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Introduction: Bringing Latin America into World History

Rick Warner


     The field of World History has changed remarkably over the last generation. Gone are the Western Civilization-dominated narratives that claimed to be global. Strictly comparative history has been amended with thematic treatments, as categories of analysis as varied as ideology, economics, culture, gender, and ecology have influenced textbooks and course syllabi. There is no sterile canon of world history that all practitioners must ingest and pass on to the nation's students; skills are gaining privilege over "content" in our pedagogy. Things are good in the world of world history.

     It is therefore with some trepidation that I offer a corrective to this rosy picture, but then, all history is revisionist. Despite the gains we have made to throw off the academic hegemony of the West in our study of the world, some regions are better represented – in narratives and in person – than others. Textbooks has improved in their coverage of the developing world, and to judge from an examination of publicly shared syllabi, Europe accounts for no more than 30% of course activity. Historians of specific regions will claim, however, that better coverage of specific regions is still desired. In my own view, this is particularly true of Africa and Latin America, though I suppose that specialists in other fields may have their own concerns and, as we all know, not everything can be covered adequately in world history. For Latin America, most texts and courses will mention the complex civilizations of the Mayans, Aztecs (Mexica) and the Incas, though the vast majority of pre-1492 peoples were not related to these groups. Very little is said about colonial Latin America usually, though some textbook writers have discovered the colorful racial hierarchies of the 18th century casta paintings. Nineteenth and twentieth century political and economic history is engaged if thinly, but in general Latin America plays a minor role in modern world narratives.

     Beyond the passing (and as yet unproven) charge that most world history narratives can stand improvement for Latin America in particular, I would submit that Latin American historians themselves are poorly represented in the membership and activity of the World History Association, in AP World History settings and in other world historical communities. One day the WHA hopes to possess more specific membership statistics, but anecdotally I can probably count on two hands the number of Latin Americanists I have met over the past decade at our conferences. There are of course numerous historians in our midst who do not appreciate world history as a distinct sub-discipline, or at least fail to recognize it as a research field. But in the case of Latin America, I suspect that our strong roots in the rise of Area Studies has kept us loyal to a regionalist view of history.

     This forum is an attempt to energize the connections between Latin American Studies and World History. The articles published here are strong examples of some key themes in the rich history of Latin America, all of which are potentially compelling stories from a world history perspective as well. These can be read as helpful background for understanding the place of Latin America in the world survey narrative. I hope that the essays can additionally serve as grist for the mill of classroom activities. With that in mind, I will introduce them here accompanied by pedagogical suggestions that emerge from my own reading of the pieces.

     Anne McGinness writes about the "spiritual conquest" of Brazil. This term has commonly been applied to evangelization efforts especially of the missionary orders during or after the military phase of conquest. The timing and pace of the spiritual conquest varied by region, depending on many factors including the ability of native peoples to withstand such pressures. Her essay contrasts three views of one particular frontier of evangelization, among the indigenous Tupi of coastal Brazil. An important theme in colonial-period Latin American history is the (mis)understandings that Europeans and natives have of one another; these reveal much about the world view of each. In this case, McGinness shows us that Europeans had different readings of the native "other" that reflected their own backgrounds, agendas and changing world views in the New World theatre. The subject that runs through all of the narratives she studies is cannibalism, interpretations and reactions to which reveal considerable information about the varied and fluid perspectives of Europeans.

     Often missing from the world history narrative is any consideration of native peoples outside the orbit of the complex indigenous civilizations listed above. The essay by McGinness reminds us that peoples living in simpler or nomadic societies need to be included in our story. Moreover, from a teaching perspective the McGinness piece demonstrates the richness of "encounter literature." These sorts of primary sources are fantastic fodder for class discussion, as they provide a nuanced view of the cultural history of the encounter between Europeans and native peoples. As interest in cultural history as a window on the global past rises, these sources will find a critical place in the world history classroom.

     Richard Weiner has written an excellent, extended appreciation of the classic account by Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled extensively in the region just prior to independence. His Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain is impressively rich in detail, as the essay demonstrates repeatedly. This travel-inspired literature was very influential in European and American circles, and the source both reflects period thinking as well as having its own influence upon that. Weiner uses the text as a window onto what he has dubbed the "scramble for Mexico," a political and economic movement of global importance that transcends the independence period into the early national years. As such Weiner shows Humboldt to be as much an advertiser for the potential of Mexico as a prophet for the eventual struggles to gain hegemony there.

     This is the lengthiest of our articles, but it would be a shame for readers to pass it by. From an immediate classroom perspective, the essay provides a solid back-story for meanings found within the primary source, which is readily available for use by students. Moreover, the essay traces the political and economic history of late New Spain and early Mexico, both from within its national history and with an eye to the global connections that shape that history. Furthermore, the more familiar role of the United States is provided some clearer context than will be found in textbooks, either those in the world history or the American (sic) market. Weiner's article is more proof of the contributions that Latin American historians can provide to the developing world history narrative. Not to be missed!

     Lisa Edwards attacks another important theme in Latin American history, the myth of progress. Though all but a couple countries achieved their political independence from the Iberian powers in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, many Latin American historians prefer a periodization that marks the end of that century with the final triumph of the ideology of Liberalism. That is, life for many Latin Americans did not change as much with political independence as it did with the economic shifts accomplished by Liberalism, or "progress." The Liberals who struggled and eventually defeated Conservative forces in most of Latin America were themselves global products, as they were educated in a European model, and sought to improve their homelands along the positivist lines that were current in those philosophical circles.

     Edwards picks up the story in a subsequent period, from 1870 to 1930. Latin American development in the period experienced hopeful moments, as the young nations took advantage of an increasingly vibrant export market in everything from nitrates for fertilizer to beef that eventually found its way across in refrigerated container ships. The global themes here are perhaps obvious but good: the intensity of the global market represented both promise and, by 1930, a danger for what became called the developing world. On top of this, the rise of the United States and that country's bullish attitude toward the hemisphere qualitatively changed the political framework of the region.

     This essay provides an opening for an important question for young students of world history. Most of them, perhaps most of us as well, carry around a teleological belief that progress is inevitable, moves in a shaky if forward direction, and in the end is quite beneficial for all who come to understand its value. Yet when elements of progress are viewed from the "periphery" (c.f. world-systems lingo) or from the developing world, a more complicated picture is revealed. Students need to be challenged to define "progress," and imagine the point of view (p.o.v.) of the "other." Why might some elite Latin Americans, smitten by European ideological and philosophical traditions, chose to invent their nations along Western lines? Has it or can it "work"?

     In his piece, Matthew Rothwell reminds us of the international scope of revolutionary social movements, specifically Maoist Communism. The notion of international solidarity dates to Marx and Engels, of course, though this a point likely to be lost even on college students of this generation. What sets Rothwell's essay apart is the "on the ground" point of view. There are direct and indirect global connections between Maoist and other communist or socialist activists brought forth here. Rothwell offers us some biographical information about key players in peoples' movements in Mexico and South America, including female participants. This article suggests that future analyses of the gendered aspects of these connections between global revolutionary movements will prove fruitful.

     Although the article is well worth reading as a short piece of finely combed social history, several openings appear here for classroom use. The opening quotation is stunning, some suggestive advice from Mao himself for Peruvian communists. Though our students are less likely to dwell on the question of the "spread" of communism than folks of a previous generation, the quotation and activities subsequently reported in the essay illustrate the workings of international solidarity on an individual level, more than the national or institutional stage where "red scares" are usually operative. The biographies within the essay can be useful to prod students to imagine the point of view of Latin American revolutionaries. Why would they "turn left," explore connections with such a distant place as China, to benefit their families and communities? The Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), FARC and other revolutionary groups are usually explained as groups that terrorize the countryside. Are there reasons, however, that peasants might actually forge connections with revolutionaries from the other side of the world? The length and clarity of this essay are such that it could easily be assigned in a wide variety of world history classrooms, as an exercise in this sort of historical imagination of peasant point of view.

     Mario Fenyo brings us yet another window on modern Latin America, once again focused on social justice movements and biography. He weighs the importance of "authentic" fiction as a lens for Latin American history, specifically the horrible period of Central American warfare between strong-armed security states and popular reaction to institutional violence. Fenyo weaves into his essay a helpful guide to reading Mario Bencastro's Disparo en la catedral (A Shot in the Cathedral). This is a powerful historical novel – and more than that, as Fenyo argues. His essay is a thought-provoking take on the "dialectics between historical fact and imagination." He raises a critical methodological question that teachers should reflect upon, and discuss with their students. How can we actually learn MORE by engaging a novel than by merely reading a textbook? This question is rich, too complex to explore further here. As you read Fenyo's essay, you will be confronted by this dialectic as a reader and teacher.

     Beyond this, Fenyo gives us the background necessary for understanding the novel. Teachers will have to judge for themselves whether the novel itself can be assigned profitably in their classes, though they will benefit from reading it themselves since Bencastro paints such a vivid portrait of the Salvadoran dilemma. Once again, world textbook literature rarely makes more than passing mention of these Central American troubles, which is a pity since these struggles are inherently global in nature. In this region the Cold War was played out by extension, especially as the U.S. involvement was so closely tied to that rhetoric. Fenyo and Bencastro take us beyond rhetoric to imagine the unimaginable reality of Salvadoran peasants, who see their Archbishop Romero martyred, as well as many other nonviolent victims, some well-known like the Maryknoll sisters (1980) and Jesuit priests (1989), and many more who died without international notice.

     In sum, this forum is an engaging primer on major themes in Latin American history, which will hopefully benefit world historical narratives and classroom teaching. We live in such exciting times for world history, the world is indeed our oyster. I hope that readers will enjoy these essays as much as I have, and that this will not be an end but rather the beginning for bringing Latin American history – AND Latin American historians – into the vibrant community of world history practice.


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