This panel examines the links between migration, labor and the natural world in both the early modern and modern contexts of Latin America and the Caribbean. The featured papers offer comparative and ecological perspectives on the movement of unsettled peoples within regions and across borders, on the ways migrant workers build their own society-nature relations in their destinations, and on these processes' implications. A close look at African and indigenous laborers conducting seasonal work in the early-modern Americas reveals important connections between itinerant labor and climate change, and challenges conventional narratives of slavery and freedom. In late colonial Cuba, unhealthy laboring environments threatened the lives of both Spanish and African workers, and became one of the most important factors in shaping the social crisis that affected the island in the context of Cuban struggle for independence. In the Brazilian Amazon at the turn of the twentieth century, the local government’s attempt to limit the trade in turtles encountered resistance among caboclo migrant workers who helped promote a public debate on natural resource conservation, cultural tradition, and state intervention in the region’s economy. In mid-twentieth-century Northern Mexico, devastating droughts led low-German speaking Mennonites to become seasonal “braceros.” They helped foster, as a consequence, a culture of long-distance migration that transformed farming in Northern Mexico and in Mennonite colonies of Canada.
The papers in this panel critically engage several linked questions. How can we understand labor and mobility from an ecological perspective? How does the environment inform the experiences of migrant workers? How can historians assess freedom of choice in scenarios where changes in the natural world and the work of migrants are interconnected? How do ecological perspectives on migrants and nature reframe long-standing issues and debates in the history of Latin America and the Caribbean?
In highlighting the multiform relationship between human agency and the environment, this panel moves beyond the human-nature dichotomy. Instead, it proposes new avenues for conceptualizing how migrant workers shaped spatial, cultural, ecologic, political and economic processes and outcomes in Latin America and the Caribbean.