Gabriel Turner '09

Hometown: Nashville, TN
Major: Spanish 
Senior Study Title: “El Gaucho Negro: Argentina’s Literary War against Blacks, Cowboys, and Amerindians”
Advisor: Dr. Geoffrey Mitchell

Thesis Abstract

Gabriel Turner’s idea for a Senior Study began with a basic observation he made while studying abroad at the Catholic University of Córdoba, Argentina.

Turner, who’s African-American, isn’t unfamiliar with being a minority, but he was unfamiliar with how European the South American country was, ethnically.

“I’d go weeks without seeing any black people,” he said. “I began to wonder what was going on.”

Turner said he never felt discriminated against or unwelcome in Argentina, but he was perplexed by how a country of 40 million that borders Brazil (one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world) and Bolivia, Chile and Paraguay (some of the most richly indigenous countries of the world) would be home to such a homogeneous population.

Posing the question to professors and Argentine students at the university, Turner said the frequent response was “We never had any [black people].” He found the answer hard to believe.

Living with an Argentine family during his first semester abroad, Turner came across a 130-year-old poem that, for him, shed new light on the country’s ethnicity. El Gaucho Martín Fierro by José Hernández, is considered a national epic poem although many modern day Argentines can’t understand it because of its rustic, colloquial language.

The Spanish “gaucho” can be translated into the English “cowboy.” Living and herding in the South American plains, gauchos in Hernández’ lifetime represented different identities to Argentines. To Hernández, his protagonist Martín Fierro was admirably independent and free of European influence. To others (especially those living in the Spanish-built Buenos Aires), the gauchos didn’t represent Argentine pride but, instead, barbarism.

In communication with his Senior Study advisor at Maryville College, Dr. Geoffrey Mitchell, Turner asked the assistant professor of Spanish what he knew about Hernández’s poem. Mitchell had read it, but not in years.

“When Gabe mentioned this poem in relation to his questions about Argentina’s ethnicity, I told him that I thought it might make an interesting Senior Study topic.”

Mitchell knew such scholarship would be timely. Ethnicity and its presence in literature are of interest to scholars in many places, especially those countries where slavery was common.

Proceeding with his research, Turner was directed to a book published some

27 years before El Gaucho Martín Fierro – Domingo Sarmiento’s Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism, a book about Juan Facundo Quiroga, a federalist gaucho and dictator who came to power through military force.

Sarmiento, who would go on to serve as the seventh president of Argentina (and is revered in Argentina as Thomas Jefferson is revered in the United States), believed that natives, gauchos and blacks were unfit for Argentine society because they were innately barbaric. He argued for one central government and one culture that was unmistakably European and white.

Comparing and contrasting the two 19th century texts and other relevant South American works that Mitchell suggested, Turner composed chapters that explained primary texts but added to them census data, historical information and analysis by contemporary literary scholars.

In his third chapter, entitled “Identity in Latin America,” Turner theorizes that Hernández and Sarmiento, through their writings, shaped the ethnic makeup of modern-day Argentina by suggesting that the country had little use for the minority populations.

Eventually, the natives, gauchos and blacks left, were killed off by wars and disease or were banished to the far corners of the country where their numbers declined.

For Hernández, the loss of the populations meant the loss of a real and true Argentina. For Sarmiento, the marginalization of those populations was necessary for the intellectual, economic and social advancement of his country.

“The literature of a nation and its internalized image are inextricably linked. An influential author or novel can represent a country or shape the manner in which the citizens view their country,” Turner wrote. “This is important as this thesis discusses the role of literature in shaping public perception of the minority groups considering that being a minority ensures that they have the least opportunity to repudiate the claims made about them or project a separate image.”

He agrees with the quote by Canadian novelist and critic Gilles Marcotte who wrote that “ literature makes the country and the country makes the literature.”

Because little, if any, has been written about Argentine literature and its ties to the country’s ethnic makeup, and because Turner’s research was so thorough and persuasive, Mitchell knew his student’s Senior Study would be of interest to literary scholars. The professor recommended him as a presenter at the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference in April. Conference organizers issued an invitation.

“This is a big conference that draws scholars from all over the country and the world and usually caters to the graduate level on up,” Mitchell said. “For Gabe to present was quite an honor.”

A few Argentine professors were among those listening to Turner present (in Spanish). The topic “generated a lot of discussion” among attendees, Mitchell said. He wasn’t surprised.

Nineteenth- and early 20th century Latin American literature are areas of expertise for Mitchell, but he said he learned a lot while advising Turner.

“His topic on the black gauchos had never occurred to me,” he said. “I’ve studied Latin America and the place race has in the national discourse, how it comes out in national allegories, but this topic wasn’t 100 percent familiar to me.”

Mitchell has also recommended that Turner submit his Senior Study for publication in a literary journal.

“It could be published – and should be,” he said.