Using the World to Define Latin America

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 9:00 AM
Columbia Hall 5 (Washington Hilton)
Josť C. Moya, Barnard College, Columbia University
Continental histories, despite their broad scope, suffer from the same intrinsic limitation that burdens national histories: the lack of an external frame of reference to avoid absolutist—and thus ultimately meaningless--assertions. Given our aversion of metanarratives and the resulting hesitancy to assert in general, we have ended up tacitly accepting putative traits for world regions inherited from various historiographies. In the case of Latin America the repertoire includes poverty, inequality, political instability, caudillismo/authoritarianism/populism, revolution, corruption, violence, cultural diversity, hybridity, and revolution. Some of these may be innocuous, and unavoidable, stereotypes, that is, cognitive mechanisms that simplify realities without distorting them. But they could also represent the types of stereotypes that are, or become, divorced from reality and survive mainly through the accumulation of unexamined assumptions and the absence of perspective.

Using an arbitrary frame of reference may be worse than none at all. In the case of Latin America that has been the economic miracle de jour—the U.S., Canada, or Australia in the 19th century, Japan in the 1960s, the “four Asian tigers” after that—which inevitably produces a narrative of failure.  This presentation attempts to break from this epistemological impasse by using world history to identify Latin America’s most distinctive and distinguishing historical traits and patterns.

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