Global Latin America: Into the Twenty-First Century

by Jeffrey Lesser, editor of Global Latin America: Into the Twenty-First Century

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Seattle. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 23rd.

How did your own research influence the decision to co-edit Global Latin America with Matthew Gutmann?

Lesser:  Many scholars of Latin America based in the United States (myself included) have traditionally presented Latin America as a recipient (and often victim) of outside influences. Yet over the years, Matt and I have been in numerous circumstances where it became clear that Latin America is the influencer.

In my own recent research on health and migration in a single neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil, I regularly see how multi-directional the influences can be. For example the media in the United States often suggests, correctly, that the explosion of the Zika Virus in Brazil is related to a series of policy errors by Brazilian politicians. The media also gives great play to debates in the United State Congress over how to fund the Center for Disease Control that is often presented as the only solution to worldwide public health problems. In other words, those who do not know much about Latin America might get the impression that public health problems in Brazil will be resolved primarily by the big brother from the north.

Much of my current research involves observing physicians, nurses, and community health and sanitation agents who are employed by the Brazilian Unified Health System (known as SUS – Sistema Único de Saúde in Portuguese). This publicly funded health care program was created in 1990 and has already been critical in providing models for the rest of the world in areas like AIDS prevention and in ways to work with (and sometimes against) pharmaceutical companies to lower costs. It has also shown that health systems focused on the majority (which in Brazil means those with very modest incomes) can work in capitalist countries.

As I conduct my research I constantly imagine the ways that public health in the United States would be improved by learning from Brazil. My focus is in Bom Retiro, a traditional neighborhood for immigrants working in the garment industry that sits in the public imagination as an Eastern European Jewish space. Today most of the store and factory owners are Korean or Brazilians of Korean descent (with Chinese immigrants entering in increasing numbers). The garment workers are generally undocumented immigrants from Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay and increasingly, different African countries, generally working (and often living) in tiny, precarious, and unregistered factories.

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Neighborhood health center

Each community health worker in Bom Retiro is responsible for one or two streets, often the ones they themselves live on. They visit every family on the street at least once a month and since SUS policy that health is a right based on residence, not citizenship, gives health agents have broad access to everyone in the neighborhood, including the many people who live in non-formal residences constructed within abandoned buildings. The neighborhood health center looks like the neighborhood, with people of different citizenships, religions, ages, and class backgrounds. What a difference from the approach in my home state of Georgia, where police routinely stop residents to ask for proof of citizenship and seek to deport those who do not have it – including parents of U.S. citizen children.

Global Latin America is a volume about the many ways that Latin America and its peoples have influenced the rest of the world, from agricultural methods to cultural styles. It reminds readers that Latin America and its people have and will create policies, programs, and cultural forms that will lead the world in the twenty-first century.

Jeffrey Lesser is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at Emory University.