I am ready to concede that on the plane of factual being the past
existence of an Aztec civilization does not change anything very much
in the diet of the Mexican peasant of today . . . But it has been remarked
several times that this passionate search for a national culture which
existed before the colonial era finds its legitimate reason in the
anxiety shared by native intellectuals to shrink away from that
Western culture in which they all risk being swamped.
—fr a n t z fa n o n, The Wretched of the Earth
For the Caribbean writer Frantz Fanon the significance of the preconquest
past for Spanish America lay precisely in its (uncertain, ambiguous, par-
tial) ability to counter the currents of Western culture, thereby contribut-
ing to the formation of an autonomous, anticolonial history. His contrast
between the “plane of factual being” and the realm of cultural anticolo-
nialism forms part of his larger analysis of the slippery nature of history
in colonial situations. Far from disowning the past as meaningless, Fanon,
along with other writers on postcoloniality, has stressed the significance,
indeed centrality, of the past to the process of postcolonial nation forma-
tion. It is also worth noting that he discusses the importance of the Aztecs
not only to elites but to the “Mexican peasant.” Fanon’s focus on the im-
portance of the past to native intellectuals and peasants is a reminder that
the story I have related here—a story of elite engagement with the precon-
quest past—is by no means the only tale that could be told about national-
ism and the pre-Columbian era. Scholars have for decades examined the
significance of Spanish America’s preconquest history to the formation of
subaltern identities. John Rowe’s seminal research on Inca nationalism, the
analyses of Alberto Flores Galindo, and a series of later works have helped
elucidate the significance of the Inca past both to members of the former
Inca nobility and to the Andean peasantry. These works have suggested
the importance of Inca history to the formation of indigenous identities
in the Andes and also its considerable revolutionary potential, especially
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