Racial Silences in the Archive and the Historiography of Race in Postcolonial Latin America

AHA Session 117
Conference on Latin American History 31
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Denver Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Martine Jean, University of South Carolina Columbia

Session Abstract

This conference’s invitation to reflect on the historical significance of “communities and network” is particularly relevant to scholars of race, nation, and postcolonial modernity in Latin America who have produced a robust body of scholarship on the formation of the region’s “imagined communities” along racial lines. This panel brings together scholars of Latin America whose work engages the presence and/or absence of race in official archives.

Latin American historians whose scholarships make use of official archives often confront important methodological and analytical roadblocks in discussing race in their research because of absence of racial data and/or reference to this category in those records. The absence of reference to race belies the impact of racial ideas and racialist policies on the development of Latin American societies. This begs the question of whether race has to be “present” in the archive – particularly official archives - in order to be present in the narratives of race, state, and nation in the region. What are the different ways in which the absence of race speaks to its presence in the archives? What are some of the ways in which this absence can be read? And finally, how can new readings of the absence of race in the archive revive the scholarship on race in Latin American historiography?

Chad Black’s research uses jail censuses in Quito, Ecuador, from 1750 to 1850 to discuss the historical significance of moments of presence and absence of race in these archives. He argues that from the perspective of the legal system, race or ethnicity in the late colonial period was only present when it was relevant to specific legal rights attached to social standings. However, in the early republic the attempt to abolish special rights attached to status led to the burying of ethnic/racial labels in the context of the jails. 

Roderick Barman’s research explores the “curious” absence of race in the official records of the Empire in Brazil in the nineteenth century to argue that this absence functioned to reaffirm the identification of Brazil as a “white” nation. The presence of concepts such as “civilization” and “civilized” served as code words to indirectly refer to race in these records and highlight its significance – and its presence in the archives – as a fundamental cultural construct in the development of 19th century Brazil.   

            Martine Jean’s analysis uses official police record of the Republican period to examine the impact of race in shaping public order in Rio de Janeiro following the abolition of slavery in 1888 and during a watershed moment in the history of Brazilian modernization. Jean uses “moments of conflicts” between these patrolmen and their superiors in the police as a useful analytical lens for understanding the impact of the guard’s race on policing.

Elizabeth Shesko’s study uses military recruitment records and government correspondences from 1900 to 1960 to explore ambivalences about race in Bolivia, where certain actors explicitly prohibited race from being mentioned on military service documents, while individual actors widely continued to use racial terms.

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