By Alexander S. Dawson, author of The Peyote Effect: From the Inquisition to the War on Drugs
In 2019 it seems almost dreamlike to title a conference Nuestra América: Justice and Inclusion. It is as if we are stubbornly refusing to concede any ground to those who seek the opposite, from Bolsonaro’s Brazil to Trump’s America. But then, how is it that LASA members can actualize the practices of justice and inclusion that might produce something we could call Nuestra América? What, even are we to be included in? We might begin even by reminding ourselves that they very term is not so much rooted in a hemispheric-wide sense of solidarity as it is, in Martí’s original deployment, meant to convey the urgency of Latin American solidarity against the imperial depredations of the US, uttered as he hoped for Cuban Independence and feared what would become the American Century. Today, amidst openly bellicose policies that dehumanize refugees and threats of military intervention, it is easy cast the US as the enemy of Our America. I wonder though, if this opposition obscures the ongoing production of racial, ethnic and other forms of inequality throughout the region? Indeed, I wonder if inclusion might mean that we more fully include histories of the United States within the larger history of the Americas, so as to imagine the ways in which all our societies are built on systems of racial and other difference that persist to this day?
I began my recent book, The Peyote Effect: From the Inquisition to the War on Drugs, thinking that I was engaged in a project that would highlight the differences between Mexico and the United States. In my long experience studying the idea of race in Mexico, I have always been struck by the ways that Mexicans imagine their racial politics as somehow distinct from those in the US – as more humane, for instance – and I thought that in studying the different associations of peyote and racial identities in Mexico and the US, I might highlight some of those differences. I was, like a great many historians of Mexico, committed to a long-standing practice of writing against the grain of US superiority by pointing out that racial politics in the US were often more toxic than those in Mexico. I was a product of a tradition that celebrates the opposition between Nuestra América and US, insisting that asymmetries in power did not make the US the more virtuous nation.
And yet, as is often the case in research, I found that opposition increasingly difficult to sustain as I delved further into this history. It was not that the US was more virtuous, it was that the US was more like Mexico in certain fundamental ways than I had ever imagined. While it is true that there are some important divergences between the US and Mexico as far as the history of peyote and racial politics are concerned, the resonances between the two countries strike me as more important. It is not just the fact that after circuitous journeys both countries have arrived at remarkably similar points in terms of the legal and racial classifications of peyote and peyotists. It is that peyote plays a strikingly similar role in the histories of both whiteness and indigeneity in both countries. By juxtaposing the two countries we see the ways in which both are profoundly post-colonial societies, where ideas of racial/cultural difference continue to be deeply embedded in legal, political, and administrative systems.
One of the most important things I came to realize in undertaking this work was that I needed an approach to inter-American history that would shift the concept of Our America away from the opposition between the US and Latin America, and towards the persistence of forms of hierarchy, marginalization, and exploitation that cut across national, cultural, and linguistic lines in the Americas. Just as the community of those who want inclusion and justice include many millions who reside in the US, those who perpetrate exclusion and injustice are today not easily classified according to national, ethnic, or linguistic identities. Martí’s anti-imperial project made perfect sense in the 1890s, but today we need something much more global if our aspirations are to be realized. And we need to continue to interrogate our own assumptions about difference, especially those notions of difference that cast the core oppositions in the Americas along national lines.