In 1940, Cuban ethnographer Fernando Ortiz coined the concept of “transculturation” for the sphere of anthropological research. His purpose was to explain the different stages and results of cultural contact among people brought together by European Colonial expansion into the Caribbean. Forty years later, when Uruguayan critic Ángel Rama applied the concept to Latin American literature, it became the core of a vast field of inquiry and debate, with a wide impact on the humanities and social sciences. Beyond the seminal work of Ortiz and Rama, this article covers numerous critical applications of the concept, metacritical approaches, and the production of alternative theoretical tools that challenge or complement the concept of “transculturation.”
The concept of “transculturation” appears for the first time in Ortiz 1995 (originally published in 1940), as a contribution to the study of Cuba and to the general field of Social Sciences. It can be read as an epistemological stand advancing the understanding of Latin America through Latin-American theoretical tools. Although Ortiz’s concept was adopted very early on by Venezuelan writer Mariano Picón Salas (in Picón Salas 1965), it remained rather dormant until Uruguayan critic Ángel Rama re-elaborated that notion in Rama 1982. Rama’s particular elaboration of the concept attempts to explain the way in which some Latin American authors incorporate diverse elements in their work of popular, rural, and indigenous cultures—words and grammatical structures, for instance—while, at the same time, adopting and adapting the literary techniques from the European and US literary avant-gardes. Larsen 1990 provides an early criticism to Rama’s theory, suggesting it entails a form of hegemonic aesthetic for Latin America’s peripheral Modernity. Cornejo Polar 1994 called into question both Ortiz’s and Rama’s articulations of the concept. Drawing from his own research, dating back to the 1970s, the author stated that “heterogeneity” would be the proper alternative to a conceptualization that is otherwise reminiscent of the problematic notion of assimilation. Cornejo Polar thus emphasizes the contradictory and conflictive nature of Latin American literature and culture, instead of what he sees as an illusion of harmonic synthesis. Sobrevilla 2001 offers a useful overview of the theoretical web surrounding Ortiz and Rama. Kraniauskas 2000 and Moreiras 2001 offer some of the most sophisticated approaches to the ideology of transculturation, suggesting that it responds to anxieties about Latin America’s uneven modernity. The concept of “transculturation” is part of a heated debate within postcolonial and Latin American studies, intersecting with other concepts of cross-cultural exchange such as Mestizaje, (Cosmic Race) Anthropophagy, Contact Zones, Hybridity, Heterogeneity, Motley Society, Border Thinking, Créolité, and Poetics of Relation, among others discussed in this article.
Cornejo Polar, Antonio. “Mestizaje, transculturación, heterogeneidad.” Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana 40 (1994): 368–371.
While Ortíz emphasizes that transculturation has a cultural as well as material dimension (sugar and tobacco are not only metaphors, but also indicate socioeconomic relations), Cornejo Polar points to the traces of a colonial power relation reproduced not only through the literary representation but also in terms of social class and ethnic positioning: who wields authorship, who publishes, and who is or is not able to consume literature.
Kraniauskas, John. “Hybridity in a Transnational Frame: Latin-Americanist and Postcolonial Perspectives on Cultural Studies.” Nepantla: Views from South 1.1 (2000): 111–137.
This essay provides a unique reading of Rama’s and García Canclini’s critical project in light of larger discussions of Subaltern and Post-Colonial Studies. Kraniauskas explains that Rama’s project is “concerned with reflecting on the processes by which historical memory is sedimented into contemporary cultural forms . . . in ways that undermine ‘civilizing’ ideologemes of development” (p. 113).
Larsen, Neil. Modernism and Hegemony. Critique of Aesthetic Agencies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1990.
In a chapter entitled “Magical Realism Revised: From Transubstantiation to Transculturation,” Larsen offers one of the first criticisms to Rama’s concept. He states that “transculturation” entails a form of hegemonic aesthetic for Latin America’s peripheral Modernity. This reflection is also important in that it brings forth the connections between the discourse of transculturation and populism.
Moreiras, Alberto. The Exhaustion of Difference: The Politics of Latin American Cultural Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.
Moreiras explains that transculturation is not a natural sociocultural phenomenon, but an ideologically marked project. It is “a war machine, feeding on cultural difference, whose principal function is the reduction of the possibility of radical cultural heterogeneity” (pp. 188, 195–196).
Ortiz, Fernando. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.
Published for the first time in 1940, this book launches the neologism of “transculturation” to the critical arena. The concept is defined in the second part of the book, in a chapter entitled “The Social Phenomenon of ‘Transculturation’ and Its Importance in Cuba.”
Picón Salas, Mariano. De la conquista a la independencia: Tres siglos de historia cultural hispanoamericana. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1965.
First published in 1944, this is one of the first applications of Ortiz’s concept. The fourth chapter of the book, “From European to Mestizo. The First Forms of Transculturation,” describes the development of a criollo culture in 16th-century Latin America.
Rama, Ángel. Transculturación narrativa en América Latina. Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1982.
This is the first application of Ortiz’s concept to the field of literary studies. The author analyzes the ways in which Latin American writers preserve the particularities of “original” popular cultures while employing the aesthetic resources of North American and European avant-gardes.
Sobrevilla, David. “Transculturacion y Heterogeneidad: Avatares de dos categorías literarias en América Latina.” Revista de Critica Literaria Latinoamericana 27.54 (2001): 21–33.
This article offers a detailed commentary of Ortiz’s and Rama’s concepts. It also provides a good background to understand the historicity of these concepts and the way they connect with the larger issues of literary studies in Latin American.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions and individuals. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.
- Agricultural Technologies
- Andean Contributions to Rethinking the State and the Natio...
- Antislavery Narratives
- Argentina in the Era of Mass Immigration
- Argentina, Slavery in
- Army of Chile in the 19th Century
- Asian Art and Its Impact in the Americas, 1565–1840
- Asian-Peruvian Literature
- Baroque and Neo-baroque Literary Tradition
- Bello, Andrés
- Black Experience in Colonial Latin America, The
- Black Experience in Modern Latin America, The
- Borderlands in Latin America, Conquest of
- Bourbon Reforms, The
- Brazilian Northeast, History of the
- Buenos Aires
- Caribbean Philosophical Association, The
- Cartagena de Indias
- Caste War of Yucatán, The
- Caudillos, 19th Century
- Cádiz Constitution and Liberalism, The
- Chaco War
- Children, History of
- Chile's Struggle for Independence
- Chronicle, The
- Church in Colonial Latin America, The
- Chávez, Hugo, and the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela
- Cinema, Contemporary Brazilian
- Cinema, Latin American
- Colonial Central America
- Contemporary Maya, The
- Costa Rica
- Cárdenas and Cardenismo
- Cuban Revolution, The
- Development of Architecture in New Spain, 1500-1810, The
- Development of Painting in Peru, 1520–1820, The
- Drug Trades in Latin America
- Early Colonial Forms of Native Expression in Mexico and Pe...
- El Salvador
- Enlightenment and its Visual Manifestations in Spanish Ame...
- Environmental History
- Era of Porfirio Díaz, 1876–1911, The
- Family History
- Film, Science Fiction
- Gender in Colonial Brazil
- Gender in Postcolonial Latin America
- Guatemala and Yucatan, Conquest of
- Guatemala City
- Haitian Revolution, The
- Health and Disease in Modern Latin America, History of
- History, Cultural
- History, Food
- Horror in Literature and Film in Latin America
- Human Rights in Latin America
- Immigration in Latin America
- Indigenous Elites in the Colonial Andes
- Indigenous Population and Justice System in Central Mexico...
- Japanese Presence in Latin America
- Jewish Presence in Latin America, The
- Las Casas, Bartolomé de
- Latin American Independence
- Latin American Urbanism, 1850-1950
- Law and Society in Latin America since 1800
- Legal History of New Spain, 16th-17th Centuries
- Legal History of the State and Church in 18th Century New ...
- Literature, Argentinian
- Machado de Assis
- Maroon Societies in Latin America
- Martí, José, and Cuba
- Mestizaje and the Legacy of José María Arguedas
- Mexican Revolution, 1910–1940, The
- Mexican-US Relations
- Mexico, Conquest of
- Mexico, Education in
- Migration to the United States
- Military and Modern Latin America, The
- Military Government in Latin America, 1959–1990
- Military Institution in Colonial Latin America, The
- Modern Decorative Arts and Design, 1900–2000
- Modern Populism in Latin America
- Modernity and Decoloniality
- Musical Tradition in Latin America, The
- Native Presence in Postconquest Central Peru
- New Conquest History and the New Philology in Colonial Mes...
- New Left in Latin America, The
- Novel, Chronology of the Venezuelan
- Novel of the Mexican Revolution, The
- Novel, 19th Century Haitian
- Novel, The Colombian
- Oaxaca, Conquest and Colonial
- Painting in New Spain, 1521-1820
- Paraguayan War (War of the Triple Alliance)
- Perón and Peronism
- Peru, Conquest of
- Peru, Slavery in
- Philippines Under Spanish Rule, 1571-1898
- Photography in the History of Race and Nation
- Political Exile in Latin America
- Popular Culture and Globalization
- Popular Movements in Nineteenth-Century Latin America
- Post Conquest Aztecs
- Post-Conquest Demographic Collapse
- Poverty in Latin America
- Preconquest Incas
- Pre-Revolutionary Mexico, State and Nation Formation in
- Printing and the Book
- Prints and the Circulation of Colonial Images
- Protestantism in Latin America
- Revolution and Reaction in Central America
- Rosas, Juan Manuel de
- Science and Empire in the Iberian Atlantic
- Sexualities in Latin America and the Caribbean
- São Paulo
- Spanish and Portuguese Trade, 1500–1750
- Spanish Caribbean In The Colonial Period, The
- Spanish Colonial Decorative Arts, 1500-1825
- Spanish Florida
- Textile Traditions of the Andes
- 16th-Century New Spain
- Transculturation and Literature
- Trujillo, Rafael
- Tupac Amaru Rebellion, The
- United States and Castro's Cuba in the Cold War, The
- United States and the Guatemalan Revolution, The
- United States Invasion of the Dominican Republic, 1961–196...
- Urban History
- U.S.-Latin American Relations During the Cold War
- Vargas, Getúlio
- Women and Labor in 20th-Century Latin America
- Women in Colonial Latin American History
- Women in Modern Latin American History
- Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas