Anglo-American giant.” He was just one of many Spanish Americans who maintained that, as a Costa Rican paper put it, the “rapacious Yankee democracy” was bent on “exterminating our weak nations.”49
This U.S. threat helps explain why Spanish American elites embraced the concept of a Latin race. Some did so because they believed that their states could resist U.S. expansion only with the help of the world's main Latin power: France.50 Yet many more feared that Napoleon III was seeking to restore colonial or monarchical rule to the Southern Hemisphere.51 They preferred to forge an anti-U.S. alliance consisting exclusively of the states below the Río Grande. And because they wanted to include the region's hegemon, Brazil, it made sense that diplomats, politicians, and intellectuals would call for the solidarity of the continent's Latin race rather than that of Hispanic Americans. Such calls resonated in Brazil, for the rise of U.S. overseas expansion pushed it closer to Spanish America. Above all, Brazilian officials worried about recent efforts by U.S. naval expeditions to “open” river navigation in South America.52 These expeditions fueled Brazilian fears that the United States was seeking to colonize the Amazon basin.53 In reaching out to their Spanish American counterparts, Brazilian envoys invoked the concept of the Latin race.54 They even indicated that their government planned to populate the Amazon basin with colonists from the region's “Latin race,” who were to serve as a “barrier against the aggressive spirit of the Anglo-Saxon.”55
Strategic concerns alone did not push Spanish American elites to identify their societies with the Latin race. They also adopted the concept to counter the racist views undergirding U.S. expansionism. An influx of U.S. travelers during the California Gold Rush brought U.S. racism to the Southern Hemisphere in dramatic ways.56 In seaports, U.S. travelers displayed their racial prejudices, provoking brawls with local inhabitants and, at times, full-scale riots.57 But most Spanish Americans learned about U.S. racism from local newspapers that reported on U.S. racial biases. Especially influential were the horrifying accounts about violence committed by “Anglo-Saxons” against Spanish Americans working in the California goldfields.58
Three powerful reasons help explain why Spanish American elites preferred to combat U.S. racist views with the concept of a Latin race. First, it allowed them to counter more effectively the U.S. expansionists' claim that their Catholic-based societies were backward, since the concept highlighted links with France, which was widely regarded as a modern power. The term “Latin race” fit with the efforts of modernizing liberals to disassociate their societies from Spain, which they deemed hopelessly backward.59 Second, elites were aware that U.S. citizens tended to view them as belonging to a lower white race—the allegedly indolent and effeminate “Spanish” race—or even as being entirely non-white. They were perturbed because many themselves espoused racial hierarchies that held whites to be superior to non-whites. In all likelihood, then, Spanish American elites embraced the concept of a modern, stronger, and perhaps more masculine Latin race in order to better defend their whiteness against U.S. racism.60
But the concept of a Latin race also helped elites separate their class from the non-white masses within their own societies. This partly explains why some of the strongest advocates of the Latin race came from regions where non-white groups were fiercely challenging the power of local elites, who were identified as white. At times, the challenge was economic. This was the case even in Cuba, where elites benefited greatly from the sugar boom. As George Reid Andrews writes, in 1854 the governor of Havana criticized “the continuing ‘ambitious pretensions’ of the free blacks and ‘the propensity of this race to excel the white’ in economic and professional achievement.”61 More threatening to elite power were popular uprisings such as the Caste War of Mexico (1847–1855). For a leading Mexican newspaper, this indigenous revolt confirmed that “the colored race seeks to attack the white race whenever the occasion presents itself.”62 Anti-elite rebellions elsewhere in the region similarly targeted the “white race,” such as in Venezuela, where black and mulatto insurgents went to battle crying “Death to the whites!”63 Powerful challenges also came from anti-oligarchic military rulers who enjoyed strong support among the lower classes. The regime of Bolivian president Manuel Belzu (1848–1855), for example, waged a crusade against an allegedly white “aristocracy” in the name of non-whites, especially urban cholos of indigenous descent.64
Perhaps the most sustained threat to elite power came when the mobilization of urban artisans and peasants forced various governments to open the political system to the non-white masses. This democratic opening represented in many ways a more successful counterpart to the short-lived European revolutions of 1848. Although the opening lasted for only a decade or so, it engendered far-reaching change, including the abolition of African slavery in most of Spanish America.65 Nowhere was the opening more dramatic than in New Granada (present-day Colombia and Panama), where in 1853 the activism of the lower classes produced a constitution that established universal male suffrage with no exclusions based on property, literacy, or color.66
Given these challenges, Spanish American elites often sought to defend their power by claiming that “white” people were better fit for republican rule than those of color. Such a “republican racism” was strongly espoused by liberal proponents of a Latin race.67 However loudly these elites supported democracy, they tended to believe that the reins of power should remain in the hands of the “white race.” Thus a leading promoter of the Latin race, Mexico's El Siglo XIX, asserted that the “white race” was “destined to rule on earth.”68 To these liberals, the concept of a Latin race surely represented a clearer mark of whiteness than did the idea of a Hispanic American race. If the former highlighted “blood” ties with modern white Europeans, the latter implied racial mixing with allegedly inferior non-white groups. Elites' growing concern with whiteness was also noticeable in the way they stopped identifying their nations with pre-conquest indigenous cultures, such as the Aztec and Inca empires.69 In sum, fear of U.S. expansion alone did not push elites to embrace the identity of a Latin race. They were also driven by their own fragile sense of whiteness.
What remains unclear is whether this concern was shaped by a similar sense of fragility affecting white peoples of the North Atlantic. European concerns had mainly to do with the fear of racial mixing, which stemmed from the recent creation of European settler colonies in regions with large non-white populations, especially Algeria and Australia.70 In consequence, Europeans intensely debated the benefits and perils of miscegenation.71 While Spanish American elites also discussed the effects of racial mixing, their fear of miscegenation was not as prevalent.72 Nevertheless, the European debate might have led some proponents of a Latin race to share the growing French scorn for mixed races.73 The “crisis of whiteness” in the United States in turn resulted primarily from the mass immigration of non-Anglo-Saxon Europeans (especially Catholic Irish and Germans) during the 1840s and 1850s.74 This influx led U.S. nativists to imagine a new hierarchy of white races, with Protestant Anglo-Saxons deemed superior to the recent European arrivals. Such a fragmentation of whiteness did not occur in Spanish America. Still, elites' preference for the Latin race over the Hispanic American race might have been influenced by the new U.S. scheme of hierarchically ordered white races. More needs to be learned about this concern with whiteness across the Atlantic world. But we can safely say that it did not have to do with drawing a “global color line,” as was the case at the turn of the twentieth century, when a transcontinental network sought to defend white supremacy.75 In mid-nineteenth-century Spanish America, elite concerns with whiteness had more to do with upholding a hemispheric divide.
For the “Latin race” to become the basis of a geopolitical entity—Latin America—would take an extraordinary act: the decision by the U.S. government to recognize William Walker's filibuster regime in May 1856. This decision occurred after a long series of well-publicized incidents that Spanish Americans deemed acts of U.S. aggression. The most recent was the riot that drunken U.S. travelers had provoked in Panama City in April 1856.76 Given the volatile state of U.S.-Latin American relations, an event other than U.S. recognition of the filibuster regime in Nicaragua might have triggered the rise of “Latin America.” Yet it is no coincidence that this recognition so profoundly impacted Spanish Americans, for it posed an unprecedented threat to the sovereignty of their nation-states.
Now a minor figure in U.S. history, Walker was in the 1850s perhaps the world's best-known agent of Manifest Destiny. Like other U.S. expansionists, he was attracted to Central America because the Gold Rush had turned the isthmus into a major transit for North Americans navigating between the two U.S. coasts. He also shared the belief of Napoleon III and others that the isthmus was destined to become the center of global trade.77 In April 1855, Walker and fifty-seven filibusters sailed from San Francisco at the behest of Nicaragua's Liberal Party, which was embroiled in a civil war against the ruling Conservatives.78 Within five months, his group had seized control of the country. This was the first—and only—time a U.S. filibuster expedition succeeded in Latin America. Walker's exploits electrified the U.S. public and were celebrated onstage from New York to San Francisco—in the Broadway musical Nicaragua, or General Walker's Victories and in the minstrel show Nicaraguan State Secrets.79 The U.S. press deemed his conquest a testimony to Anglo-American racial superiority. In reality, Walker's men triumphed because they were supported by many ordinary Nicaraguans who viewed them as harbingers of “democracy” and “progress.”80 Once in power, Walker did not seek Nicaragua's annexation to the United States. Instead, he and his men went about building a self-styled empire that would be independent of the United States but controlled by U.S. settler colonists. They also sought to expand their empire by waging war against the other Central America states.
Since Walker believed that he could win this war only by securing recruits from the United States, he desperately sought U.S. diplomatic recognition. Such recognition would allow his regime to circumvent the Neutrality Act of 1818, which prohibited the recruitment of filibusters on U.S. soil. Yet President Pierce long resisted public pressure to legitimize a government led by what his attorney general called a “monomaniac buccaneer, robber and pirate.”81 Like other U.S. presidents, he deemed filibusterism an unruly force that undermined his administration's expansionist designs.82 Eventually, the Democratic president yielded in a failed effort to secure his party's nomination for the upcoming presidential election. On May 14, 1856, Pierce officially received Walker's envoy, the Nicaraguan priest Agustín Vijil, in the White House. Although the administration's relations with Walker soured soon thereafter, the president never revoked his recognition, even once the filibuster regime had fallen apart after Central American armies captured Walker's capital of Granada in December 1856 (Walker and his men would hold out in Nicaragua for another five months).83 When Pierce's successor, James Buchanan, took office in March 1857, few Spanish American governments believed that the new administration would end U.S. support for Walker. On the contrary, many feared that it could not be anything but a “filibuster government.”84
Pierce's recognition of the Walker regime consolidated foreign views that the United States had become, to cite the British prime minister, a nation of “rogues.”85 Since governments in Europe and Latin America deemed filibusterism a flagrant violation of international law, they were outraged by Pierce's decision to embrace it as a legitimate form of U.S. expansion.86 But they were even more concerned about Walker's popular support in the United States. “The people, the newspapers, the meetings,” warned the Guatemalan foreign minister, “they all are for Walker, and they all talk about dispossessing the Indians and other races that people these countries in order to establish a North American government.”87 Many foreign observers rightly surmised that Walker's movement had become a national phenomenon. As Walker hoped, U.S. recognition of his regime swelled the flow of U.S. colonists to Nicaragua, with the majority coming from the North.88 A U.S. shipping agent claimed that his company transported about 12,000 emigrants (including women and children) to Walker's realm.89 This massive exodus underscored to Spanish American observers how filibusterism had become a “social cancer” affecting the entire United States.90
South American officials worried above all that Pierce's recognition had intensified U.S. calls to invade their own countries. Many feared that the southward march of U.S. expansion by sea would not stop until, as the Peruvian foreign minister said, “the New World would be left with only one nation—the American Union.”91 Since Democrats vehemently supported southward expansion, their sweeping victory in the U.S. elections of November 1856 only intensified South American fears. So it was not Pierce's recognition of the Walker regime per se but rather filibusterism's mass appeal in the United States that led South American politicians and intellectuals to identify with Central Americans' plight and demand the creation of a continental alliance against U.S. expansion.
By pushing Spanish Americans to seek such an alliance, President Pierce helped them discover “Latin America.” The term had actually been coined before Pierce recognized the Walker regime. In February 1856, a Costa Rican paper had denounced Walker as a threat to the entire “Latin-American race.”92 But in this case “Latin America” was used as an adjective, to identify a “race.” Only after Pierce's recognition did Spanish Americans begin to use the term as a noun to denote a geopolitical entity. One such individual was the Chilean Francisco Bilbao, who invoked “Latin America” in a speech he gave in Paris on June 22, 1856, to South Americans protesting U.S. recognition of the Walker regime.93 The term had already been mentioned a week earlier by the French journalist Félix Belly in a Paris-based journal, in which he demanded that the European powers respond to Pierce's act by actively supporting the Central American struggle against the filibusters.94 Belly defined “Latin America” as a Latin entity because its population was Catholic and spoke a Romance language. But he also echoed European prejudices about Spanish America by claiming that Spanish colonialism had produced a population that was anti-entrepreneurial and incapable of democratic rule, and thus in need of European supervision. Belly's article had little resonance in Spanish America, though it might have introduced the term to Bilbao. If so, the Chilean transformed Belly's meaning of “Latin America” by valorizing the democratic virtues of Spanish Americans. Perhaps this helps explain why his speech had such a strong impact: it was published immediately in Paris and within several months appeared in Spanish American newspapers.95
Bilbao firmly linked the idea of Latin America with the call for a continental alliance against U.S. and European expansionism. Like other South American liberals, he had long admired the United States. But once U.S. filibusterism received the backing of the White House, Bilbao deemed it a menacing “colossus” bent on exterminating the “Latin-American race.”96 His speech echoed a key change in the dominant South American view of Walker: the filibuster no longer represented a small, crazed group but instead embodied the expansionist spirit of the U.S. people. As he exclaimed, “Walker is the invasion, Walker is the conquest, Walker is the United States.” Bilbao also attacked Europe. He warned of European designs on the Southern Hemisphere and denounced the post-1848 fall of democratic governments in the “Old World.”97 In his mind, Europe's reactionary turn made the Americas the world's vanguard of democratic republicanism. He thus insisted that Latin America disassociate itself from Europe as a whole—and not just from “backward” Spain. For Bilbao, the difference between the continent and both the United States and Europe was perhaps best marked by joining the terms “Latin” and “America.”
Bilbao was hardly the only Spanish American to use the idea of Latin America to condemn U.S. recognition of the Walker regime. About the same time that he spoke in Paris, others were giving similar addresses across the Atlantic at public meetings calling for an alliance against the United States. The most prominent was the New Granadan Manuel Murillo Toro, presidential candidate of the Liberal opposition. In Bogotá on July 20, 1856, Murillo invoked the term “Latin-American race” to denounce “the extravagant ambition of the Anglo-American race.”98 Another important speaker was the Liberal senator Justo Arosemena.99 Although he did not mention “Latin America” in his speech, he used the term nine days later in an article that attacked Pierce's recognition of the Walker regime. Arosemena emphasized that the Central American war against Walker formed part of a broader struggle of the “Latin race” to prevent the expansionist “Saxon race” and Europe's colonial powers from destroying what he called “Latin-American democracy.”100
As the speeches of Bilbao, Torres, and Arosemena underscore, “Latin America” was linked to the idea of a continental democracy. This explains why initial proponents of the concept tended to be liberals who claimed to be waging a pro-democracy crusade against the “aristocratic” conservatives controlling many of the continent's governments. Yet Latin American liberalism of the era was anything but uniform, and it was shaped by regional peculiarities as well as by class and race.101 It is thus striking that Bilbao, Arosemena, and others tended to define democracy in similar terms: universal male suffrage, republicanism, separation of church and state, the rule of law, federalism, and—in stark contrast to U.S. democracy—the abolition of slavery.
These liberals had good reason to underscore the anti-slavery bent of “Latin America,” for the idea emerged at a critical moment in the history of slavery. On the one hand, slavery was abolished in many Spanish American countries in the early 1850s, a feat that allowed Arosemena, Bilbao, and other liberals to identify “Latin America” not just with democracy but also with the myth of racial equality that had been forged during the Spanish American wars of independence.102 On the other hand, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 ensured that the United States became even more strongly identified with slavery. While this act spoke to southern efforts to spread slavery to the U.S. West, Latin Americans feared that it would facilitate the expansion of slavery to the Southern Hemisphere.
Yet what most perturbed Arosemena and other proponents of “Latin America” was U.S. expansion undertaken not in the name of slavery but under the banner of democracy, for the latter underpinned the most threatening form of U.S. expansion: filibusterism. True, scholars tend to associate filibusterism with U.S. efforts to expand slavery to Latin America.103 At the time, however, many Latin Americans followed Juan Manuel Carrasco in believing that filibusterism sprang from the democratic institutions of the non-slaveholding U.S. North. And in fact, Walker long enjoyed strong support in the North. Only when his regime began to crumble did the filibuster embrace slavery. Up to that moment, even northern leaders of the Republican Party had valorized Walker as an anti-slavery expansionist.104 Reinforcing this belief was the presence of “colored gentlemen” in the filibuster government and Walker's support among Nicaraguan mulattos.105
The case of Arosemena also reveals how elite concerns over whiteness undergirded “Latin America.” In his written work, he implied that non-whites could form part of his Latin American polity—but only, as McGuinness argues, if they were “properly civilized and did not forget their place.”106 Arosemena's fear of non-whites was reinforced by the uprising of September 1856 in his hometown of Panama City. Unlike the more famous incident of April 1856, the September unrest targeted not U.S. expansionists but local elites. According to McGuinness, the uprising was instigated by poor people of color affiliated with Arosemena's Liberal Party who were seeking to prevent the ruling Conservatives from denying them an electoral victory.107 Yet local elites, whether Conservative or Liberal, deemed the uprising not a defense of democracy but a race war of “blacks” against “whites.” Not by chance, then, did Arosemena begin to use the term “Latin America” precisely when non-whites were challenging the power of his class under the banner of democracy. To tame popular wrath against white elites like himself, Arosemena maintained that democratic development had to be led by the Latin race—a belief succinctly expressed in his use of the term “Latin-American democracy.”
Ultimately, however, it was the call for a continental alliance against U.S. expansion that mainly motivated Spanish Americans on both sides of the Atlantic to imagine “Latin America” as a geopolitical community. This call was first heard in mid-1856 and became louder as more and more South Americans denounced their governments for their apparent refusal to join the Central American struggle against Walker. This refusal, a Chilean newspaper warned, only facilitated U.S. efforts “to obliterate the language and nationality of South Americans.”108 In reality, South American officials had been secretly hatching two plans for an alliance against U.S. expansion. The first—led by Chile, Peru, and Ecuador—produced the Continental Treaty of September 1856, which called for an anti-U.S. alliance of all South American states, including Brazil.109 The second, more ambitious project was designed by Central and South American diplomats in Washington, D.C. These envoys began to plot their alliance in February 1856, when it became clear that Walker was striving to conquer the rest of Central America. On November 9, 1856, the envoys signed a treaty that called for an alliance among all states south of the Río Grande.110 Its immediate objective was to secure South American aid for the war against Walker; its larger goal was to create a confederation strong enough to resist U.S. expansion into any part of the continent.111
This projected confederation initially included South America's main counterweight to U.S. expansion: Brazil.112 And Brazil's envoy in Washington quickly became a leading participant in the secret meetings that culminated in the November treaty. Yet his superiors in Rio de Janeiro refused to support the alliance.113 Although the Brazilian empire still feared U.S. expansion into the Amazon basin, its leaders could not overcome their prejudice that the Spanish American republics were inherently unstable.114 They also feared that any multilateral gathering would weaken Brazil's regional influence.115 Because of Brazil's refusal to join the treaty, the Washington envoys had to change the name of their projected entity from the Confederation of the Independent States of Spanish and Portuguese America to the Confederation of All Hispanic-American States.116
The tenacious, if failed, effort of the Washington envoys to include Brazil indicates how the concept of a Latin race came to inform their geopolitical vision. Although the Washington treaty does not mention the term, its architects viewed the alliance as a defense of the region's Latin race. Not coincidentally did the Brazilian envoy in Washington invoke the concept of a Latin race in his attempt to have his superiors endorse the alliance.117 Among the concept's strongest supporters was the envoy who spearheaded the Washington treaty: the Costa Rican Luis Molina. Although Molina had long idealized the United States as a “model republic,” Pierce's recognition of the Walker regime and the filibuster's soaring popularity led him to conclude that the United States had become “a monstrous nation” bent on annihilating the Latin race.118
Key to the spread of “Latin America,” then, was the realization by diplomats, politicians, and intellectuals of the region that much of the U.S. public backed what Guatemala's official paper called Walker's “work of extermination.”119 But just as important was South American support for the Central American war against Walker. This support was highly unusual: similar forms of transnational solidarity do not seem to have marked other anti-imperial struggles of the era, such as the 1857 Indian rebellion against British rule.120
Following the signing of the Washington treaty in November 1856, governmental and non-governmental actors in Central and South America undertook a diplomatic and public campaign on behalf of the anti-Walker alliance. This now-forgotten campaign consolidated the idea of Latin America throughout the hemisphere, for it was one thing to call for an anti-U.S. alliance, and another to realize it. Above all, the envoys needed the legislatures in their own countries to ratify the Washington treaty. The envoys—and their superiors—also sought to strengthen the alliance by reaching out to South American states without a representative in Washington. Central American officials, in turn, wanted to ensure that ratification would lead South American governments to provide them with concrete support for the war against Walker.
The alliance remained a pressing issue for about a decade after Walker's 1857 expulsion from Nicaragua. This was partly because he clung to his imperial dreams until 1860, when the filibuster's third attempt to restore his tropical empire ended with his execution in Honduras. Yet it was also because U.S. expansion continued to threaten the Southern Hemisphere right up to the outbreak of the Civil War. The greatest act of aggression occurred in 1858–1859, when the largest U.S. fleet at the time (entailing nineteen warships and more than 2,000 troops) sailed up the Paraná and Paraguay Rivers to demand exaction from the Paraguayan government for an 1855 skirmish involving a U.S. Navy survey ship.121 And if the Civil War put a temporary end to U.S. overseas expansion, it only intensified European intervention in the region. Not until the French occupation of Mexico ended in 1867 did Latin American interest in a continental alliance truly abate.
The diplomatic campaign on behalf of the anti-Walker alliance was promoted by governments throughout the region. Yet that of Costa Rica was far more active than the rest. Having spearheaded the war against Walker, Costa Ricans desperately sought South American aid in the form of cash, arms, warships, and troops. They also hoped that South Americans would join them in creating “military colonies” composed of “colonists from the Latin race” as a buffer against U.S. incursions.122 As soon as it became clear that the Washington treaty would be finalized, Costa Rica sent two envoys to Peru and Chile—the major Pacific powers of the region—to promote the anti-Walker alliance.
Their mission was nothing less than “the defense of the Latin race that inhabits the New World.”123 The Costa Rican envoys met with local officials and congressmen, while reaching out, via letters, to all other governments in South America, including Brazil.124 They also published articles in the local press that were reproduced elsewhere in South America. These articles raised the ire of U.S. diplomats, who attacked the Costa Ricans for stirring up “prejudices” against the United States.125 The envoys obtained less economic aid than hoped, and only Chile sent a warship to Central America, which did not arrive until a month after Walker's surrender.126 In addition, Brazil and Argentina refused to join the alliance, even though they shared the anti-U.S. sentiments that animated it.127 Still, the Costa Rican envoys succeeded in adding Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador to the Washington treaty.128 More important, they helped popularize the notion that Mexicans, Central Americans, and South Americans had a common identity as a besieged Latin race.129 Underscoring their success, a U.S. envoy reported that “the dominant idea of all Spanish America is the preservation of the dominion and ascendancy of what they are pleased to call the ‘raza latina’ or latin race. It is the burden of all their official papers, almost the sole topic of their gazettes, [and] the moving cause of the spasmodic efforts … to form a union.”130
If diplomats helped strengthen the idea of the Latin race throughout the Southern Hemisphere, those primarily responsible for spreading “Latin America” were liberal intellectuals and politicians campaigning on behalf of the anti-Walker alliance. The key role that these liberals played had much to do with the pro-democracy sentiments undergirding “Latin America.” If many diplomats hoped to combat U.S. filibusterism with the help of Europe's Latin powers, most liberal proponents of a Latin race rejected an alliance with the anti-democratic regimes of monarchical Spain and imperial France. So even though diplomats eventually adopted the term “Latin America,” non-state actors had already popularized its use. The key role that Spanish American intellectuals and politicians played in spreading “Latin America” echoes Rebecca Karl's account of how Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Filipino, and Vietnamese anti-imperialists sought to remake “Asia” in the early twentieth century.131 Yet unlike their Asian counterparts, the Spanish Americans tended not to question the nation-state; nor did they link “Latin America” to the plurality of cultures in their region. On the contrary, they sought to defend their nation-states via the creation of a continental confederation and identified “Latin America” with one culture (Latinity).
This idea of Latin America first circulated among intellectuals and politicians of the nations that felt most threatened by U.S. expansion, that is, the Pacific states and those of the Caribbean rim. The concept was quickly picked up by their counterparts on the Atlantic seaboard of South America, and later by those in the interior.132 At the same time, it made its way from Mexico to the United States, where it first appeared in Spanish-language newspapers that championed continental unity against U.S. expansion.133 By the end of 1857, the idea of Latin America had spread throughout most of the hemisphere.134 A key exception was Brazil, where the term likely did not appear until the early 1860s.135 The concept of “Latin America” circulated largely via the press, usually in the form of articles promoting the anti-U.S. alliance, but also in the lines of poems that celebrated the new entity. The most famous such poem was “Las dos Américas,” published in Paris by the New Granadan émigré José María Torres Caicedo.136
The concept of Latin America that took hold among Spanish American elites was defined mainly in opposition to a Protestant “Anglo-Saxon America” perceived to be bent on exterminating its Latin neighbors. Some elites also echoed French pan-Latinists by claiming that “Latin America” exuded a noble spiritualism against the crass materialism and individualism that allegedly imbued “Anglo-Saxon America”—a contrast that would be echoed later by José Enrique Rodó in his influential book Ariel (1900).137