We share a common desire to understand the interlocking relations of race and space in Latin America. While in graduate school at the University of Minnesota—where Joel Wainwright wrote his PhD (Geography) on the colonisation of the Maya in Belize, Joshua Lund (Spanish) wrote on theories of hybridity in Mexico, Brazil and Latin American critical theory—we shared conversations about the complex treatment of race and spatiality in the writings of Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899–1974).
Asturias, a Guatemalan writer who won the 1967 Nobel Prize in literature, is widely regarded as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. We wrote a long manuscript together, eventually published in two parts. Taken together, they enact a postcolonial geographical reading of Asturias’ key works.
In an article in interventions, we traced the ways in which Asturias’ work problematises the political relations between race and space and how, in turn, these relations shape his project. We argued that Asturias, in crafting a powerful critique of capitalist social relations and their articulation to practices of racism, fails to adequately address what we call “the aporia of postcolonial geography”. Our paper begins:
A central aim of postcolonial studies is to illuminate spaces that have engendered resistance to imperialism. But by necessity, this effort works not only against, but also in and with, existing spaces and geographies: a world mapped out precisely through colonial discourse. We refer to this condition as the aporia of postcolonial geography . . . Just as postcolonial historiography exposes the limits of rethinking the colonial present, so too must postcolonial geography contend with its aporia, which resides in the irreducible challenges that result when attempts to liberate the world from geographies of domination play out in and across spaces fashioned in the crucible of colonialism.
Our two papers, then, examine the effects of Asturias’ attempts to write through this aporia. We examine how Asturias—undoubtedly a committed man of the left and a brilliant writer—nonetheless reproduces the basic model of racialised territorialisation that he attempts to attack. We analyse this problem in the interventions paper by reviewing the origins and transformations of Asturias’ Mayanism. The major sources for our argument address some of Asturias’s works, including his great novel Hombres de maíz (1949).
More recently, our GeoHumanities article provides a reading of Asturias’ first substantial literary work, Leyendas de Guatemala [Legends of Guatemala] (Asturias  1995)—a text considered by some critics as the first instance of “magic realism”—to consider the problem of the literary representation of race and space. Asturias’s early works, we contend, are fruitful sites for exploring the complex interrelations of space, race, nation, and territory. Reading Asturias’ Leyendas, which attempts an aesthetic representation of the origins of Guatemala, we analyse the failure of his project. This is a productive failure, illuminating Asturias’s commitment to addressing the race–space couplet and reaffirming its tragic relevance for Guatemala, and our world, today. For in stumbling against the aporia of postcolonial geography, Asturias’s writing is emblematic of a broader relation between race and space that frequently rises up to derail ostensibly, and even potentially, liberationist discourses.
The problem is not Asturias or the limits of his imagination. It is, rather, the organisation of our world, our inability to imagine its space without race.
Asturias, M.A.  1977. El problema social del indio [Guatemalan sociology: the social problem of the Indian]. Phoenix, AZ: Arizona State University Center for Latin American Studies.
Asturias, M.A.  1995. Leyendas de Guatemala [Legends of Guatemala].
Asturias, M.A.  1988 Hombres de maíz [Men of maize]. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.