Students, Intellectuals, and Politicians, 1945–80: A New Cultural History of Political Practice in Mid-Twentieth-Century Latin America

Conference on Latin American History 73
Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Old Town Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
John D. French, Duke University
Patrick Barr-Melej, Ohio University

Session Abstract

The mid-twentieth century was a time of breathtaking political, cultural, and economic transformation in Latin America. Between the 1940s and 1980s, a succession of populist governments and, later, military dictatorships attempted to co-opt popular mobilization while paradoxically providing new openings for participation. Rapid urbanization and industrialization expanded the ranks of urban intellectuals and the political classes. And previously marginalized communities like women, workers, mixed-race students, and provincial students helped reshape political culture by demanding a role in setting political and intellectual agendas. 

With papers from both large and small countries, with two distinct colonial and linguistic heritages, this panel spans the crucial mid-century decades between 1945 and 1980 that witnessed this decisive transformation of Latin American politics.  Our panel investigates how newly ascendant groups built intellectual networks, both through connections with other new actors and with established urban intellectuals and political elites.  We are interested in the nature and dynamics of the political practice of emergent actors – provincial students, politicized industrial workers, a female leader in a national political party – as well as their effect on traditional elite groups. How does focusing on these actors change our narratives about the motivations, roles, and intramural fractures of mid-twentieth century urban intellectual and political elites?

Ivonne Wallace Fuentes uses Peruvian revolutionary Magda Portal’s break with APRA as a lens through which to examine how urban populist movements’ political projects could be constrained by gender. Marian Schlotterbeck reveals how leftist students at the provincial University of Concepción helped shape the development of Chile’s University Reform Movement. Heather Vrana explores the role that middle-class mixed-race students at the University of San Carlos played in setting the political agenda in Guatemala’s New Republic. Finally, Bryan Pitts discusses how the politicization of striking workers in suburban São Paulo challenged Brazilian elites’ conceptions of democracy and popular participation.

Collectively, then, in addition to asking how urban intellectual/political identity was challenged by marginalized or outsider groups, the papers on the panel also seek to expand our notions of what that identity can look like to begin with. What does the abstraction “urban intellectual/political identity” come to mean? As such, our panel addresses broader historiographical questions about the contested – and, indeed, contentious – processes whereby group subjectivities are constituted and methodological questions about how historians can ascertain the contents of these subjectivities.

Our chair, John D. French, has written extensively about Brazilian labor movements, and political discourse and practice during the twentieth century. His research on the rise of Brazil’s Lula is relevant both for Pitts’s paper on the influence of Lula’s strikes on elite and intellectual political culture, and for Wallace-Fuentes’ biography of Magda Portal. Our commentator, Patrick Barr-Melej, is a specialist on Latin American students, cultural politics, and the middle class, making him ideal for Schlotterbeck’s and Vrana’s respective papers on Chilean and Guatemalan students’ political militancy. The panel should prove of interest not only to Latin Americanist historians, but also political, cultural, intellectual, and social movement historians studying other regions and periods.