Teaching Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean

I teach an “Anthropology of Latin America” or “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 always looking for new 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 Latin American cultures 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 also 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 United States 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.

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 am using for 2014. Looking over the list I do regret not making more of an effort to include scholars from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Harry Sanabria textbook, The Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean

Sanabria’s textbook is to my knowledge the only comprehensive attempt at a textbook anthropology of Latin America 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.

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. For a 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

It was 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 read a book each week and talked about them. I 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.” It’s also a great chance to show the SOAS Open Radio broadcast on YouTube.

Update: On 26 December 2015 anthropologist Sidney Mintz passed away, just when I was pondering how I would use his Three Ancient Colonies for this course. See these 2016 reflections on The Discovery of Sidney Mintz: Anthropology’s Unfinished Revolution.

Minerals, Collecting, and Value across the US-Mexico Border, Elizabeth Emma Ferry

This book is from my graduate-school colleague, Elizabeth Ferry. From the book description: “Elizabeth Emma Ferry traces the movement of minerals as they circulate from Mexican mines to markets, museums, and private collections on both sides of the US-Mexico border. She describes how and why these byproducts of ore mining come to be valued by people in various walks of life as scientific specimens, religious offerings, works of art, and luxury collectibles. The story of mineral exploration and trade defines a variegated transnational space, shedding new light on the complex relationship between these two countries and on the process of making value itself.”

From Cuenca to Queens: An Anthropological Story of Transnational Migration, Ann Miles

In the previous version of the course I used Labor and Legality by Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz, but I liked that book so much I that I use it for Introduction to Anthropology 2015. I tried this book by Miles as my primary book on contemporary transnational migrations. From the book description:

Transnational migration is a controversial and much-discussed issue in both the popular media and the social sciences, but at its heart migration is about individual people making the difficult choice to leave their families and communities in hopes of achieving greater economic prosperity. Vicente Quitasaca is one of these people. In 1995 he left his home in the Ecuadorian city of Cuenca to live and work in New York City. This anthropological story of Vicente’s migration and its effects on his life and the lives of his parents and siblings adds a crucial human dimension to statistics about immigration and the macro impact of transnational migration on the global economy. Anthropologist Ann Miles has known the Quitasacas since 1989. Her long acquaintance with the family allows her to delve deeply into the factors that eventually impelled the oldest son to make the difficult and dangerous journey to the United States as an undocumented migrant. Focusing on each family member in turn, Miles explores their varying perceptions of social inequality and racism in Ecuador and their reactions to Vicente’s migration. As family members speak about Vicente’s new, hard-to-imagine life in America, they reveal how transnational migration becomes a symbol of failure, hope, resignation, and promise for poor people in struggling economies. Miles frames this fascinating family biography with an analysis of the historical and structural conditions that encourage transnational migration, so that the Quitasacas’ story becomes a vivid firsthand illustration of this growing global phenomenon.

Updates on Anthropology of Latin America

This post from January 2012 launched a series about teaching anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean. The series includes:

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2012. “Anthropology of Latin America and Caribbean: Teaching Peoples and Cultures.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/anthropology-of-latin-america/. First posted 5 January 2012. Revised 21 September 2017.

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  • Kevin Birth

    My sympathies–I have no clue how you can manage such a course in a 1-month term. This does look like a nice set of readings. When I teach such a course, I have students do term paper projects with presentations, and I try to work to make sure that the topics cover areas my readings and class preps do not. I also sometimes resort to poetry and music–many of the writers and performers of the region can capture in a few lines what it takes muddling ethnographers like myself to cover in an article or book.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Kevin,

      Thank you for the comment–and the sympathies. It’s a one-month intensive experience, as students take only one class during that time. A lot of students go abroad for those weeks, which boosts the college numbers for study abroad experiences. I do try to think of the course as an “immersion” in Latin America. So there are some pedagogical advantages, but it also does make it difficult to do as much reading as I would like between sessions. Also, there’s something of a disconnect between how students perceive J-Term (they often think of it as “relaxing”) and professor perceptions (I can’t stay on top of the work).

      I do like your idea of presentations and used it last time around, to pretty good effect. However, it kind of resulted in a parallel track and most students stopped doing the reading in order to do their research and presentations. On the overall, I’m pretty sure many students left the courses with some of the same prejudices and stereotypes as before.

      I also do like the poetry and music idea. Last time I used a book Imagining Our Americas: Toward a Transnational Frame which had some great essays on music and literature. I am worried I’m losing that this time around.

      Thanks again,

  • Wow, a one month course. I’m assuming you have an atypical semester structure.

    I’m a big fan of these kind of blog posts that hash through the challenges of putting a thoughtful course together. I’m the sole anthropologist at my college, so posts such as these act as surrogate for discussions that happen in the hall between offices.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Cory,

      Thank you for the comment. As I mentioned to Kevin, this is a one-month term, but the other two are relatively normal semesters. It is not that unusual for some Northeastern liberal arts colleges, a kind of 4-1-4 with a lot of skiing during January. That was my undergraduate experience, although our January term was pass/fail, perhaps making it more experimental, whereas this is a graded course. But we’re not like the Colorado College Block Plan where they only take one course at a time.

      I’m glad you liked the post. I was thinking of your blog, where you have done such a great job working through teaching issues, like your most recent on Anthro 101 Readings. It is great to get some hallway chats going, and hopefully we’ll eventually grow real anthropology departments everywhere.


  • Dawn Rivers

    I expect it would have to be pretty frustrating for you to teach this course, the subject of which you know so well, in such a necessarily superficial way. That is particularly true when that kind of superficiality will tend to reinforce the sort of stereotyping that encourages the intellectual lazy to imagine they have achieved some level of understanding that entitles them to pigeon-hole people with impugnity.

    Even when other disciplines study Latin America with their respective confined disciplinary scopes, the subject is still so gigantic that it is difficult to believe any of them imagine they can cover the entire region thoroughly in a single semester (let alone a one-month J-term course). I tend to think of this as a survey course, a lot like Anthro 150 was. Anthropologists spend entire careers studying just one tiny corner of one country in Latin America or the Caribbean. Do I think I’m going to learn all there is to know about the entire region in a month? I’m not so unreasonable.

    Of course, thinking of it that way might simply add to your frustration.

    I’m reminded of conversations that went on around me when I was in my teens in the 1970s. I heard a lot of nonsense about people not wanting to deny “our African culture” and I remember thinking (even back then, when I knew nothing at all about anthropology), “What are you talking about, you moron? You don’t even know which part of the continent your ancestors came from, never mind which tribe they belonged to. Africa’s a big place and it’s got more than one culture.”

    If I’m understanding the readings you’ve selected, it seems to me that we are in for more Issues in Anthropology in this course, which is likely to be much more important for us, in terms of your role as a trainer of future anthropologists. It is possible that we may end the course with only the faintest glimmering of the “Peoples and Cultures of Latin America and the Caribbean,” but we will be more broadly familiar with some of the professional issues and controversies in anthropology in general.

    That has value, too.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Dawn,

      Thank you for reading this and commenting–great to hear a student perspective.

      I hope I can clarify the frustration, which is not so much from knowing things are superficial, as this will inevitably be the case, even if we confined our focus narrowly. It’s more about my own bungling, of not being able to find a way to dislodge stereotypical thinking. It also comes from knowing enough about the material to know how much I don’t know.

      The initial posts on the student blog do make me hopeful–points of interconnection and questioning culture as an isolated container would certainly be valuable.

      Thanks again!


  • Dylan

    I realise this is an old post but as I teach anthropology of peoples of the Caribbean at the University of the West Indies i wonder to offer my thinking. While i take your points about the historical links in history, power and difference-making i would suggest decoupling Latin American and the Caribbean. It’s my personal opinion that they should be taught separately. Of course informally you can link and be comparative in class and discussion, but as the core of the course ive always felt lumping the two together does a disservice to both regions not to mention continues a semantic and hegemonic link to European colonialism that should be broken. It is perfectly possible to talk about the Caribbean island and its mainland entities without having to do a Course covering the Caribbean and Latin America, as it is vice versa. Its the labelling that most gets me tho.

    On another note, i love all you do with your efforts at a public and visible anthropology. thanks for all your efforts and links.

    • Hi Dylan,
      Thank you for the comment. I definitely hear what you are saying, and don’t want to do this potentially unhelpful lumping. I might suggest that part of this is different teaching perspective, as you are at the University of the West Indies, and I wouldn’t dream of offering this course there! Unfortunately I have at most one course, sometimes every other year, and so I don’t want to continue previous practice of teaching an “Anthropology of Latin America” that completely ignores the Caribbean. So I’m trying to follow current practice, such as when the Society for Latin American Anthropology became the Society for Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology a few years ago.

      This definitely gets me thinking–if there were a way to do this as a two-course undergraduate sequence, i’d be interested in doing a “Caribbean and Latin America” course first, which would emphasize the Caribbean but with a mainland backdrop, and then a “Latin America and the Caribbean” which would do the reverse. But since I only have one chance, I try to give an inadequate overview!

      Thank you–very helpful,

  • Al West

    Do you deal at all with the pre-Columbian archaeology of the Caribbean? E.g., the Arawak/Carib issue in the windward islands, peopling of the Antilles, Columbus and his and others’ treatment of native Caribbean people? Or is there a more contemporary focus?

    Seems like good selection of texts anyway, of course.

    • Hi Al, thanks! There are some portions of that in the Sanabria textbook. However, I would say that as a survey course I lean a bit too much on Conquest and implications of colonialism (Restall-Mintz) and then toward the contemporary (Miles-Ferry). What gets too little coverage are those pre-Columbian processes you mention and 19th-20th-century nation-building.

      Let me know about any recommendations! I considered Neil L. Whitehead’s edited Of Cannibals and Kings: Primal Anthropology in the Americas but ended up going in a different direction.

      • Al West

        Actually, I was going to ask you if you had any recommendations! But I guess you could go for the Oxford Handbook of Caribbean Archaeology – a bit of a monster at over 600 pages, most of which I haven’t read, but which covers the entire period from first peopling to the present day – or Samuel Wilson’s The Archaeology of the Caribbean, which is much shorter and quite easy-reading. Both quite new. I can’t remember how much of it is concerned with the Caribbean, or whether it would be appropriate for a course like yours, but Comparative Arawakan Histories, a volume edited by Fernando Santos-Granero and Jonathan Hill, has a fair bit about the development of social complexity in South America and the Antilles largely as a result of the socio-cultural-ecological heritage of Arawak speakers.

        I find the pre-Columbian Caribbean fascinating. When I was a teenager, I looked through the Atlas of Ancient America (1984) and saw an account of the peopling of the Antilles (one now known to be false, IIRC) and couldn’t believe that something so intrinsically interesting could be so poorly known by the general populace. It’s a vanished world, one documented solely by the remains the people left behind, and by the people responsible for their destruction. Doesn’t get much more interesting than that.

  • La SantoBrownie

    I don’t see any latin american author on the list and that is such a shame because there is no approach like the inner one but is not your fault, I mean few books have been translated. I hope in the future exist more colaborations between latin america universities and overseas universities for a better exchange of perspectives and ideas. Greetings from México!

    • Hello and many thanks for this observation. As I wrote in the post, I do regret not making more of an effort to include scholars from Latin America and the Caribbean. As you note, for an undergraduate course in the US it is difficult, as things need to be in English, and some authors originally from Latin America–I’m thinking of the late Fernando Coronil–end up firmly in US academia. I do hope that most of the authors I assign take local scholarship seriously: Sidney Mintz, Ann Miles, and Elizabeth Ferry all seem to be in dialogue with academics in the countries where they study. All that said, it remains an important issue–please let me know if you have any suggestions! Gracias por el contacto y saludos!

  • Lexi Jahnke

    The factors which influence culture are highly variant. However, one in particular is emphasized by Sanabria to affect way of life for all classes. This highly influential determinant is environment. According to Sanabria, most Latin Americans were resident to rural communities fifty years ago. However, today well over half of Latin American and Caribbean populations reside in urban areas (Sanabria: 24). Migration and population growth has left agriculture a stagnate lifestyle. As a result, those who “remain in the countryside often supplement their income through craft production, domestic employment, occasional wage work, and petty commerce largely outside of state surveillance – activities that make up the informal economy” (Sanabria: 24). The peasants that remain are often those with enslaved ancestors. Mintz explains that they “could not produce everything they consumed;” however, the “government always demanded something from them” (75). Peasant farming was restricted environmentally and culturally to the point of forming this “informal economy.” Environmental restraints, such as poor terrain and soil, left the peoples with “farm labor shortages, climbing wages, and foreign competition” (Life of Plant). The blog link included connects differences of commercial agriculture with peasant farming. Often these lifestyles are compared, rather than contrasted, but it would be an inadequate label if grouped together. Once again displaying that “putting people into culture boxes” can disrespect the richness of human diversity (above). Cultures are formulated over multiple factors including language and heritage, but especially environment. Environment is seemly inclusive of these other factors and contributes greatly to the high levels of diversity within Latin America and the Caribbean.

    Caribbean Agriculture. Life of Plant: Plant Life. http://lifeofplant.blogspot.com/2011/10/caribbean-agriculture.html

    • Thank you for the comment–indeed we should never underestimate the environmental factors, especially in a place as diverse as Latin America and the Caribbean. Nevertheless, it is also interesting how in the same environmental niche, you can see very different forms of labor and agriculture, from plantations to small-holdings. So it is certainly important to remember the sociocultural transformation of the landscape as well.

  • Jennifer Foss

    When discussing Latin America, Sanabria describes the description of “Latin” as inconsistent and ambiguous (Sanabria: 18). Describing the entire nation as Latin, or within the realm of Romance languages such as Spanish or French is the product of cultural constructs and the history of the continent after 1492 with the conquest and colonization of the land. It does not adequately describe the prior history of the Americas, which once held up to 1700 distinct language groups (Sanabria: 26). Sanabria also discusses the “Pristine Myth”, which states that Latin America was a sparsely populated wilderness with barely any human disturbance prior to the arrival of European explorers, while in actuality Latin America was a humanized, or cultivated landscape with large populations (Denevan in Sanabria: 43). To follow this up, Sidney Mintz discusses Jamaica, which is considered the oldest colonial region in modern Western history (Mintz: 44). He discusses island, which was initially colonized by the Spanish, but was lost to the British in the 17th century. Jamaica had a sugar economy with a plantation system that lasted from 1607-1808 and is considered one of the British Empires most lucrative colonies (Mintz: 45). As a British colony, Jamaica technically stands outside of term “Latin” America, as English is not a Romance language, but Germanic.
    The article I found is from 2014, and is talking about how Jamaicans are calling for reparations to be paid to the descendants of the slaves brought to the island by the British as part of the slave trade. I thought this reflected the impact of colonization as well as the continued inequality and “colonial” state of Jamaica, though now independent.

    • Thanks! This article about reparations is definitely evidence for how these issues continue to be very much alive in the global political economy.