Performing Loyalties in Latin American History, Part 1: Forging Loyalties at Century's Turn: Live Performance in Urbanizing Latin America

AHA Session 262
Conference on Latin American History 58
Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Salon 6 (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Elizabeth Schwall, Northwestern University

Session Abstract

A century ago, much of Latin America experienced dramatic demographic change. Mass immigration combined with internal migration from the countryside to the city altered the region’s politics, economies, and environments. Urban residents in particular were challenged to make sense of these upheavals and to make sense of their own roles within a society that was constantly in flux. In the face of an expanding and diversifying social landscape, many city dwellers worked to create new loyalties, to demarcate communities or shift their boundaries, in order to delineate and legitimize their place in society.

This panel argues that an important way in which Latin Americans forged loyalties during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was through live performance. While historians have regularly turned to cultural production to explain the creation of national identities, our papers collectively question the predominance of the nation as the object of Latin Americans’ loyalty. Moreover, by examining performance both on and off the stage, we demonstrate that the communities nurtured within urban centers were hardly “imagined,” but rather ones of flesh and blood. Performance reminds us that human bodies move through space and time, and that the ways in which they do so affect both performers’ and spectators’ understandings of what loyalty entails.

With the aim of comparatively analyzing how loyalty was performed across the region, the papers span four countries: Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay. Both William Acree and Kristen McCleary probe the nature and purpose of performing national archetypes in the Río de la Plata at the turn of the century. Acree’s protagonists are members of Creole social clubs while McCleary’s are professional zarzuela performers; together, the two papers shed light on the variety of voices and settings that contributed to the making of “authentic” Latin Americans. Lance Ingwersen adjusts the scale of loyalty to that of the city—specifically, Mexico City—to argue for the significance of theaters in empowering residents to claim belonging. Aiala Levy explains how, in the city of São Paulo, theaters were important sites in which Afro-Paulistanos asserted their place in urban society by performing urban but also racial loyalty. Tying the papers together as commentator will be Katherine Zien, who has written extensively on performance and cultural management in the Americas. The panel will appeal to historians of Latin America around the turn of the twentieth century, as well as scholars interested in the history of urban spaces, mass culture, citizenship, race, and performance.