Domingo Faustino Sarmiento

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento
Domingo Faustino Sarmiento

Most famous for his classic polemical study of caudillo politics and life in the Argentine interior, Facundo, or Civilization and Barbarism, and for his educational reforms during his term as president of Argentina, Domingo F. Sarmiento ranks among the most influential statesmen and intellectuals of 19th-century Latin America.

His diverse literary contributions and political activities have also been interpreted as emblematic of the larger search for national identity in Latin America during the first century of independence, as the literati and politicos of the freshly minted nation-states from Mexico to Argentina struggled to create a viable sense of national belonging from the disparate ethnic and racial strands of their homelands.

Born on February 15, 1811, in the rustic capital city of the interior province of San Juan in the shadow of the Andean foothills, Faustino Valentín Sarmiento Albarracín, one of 15 siblings, was the only son of his soldier-laborer father and homemaker mother to survive to adulthood.

Precocious as a youth, he learned to read at age four, continuing his studies at San Juan’s Escuela de la Patria (School of the Homeland), and later with his priest uncle, under whose tutelage he acquired his lifelong appreciation for the transformative power of education. Conscripted into a provincial militia in the late 1820s, he was briefly imprisoned for refusing to serve, an experience that sharpened his rapidly evolving political views.

Sarmiento became convinced that only under the strong leadership of Buenos Aires could Argentina transcend its historic legacy of backwardness and primitivism, represented by its interior provinces, and become a modern nation. Embracing this Unitarist (pro-Buenos Aires, centralist) perspective, he fought against the army led by Federalist caudillo Juan Facundo Quiroga.

Captured and arrested by Facundo’s forces, he fled to Chile in 1830, where he spent most of the next 15 years working in a variety of jobs. Reading voraciously and writing prolifically, it was in exile in Chile that he wrote Facundo and other important works, many directed against the Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas.

From 1845–47 he traveled widely in Europe and the United States, establishing a lasting friendship with U.S. educational reformer Horace Mann and his wife, Mary; the latter’s translation of Facundo introduced the Argentine author to an English-speaking audience.

With the overthrow of Rosas in 1852, Sarmiento returned to Argentina and launched his political career, becoming senator in the National Assembly; governor of San Juan Province, and minister to the United States. Upon his return from Washington, he was elected president of the republic—the first in a string of four non-porteños (persons not from Buenos Aires) to hold the nation’s highest office.

During his administration—which coincided with the last two years of the Paraguayan War—federal government expenditures on education in the interior provinces quadrupled, much of it going toward the construction of new schools.

Between 1869 and 1914 the nation’s illiteracy rate dropped from more than twothirds to around one-third, thanks largely to the legacy of educational reform bequeathed by Sarmiento, while its secondary school and university system came to rank among the finest in Latin America. Overall, however, many Argentines considered Sarmiento’s presidency a disappointment, in part because of his administration’s failure to reform the nation’s highly unequal patterns of landownership.

Remembered mainly for his literary contributions, especially the impassioned dualism expressed in his major work—civilization as represented by the cities, especially Buenos Aires, lifeline to Europe and national progress, and barbarism as embodied by the backwardness and primitivism of the gaucho, the Indian, and the interior provinces—Sarmiento has been both lauded for his cosmopolitanism and criticized for his racism and disdain for rural life.

Few would disagree that he left an indelible legacy on the literary, cultural, and political life of his homeland or that his larger oeuvre can be taken as representative of the broader struggle to create authentic national identities in Latin America during the first century of independence.