Thursday, February 10, 2011

What Exactly is Latin America?

Joel Wolfe

After a lecture I gave to my Modern Latin America survey, a student asked me how Haiti could be considered Latin America given it had been a French colony. This is a great question, but it was also a little annoying, because one of the themes I use to organize the survey is whether or not it makes sense to consider the region a region.

One point I make on the first day of class is that there is no right or wrong answer to that question. There are very strong arguments both for and against seeing Latin America as a unified whole.

Looking at the region as everything in the Western Hemisphere south of the United States can be very useful. The vast majority of the nations in this area share a common Iberian heritage. Most of them are predominantly Catholic, have large mixed race populations, and have had complex and often contested relations with the U.S.—the hemisphere’s dominant power—for more than a century. And, on many significant levels, these nations tend to see themselves as having a shared history. Sure, Haiti’s French roots complicate things (along with Jamaica’s and Belize’s ties to Great Britain), but even those countries tend to have more in common historically with the other nations of the region than not.

We can also find a great deal that differentiates one country from another, however. In the colonial era (ca. 1500-1820), Mexico City loomed as one of the world’s great cities, but the villages that became some of the great cities of the present (Buenos Aires and São Paulo, for example) were tiny backwaters. Today, life in Buenos Aires or São Paulo is more consonant with that in Barcelona or even Chicago than with that in the villages of highlands Guatemala or Bolivia or any number of other places in Latin America. It isn’t just a matter of the physical geography of these cities versus rural spaces. Many of the region’s largest cities exude a modern ethos and Western orientation. Such identities are often absent or at least contested in other, particularly rural, Latin American spaces.

This tension about Latin America’s coherence as a concept or even region has fueled more than just the ways I organize some of my classes; it has also shaped my scholarship. My first book is a study of the rise of Brazil’s industrial working class in the city of São Paulo. After writing my doctoral thesis and then revising it for publication, I realized that one of my study’s limits was São Paulo’s uniqueness. It is simultaneously the largest metropolitan area in the entire southern hemisphere and Latin America’s largest industrial complex, and yet in many ways it is atypical of Brazil. Within its own country, São Paulo (the city and the state), with its modernist ethos, large immigrant populations, devotion to both advanced agricultural and industrial production, is both unique and dominant. In other words, you can’t rationally analyze Brazil without reference to São Paulo, but you would be wrong to see Brazil through Paulista (a resident of the state) eyes.

I tried to address this issue in my new book on automobility in Brazil. Autos and Progress is a study of Brazil’s struggle to integrate the massive, often disconnected, and regionally diverse nation through the use of technology (cars, trucks, and buses). In many ways, the embrace of the technological fix by Brazilians was a Paulista idea, although autos and automobility had and have broad appeal throughout the country. The tensions among Brazilian regional identities and the very real (you can’t say “concrete” when you write about cars and road building!) struggles to physically, socially, and economically unify the nation became a central theme for the book and have become part of how I organize my History of Brazil class.

In other words, there is a great deal of utility in asking whether or not it makes sense to think of Latin America (or Brazil or Mexico, for example) as a unified whole. Thinking about what we gain and what we lose when we either split or lump regions and sub-regions in our teaching and scholarship can not only help our students make sense of a lot of complex history, it can also clarify key aspects of our research agendas.


Unknown said...

Thanks, Joel. On a slight tangent, I thought it was interesting that your story began with Haiti, the place we love to forget. I just had someone recommend I add _Silencing the Past_ to my reading list.

Anonymous said...

A professor of mine in grad school was always careful to distinguish Caribbean from Latin American themes. This always struck me as a useful division, although of course imperfect (this same professor refused to consider Venezuela, for example, as Caribbean despite its coastline). In any event, it does seem to make sense to bracket the island economies from, say, Peru.
Bland Whitley

Joel said...

Different people conceptualize Latin America in different ways. It informs their scholarship and teaching.

I don't divide the Caribbean islands from other parts of Latin America for a number of reasons. To me, the Caribbean basin is an important area to think about as a region. The Atlantic coasts of Central American countries, Colombia, Venezuela, and parts of Mexico have a great deal in common with Caribbean islands. Yucatán really sits in the Caribbean, despite being part of Mexico.

During the early years of the Cold War, the relationship among the Guatemalan Revolution (and the CIA action against it), the Bogotazo, and the Cuban Revolution is important to know and to highlight in teaching. Indeed, Fidel and Ché came together (after Ché had been in Guatemala and Fidel in Colombia before the Moncada Barracks attack) on the ranch of former Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas. People, events, and ideas tie the Caribbean to the mainland during various periods of Latin American history.

Randall said...

It would be fun to pursue this topic on a global scale with students. How can we think of links across the planet between cultures and languages? A color-coded map of common languages or common roots would be useful.