Updates: For related thoughts and a short bibliography from January 2012 see Anthropology of Latin America and Caribbean. See also the Latin America and Caribbean Anthropology: Book Update from November 2013 and Anthropologists Studying Immigration in the United States from May 2013.
I teach “Peoples and Cultures of Latin America and the Caribbean” as a one-month January-term course. This is a difficult class to teach. It may be an old adage that it is most difficult to teach the closest material, perhaps because I care more about it, or perhaps because I know more and so realize how much I am bungling, but it definitely applies to this course. I’ve almost completely revamped the book list four times, and am now relatively happy with the readings.
One of the difficulties is simply the impossibility of “covering” an anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean, which involves thousands of years of history, hundreds of languages, and a great diversity of populations. This is hardly a unique problem, as any “Peoples and Cultures of …” course from an anthropological perspective opens an enormous vista. When other disciplines do an “Economics of Latin America” or a “Politics in Latin America” or even a “History of Latin America,” they potentially limit the field by confining the disciplinary scope. The opposite is true for anthropology, as it broadens the subject back to issues like the peopling of the Americas, the archaeological record, and embarks upon all those economic, political, and historical themes. Anthropology is inherently interdisciplinary, tending to include rather than exclude. So, this is an impossible task, and I emphasize we are not trying to cover material but to provide a brief taste, an “uncovering” of select themes.
At the same time, there is a sense of narrowing in the title, as this is supposed to be an anthropology of “Peoples and Cultures.” And so students–as they expect from most anthropology courses, including those titled “World Cultures”–are hoping for a tour through the peoples and cultures. A taste of food here, a regional costume there, the sounds of indigenous language, all with a dash of cultural relativism, and we can delight in the rich mosaic of peoples and cultures. There is nothing wrong with appreciating the richness of human diversity–however, putting people into culture-boxes can have the opposite effect, as culture becomes a determining container. A belief that “in their culture they have a relaxed sense of time” can then be mobilized to justify exclusion and racism.
Thinking through this material makes me remember a lecture by Virginia Dominguez from 1994 at Johns Hopkins University. I was an early graduate student and did not understand much at the time–my notes are not too helpful–but Dominguez began by saying “Hawaii keeps reminding me of Cuba.” Her point seemed to be that people were being increasingly organized with reference to difference and diversity–what she called “difference-talk”–but there was a simultaneous objectification of difference and diversity which produced a lot of sameness.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot was at the lecture, and had also been examining how the Caribbean could never be neatly categorized into what he called “gatekeeping concepts”–framing devices which limit the range of investigation because they are assumed to be salient throughout the region, locking people in that region into a timeless category: “anthropologists often blocked the full investigation of that complexity by posting ‘gatekeeping concepts’: hierarchy in India, honor-and-shame in the Mediterranean, etc., a maneuver that, in my view, reflected as well the West’s ranking of certain Others” (The Caribbean Region: An Open Frontier in Anthropological Theory 1992:22; Trouillot also mentioned rebellion-and-resistance in the Andes as a gatekeeping concept). As he would later put it in “Adieu Culture”: “There is no reason today to enclose any segment of the world population within a single bounded and integrated culture, except for political quarantine” (Global Transformations 2003:116; see Adieu, Culture: Fetishizing Fieldwork on the Road to Essentialism).
Perhaps one of the major gatekeeping concepts in my anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean has been trying to understand poverty and inequality. I don’t want to downplay poverty or inequality, but I also like to give students a sense of how inequality statistics in the U.S. are now really not much different from places once characterized as “banana republics.” Moreover, countries like Brazil have not eliminated poverty, but have become economic powerhouses. As Business Week reveals, the International Monetary Fund now sometimes ask for help *from* Latin American countries: IMF’s Lagarde Seeks Latin America Help in ‘Historic About-Turn’. That is certainly quite an about-turn from the days when the IMF seemed to dictate terms to Latin America.
My general approach is to try and talk less about “peoples and cultures” and more about processes at work across the Americas, including North America. The indigenous presence and the continuity of native projects through the “conquest and into the present. The struggles of nation-building across lines of ethnic, racial, and gender diversity. Migration and immigration, from long before globalization became a buzzword.
Here are the books I’ve been using. Looking over the list I do regret not making more of an effort to include scholars from Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean, Harry Sanabria
Sanabria’s textbook is to my knowledge the only comprehensive attempt at a textbook anthropology of Latin American and the Caribbean. He does an admirable job, providing a nice balance between overview and summary but also delving into specific cases, with lots of anthropological references. Some of it can be pretty dense. Also in terms of the gate-keeping concepts mentioned above, the final chapter is “Violence, Memory, and Striving for a Just World” which is rather depressing and very much in line with the resistance-and-rebellion, poverty-and-inequality theme. I’m using that chapter, but not at the very end of the course.
Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, Matthew Restall
I chose Restall’s book to precisely counter some of the enduring myths about Spanish Conquest, especially “The Myth of the White Conquistador,” “The Myth of Completion” and “The Myth of Native Desolation.” These are all important themes, but I am a bit disappointed Restall frames this mostly as taking on old-but-persistent myths and does not spend more time tackling people like Jared Diamond and his Guns Germs and Steel. Restall seems to see Diamond as a revisionist ally, when really if it is correct that conquest was made possible through native allies, was not as complete or overpowering as depicted, and not a desolating event, then one pillar of Diamond’s great questions disappears.
Update February 2013: For a much fuller consideration of these issues, see Myths of the Spanish Conquest – Indigenous Allies & Politics of Empire.
Three Ancient Colonies: Caribbean Themes and Variations, Sidney W. Mintz
Seems incredible to read this book from Mintz, the master of Caribbean studies, and one of the few anthropologists to do fieldwork in former Spanish, French, and English colonies. In some ways my course is modeled on one Mintz taught, when we just read a book each week and talked about them. I most recently was privileged to play a small role on the Sidney W. Mintz panel at the 2012 meetings of the American Anthropological Association–and be there to celebrate his 90th birthday! Mintz is also a nice pairing with Sanabria, as Sanabria discusses much of his work, especially in the chapter on “Food, Cuisine, and Cultural Expression.”
Fighting Like a Community: Andean Civil Society in an Era of Indian Uprisings, Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld
I’ve used Colloredo-Mansfeld’s first book on The Native Leisure Class: Consumption and Cultural Creativity in the Andes for a previous version of this course. When his first book came out I went into a bit of depression that he had just published something a lot like the dissertation I was struggling to write. It has been great after that to do research collaboratively, and since 2005 we have been working on a project in northern Ecuador. Colloredo-Mansfeld’s current book is based on a different project and is interesting to read in relation to protest movements and community-building in the U.S.
Labor and Legality: An Ethnography of a Mexican Immigrant Network, Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz
As mentioned above, it is important to see processes of migration and immigration as operating across the Americas. I’ve tried several different approaches to defuse the fears–this short ethnography by Gomberg-Muñoz is a good way to end the course, and I’ve liked it so much I’ve begun using it in my Introduction to Anthropology course.