“Creating a New Order: Crime in Early Twentieth-Century Latin America”
During the early twentieth century, countries throughout Latin America were engaged in creating modern nations. A well-ordered citizenry was central to elite visions of the nation. However, ideas about what constituted the proper order often depended upon class, race, and ethnicity. The elite and middle-class ideas about the nation and how it should be structured often pushed against lower-class realities, particularly when questions of order and disorder were concerned. Race and ethnicity further complicated the question of what behaviors were appropriate or inappropriate in the eyes of European-descended elite and middle-class groups.
The papers in this session address the issue of order in modernizing societies. They pay particular attention to how crime, disorder, and deviant behavior played out in the experiences of the citizens and then in the legal system as these events were examined by the elite governments. Through the press, Robert Buffington and Mollie Lewis Nouwen explore the ways that class realities in the urban centers of Mexico City and Buenos Aires often questioned the dominant narrative of what constituted disorder. Immigrants and the working class, highlighted in the two papers, often did not behave in ways of which the elites and growing middle class approved. Looking at the lives of those who were often creating the disturbances, Buffington and Nouwen demonstrate the contested nature of order.
Lior Ben David and Carlos Zuniga-Nieto explore the legal ramifications of these questions of order and disturbance. Focusing on elite attempts to define and police vagrants, Indians, and the perpetrators of statutory rape, Ben David and Zuniga-Nieto give further weight to the contention that elites had difficulty keeping order in their modernizing societies. The laws governing inappropriate behaviors, written and discussed by elites, were often difficult to enforce because non-elites did not necessarily agree with elite visions of order and disorder.
Creating a new order in the modernizing nations of early twentieth-century Latin America was challenging, as these works make clear. For elites, citizens who behaved themselves and followed the law were important in forging a progressive nation. Yet many non-elites (from a variety of racial and ethnic origins) remained unconvinced that they needed order to be modern, and constantly challenged the stricture placed upon them and their behaviors, asserting a different vision of the vision than that proposed by the elites.