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date: 05 March 2021

(p. vii) Preface

(p. vii) Preface

The most cursory glimpse at a library's catalogue will reveal that the last decades of the twentieth century and first of the twenty-first have witnessed a veritable explosion of publications about Latin American history. A search in WorldCat for books published since 1980 on the history of even the smallest country in the region, the Dominican Republic, returns over 2,300 titles, close to a thousand more than what had been published in the preceding four centuries. A similar query on Mexico generates more than 35,000 volumes, which almost matches the number of books on Mexican history published before 1980.

What could explain this unprecedented boom? At the broadest level, the source for the upsurge in Latin American historiography is the same as for the expansion of academic publications in general: the transformation of higher education from a prerogative of elites to a massively consumed service. The number of students enrolled in institutions of higher education worldwide increased two hundred times during the twentieth century, from half a million in 1900 to ten million in 1960 and one hundred million in 2000.1 History as a discipline changed from an expensive hobby of gentleman scholars to a profession, one almost completely embedded in academia, which trained the practitioners, employed them, provided their immediate clients (students), and offered outlets for their writings (academic presses and journals).

The tide of historical writings about Latin America has specific sources in various places as well. Some of these preceded the peak of the tide by a decade or two. In the United States, concern about the Cuban Revolution and Cold War politics increased government and other forms of institutional support for Latin American studies during the 1960s and 1970s. Title VI of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 provided, for the first time, a steady flow of public funds for area studies. A majority of the Latin American studies centers in the country appeared during the next two decades. An umbrella organization, the Latin American Studies Association, was founded in 1966. These centers and other expanding programs such as the Social Science Research Council, the Peace Corps, Fulbright fellowships, and the National Endowment for the Humanities greatly increased the level of financial support for travel and research south of the Rio Grande. The expansion of North American academia, the internationalist character of the countercultural movement of the 1960s and ʼ70s, and romantic images of Latin America (including its revolutionary movements) during the period engendered a generation of curious and idealistic North American students eager to take advantage of these increased opportunities. This combination of propitious cultural and institutional trends formed a large cohort of scholars during the 1960s and ʼ70s that would produce (p. viii) much of the Anglophone historiography on Latin America during the next three decades.

Other sources for the historiographical swell are contemporaneous with it. The institutional infrastructure of research universities and centers, foundations, endowments, scholarly presses, journals, associations, and other programs that had developed in the post—World War II decades continued to provide essential support for Latin American studies after the 1970s and even expanded, albeit at a slower pace. The social movements and Sandinista Revolution in Central America during the 1980s had an effect similar to the Cuban Revolution in the 1960s and the Chilean solidarity movement in the 1970s. They attracted a new generation of North American students to Latin American studies. The increased number of Latino students in U.S. colleges and universities had a similar and cumulative effect by enlarging the pool of potential graduate students with an interest in Latin America. Many of them, of course, entered other professions, and others focused their interest on Chicano studies or other forms of U.S. ethnic studies. But many directed their intellectual gaze south of the border. The knowledge of Spanish of first- and second-generation Hispanics and their more recent connections to their natal or ancestral lands made this a more common choice than was the case among black graduate students, who gravitated to African-American studies to a much greater degree than to African history. As the twentieth century ended, about fifty North American research universities were graduating between fifty and sixty PhDs in Latin American history per year, and the Conference on Latin American History, the principal professional association of its type in the United States, had close to a thousand members.2

Developments outside the United States added to the historiographical swell. In the United Kingdom, the Parry Report of 1965 had an effect similar to that of Title VI in the United States in increasing public funds for British area studies. The Society for Latin American Studies (the U.K. equivalent of LASA) was founded around the same time, and so were Latin American studies centers at the universities of Oxford, London, Cambridge, and Liverpool. Over the next decades, these institutions expanded, and more modest versions appeared in a dozen other British universities. In Canada, the first Latin American studies center was founded in 1972 at the University of York, in part thanks to an inflow of exiled intellectuals from South America, and six other centers have been founded since. In Germany, the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut in Berlin (founded in 1930) was one of the oldest institutions of its type anywhere, but its expansion dates from the 1970s. By 2007 it had the largest library in Europe specializing in Latin America, with close to a million volumes, and published eight different journals and series. The Columbian quincentennial in 1992 brought a surge in publications on Latin American history in Italy and particularly in Spain. The contemporaneous economic boom in the latter country, and a wave of immigration that increased the number of Latin Americans in Spain from 100,000 in 1990 to two million in 2008, kept the historiographical surge going. Japan witnessed a similar, though more modest, increase in publications on Latin America that also coincided with the massive immigration of Nisei (p. ix) and Sansei (second- and third-generation Japanese) from Peru and particularly Brazil. A diaspora of Latin American scholars in Europe, Israel, Canada, and Australia have published scores of books and articles on the history of their region of origin.

The other part of the explanation for the sharp increase in publications devoted to Latin American history can be found in the region itself. The almost complete transition to democratic regimes during the last decades of the twentieth century has increased the intellectual freedom for scholarly research. Historical inquiry in particular gained a new vitality as a means to unravel a troubled past. The expansion of intellectual “space” had a literal, physical dimension as institutions of higher learning more than doubled to 8,910 in 2008.3 Enrollments experienced a similar jump.4 The expansion and popularization of tertiary education by itself increased the number of students of history at various levels, from undergraduate majors to doctoral candidates.

The diversification of academia intensified the trend. Traditional public universities continued to educate large numbers in the humanities and social sciences. The sharp increase in private universities added new scholarly loci. The growth of provincial universities (or provincial branches of national universities) did the same, and also facilitated a boom in regional history. The increase in institutes has likewise augmented and diversified historical studies with their specialization in different branches of the discipline. Specialized journals have also expanded and popularized branches such as economic, demographic, social, urban, and agricultural history, particularly in the larger Latin American countries. Transnational associations such as the Sociedad Latinoamericana de Estudios sobre América Latina y el Caribe and the Federación Internacional de Estudios sobre América Latina y el Caribe (FIEALC) both founded in Mexico City in 1978, have served to connect scholars from all over Latin America. FIEALC, for example, has organized biannual conferences since its founding. The number of students matriculating and/or graduating with master's or PhD degrees in history from Latin American universities has multiplied in the last generation. Many others receive their degrees from European, and increasingly North American, universities. During the 1990s, the number of Latin American students in U.S. universities increased by 50%. By 2007, the United States had become the main destination for university students from all Latin American countries except Cuba and Paraguay.5

Lastly, the upsurge in Latin American historiography was driven by a boom in “new” histories that reflected general tendencies in the discipline. The transformation of the discipline from elite hobby to a profession employing thousands of people came along with a rhetorical need to justify it. Just writing about history did not seem sufficient rationale for the activity when so many were doing it and getting paid for it. Specialization and utilitarian claims—often phrased in the language of national interest and learning from the past to avoid mistakes in the future—served to justify the increase to the public and private decision makers that paid for much of the academic apparatus. Internal justification, however, came mainly from claims of innovation. New practitioners could not simply research the past, at least if they (p. x) wanted to advance in the profession. They had to challenge, revise, or supersede the work of previous historians.

Such pressure injected historiography with an intrinsic tendency to exaggerate novelty, reminiscent of what had taken place with the jump in the professionalization of the plastic arts half a century before. The tendency fused with the trend toward specialization to create an explosion of self-proclaimed newness: the new economic, new social, new urban, new rural, new labor, new intellectual, new political, and new cultural histories, among others, and “new” historiographies of topics ranging from science to sexuality. As had happened in the plastic arts after the 1890s, “isms,” “posts,” and “turns” proliferated in academic history after the 1960s: constructionism, postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonial theory, and cultural, linguistic, hermeneutic, and postempirical “turns,” among others.

The proliferation of new labels may have originated in the changing sociology of a profession, and it clearly surpassed actual innovation. But it also reflected real surges in intellectual effervescence generated by the dramatic increase in the number of historians and in their social diversity and by significant transformations in the discipline. New social historians may have overstated the newness of their enterprise, yet this “history from below” did incorporate groups (peasants, workers, women, migrants, racial and ethnic minorities, children, etc.) who make up the bulk of the population but had mostly been left out of traditional historical narratives. This history of the many offered, by definition, a more complete picture of the human past than the history of the few. The multiplication of “new” specializations moved history beyond its traditional concentration on formal politics, diplomacy, military affairs, and other expressions of manifest power relations. By doing so, it not only made the discipline more socially inclusive, it also expanded its thematic space, illuminating the quotidian universe that encompasses the bulk of our lives and actions: work, family relations, leisure activities, food and drinking habits, sex, and so forth. All those “linguistic” and “hermeneutic” turns may have seemed like navel gazing from a guild whose members make a living by working with language, but they also increased historians' sensitivity to text, semiotics, codes, intertextuality, and omission—the notion that what is not said may be as important as what is said. And trends yet to be named have been redirecting attention to the material foundations of human history.

These trends have affected academic history in general. Indeed, since their source lay in the “massification” of a profession, they first appeared and became more intense in larger fields outside Latin American history, namely European and Anglo-American history. The trends are also discussed more specifically in the chapters of this volume.

The introduction to the volume, therefore, tackles an issue that the specific chapters were not meant to address: the limitations and meaning of Latin America as a historical category. It does so in consecutive sections that explore other categories that could be more meaningful than Latin and North in the conceptual organization of space within the Americas; the commonalities that distinguish the Americas from the rest of the world; the commonalities that distinguish Latin (p. xi) America from both the rest of the Americas and the rest of the colonized world; and the reasons why a region that is in the Western Hemisphere in many more ways than geographically became excluded from “the West.”

The rest of the volume aims to provide a timely state of the field by surveying the swell of publications on Latin American history since the 1980s. Twenty-four of the most renowned historians in the field discuss and assess the principal findings, debates, and trends in this historiography in sixteen chapters that cover the major periods and themes in Latin American history. Originally, we had envisioned a purely thematic organization, but the structure of the field made this an unfeasible option and required the inclusion of time and place as supplemental organizational schema. Colonial historiography, in particular, has long-established traditions and well-defined features that deserve a separate discussion.

The first part of the volume, thus, mixes time, place, and theme with four chapters on the recent historiography of the colonial period. Kevin Terraciano and Lisa Sousa discuss intellectual, legal, urban, environmental, economic, and religious history and studies of Spaniards, blacks, and slavery in New Spain. The largest section of the chapter, however, deals with the Amerindian population, particularly with a corpus of historical studies that, employing indigenous-language sources, have unveiled the long-term survival and adaptation of native culture after the European conquest. Lyman Johnson and Susan Socolow cover Spanish South America, particularly the Andean core of the empire but also a surprisingly rich historical literature on the River Plate, long a marginal corner of the Spanish Empire. The relative lack of surviving documents written in Quechua or other South American indigenous languages has prevented the development of a philological historiography analogous to that of New Spain. But increasingly informed by the work of archeologists, anthropologists, and ethnographers, historians of colonial South America have also revealed the remarkable endurance of native social, cultural, and even political practices during three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. Stuart Schwartz's chapter on Luso-America highlights five themes or trends: the social history of the major groups within the colony (merchants, cane farmers and sugar barons, slaves, and the free population of color); a complementary cultural approach that has added attention to issues such as private life, public rituals, and subaltern agency; Afro-Brazilian life and culture; a surprisingly rich literature on the indigenous population; and studies of colonial governance. Although these three regional chapters also deal with gender and sexuality, the recent literature on this topic is so sizable that it merited a specialized treatment. Asunción Lavrin offers this in a thorough discussion of the scholarship on sexuality (both hetero- and alternative) in pre-Columbian times, during the conquest, and through the centuries of colonial rule that followed. These tales of sex tell us much about power, morality, popular and institutional religion, and cultural encounters.

The fifth chapter, by Jeremy Adelman, bridges the colonial and the national period in a discussion of the independence movements. This topic, part of foundational narratives in the region, once represented the core of Latin American history. The shift to structural and socioeconomic analysis after the 1960s led to a period of (p. xii) neglect of a topic that came to be considered too Whiggish and celebratory or, at best, not particularly consequential. But a renewed interest in political history, and more recently the expectation of several bicentenaries in 2010, have brought a new crop of studies of the emancipation process. By following historians' changing attitudes on the theme, the chapter also tells us much about the intellectual climate in Latin America during the last half century.

The next two chapters are the only ones to deal with a specific country. This was done in part to account for the peculiarities of Brazilian history. This is a country that occupies almost half of South America. It was the only Portuguese colony in the hemisphere, the only nation to gain its independence through the transference of the royal family from the metropole to the colony, the only one to have a long-lasting monarchy, and the last to abolish slavery. In chapter 6, João Reis and Herbert Klein examine African slavery in Brazil, a topic and country that have produced such a rich historiography—much of it regionally based—that we decided to concentrate on it and not include another chapter on the Caribbean, where recent studies of slavery outside of the Anglophone West Indies are surprisingly few. In chapter 7, Barbara Weinstein tackles an even larger body of recent historical studies of postcolonial Brazil that explore the forging of the nation, the abolition of slavery, the fall of the Empire and establishment of the Republic, and urban culture, regional history, and politics in the twentieth century.

The rest of the volume is organized thematically. In chapter 8, a Brazilianist and a historian of Cuba and Colombia, Kim Butler and Aline Helg, team up to discuss race relations in postabolition Afro-Latin America. They find that, contrary to the Lusocentrism of the recent historiography on slavery, much has been written in the past few decades about race and blackness in the Caribbean and in Spanish America. In the next chapter, Florencia Mallon shifts the discussion of race from Afro- to Indo-America, focusing on a corpus of historical studies that underline how Amerindians, anti-Indian racism, and Indigenism have played a central role in the formation of nations and national identities along the mountainous backbone of Spanish America. Originally, we had planned to include a chapter on the third leg of the Latin American racial tripod. But the recent historiography on European immigration, particularly in English, proved to be too scant to merit a separate chapter. The discussion of the topic thus ended up dispersed among the other chapters.

The next two chapters (10 and 11) form a spatial counterpoint. Eric Van Young's essay on rural history treats the environment where most Latin Americans lived until the middle of the twentieth century. Reflecting this basic fact, the region's historiography boasts a long tradition of studies of agrarian movements, haciendas—with a once fiery debate about the putative feudal or capitalist nature of these large landed estates, plantations, estancias, and ejidos (or landowning Indian villages)—and the peasantry. Van Young surveys both this rich historiographical tradition and newer works on rural life. Latin America has also a long urban tradition. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, it has been more urbanized than any other region on the globe except North America, northwestern Europe, and Australia/New Zealand. This has produced large urban working classes, large labor movements, (p. xiii) and an equally large—and by now traditional—labor historiography, particularly in Latin America itself. James Brennan's essay discusses both these classics and newer trends that have shifted the focus from organized labor to workers themselves and their sociocultural world inside and outside the factory. The essay covers working-class formation during the second half of the nineteenth century, the influence of anarchism and socialism on labor and urban life from the 1880s to the Great Depression, the relationship of organized labor and populist regimes from the latter event to the 1960s, and the emergence since then of what has been called “new unionism,” a more politically independent and grassroots form of labor mobilization.

Chapters 12 and 13 form another conceptual pair in so far as they focus on the intersection between domestic and public life. In a temporal counterpart to Lavrin's chapter on the colonial period, Donna Guy discusses gender and sexuality during the national period and the shift from women's history to the study of the social construction of both femininity and masculinity and of various forms of sexuality. This, Guy argues, has problematized “the notion of universalized female oppression,” a trend in line with the general historiographical emphasis on individual and collective agency since the 1980s. As in Lavrin's chapter, gender here is both a topic and a category of analysis. The discussion thus sheds much light on other aspects of—in this case, national—society, such as notions of nationality and citizenship, the nature of the modern state and law, populism, and revolutionary and feminist politics. This may be even more pronounced for family history, since unlike women's history it never limited itself to one gender. Nara Milanich argues that the field has been hobbled in recent years—particularly in U.S.-based scholarship—by the political baggage associated with “the family” in contemporary public discourse, by family history's close identification with the empiricism of historical demography and early social history, and by an external perception of narrowness. Yet she discusses a rich literature that both deals directly with the most elemental components of any human society (household, marriage, kinship networks, and social reproduction) and illuminates general “relations of power, patronage, and inequality, as well as of solidarity, affinity, and affect.”

The remaining three chapters (1416) move from the most material to the seemingly ethereal. John Coatsworth and William Summerhill's chapter on economic history explores a scholarly corpus whose robust empiricism stands out from the general antipositivist trends in the historical field and thus contributes—however one may feel about the actual practices—a healthy element of disciplinary pluralism. The field originally rested on two pillars, neoclassical economic theory and cliometrics—that is, the use of quantitative methods, models from applied economics, and counterfactuals to test falsifiable hypotheses. But, inspired by the work of scholars such as the Nobel laureate Douglass North, recent practitioners have added a “new institutionalism” that aims to incorporate an increased sensibility towards cultural norms.

At the outset, the subject of the next chapter, disease and medicine, may seem even more material than the economy. Yet Diego Armus and Adrián López-Denis's (p. xiv) essay actually focuses not on the history of physical maladies or the biomedical profession but on three overlapping trends in the historical study of human responses to illness, which they label as “new history of medicine, history of public health, and sociocultural history of disease.” The topics range from colonial epidemiology and pharmacopoeia to twentieth-century public health institutions and urban hygiene. But a consistent focus on the social, cultural, and symbolic components of diseases and cures unifies this historiography and distinguishes it from the narrower scope of the long-established field of the history of medicine.

A similar distinction differentiates the recent historiography of religion, discussed by Reinaldo Román and Pamela Voekel in the last chapter, from the traditional field of church history. The emphasis has shifted from the institutional and official to the quotidian and informal. The stress on popular religiosity comes across in the debate over syncretism discussed in the first section of the chapter. Did Catholicism absorb African and indigenous beliefs, in practice if not theologically, to form a sort of Latin American spiritual stew, as the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz once put it? Did this synthesis become more Christian with time? Did non-European belief systems survive relatively unadulterated, particularly in the understanding of the divine rather than form, as some revisionists proposed? Popular religiosity also occupies a central position in the historical debate about secularism, the nature of millenarianism, and the spread of Protestantism during the national period.


(1.) Evan Schofer and John W. Meyer, “The Worldwide Expansion of Higher Education in the Twentieth Century,” American Sociological Review 70:6 (2005): 898–920.

(2.) Marshall C. Eakin, “Latin American History in the United States: From Gentlemen Scholars to Academic Specialists,” The History Teacher 31:4 (1998): 539.

(3.) IESALC (Instituto Internacional de la UNESCO para la Educatión Superior en América Latina y el Caribe), Conferencia Regional de Educatión Superior (Cartagena, 2008). In some countries, as Barbara Weinstein notes in her chapter on Brazil in this volume, the expansion of higher education had actually begun during military dictatorships.

(4.) Hans de Wit et al., eds., Higher Education in Latin America: The International Dimension (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 2005), 39.

(5.) UNESCO, Institute for Statistics, Global Education Digest, 2007 (Montreal, 2007), 140–41.