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The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1980, Volume 26, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Richard H. Peterson, Editor

Hispanic America and its Civilizations. By Edmund Stephen Urbanski. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 311 pages. $14.95.

Reviewed by Rosalie Schwartz, Lecturer, University of California, Riverside, author of Across the Rio to Freedom (1975).

Edmund Stephen Urbanski is, according to the publishers, an internationally-known Americanist. Polish by birth, now a citizen of the United States, Urbanski has taught in numerous universities in the Americas. While those who know firsthand the pitfalls of teaching the history of the Americas might sympathize with Urbanski’s attempt to deal with Hispanic America and its civilizations, the book certainly offers nothing new in the way of interpretation of the historical process, nor does it add to our knowledge and understanding of the vast continent (the Caribbean receives scant notice). The original Spanish version was published in 1972, and University of Oklahoma Press should have asked for revisions along with translation. Urbanski overgeneralizes dangerously in many areas and fails to consider a vast body of scholarship which challenges traditionally held views on much-argued topics: slavery and race relations, transfer of land ownership, and the contrasts between Spanish and Anglo colonization, to name only a few.

Urbanski leans too heavily, perhaps, on literary sources, and his attempts to define Hispanic American and Anglo American character collapse into stereotypes: “The Anglo-American mind, perhaps less complex than the Hispanic American . . . “(p.246); “Hispanic Americans . . . ‘passionate,’ doctrinaire, and contemplative, . . . Anglo-Americans . . . pragmatic, dispassionate, and realistic” (p. 234). These old “truisms” are better left unrepeated.

The book is divided into chapters which appear to have been separate works — perhaps presented as papers and then collected under one title. Chapter One, for example, deals with early-day European cartography, and piles up a mountain of information without attempting to reveal its importance. Details of early maps may be of interest to curious collectors of trivia, but offer little to the assessment of Hispanic American civilization. Chapter Two relates the intricacies of giving names to things and places in the New World. These two chapters, 93 pages, comprise almost one-third of the book; photographs take up another 50 pages. Urbanski’s thesis development thus shrinks to little over half the book’s content area. Perhaps that is a blessing in disguise.

Urbanski uses race relations as a key to understanding the two civilizations which develop in the Americas, Anglo and Hispanic. He looks for a collective psychology to explain the differences: Hispanics were more spiritualistic and Anglos materialistic; Hispanics more individualistic, Anglos strongly community-oriented. Mestizos suffered from a malaise of falling between two cultures. While it would be fruitless and inaccurate to argue that cultural baggage was lost at sea, Urbanski’s contention that the values of European civilization foreclosed options and determined the nature of American societies neglects the differences which emerged within each area of control. Anthropologist Elman Service argues convincingly that size and level of sophistication of the indigenous population went far in the creation of suitable patterns of European-indigenous interaction. Hispanic conquerors, in spite of similarity of European background, could not establish the relations with semi-sedentary or nomadic native Americans that they could with the highly urbanized, organized, disciplined Aztecs and Incas. The point needs to be made that country of nativity on the part of the conqueror often meant less than material circumstances in the formation of new societies. Scholarship on comparative slavery has borne this out.

Urbanski’s evaluation of Hispanic American civilization is based on secondary sources, and his uncritical acceptance of the findings of social scientists and the subjective analyses of literary figures leads him to make some totally unacceptable pronouncements: “The Hispanic American blacks seem content with the little they have. Mobility and initiative are seen only among educated blacks . . . “(p. 223). This book exemplifies the misuse of scholarship which careful researchers and writers are trying to rectify.