Several years ago, I asked a friendly waitress in Havana whether the fruit salad on the menu was natural, in the sense of fresh as opposed to canned. She answered: «No es natural, es tropical.» She was not aware that she had made a deeply philosophical statement.
What makes up mentality?
Throughout all those years of working in and with Latin America, I constantly reflected on the existence or non-existence of so-called collective mentalities. I was after all being permanently and abundantly supplied with clichés about each of the countries and their people and with stereotyped views of the neighbor countries. Curious by nature, I tried to get to the bottom of the potential degree of truth to these claims.
Mentality is an issue I have long since been familiar with. Throughout Europe and worldwide, Germans have always been reminded that they are expected to be punctual, tidy, and diligent, on the whole rather boring and free of humor, of course fair-skinned, habitually wearing Lederhosen, drinking beer, and eating sausage, and in all probability devoted to soccer. At a higher level, Germans are generally thought to partake in the characteristic (bygone) German inventiveness and in the profound philosophy of the great thinkers. In the view of the «others», all of this has always been coupled with a conspicuous tendency toward fascism on the side of «the Germans».
Research in the history of mentalities has only been back on the agenda for a few decades in connection with cultural anthropological aspects. Before that, the term itself was—justifiably—negatively connotated for a long time due to its proximity to clichés, prejudices, and stereotypes. Whereas the use of the word «mentality» therefore appears somewhat outdated, the concept can be roughly defined as an affective predisposition of societies that deeply informs thought and perception of a certain epoch. As such, it represents a strong effective power that sustainably influences the psychological and socio-cultural mindset of a social group at a given time.
Where is the line between folklore and folklorism?
Without definitely determining whether we are dealing with collective mentalities or purely stereotyped projections, the existence of this type of distinct phenomena cannot be denied. Take for instance the Brazilian «discovery» of autochthonous tropicalism as embodiment of a mental cliché that was raised to the rank of high culture and contributed to the national identity formation of an entire generation. While «Tropicalismo», a Brazilian music style of the second half of the 20th century (Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and others), can be interpreted in terms of a lifestyle and anti-consumption cultural political trend, other similar phenomena run the risk of going over the edge and skidding into the realm of kitsch. This may well have been the case with Hélio Oiticica’s vaunted «Tropicália» exhibition of 1967 at Museu de Arte Moderno (MAM) in Rio de Janeiro. Sometimes it is but a small step from folklore to folklorism. The Amazonian Indian «conga line» staged by the Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto at a recent Venice Biennale was also not one bit inferior to those numerous Indian reenactments organized throughout the world’s parochial communities from Clarksville, Kentucky to Delmenhorst, Lower Saxony.
I witnessed scenes in Latin America that seemed to be taken straight out of a picture book with the crassest of clichés being acted out, for instance the grandly staged appearance of a pig-faced, banana-republic-style general decorated like a Christmas tree at the opening of a biennale in the art museum in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.
And what about the deep-rooted, unquestioning obedience to authority that I experienced over many years wherever I went in Rio de Janeiro? Is it a part of mentality that has become second nature to Brazilians? Or is it «only» a relic of old times when Rio was the seat of the royal government?
What makes a Panameño?
It was a Panameño himself who once gave me this devastating answer to the question «What is a Panameño?», otherwise I would not dare quoting it here: «A Panameño is a Venezuelan pretending to be an Argentinian». This merciless assessment goes straight to the heart of the problematic issue of mentality.
Even if the use of the word as such is frowned upon, the concept undoubtedly exists, is still operative, and ubiquitously employed, all over the world. The ideas about «mentality» are so deeply ingrained in the collective psyche that they are no longer objectively perceived and apparently just turn into reality over time like a «self-fulfilling prophecy». Take, for example, the «âme slave», the «great Slav soul», of Eastern European (Slavic) countries, or such homemade postulates and projections as the «American Dream» in the USA, «Las Tres Culturas» in Mexico, «Socialism» and «Solidarity» in Cuba, «Ordem e progreso» and «Tolerance» in Brazil, or the eternal comparison of Argentina to Europe and Buenos Aires to Paris.
All these assertions commonly provide a stable foundation for national identity building. And there seems to be some truth in them, too, or else we would not catch ourselves believing in them, would we?