The New Place of Latin America in World History

AHA Session 138
Conference on Latin American History 22
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Empire Ballroom East (Sheraton New York, Second Floor)
James Sanders, Utah State University
Cristián Castro, Universidad Diego Portales
Marixa Lasso, Ministerio de Cultura-Panamá
Bianca Premo, Florida International University
Christy Thornton, Johns Hopkins University

Session Abstract

How much has changed in the last twenty years since world history was dominated by notions of centers (Europe and the United States--the West) and peripheries (the rest—including Latin America)? Jürgen Osterhammel’s prize-winning and celebrated The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (2015) suggests not much. Latin America is not a motor of history in the narrative, but simply a region that feel the effects of external events (and provides natural resources). Although the vast majority of the nineteenth-century world’s republics were in Latin America, the region is simply erased in Osterhammel’s discussion of democracy’s evolution (which is perhaps better than other works which only relate an outdated tale of stagnation and failure). Even in works that are critical of European or North American imperialism (be it direct, economic or cultural), Latin America mostly appears as a passive victim, perhaps offering some marginal resistance to events elsewhere.

However, a new generation of scholars (building upon forerunners such as C.L.R. James) is rethinking Latin America’s place in world history. Increasingly, Latin America appears as a site of creation, where the ideas, processes, institutions, and cultures of the “modern” world took shape. Be they powerful international bankers or humbler freedpeople or colonial-era litigants, Latin Americans emerge as actors shaping world history. The roundtable encompasses a broad chronological and geographic sweep, ranging from the colonial era (Premo and Lasso), to the nineteenth century (Sanders, Lasso and Castro García), to the twentieth (Castro García, Lasso and Thornton), and from Mexico (Thornton , Premo and Sanders), to Panamá (Lasso), to Colombia (Sanders and Lasso) to Peru (Premo), to Brazil (Castro García). The panelists’ works are equally thematically diverse, although all engage with world history in innovative ways, from the creation of modern law and legal subjects, to the evolution of republican rights and democratic practice, to the locus and definition of modernity, to the challenge to racial thinking and the promotion of equality, to the creation of the post-WWII international financial system.

This roundtable will assess the current state of the field, consider why world history seems so relatively impervious to change concerning the region, and suggest future pathways forward. The panel will consider a range of issues: the trajectory of the world history historiography, the notion of the West and the role it plays in limiting better understanding of global causality, “Latin America” as a viable category in world history, the balance between asserting agency to Latin American historical actors while not losing site of the power differentials of colonialism and neo-colonialism, the double standards of world history (such as electoral fraud in Latin America being cited as evidence of republicanism’s failure there, but not for the United States), and the politics of world history and academic publishing, among others. The panel also hopes to engage the audience more directly, pausing between subjects, to allow the audience to intervene with questions and comments (instead of only reserving such time to the end).

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