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Heroes and Hero Cults in Latin America

Heroes and Hero Cults in Latin America

A collection of original essays on ten modern Latin American heroes, their legacies, and the societies that produced them.

January 2006
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328 pages | 6 x 9 | 20 b&w illus., 1 line drawing |

Latin American history traditionally has been defined by larger-than-life heroes such as Símon Bolívar, Emiliano Zapata, and Evita Perón. Recent scholarship, however, tends to emphasize social and cultural factors rather than great leaders. In this new collection, Samuel Brunk and Ben Fallaw bring heroes back to the center of the debate, arguing that heroes not only shape history, they also "tell us a great deal about the places from which they come."

The original essays in this collection examine ten modern Latin American heroes whose charisma derived from the quality of their relationships with admirers, rather than their innate personal qualities. The rise of mass media, for instance, helped pave the way for populists such as radio actress-turned-hero Evita Perón. On the other hand, heroes who become president often watch their images crumble, as policies replace personality in the eyes of citizens. In the end, the editors argue, there is no formula for Latin American heroes, who both forge, and are forged by, unique national events. The conclusion points toward Mexico, where the peasant revolutions that elevated Miguel Hidalgo and, later, Emiliano Zapata are so revered that today's would-be heroes, such as the EZLN's Subcomandante Marcos, must link themselves to peasant mythology even when their personal roots are far from native ground. The enduring (or, in some cases, fading) influence of those discussed in this volume validates the central placement of heroes in Latin American history.

  • Introduction: Heroes and Their Cults in Modern Latin America (Ben Fallaw and Samuel Brunk)
  • 1. Simón Bolívar: Man and Myth (John Chasteen)
  • 2. Remembering and Forgetting Agustín Gamarra: The Life and Legacy of the Cuzco Caudillo (Charles F. Walker)
  • 3. Antonio López de Santa Anna's Search for Personalized Nationalism (Shannon Baker)
  • 4. Presidential Ritual in Porfirian Mexico: Curtsying in the Shadow of Dictators (Víctor M. Macías-González)
  • 5. The Eyes of Emiliano Zapata (Samuel Brunk)
  • 6. Felipe Carrillo Puerto of Revolutionary-Era Yucatán, Mexico: Popular Leader, Caesar, or Martyr? (Ben Fallaw)
  • 7. Augusto Sandino of Nicaragua: The Hero Never Dies (Richard Grossman)
  • 8. Frida Kahlo: Heroism of Private Life (Nancy Deffebach)
  • 9. Haya de la Torre and APRA (David Nugent)
  • 10. Evita Perón: Beauty, Resonance, and Heroism (Linda B. Hall)
  • 11. Conclusion: Rethinking Latin American Heroes (Samuel Brunk and Ben Fallaw)
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

Samuel Brunk is Professor of History at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Ben Fallaw is Assistant Professor of History and Latin American Studies at Colby College in Maine.


Modern Latin American history is brimming with heroes. Since the independence movements of the early nineteenth century, the politics of the region have been profoundly personalistic, as attested to by the many groups that have coalesced around leaders with a strong personal draw: the Zapatistas, Porfirians, Peronistas, Sandinistas. Some storied Latin American heroes of the past have, in death, transcended their national settings to become international icons, emblems of the region: Frida Kahlo, Che Guevara, Pancho Villa, Chico Mendes, and Evita Perón spring quickly to mind, but there are many others. And some figures whom we must consider at least potential heroes are with us still—witness the charisma with which Brazil's Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva—pursued and ultimately won the presidency of that nation, the symbolic flair of the ski-masked rebel Subcomandante Marcos in the Mexican state of Chiapas, or the success with which Fidel Castro has persisted in Cuba and the singular legacy he will leave.

What exactly is a hero? Our definition is that a hero is a person to whom remarkable courage, talent, and other noble, even godlike traits are attributed by members of a community and who thus acquires a lasting place of importance in that community's culture. No one, of course, is likely to be granted such qualities by everyone in a given group of people. Indeed, the best that most heroes can hope for, especially those who are involved in politics, is to win the enduring affection of many and the enmity of a few. Still, most cultures—probably all cultures—have produced individuals who have achieved that lasting place of importance despite the dissent.

One thing a hero surely needs is charisma. Indeed, sociologist Max Weber's classic definition of charisma is quite similar to ours. Charisma, Weber wrote, is "a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities." Charisma, then, is what makes heroes heroic, but what exactly are the qualities or traits that charismatic individuals possess? Judging from the evidence in this book, they vary widely. Venezuelan independence leader Simón Bolívar was an energetic visionary and a good speaker; Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata had an impressive gaze; Yucatecan peasant organizer Felipe Carrillo Puerto demonstrated cariño—empathy—for his Mayan constituents; Argentine populist Evita Perón was sincerely concerned for those in need and knew how to use her good looks to political effect.

Such elements of charisma—if that is what they are—are historical contingencies, and historians often refer to French philosopher Blaise Pascal's famous remark about Cleopatra's nose when they want to talk about such contingencies. Pascal was discussing the je ne sais quoi (the unknowable quality) of love. Love, he wrote, "is such a tiny thing that we cannot even recognize it. [But it] rocks the world, thrones, armies, the whole of creation to their foundation. The nose of Cleopatra: if it had been shorter, the face of the earth would have changed." But what if Cleopatra's nose had risen stately over Zapata's moustache? Would that visage also have changed history? The problem is the je ne sais quoi. What does a historian do with something that cannot be recognized, cannot be described?

Did Bolívar or Evita Perón have greater charisma, and could either match George Washington's share? It is difficult to know. Although Bolívar, Perón, and Washington might each have been endowed with cause, character, and good looks, Weber's definition implies that charisma exists only when there is an audience receptive to the particular traits of the individual in question. This is where the "cult"—the veneration of a person by a group of admirers—of this book's title comes in. In some cases an individual might serendipitously have a trait or behavior that is widely admired in his or her society; Cleopatra's nose fits here. In other instances, resonant characteristics are intentionally cultivated, as when Perón and Zapata made decisions about how to wear their hair. Either way, charisma as we use the term in this book is a relationship between an individual and her or his adherents that is conditioned by their shared culture. Bolívar had charisma only because he had a following that was receptive to his qualities, and as this relationship flourished, it increasingly set him "apart from ordinary men." We would go so far in stressing the importance of the audience as to suggest that charisma often survives even when the person who supposedly possesses it has died and so can do nothing more to earn admiration. But to attribute someone's heroic stature to charisma still begs the question. To understand a hero we need to explore the conditions that produce charisma in the community in which that hero operates.

What kinds of communities, then, have heroes? Both in life and as the sacred, charismatic dead, heroes serve as a kind of cultural glue that helps hold together many kinds of communities—tribal, local, regional, national, international, religious, and ethnic. Our contributors explore heroes of the post-independence or national era of Latin America, from 1810 to the present. During this period the idea of the nation emerged and gathered strength in other parts of the world as well, and heroes played prominent roles in these nation-building processes. In his book, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argues that people have "imagined" national communities by conceiving of unity for specific populations based on what they believe to be shared histories and cultures. This imagining of nations has generally included what can best be described as a form of ancestor worship in which heroes—ancestors of national communities—represent supposedly shared cultural characteristics and historical events that are accepted as being critical to the creation of a nation. The use of such departed heroes helps simplify nations, which is necessary because national communities are, in reality, far too large and complex to be easily understood and envisioned; one cannot, for instance, know everyone by sight in a nation as one might in a small town. In this way, heroes help large numbers of people identify with a nation and internalize and accept as natural its basic principles and laws, thus producing greater unity in a population.

This unity is often cultivated and exploited by officials seeking to extend state power into people's daily lives, where a state is defined as the civil and military bureaucracies of a territory and the officials those who, in different branches and at various levels, control those bureaucracies. States presumably benefit from the national identity that heroes can help produce because people who feel themselves to be part of a single community may be less fractious and thus more easily governable than people who do not. But more than that, political leaders often invoke heroes in an effort to bolster their legitimacy through association with admired predecessors, or in the hope of making citizens more virtuous and productive by giving them models of behavior to follow. Heads of state generally want their constituents to perceive state and nation as one and the same, so that, for example, a Brazilian thinking of the Brazilian nation would automatically think of the Brazilian president, the head of state, as the most obvious embodiment of and spokesperson for the nation. A head of state who links himself to a heroic figure can draw on the hero's national unifying power to consolidate his own power as head of state.

Heads of state cannot, however, just shape heroes and nations according to their own designs. A useful caution against taking the concept of the nation as an imagined community too far comes from Anthony D. Smith, who stresses that although nations are relatively modern constructions, they are generally built on older ethnic traditions. Anderson's reference to ancestor worship, after all, brings to mind images of tribally organized peoples remembering departed elders, and when a national hero is called a founding father, it is an evocation both of the family community and of the ancestor cult. The many Christian cults of saints and martyrs that emerged during Europe's Middle Ages and carried over strongly into Latin America produced another kind of hero long before there were Latin American nations, and during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries leaders in many countries consciously sought to bolster national identification by adopting heroes with religious evocations, especially those understood to have become martyrs for their nations, in order to capture for the state some of the sense of the sacred at work within religious communities. For example, in Chapter 9 David Nugent demonstrates that Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre represented himself as a martyr for the Peruvian people and his cadre of organizers as a priesthood of democracy. Those who become heroes of nations, then, often have popular roots that predate the origins of the nation and limit what leaders of modern states can do with them.

Another factor limiting state manipulation of heroes is that new heroes with little relationship to states, such as sports and entertainment figures, are constantly being born. And it is also possible for heroic figures to embody concepts of identity and nationality that are apart from, and in opposition to, the images crafted by internationally recognized nations. A good example here is the ethnic nationalism of the Chicano, black, and American Indian movements in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, which produced its own heroes and flourished in their light.

Furthermore, it is difficult to separate a state from the society in which it operates. Modern states are not highly unified structures. Rather, having metastasized into multiple branches, levels, ministries, and committees, they are generally unable to present consistent messages, and nearly always must consider the interests of people who work at cross-purposes with one another on behalf of different constituencies that may use heroes in conflicting ways. At a minimum, for heroes and nations to be heroes and nations people have to accept them as such, and in so doing people also participate in the creation of nations and heroes, adapting them to their personal needs or those of the smaller communities in which they live. These needs might be in opposition to the needs of the state, however, and the heroic figures might in this way be manipulated to serve two masters simultaneously. Thus, although the building of state power and institutions and the forging of nations have been profoundly interconnected because governing elites have had good reason to create and manipulate national myths and the heroes that are part of them, the making of nations and heroes is both a collective endeavor and one that can be opposed.

Nineteenth-Century Latin American Heroes

Between 1810 and 1825, most Latin American countries fought and won wars of independence from Spain. As the former colonies struggled to form themselves into nation-states even as they sought liberation through martial efforts, it is not surprising that heroic figures dominated the process. The most prominent among them were men of action—strongmen or warlords, called caudillos, who led armies against Spanish troops or, at times, against each other in battles to settle the boundaries of the nations. Through martial prowess and force of personality, they often dominated their countries once independence was achieved. Two Mexican priests, Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos, lost rebellions for independence yet still became prominent in Mexico's national pantheon. In Spanish South America, the two great liberators were Simón Bolívar of Venezuela and José de San Martín of Argentina, both of whom fought their way to Peru to drive the Spanish army from the continent. Their supporting cast included Venezuelans Francisco de Miranda and José Antonio Páez; Colombian Francisco de Paula Santander; Antonio José Sucre, who finished off the Spanish forces and became Bolivia's first president; and Uruguayan José Gervasio Artigas. In Brazil the independence process was more peaceful and thus produced no heroes of the sword, but there was one heroic gesture. In 1822, Emperor Pedro I established Brazilian independence from Portugal by issuing what became known as the Cry of Ipiranga: "Independence or Death."

While the period from independence until about 1870 was characterized by military competition for power between caudillos, some of the strongmen of the early and middle nineteenth century have been remembered as effective—and thus perhaps heroic—statesmen. Chilean conservative Diego Portales, for instance, constructed durable economic and political frameworks for his country, and José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia kept Paraguay self-sufficient and separate from its menacing neighbor, Argentina, until his death in 1840. What Portales and Rodríguez de Francia had in common with the warriors of the period was a close association between their persons and the governments they led, their authoritarian personalism tending to transcend the constitutional trappings with which their new nations were endowed.

This less warlike, more constructive bearing was, in some respects, a model for Latin American leaders who came on the scene after 1870. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, Latin America became more integrated into the world economy through railroads, steamships, and the telegraph. At the same time, the industrialization of parts of Europe and the United States heightened demand for the region's raw materials. Exports boomed. This stronger connection to global markets gave some caudillos the financial means to build stronger states. It also gave elites powerful incentives to unite in creating such states, since the greatest profits would come only when political stability encouraged foreign investments. These newly stable states were generally limited in the services they offered. Latin American governments of the Gilded Age concentrated on regulating markets and servicing public debts, generally addressing social problems through more effective methods of repression, which export-led prosperity made possible by fattening police forces and militaries. In some countries the new political arrangements underwritten by export booms included elections that merely rotated members of the elite among the positions of power. In others, individual caudillos simply suppressed or bought off their rivals, sometimes holding power for decades at a time. Dictators such as Porfirio Díaz in Mexico, Antonio Guzmán Blanco in Venezuela, Rafael Núñez in Colombia, and José Santos Zelaya in Nicaragua emerged as a new breed of strongmen, caudillos who spoke the language of economic growth but who still relied on force to put down rivals and restive populations. Historian John Lynch has called them "modernizing dictators."

The last three decades of the nineteenth century were an era of liberal ascendancy across the region, which meant belief in pursuing progress and modernization through laissez-faire capitalism. It also meant the need to pay at least lip service to republican institutions: members of the new set of dictators often held elections intended to cloak their authoritarian rule in republican forms. When they felt it necessary, however, they rigged those elections, and they did their best to centralize authority in their own persons rather than submit to checks and balances. Instead of seeking to project a sense of personal connectedness to the citizens of their countries, these dictators generally kept their distance symbolically, seeking to manipulate public opinion by glorifying themselves. One way to do that was to associate themselves with the arrival of relative peace, order, and prosperity after the turmoil of the pre-1870 period. Another was to identify with past heroes of their nations. Guzmán Blanco, for instance, was a vain man who liked to be called "the Illustrious American" and linked himself to Bolívar through his father, Antonio Leocadio Guzmán, whom he touted as one of Bolívar's most valued collaborators. Bolívar's birthdays were celebrated in the capital, Caracas, with cries of "Long Live Bolívar! Glory to Guzmán!" Guzmán Blanco also took pains to display—and take credit for—the progress and prosperity of Venezuela under his rule. A great admirer of all things European, he reconstructed Caracas in the Parisian mode and filled it with new buildings, monuments, and statues of himself.

Similar events were taking place in Porfirio Díaz's Mexico (1876-1911), as discussed in Chapter 4. Díaz promised peace and prosperity to foreign investors and privileged Mexicans while using an army he could move quickly by railroad to suppress unruly indigenous groups on Mexico's northern and southern borders, as well as peasants and workers who resisted his economic policies. To court public opinion, demonstrate his successes, and legitimize his rule through association with heroes of the past, Díaz lined the Paseo de la Reforma, a new Mexico City thoroughfare, with the statues of such prominent Mexicans as Aztec resistance hero Cuauhtémoc, independence leader Hidalgo, and Reform-era president Benito Juárez. The Porfirian regime also projected its heroes internationally in its exhibits at the world fairs.

Of course, not every end-of-the-century leader was cut from the same cloth, and one who was not, Cuba's José Martí, bears mention here. Martí was a prominent player in Cuba's struggle for independence from Spain, but he died, tragically, before it was achieved in 1898. Consequently, Martí operated in a far different historical context than the modernizing dictators who presided over countries that had thrown off their colonial shackles decades earlier. It is not surprising, then, that Martí's program also differed from those of other Latin American leaders of the period. In his Cuba Libre (Free Cuba) he envisioned democracy, civil government, and an end to foreign interference. While leading an attack on the Spanish in 1895, he became a martyr to that vision. Since then he has become perhaps the most renowned Latin American hero of the nineteenth century and one of the most studied individuals in all of Latin American history.

Revolutionaries, Populists, and Other Twentieth-Century Strongmen

By the first decade of the twentieth century, the age of Latin American warlords seemed to be on the wane. Although caudillos remained at the helm in many countries, most nations had become constitutional republics whose fates increasingly depended on economic growth overseen by swelling middle classes with democratic leanings. At the same time, urban workers, clustered together in the region's burgeoning cities, increased in number. Literacy expanded along with the urban centers and—especially in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay—immigration. Then as now, the future seemed likely to be shaped by economic laws of supply and demand, not the gloved fist of caudillos. But the triple shocks of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Great Depression shook the region to its foundations and undermined both the trend toward democracy, where it existed, and the import-export emphasis of liberal economics. Many began to argue that Latin American countries should focus on autonomous economic development, prescribing an interventionist state that would invest in infrastructure to nurture growing industries. As faith in democracy waned during the Depression, new ideological models, such as communism and fascism, seemed to offer more promising ways of including the increasingly restive urban masses politically. Rising to preside over the changed landscape in the middle decades of the twentieth century was a new kind of personalist leader, and thus would-be hero, the populist.

Populism was a style, not an ideological position. Practitioners combined the don de gente (popular touch) and elements of popular culture (the tango, the samba, the Mexican folksong called the corrido) with modern technology, using the airplane and automobile to extend their political appeals into the remotest corners of their countries and using mass media such as the radio and motion pictures to reach populations that remained substantially illiterate. Beginning with Mexican revolutionaries such as Carrillo Puerto, they courted the growing middle classes as well as traditionally marginalized groups—organized labor, the urban poor, young people, women, and sometimes even indigenous populations. By the 1930s, populists of many stripes had emerged as dominant leaders in their countries. On the right were military dictators such as Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, Anastasio Somoza García of Nicaragua, and Fulgencio Batista in Cuba; on the left were men like Presidents Lázaro Cárdenas of Mexico and Arturo Alessandri of Chile. These populists shared certain characteristics—such as a proclivity toward authoritarian leadership—with nineteenth-century warlords, but mass media and modern travel gave them the chance to develop cults of personality on a scale that the classic caudillo could only have envied. Even authoritarian leaders on the far right of the political spectrum, who did not cultivate mass followings with the patrician-baiting reformism characteristic, say, of Juan and Evita Perón, tried to woo lower-class groups. A good example is Somoza, who ruled Nicaragua from 1936 to 1956. Somoza sought labor support to shore up his control over national politics through obrerismo ("workerism"), a strategy in which he promoted labor organization, portrayed himself as "the guarantor of labor's aspirations," and made sure that some of labor's demands were met.

For this reason, it is often difficult to separate left-leaning, democratic populism from right-wing authoritarianism, and many leaders never saw the need to do so. One great ideological chameleon was José María Velasco Ibarra of Ecuador, perennial presidential contender who was in and out of power so many times that his unofficial slogan became, "Give me a balcony and I will return to the Presidency." Velasco Ibarra got his start with backing from the conservative elite in the 1930s and then, while in power from 1944 to 1947, formed an alliance with the left-leaning Popular Front before turning against the left. During his last campaign, in 1960, he made free use of radical rhetoric lifted from the Cuban Revolution. With evidence like this, one might easily conclude that the personalism of caudillismo—the dominance of the strongman or warlord—tamed and co-opted modern ideologies rather than being displaced by them.

As the only country in Latin America to experience a bloody social revolution in the first half of the twentieth century, Mexico is markedly different from the rest of the region. The Mexican Revolution (fought in 1910-1920) provided the context for a whole new set of martial caudillos, some with rather traditional attributes. Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Alvaro Obregón, among many others, now became candidates for entry into that nation's pantheon. Elsewhere in the region, revolutionary heroes did not turn up until the cold war. Most notably, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 made both Fidel Castro and Argentine physician-turned-revolutionary Ernesto "Ché" Guevara leftist icons, not only in Latin America but throughout the world.

Heroes Outside of High Politics

Although this book is largely about "high" politics, we do not want to ignore other varieties of heroism, which often had political dimensions of their own. In the late nineteenth century, for instance, bandits drew as much attention as caudillos. For some observers bandits were nothing more than common thieves who had to be stamped out so that order and progress could be more deeply embedded. For others they were like Robin Hood, admirable in their willingness to buck the period's modernizing trends. In Mexico the bandits "Chucho el Roto" and Heraclio Bernal drew praise, or at least quiet admiration, for their ability to taunt the Porfirian regime. Their exploits were recorded in corridos and sometimes in the print media as well. In Argentina, as political conflict died down and a government intent on greater centralization moved to control the feared gauchos of the rich pampas grasslands, some people responded with romantic defenses of these celebrated Argentine horsemen. Most famous is José Hernández's epic, Martín Fierro, a work with tremendous resonance in that nation. In Brazil the backlands (the sertão) were full of bandits with serious reputations who sometimes became symbolic focal points of protest at the national level. There the "good thief," Antonio Silvino, was a particularly prominent Robin Hood figure around the start of the twentieth century.

The blooming of mass culture in the first half of the twentieth century revolutionized ideas about who could be considered heroic. Another plebeian icon, the working-class hero, began to appear, in part the creation of populist leaders who tapped into popular culture to attract the support of urban labor. Former radio actress Evita Perón's melodramatic political speeches on behalf of workers (see Chapter 10), for example, bore a strong resemblance to the radio dramas she had starred in, with foreign interests and the Argentine elite substituting for the villain. Samba and carnival joined soccer as symbols of Brazilian nationalism during the era of Getulio Vargas (1930-1954). But political uses of worker heroes and "low" culture often involved sanitizing them for elite, and foreign, consumption. Samba songs initially celebrated both the virtues and vices of the malagrado, the street-smart hustler; but during the Vargas regime this figure inexplicably gave up hustling for hard work and respectability. In Mexico, Mario "Cantinflas" Moreno adapted the similar pelado character, a fixture of the tent theater of Mexico City's famous Garibaldi Square, to the movie screen. Unfortunately, the pelado did not fare well in his new medium. Like the malagrado, he had been admired for his heroic ability to mock authority figures, both plutocrat and politician. Under the guiding hand of the postrevolutionary Mexican state, however, which had considerable interest in the propaganda power of movies, he evolved from a marginalized figure into an upright symbol of the new regime and its supposed successes.

Twentieth-century media also facilitated the emergence of female heroes. Women who might be considered heroic have always been present in Latin America, but in part because they have not usually held political office, women's heroism has often gone unrecognized, both by the societies in which they lived and by historians. In the twentieth century, however, the Mexican Revolution's soldadera (female soldier or camp follower) emerged as a national icon, even though individual soldaderas and such popular leaders of the postrevolutionary era as María de la O and Felipa Poot were rarely remembered. Painter Frida Kahlo, the subject of Chapter 8, emerged as a cultural hero years after her death, and her interest in elements of Mexico's Precolumbian past helped foster modern nationalism. The journals of Carolina Maria de Jesus, an Afro-Brazilian woman from the city of São Paulo, meanwhile, chronicled her struggles against poverty, racial discrimination, and, often, her own family. After the publication of her first book, which was a tremendous success, she enjoyed a kind of heroic, emblematic stature for a time, but also encountered a great deal of controversy. Another Afro-Brazilian woman, Benedita da Silva, who emerged from a favela (shantytown) of Rio de Janeiro to become Brazil's first black woman in the senate, recently drew greater attention to her accomplishments by publishing her life story, as well. Other such accounts include those of Rosa Isolde Reuque Paillalef, a Mapuche Indian activist from Chile, and Domitila Barrios de Chungara, the wife of a Bolivian miner, who became involved in labor and political disputes.

A New Look at Latin American Heroes

One of the goals of this book is to make a case for returning the study of individuals—in this case, prominent ones—to the center of historical analysis. Obviously, Latin American leaders and others who might qualify as heroes have not been ignored by historians. In fact, before the 1960s scholars often adopted the "great man" approach, implying that elite men who wielded formal political power, commanded armies, and wrote books were the primary architects of history. Over the past forty years or so that kind of interpretation has drawn heavy criticism, and the role of privileged individuals has been of less concern for most historians. From the 1960s to the 1980s, historians were instead interested primarily in social and economic structures. During roughly the past fifteen years, they have turned hard toward the examination of culture, often focusing more on political discourse, symbols, and ritual than on individuals. Most historians of recent decades have viewed the concept of the hero skeptically, both because they do not believe that leaders have been the fundamental makers of history and because they recognize that those who have claimed heroic stature or have had such claims made for them have often been deeply flawed.

But though historians sometimes scoff, the phenomenon of personalism has continued to demand a share of scholarly attention. During the era in which the focus was socioeconomic, caudillos, populists, and more local political bosses (often called caciques in Mexico) all drew notice from historians. Scholars of this period were generally most concerned with categorizing their subjects and examining their relationships to larger structures. The comparative perspective offered in Michael Conniff's edited volumes, for instance, deepened our knowledge of the leaders of the populist era. David Brading's collection on the Mexican Revolution, meanwhile, explored the bonds between caudillos and their followers. The contributors debated how long caudillos continued to exist, whether there were caudillos of different types, and how caudillos were related to the process of institutionalizing the revolution.

The more recent students of culture have been concerned with questions of agency and identity, emphases that have nudged historical inquiry away from structural determinism and given it a more biographical quality. To the extent that cultural historians have been interested in individuals, however, they have not been especially interested in renowned leaders but rather in people, or groups of people, that previous historians had overlooked. Still, there has been some examination of the prominent and their impact on national histories through the cultural lens, focusing on the ways that they, in life and death, were linked to national identity through architecture, public ritual, and propagandistic literature. One pioneering work of this kind is Charles Weeks's The Juárez Myth in Mexico, which examines memories of Benito Juárez, the Zapotec Indian who rose to power in the mid-nineteenth century, led the Liberal Party to victory over its Conservative foes, and contributed greatly to the Constitution of 1857. Weeks traces the ways in which the Mexican state, since Juárez's death in 1872, has made him a secular hero who could compete with the powerful religious image of the Virgin of Guadalupe and thus promote a nationalism more effectively linked to the government. Another pathbreaking work on the posthumous careers of Mexican heroes is Ilene O'Malley's The Myth of the Revolution. Focusing on the years between 1920 and 1940, O'Malley discusses how the mainly middle- and upper-class winners of the Mexican Revolution portrayed deceased revolutionaries as founding fathers of the new, postrevolutionary order. As they did so, O'Malley argues, they attached to popular leaders such as Zapata messages of nationalism and patriarchalism meant to pacify and otherwise manipulate the Mexican people.

More recently, there have been several important works on heroes and culture in other parts of Latin America. In Mañana es San Perón: A Cultural History of Peron's Argentina, Mariano Plotkin closely examines Juan Perón's propaganda efforts in Argentina between 1946 and 1955, with attention to political rituals and education programs. Plotkin maintains that Perón built Peronism into a political religion, placing himself at the center of conceptions of nationalism. Lauren Derby has recently argued, meanwhile, that Dominican dictator Trujillo used beauty pageants and popularly accepted macho stereotypes (he was known as "the Goat") to increase the identification of poor Dominicans with his regime. Finally, books on nineteenth-century caudillos by John Chasteen (author of Chapter 1) and Ariel de la Fuente have explored the concept of charisma, stressing the notion that charisma is about the relationship between leaders and followers. They thus move the focus from the inherent characteristics of leaders to the characteristics that members of a particular society expect of their leaders. De la Fuente in particular pays great attention to oral tradition—folksongs and stories—in rooting this out.

Despite the existence of these works, historians have not always given heroes (and individuals in general) the attention they merit. They deserve better, in part because of the way people often receive history and the uses they have for it. Historian David Thelen recently surveyed 1,453 randomly selected people in the United States about their uses of the past. Thelen's report notes that the greatest challenge identified by the people he contacted was that historians "pay more attention to individuals both as interpreters of and actors in the past." This was important to the interviewees because they wanted to use the past to establish identity, to pass on knowledge to their children as preparation for the future, or "to find and hold on to other people, and to make a difference in their lives and those of others." In other words, they had intensely personal uses for history. Based on those discussions, Thelen suggests that there is a popular ethic about history in the United States, the crux of which is that people can do much to shape their destinies, despite the constraints under which they live, and that the ways in which historical actors have shaped their lives hold important lessons for us.

Thelen's findings probably do not completely apply to Latin America, of course, but as we have suggested, Latin Americans have amply demonstrated a similar need for exemplary lives; indeed, most authorities would say that personalism has been stronger in Latin America than in the United States. At any rate, it is that relationship between individuals and groups that enables heroes to serve as windows into the societies in which they live, and it is that relationship that the chapters in this book explore. We are writing, in other words, not primarily about the policy or electoral campaigns or battles that make up the sometimes dry chronology of politics. Rather, we are interested in political culture, the ties that bind leaders and followers—the methods of organization, the mechanics of patronage, the rituals and rhetorical practices, the symbols and myths that help explain why some people gain political power or influence and why we remember some leaders and quickly forget many others. Anthropologist Katherine Verdery writes that to study political culture is to "enchant" or "enliven" politics "with a richer sense of what it might consist of." It is also to study societies instead of just politicians.

This book, then, examines leaders during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with attention to caudillos, populists, revolutionaries, an artist, and the relationship between such figures, their admirers, and the processes of identity creation, state formation, and nation building. For comparative purposes, we decided not to limit our focus to those who achieved the lasting stature demanded by our definition of hero. Instead, the book's content reflects our understanding that incipient hero cults can take many different trajectories by considering a group of people who were at least candidates for heroism, some attaining it, others celebrated as heroic only at particular moments in their lives, then largely forgotten after their deaths or marked down in memory as villains. The cases of those who did not reach the ultimate status help us identify the variables that seem necessary to the making of a Latin American hero.

John Chasteen begins our scrutiny of the independence era with a close look at Simón Bolívar in Chapter 1. During his life, Chasteen observes, Bolívar did not always seem heroic; he was not, for instance, an especially effective military leader. He was, however, a persistent and daring visionary, as well as a gifted communicator highly attentive to the cultivation of his own image. Based on those strengths Bolívar became, after his death, an example for others to follow and the center of an official state cult in Venezuela "with pronounced religious resonances." Charles Walker's subject in Chapter 2 is Peruvian Agustín Gamarra, another independence-era hero who was, in retrospect, merely one of a throng of somewhat prominent caudillos of his era. During his lifetime, though, his image sometimes flourished despite limited military talents. Perhaps this was because he shared with Bolívar what military historian John Keegan terms the "mask of command," gaining credit by managing and administering long and grueling campaigns, stringing together political coalitions, corresponding effectively with subordinates, and maintaining morale in difficult circumstances—skills sometimes as valuable as battlefield prowess. Be that as it may, Walker reveals that, unlike Bolívar, Gamarra was not successful in generating a hero cult that outlived him, partly because it was impossible to see him in unambiguous terms and partly because of his failure to establish a mass following.

In describing Santa Anna honoring his amputated leg, Shannon Baker in Chapter 3 demonstrates that attempts to solidify national power in newly independent Latin America could be comical. On the more serious side, the success of those efforts was limited by civil wars, economic difficulties, and the lack of powerful national institutions, such as centralized armies or educational systems. Baker also believes that Santa Anna's personalism was a problem, because it undermined more viable sources of national identity, while his uneven record as military leader and chief executive was insufficient to make him the embodiment of the nation he hoped to become. Despite moments such as the defeat of the French in 1838, during which he appeared heroic to many, he was generally perceived as being too self-serving and thus did not become the center of a lasting hero cult. In fact, he has become one of the principal villains of Mexican history, largely because of his association with the loss of national territory to the United States at mid-century.

In Chapter 4, Victor Macias presents the very different Mexico of Porfirio Díaz. Like Santa Anna, Díaz first achieved power through military means, but while Santa Anna came to represent the disorder of the post-independence period, Díaz presided over the late-nineteenth-century trend toward political order and economic growth. Although Díaz did hold (and fix) the regular elections called for by the Constitution of 1857, he balanced his feints at republicanism with the projection of a regal image through architecture and the etiquette and ceremony of presidential audiences. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz has noted that people tend to build cults around rulers as a reflection of their personification of power. Díaz's regal strategy, which distanced him from the throng and enhanced his embodiment of power, seems to have been calculated to achieve such an effect. But Díaz's pseudo-monarchical airs did not age well. After the Mexican Revolution ended his dictatorship in 1911, he has fared poorly in Mexican memory.

Our coverage of the twentieth century starts with two chapters on prominent actors in the Mexican Revolution. In his essay on Emiliano Zapata, Samuel Brunk in Chapter 5 finds that Zapata's image, both in life and after death, was shaped by the interaction of national and more local impressions and memories. Brunk argues that Zapata's strong presence in both local and national imaginations may help explain his considerable symbolic power throughout much of Mexico's twentieth century. The career of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, with its greater regional limitations, is scrutinized by Ben Fallaw in Chapter 6. In life, Carrillo Puerto led a revolutionary transformation of the southeastern Mexican state of Yucatán, yet his posthumous hero cult, crafted by politicians, an ambitious brother, and entertainment maven Manuel Cirerol Sansores, served to legitimize a status quo that was far from radical. Perhaps because memories of him were sometimes so shamefully manipulated, Carrillo Puerto's cult has faded over time.

Richard Grossman in Chapter 7 takes us to Nicaragua for a discussion of Augusto César Sandino. Sandino first came to national and international attention during the late 1920s when he initiated a guerrilla war against the U.S. Marines who had been sent to intervene in Nicaragua and the national leaders who accepted their presence. In the course of this struggle, Grossman discovers, Sandino developed a dual image as an anti-imperialist warrior and a Nicaraguan patriarch. He outlasted the U.S. forces, who left his country in 1933, but was assassinated soon afterward by the Nicaraguan National Guard, commanded by Anastasio Somoza García, who was on his way to establishing a family dictatorship that would last for more than four decades. Sandino was not, however, forgotten, and eventually the rebels who toppled the Somoza regime in 1979, the most important of which were allied with the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, or FSLN), made him a social revolutionary icon and the founding father of a newly conceptualized Nicaraguan nation.

Chapter 8 raises several new issues, both because it concerns a woman, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and because Kahlo was not a politician. Nancy Deffebach demonstrates that Kahlo crafted an image of herself in her paintings to explore how one could be "female, Mexican, modern, and powerful." Despite her many physical ailments, she did not depict herself as a martyr but rather as a secular pilgrim who used elements of Christian iconography to "negotiate her way through the special problems facing women artists in Mexico." This did not win her much renown during her lifetime, but since her death in 1954 at the age of only 47, and despite her own disdain for hero worship, her work and her image have attracted a broad and still-growing international following. Deffebach contends that this has occurred precisely because she "fills a need and a niche" that more traditional heroic types cannot.

David Nugent in Chapter 9 takes on populist Haya de la Torre of Peru, exploring how Haya's American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana, or APRA) party reached out to potential adherents through a combination of charisma and institutions. Haya's charisma was considerable, Nugent argues, but he was also a stickler for organization and discipline. Without the party structures he fashioned and the assistance those structures offered people who joined the party, his charisma would not have been felt in such remote regions of the nation as Chachapoyas, in the northern department of Amazonas. In showing how APRA magnified and extended Haya's charisma, then, Nugent provides the crucial insight that a given hero's success may not be explicable through cultural considerations alone and hints that the charismatic relationship may sometimes be forged through rather mundane means.

Chapter 10 is Linda Hall's study of the career of a second heroine, Evita Perón. Unlike Kahlo, Perón was a politician, although rather than holding her own political office she benefited from opportunities to wield power because her husband occupied the presidency. Hall follows Perón's rise from provincial obscurity and the evolution of her public persona: how her choice of dress and hairstyle, combined with her willingness to literally and figuratively embrace the poor and the sick, helped make her appealing to workers, women, and children. Like Kahlo, Evita Perón fashioned her image after Christian symbols, ultimately making herself a sort of secular Virgin Mary. In part because she continued to be a polarizing figure after her death, her history remains more complex than that of any of the other subjects of this book.

In Chapter 11, the concluding chapter, we consider what general lessons can be drawn about Latin American heroes. As is readily apparent, Latin American heroes have generally been male, though being female does not rule out heroism. We also find that they portray themselves as problem solvers in difficult times, that they tend to hold liberal or progressive ideas (though they are rarely ideologically orthodox), and that those whose reputations have flourished most did not rise to executive power in their nations. Finally, many of them came to a tragic end. Although that description does not make the region's heroes unique, we argue that the heroes of individual nations within Latin America might be unique at one level of analysis, and that by studying a given nation's heroic pantheon, we can come to new understandings about how that nation is conceptualized.