The Complicated History of Crime and the Truth in Mexico

This guest post is published in conjunction with the meeting of the Latin American Studies Association taking place April 29-May 1 in Lima, Peru. #LASA17

by Pablo Piccato, author of A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico

Projects like the one resulting in my latest book have a life of their own. At first my goal was to take to the present the social history approach to the history of crime in Mexico City I used in City of Suspects (2001), and to engage more explicitly with the growing social science scholarship on security and drug trafficking in Mexico. But as I started the research, and the situation in Mexico deteriorated, the project changed, forcing me to ask new questions. For example, I compiled the statistics of indicted and sentenced in the entire country during the twentieth century only to find that violent crime had steadily decreased until the last years of the century. How to reconcile that with the increasing centrality of the themes of crime and justice in Mexican life? More important, perhaps, was my own disappointment with the emerging scholarship mentioned above. Political scientists, sociologists and legal scholars embraced a state-centered perspective that focused on security and policy models to solve the problem of crime. Yet much of this scholarship did not challenge some of the basic assumptions of the state discourse about crime: criminals were a well-defined group of people, policing and punishment were the only mechanisms to control them, civil society had no role in dealing with transgression, drug trafficking was the cause of everything bad that was happening in the country. A lot was happening indeed: criminal organizations were diversifying their activities and engaging in human trafficking, extortion and other predatory activities along with the production, smuggling and sale of illicit drugs. Mexican governments were increasingly relying on a militarized approach to the so-called “war on drugs.” Policies and aggressive enforcement nevertheless failed to stem the flow of drugs and reduce corruption and impunity. The arrests or killing of the higher ups of some organizations only created internecine fighting among them, and more violence across the national territory. By the beginning of this decade the toll had reached more than a hundred thousand deaths and a large number of disappeared.

Facing the overwhelming scale of the problem, it became clear to me that a mere historical narrative of the transformation of crime during the century would not be so useful. In 2010 I had published another monograph, Tyranny of Opinion, focusing on the history of the public sphere in the nineteenth century. That project’s focus on the public sphere helped me refine my approach to twentieth-century crime: questioning the way in which multiple actors discussed the problem of violence and the shortcomings of justice revealed the basic assumptions that informed contemporary understandings of crime. Thus, for example, examining the debates about famous cases in front of the jury, in the press, and in detective fiction explained the central role that murderers acquired in Mexican visions of crime during the century. Murderers became fascinating and complex characters whose first-person accounts, usually in the form of confessions, revealed the truth in a way that judicial institutions failed to achieve. Listening to people’s skeptical views about the police and judicial system since the 1930s gave me the key to understand the centrality of the problem of truth in contemporary Mexico. The majority of the homicides that are committed these days will never be investigated because the state gives priority to the disruption of criminal organizations over the loss of life that the war on drug entails. As a result, Mexican civil society, particularly the relatives of victims, no longer trust official accounts, and fight for their right to know the truth. Reading old crime news and detective novels allowed me to see the relevance and deep roots of Mexican citizens’ claims for the truth.

A History of Infamy also addressed another legacy of the middle decades of the twentieth century: Mexico’s reputation as a place of arbitrary violence and complete impunity. Today, this infamy is expressed through images and narratives of powerful narcos, and has been exploited by Donald Trump as a way to justify anti-immigrant measures. Murderers became celebrities decades ago, but it is only in recent years, and as a result of the scale of the violence of organized crime, that the entire country came to be identified with the threat of violence. As is the case with Mexican civil society, U.S. public opinion needs to go beyond the acceptance of these problems and demand the truth. Trying to understand this present, the book became an exploration of the difficult relationship between violence and the truth.


Pablo Piccato teaches Latin American history at Columbia University. He studied at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the University of Texas at Austin. His books include City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900–1931 and The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor and the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere.


Ephemeral Histories

This guest post is published in conjunction with the meeting of the Latin American Studies Association taking place April 29-May 1 in Lima, Peru. #LASA17

by Camilo Trumper, author of Ephemeral Histories: Public Art, Politics, and the Struggle for the Streets in Chile

Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights marked 2017’s World Book Day by circulating a photograph of uniformed cadets burning books and magazines on city streets in 1973, a jarring image mobilized in hopes that “Never Again” would Chileans censor the written word as they had after the bloody coup that toppled Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist government. Photographer Kena Lorenzini’s collection of images, published as Marcas Crónicas: Rayados y panfletos de los 80, reveals a different practice of writing and erasure in Santiago, Chile’s capital city. Hers are austere records of the breathtaking range of rayados scrawled in public and semi-public spaces in the almost two decades of military rule: complicated debates taking place on, and taking advantage of the fleeting privacy afforded by, the locked doors of bathroom stalls; party slogans furtively etched on the back of bus seats; and banners unfurled by students, artists and activists to protest the dictatorship’s terror. These photographs map a hidden landscape of political writing hiding in plain sight.

The political activists who created this political landscape drew on a long history of urban contest that reached its apex under Allende. My book, Ephemeral Histories: Public Art, Politics, and the Struggle for the Street in Chile, studies how women and workers, students and artists claimed public spaces as their own, turning to murals, posters, and graffiti as a means of shaping city streets, squares and walls into vibrant arenas of political exchange in democracy. Creative forms of public art and writing were quickly targeted by the nascent military regime, which looked to “cleanse” the landscape of any trace of activism, and forced residents to whitewash walls at gunpoint, to burn and bury posters alongside books and magazines. But santiaguinos responded creatively to censure. Lorenzini’s most compelling images focus on the ordinary inscriptions that citizens carved onto city walls as everyday acts of urban transgression that sustained resistance to military rule. In one particularly poignant series, her lens follows a web of text as it snakes along city walls, arching across buildings and around corners. Erasure leads only to further expression. Just as quickly as phrases condemning dictatorship are scratched out, new, vibrant responses appear, crying out over the thin cover of whitewash. Her photographs suggests that santiaguinos turned again to clandestine public writing in dictatorship, perfecting techniques originally learned in democracy to re-build spaces of vibrant political debate. These ephemeral acts of public writing help build a public sphere of political debate rooted in public space, and an ephemeral practice of political citizenship played out in the very streets and walls quieted by state violence and attempted censorship.

This year’s LASA congress theme, “Dialogues of Knowledge,” suggests that we must open ourselves to consider creative forms of knowledge generated at the boundaries between disciplines, experiences, and spaces. Lorenzini’s photographs offer an excellent example of this form of critical interdisciplinary thinking. They reveal the strategies and tactics of urban conflict, and public writing in particular, to be creative responses to dictatorial rule, an “other” form of knowledge Chilean citizens living under dictatorship developed to navigate public and private spaces, sustain political dialogue, and limit the authority and legitimacy of military authority. In so doing, they transformed the city it into a vital political arena and themselves into active political citizens in the face of state-sponsored violence and terror.


Camilo D. Trumper is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Latin American History at the University at Buffalo, SUNY.


For the Rights of Laborers Worldwide: Recommended May Day & International Workers’ Day Reading

Though many in the Northern Hemisphere are more familiar with the traditional celebrations of the springtime season, people around the world also gather today to recognize the working class. May Day, sharing a date with International Workers’ Day and chosen to commemorate the 1886 Chicago Haymarket affair, serves to commemorate the fight for representation and rights for laborers worldwide — as well as the continuing efforts and struggle of the labor movement, shown by organized demonstrators and marchers every May 1st.

We invite you to peruse our recommended reading list that appears below in honor of May Day and the international labor movement.

Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor and Voices of Labor: Creativity, Craft, and Conflict in Global Hollywood
Edited by Michael Curtin and Kevin Sanson

Free ebook versions of these titles are available through Luminos, University of California Press’s open access publishing program. Visit www.luminosoa.org to learn more.

Precarious Creativity examines the seismic changes confronting media workers in an age of globalization and corporate conglomeration. This pathbreaking anthology peeks behind the hype and supposed glamor of screen media industries to reveal the intensifying pressures and challenges confronting actors, editors, electricians, and others. With contributions from such leading scholars as John Caldwell, Vicki Mayer, Herman Gray, and Tejaswini Ganti, Precarious Creativity offers timely critiques of media globalization while also intervening in broader debates about labor, creativity, and precarity.

“Wide-ranging, diverse, and authoritative. . . this book succeeds in building a balanced and comprehensive portrayal of the reshaping of the contours of work and industry organization under the twin circumstances of digital disruption and a globalizing media system.” —Tom O’Regan, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies, The University of Queensland

Rather than offer publicity-friendly anecdotes by marquee celebrities, Voices of Labor presents off-screen observations about the everyday realities of Global Hollywood. Ranging across job categories—from showrunner to make-up artist to location manager—this collection features voices of labor from Los Angeles, Atlanta, Prague, and Vancouver. Together they show how seemingly abstract concepts like conglomeration, financialization, and globalization are crucial tools for understanding contemporary Hollywood and for reflecting more generally on changes and challenges in the screen media workplace and our culture at large.

“By listening carefully to their interlocutors, Michael Curtin and Kevin Sanson craft a powerful elegy for organized labor, demonstrating how critical theory is sung to the everyday rhythms of the workplace.” —Vicki Mayer, author of Almost Hollywood, Nearly New Orleans: The Lure of the Local Film Economy


Almost Hollywood, Nearly New Orleans: The Lure of the Local Film Economy

By Vicki Mayer

A free ebook version of this title is available through Luminos, University of California Press’s open access publishing program. 

Early in the twenty-first century, Louisiana, one of the poorest states in the United States, redirected millions in tax dollars from the public coffers in an effort to become the top location site globally for the production of Hollywood films and television series. Why would lawmakers support such a policy? Why would citizens accept the policy’s uncomfortable effects on their economy and culture? Almost Hollywood, Nearly New Orleans addresses these questions through a study of the local and everyday experiences of the film economy in New Orleans, Louisiana—a city that has twice pursued the goal of becoming a movie production capital. From the silent era to today’s Hollywood South, Vicki Mayer explains that the aura of a film economy is inseparable from a prevailing sense of home, even as it changes that place irrevocably.

“A visionary in the study of cultural labor, economy, and geography, Mayer is that rare writer who combines exquisite storytelling with rigorous scholarship. This is an essential contribution to film and media studies, and an urgent history lesson for policy makers.”—Melissa Gregg, author of Work’s Intimacy

The New Food Activism: Opposition, Cooperation, and Collective Action
Edited by Alison Alkon and Julie Guthman

The New Food Activism explores how food activism can be pushed toward deeper and more complex engagement with social, racial, and economic justice and toward advocating for broader and more transformational shifts in the food system. Topics examined include struggles against pesticides and GMOs, efforts to improve workers’ pay and conditions throughout the food system, and ways to push food activism beyond its typical reliance on individualism, consumerism, and private property. The authors challenge and advance existing discourse on consumer trends, food movements, and the intersection of food with racial and economic inequalities.

The New Food Activism is one of the most important books on food this century. It is required, inspiring, and challenging reading for every student of food, every ‘foodie,’ as well as every grower, worker, and eater in today’s food system. . . groundbreaking.” —Seth Holmes, author of Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States

Precarious Claims: The Promise and Failure of Workplace Protections in the United States
By Shannon Gleeson

A free ebook version of this title is available through Luminos, University of California Press’s open access publishing program.

Precarious Claims tells the human story behind the bureaucratic process of fighting for justice in the U.S. workplace. How and why do vulnerable workers in low-wage industries, despite enormous barriers, come forward to seek justice, and what happens once they do? Based on extensive fieldwork in Northern California, Gleeson investigates the array of gatekeepers with whom workers must negotiate in the labor standards enforcement bureaucracy and, ultimately, the limited reach of formal legal protections. The author also tracks how workplace injustices—and the arduous process of contesting them—carry long-term effects on their everyday lives. Workers sometimes win, but their chances are precarious at best.

“Exceptional . . . Gleeson masterfully demonstrates how institutional inequality weakens employment rights through workplace power imbalances, bureaucratic procedures for claiming rights, and broader shifts toward precarious work in the global economy. A must read.” —Catherine Albiston, Professor of Law and Sociology, University of California Berkeley

 
Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World
Edited by Marion Crain, Winifred Poster, and Miriam Cherry

Across the world, workers labor without pay for the benefit of profitable businesses—and it’s legal. Labor trends like outsourcing and technology hide some workers, and branding and employer mandates erase others. Invisible workers who remain under-protected by wage laws include retail workers who function as walking billboards and take payment in clothing discounts or prestige; waitstaff at “breastaurants” who conform their bodies to a business model; and inventory stockers at grocery stores who go hungry to complete their shifts. Invisible Labor gathers essays by prominent sociologists and legal scholars to illuminate how and why such labor has been hidden from view.

“A terrific collection . . . Resonating with our everyday experiences of life, this is a lively and thought-provoking volume.” —Miriam Glucksmann, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Essex 

The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America
By Ahmed White

In May 1937, seventy thousand workers walked off their jobs at four large steel companies known collectively as “Little Steel.” At least sixteen died and hundreds more were injured before the strike ended in failure. The violence and brutality of the Little Steel Strike became legendary. In many ways it was the last great strike in modern America. Traditionally the Little Steel Strike has been understood as a modest setback for steel workers, one that actually confirmed the potency of New Deal reforms and did little to impede the progress of the labor movement. However, The Last Great Strike tells a different story about the conflict and its significance for unions and labor rights. More than any other strike, it laid bare the contradictions of the industrial labor movement, the resilience of corporate power, and the limits of New Deal liberalism at a crucial time in American history.

The Last Great Strike is a strong piece of scholarship, rich with archival discoveries. Compelling and accessible . . . an important contribution to our understanding of U.S. labor history, union organizing, and class conflict.”—Monthly Review

The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West
By Ryan Dearinger

In the summer of 1968 Peter Matthiessen met Cesar Chavez for the first time. They were the same age: forty-one. Matthiessen lived in New York City, while Chavez lived in the Central Valley farm town of Delano, where the grape strike was unfolding. This book is Matthiessen’s panoramic yet finely detailed account of the three years he spent working and traveling with Chavez, including to Sal Si Puedes, the San Jose barrio where Chavez began his organizing.

“The Filth of Progress persuasively outlines the dark underbelly of the much-celebrated ‘progress’ that transportation improvements . . . compact, vividly written.” —Thomas G. Andrews, Associate Professor of History at the University of Colorado and author of Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War and Coyote Valley: Deep History in the High Rockies

Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic
by Margaret Gray

Labor and the Locavore focuses on one of the most vibrant local food economies in the country, the Hudson Valley that supplies New York restaurants and farmers markets. Based on more than a decade’s in-depth interviews with workers, farmers, and others, Gray’s examination clearly shows how the currency of agrarian values serves to mask the labor concerns of an already hidden workforce. She also explores the historical roots of farmworkers’ predicaments and examines the ethnic shift from Black to Latino workers. With an analysis that can be applied to local food concerns around the country, this book challenges the reader to consider how the mentality of the alternative food movements implies a comprehensive food ethic that addresses workers’ concerns.

Labor and the Locavore is a timely and important antidote to much of today’s popular food writing on eating local. . . Margaret Gray shows that labor abuses are not unique to industrial scale agriculture—or to California.” —Julie Guthman, author of Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism

Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California
by Julie Guthman

In this groundbreaking study of organic farming, Julie Guthman challenges accepted wisdom about organic food and agriculture in the Golden State. Many continue to believe that small-scale organic farming is the answer to our environmental and health problems, but Guthman refutes popular portrayals that pit “small organic” against “big organic” and offers an alternative analysis that underscores the limits of an organic label as a pathway to transforming agriculture.

“A meticulous academic study of the institutional dynamics of [California’s] organic agriculture.”—Steven Shapin, New Yorker

 

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States, With a Foreword by Philippe Bourgois
By Seth Holmes

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies provides an intimate examination of the everyday lives and suffering of Mexican migrants in our contemporary food system. An anthropologist and MD in the mold of Paul Farmer and Didier Fassin, Holmes shows how market forces, anti-immigrant sentiment, and racism undermine health and health care. Holmes’s material is visceral and powerful. He trekked with his companions illegally through the desert into Arizona and was jailed with them before they were deported. He lived with indigenous families in the mountains of Oaxaca and in farm labor camps in the U.S., planted and harvested corn, picked strawberries, and accompanied sick workers to clinics and hospitals. This “embodied anthropology” deepens our theoretical understanding of the ways in which social inequalities and suffering come to be perceived as normal and natural in society and in health care.

All of the book award money and royalties from the sales of this book have been donated to farm worker unions, farm worker organizations and farm worker projects in consultation with farm workers who appear in the book.

“By giving voice to silenced Mexican migrant laborers, Dr. Holmes exposes the links among suffering, the inequalities related to the structural violence of global trade which compel migration, and the symbolic violence of stereotypes and prejudices that normalize racism.” —Marilyn Gates New York Journal of Books


For more UC Press publishing relating to farmworkers, labor activism, and California history, click through to our recently posted Cesar Chavez Reading List.


The US Elephant in the Salvadoran Room

This guest post is published in conjunction with the meeting of the Latin American Studies Association taking place April 29-May 1 in Lima, Peru. #LASA17

by Matt Eisenbrandt, author of Assassination of a Saint: The Plot to Murder Oscar Romero and the Quest to Bring His Killers to Justice

As I’ve spoken to audiences about my new book, Assassination of a Saint, over the last few months, I’ve been interested to see that people are really knowledgeable about the geopolitical context in which the murder of El Salvador’s Oscar Romero occurred. People are very cognizant of the often detrimental role the US government has played in El Salvador. Many, however, incorrectly blame Ronald Reagan for Romero’s death.

In fact, Jimmy Carter was president at the time, and Reagan would not take office until the year after the 1980 assassination. Moreover, while we can be rightly critical of US policy that led to the development and flourishing of the death squads in El Salvador, I am not aware of any compelling evidence that US government officials had a direct hand in Romero’s murder.

The Carter administration had a complex and sometimes contradictory policy toward El Salvador. Carter famously emphasized human rights in his foreign policy, and his ambassador to El Salvador in March 1980, Robert White, believed that Romero was an indispensable figure for holding the country together and preventing a civil war. At the same time, Romero himself openly criticized Carter for considering aid to the Salvadoran military that was responsible for the repression the archbishop denounced in his Sunday homilies. In return, top US officials wanted the Vatican to tamp down Romero’s criticisms. The aid Romero decried was approved shortly after his death.

Even Reagan, with his catastrophic underwriting of the Salvadoran Armed Forces throughout the civil war and his administration’s attacks on those who reported the military’s role in massacres, had a hand in developments in the investigation of Romero’s assassination. Among other things, the US government financed a Salvadoran investigative unit that tracked down the getaway driver for the murder, leading to his secret testimony before a Salvadoran judge. The FBI supported the investigative unit, including on polygraphs like one given to the driver. The US government eventually put the driver in the witness protection program and arrested and sought to extradite one of Romero’s killers, Álvaro Saravia, to El Salvador.

As my book documents, there is plenty of criticism to go around. Even so, there are also many layers of complexity with regard to the US government and the Romero assassination.


Matt Eisenbrandt is a human-rights attorney who has devoted his career to finding legal means to prosecute war crimes. In the early 2000s, he served as the Center for Justice and Accountability’s Legal Director and a member of the trial team against one of Óscar Romero’s killers. He is an expert in the field of U.S. human-rights litigation and now works for the Canadian Centre for International Justice.


On Suicide, Death, and Unsettling Notions of Mexico

This guest post is published in conjunction with the meeting of the Latin American Studies Association taking place April 29-May 1 in Lima, Peru. #LASA17

by Kathryn A. Sloan, author of Death in the City: Suicide and the Social Imaginary in Modern Mexico

My son asked me why I study morbid topics like suicide and death. He went on to inquire if I was depressed. I paused a moment before responding, recalling that many of my history colleagues have teased me for being attracted to salacious and macabre themes in Mexican history. I always laugh and remark on the richness of criminal documents for intellectual inquiry, especially for those of us who searching for plebeian voices. The fact is that studying a society in time and place through the lens of perceived social problems like suicide or crime or disease bears considerable scholarly fruit. In my work I have found that when I dig down into the weeds of judicial documents replete with testimony and letters and the newspaper reporting on said crimes, notions of Mexico or Mexicanidad are unsettled.

Indeed Mexico has long been associated with the macabre in popular culture. Heart sacrifice, conquest, civil war, and social revolution have marked Mexican society. Today drug traffickers act with impunity and hang headless corpses from overpasses and kidnap people in broad daylight. On a lighter note, Mexicans celebrate Day of the Dead by festooning tombstones with marigolds, feasting on delicacies, and toasting their dearly departed at gravesites. Likewise tourists consume sugary skulls as they gaze upon the exotic spectacle. Mexico’s making, cured in this crucible of conquest, war, and death, has led some prominent intellectuals to suggest that death defines Mexico. In fact, the stereotype is that Mexicans (especially the Mexican man) mock and face down death with a devil-may-care nonchalance. Death is his ever-present and intimate friend. He is immune to suffering around him.

Intellectuals shaped mexicanidad in a post-revolutionary milieu and strived to define a singular essence that set Mexico apart from its European and Anglo peers. To them Mexicans were trapped in ‘labyrinths of solitude’ and ‘cages of melancholy.’ Examining how Mexicans confronted suicide in Mexico on the cusp of the twentieth century reveals that they did not accept death with a cavalier snicker, nor did they develop a unique death cult for that matter. Mexicans behaved just as their contemporaries did around the modern world. They devoted scientific inquiry to the malady and mourned the loss of each life to suicide. Front-page articles eulogized the women who jumped from the cathedral to their deaths on the paving stones below. Mexico’s Central Park—Chapultepec Park—became a common destination for lovelorn suicides. Medical students and their teachers peered into the craniums of suicide victims in hopes of finding physical markers that foretold a death wish. Crowds of city residents congregated around literal stains of blood to mourn the young man or woman who took their lives in public spaces. Uncovering the myriad ways that Mexicans defined and approached the phenomenon of suicide reveals that they approached death like any world citizens, with an immense sense of concern, humanity, and sensitivity.


Kathryn A. Sloan is Associate Dean of Fine Arts and Humanities in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas. She is the author of Runaway Daughters: Seduction, Elopement, and Honor in Nineteenth-Century Mexico and Women’s Roles in Latin America and the Caribbean.


Camilo D. Trumper Awarded the Southern Cone Studies Section Book Prize by the Latin American Studies Association

Congratulations to Camilo D. Trumper on winning the Latin American Studies Association‘s Southern Cone Studies Section Book Prize for his book, Ephemeral Histories: Public Art, Politics, and the Struggle for the Streets in Chile.

The LASA Southern Cone Studies Section Book Prize each year honors a book of exceptional merit published during the previous year by a scholar who is a section member and whose book contributes original scholarship to the field.

Ephemeral Histories has received considerable praise from reviewers, and we’re proud that Camilo’s work has earned this significant recognition.

“Bold and original, built upon repeated acts of disciplinary transgression, Ephemeral Histories is a remarkable work of historical recuperation. Rarely has the promise of interdisciplinarity been so vividly realized.”

— Raymond Craib, author of The Cry of the Renegade: Politics and Poetry in Interwar Chile

With a sensitive eye for the ephemeral and the mundane, drawing from a diverse and neglected archive of public life, Trumper tells the story of a creative moment in Chilean and Latin American history, and explains the broad repression that followed it. His innovative approach to the public sphere offers new possibilities for a strongly conceptualized yet empirically rich history of politics and culture.”

— Pablo A. Piccato, Columbia University


Camilo D. Trumper is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Latin American History at the University at Buffalo, SUNY.


Forgotten Peace

This guest post is published in conjunction with the meeting of the Latin American Studies Association taking place April 29-May 1 in Lima, Peru. #LASA17

by Robert A. Karl, author of Forgotten Peace: Reform, Violence, and the Making of Modern Colombia

How do Colombians speak about “violence”? For much of the past half century, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have occupied a central place in popular and academic conversations. Yet representations of the FARC have begun to shift in recent months, as the Colombian government and the FARC move to implement their historic 2016 peace deal. The personal stories conveyed to international reporters by the FARC’s demobilizing fighters have helped to humanize the guerrillas’ five-decade-long struggle. In early April, the Colombian government also took the first steps toward establishing a truth commission to investigate Colombia’s contemporary experience with violence. Many Colombians hope that the commission, a key component of the peace accord, will give voice to the millions of victims of the wider Colombian internal conflict, as well as prevent the repetition of violence.

My book Forgotten Peace: Reform, Violence, and the Making of Contemporary Colombia considers the question of how Colombians spoke of violence in the 1950s and ‘60s, between the internal conflict known simply as La Violencia – The Violence – and the creation of the FARC in the mid-1960s. When Colombia entered into a period of democratic reformism in the late 1950s, thousands of rural Colombians – including the eventual founders of the FARC – stepped forward to share their experiences with violence and to propose solutions for their country’s problems. To borrow from the 2017 LASA Congress’ theme, this “dialogue of knowledge” altered government policy toward the countryside and forged new versions of local, regional, and national identity, to an even greater extent than what Colombia has thus far witnessed in the peace process with the FARC.

Forgotten Peace thus examines what I call the practice and idea of violence: not simply the where and why of acts of violence in the countryside, but also the conversations and writings that would shape enduring understandings of violence in Colombia. Specifically, Colombians’ gradual disillusionment with the reformism of the late 1950s and early 1960s produced two dominant narratives about the country’s history. The first originated with sociologist Orlando Fals Borda and his colleagues, who turned to the study of violence at the same time as they were also designing various government reform programs. My book demonstrates how the very term “La Violencia” – a mainstay of our conversations about violence in Colombia – resulted from these intellectuals’ conflicting scholarly and political commitments.

The second version of Colombian history to emerge in the 1960s came with the FARC. From the time that its fighters adopted that name in 1966, the group has been associated with revolutionary violence. However, this messaging has overshadowed the FARC’s origins in the local practices and ideas that comprised Colombia’s experiments with peace beginning in the late 1950s. Similar local meanings are now reemerging with the implementation of the peace accord, signaling the possibility of new dialogues of knowledge about the Colombian countryside. Such exchanges will be a small but fundamental part of Colombians’ push to build an inclusive, peaceful democracy in a nation best known for violence.


Robert A. Karl is Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University.


The Regional Roots of Transnational Digital Activism

This guest post is published in conjunction with the meeting of the Latin American Studies Association taking place April 29-May 1 in Lima, Peru. #LASA17

by Elisabeth Jay Friedman, author of Interpreting the Internet: Feminist and Queer Counterpublics in Latin America

Latin American digital border crossers have much to teach us about “the way transnational flows of people and ideas have shaped Latin America,” a theme of this year’s Latin American Studies Association conference. Such transnational flows have gone in both directions on the internet, as I have learned from the Argentine, Brazilian, and Mexican feminist and queer activists whom I interviewed for my book, Interpreting the Internet: Feminist and Queer Counterpublics in Latin America.

The conversion of a technology supposedly invented by the US military into a strategic tool for activists around the world is often taken for granted. But how did it happen? A closer look reveals that progressive computer engineers, programmers, and administrators, all dedicated to expanding digital resources beyond the politically powerful, economically fortunate, and socially advantaged, ensured that social change organizations and movements would be some of the earliest adopters. In Latin America, communities emerging out of the fiercely repressive regimes of the 1970s and 1980s embraced and expanded new communications technologies. For example, Brazil’s AlterNex became the first non-academic internet provider in all of Latin America, even before the military left power. Housed at IBASE, one of Brazil’s most important and durable civic organizations, it was connected to the public data network – run through the state telephone company. The company knew enough to be suspicious of IBASE’s oppositional efforts, and periodically would cut off their telephone service. But IBASE had enough clout to insist that it be restored.

In the 1990s, many feminists also seized on the still-evolving internet. They had been creating alternative media for well over a century, using it to connect transnationally: activists eagerly engaged extra-regional ideas while they contemplated their own pathways towards improving women’s status and rights. As in later periods, editors and writers often literally carried these ideas across borders in their suitcases. Take for example the 19th century Argentine writer Juana Manuela Gorriti, whose travels and passions led her to found both an Argentine and a Peruvian newspaper. In the late 20th century, contextually rooted border crossing continued. Projects such as Modemmujer in Mexico connected national audiences to each other and fostered transnational discussions through an early listserv, initially founded to monitor developments at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

Throughout the decades since then, Latin American feminist and queer communities have interpreted the internet into their own vernacular. They have built chains of access across seemingly unbridgeable chasms of inequality, such as race, geography, and class. And they have hacked the intentions of popular applications, making distribution lists into interactive spaces and blogs into historical archives. Latin American activists have long taken part in transnational flows of ideas, and have appropriated global technology to serve their own ends.


Elisabeth Jay Friedman is Chair and Professor of Politics and Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of Unfinished Transitions: Women and the Gendered Development of Democracy in Venezuela, 1936–1996 and the coauthor of Sovereignty, Democracy, and Global Civil Society: State-Society Relations at UN World Conferences.


Uruguay, 1968

This guest post is published in conjunction with the meeting of the Latin American Studies Association taking place April 29-May 1 in Lima, Peru. #LASA17

by Vania Markarian, author of Uruguay, 1968: Student Activism from Global Counterculture to Molotov Cocktails

A couple of years ago, Time magazine published a very powerful front cover: a young black man, his face masked by a scarf, running away from a group of heavily armed policemen. The reference to where the photo was taken stated simply “America”; the reference to when, “1968,” was crossed out in red and replaced with 2015. Below, in a smaller font, read: “What has changed, what hasn’t.”

It’s impossible to answer that question in 500, 1,000, or even one million words. But let me try to explain why the this photograph made sense to a reader in the Southern Cone of Latin America who wasn’t even alive in 1968.

It’s going to be half a century next year, and yet 1968 seems so close in so many ways. That’s the quality of “the event.” As it swallowed the past as it was being conceptualized as such, it’s been swallowing the future since.

In fact, looking from within the cycle of protest of 1968, many of the familiar ways of protesting and organizing in the past seemed unfamiliar, dated, and ineffective for the scores of young people who took the streets of cities across the globe that year.

Likewise, we can now look in awe at an era when “new” did not mean the latest smartphone but the certainty of a different social order within reach. Different how, one may ask. There were very different answers. For many, the very possibility of the “new” was worth risking their lives. Moving beyond complex ideological stances and political nuances, that’s what “revolution” meant back then.

In Latin America, what came next totally changed the meaning of this time of political and cultural experimentation. In Uruguay, twelve years of brutal authoritarianism and the systematic violation of basic human rights, starting in 1973, made these young people the main characters of a tale of martyrdom and heroism, told and retold in their very personal and moving testimonies of prison, torture, exile, and death.

When I came of age in the 1980s, in times of democratic recovery, I was sure my generation was the first properly young one in Uruguayan history. Everything seemed totally unexplored: sex, drugs, rock and roll. Reaching my forties, though, I realized that my now ageing parents weren’t telling it all. What about the albums of The Beatles still in the shelves above their record player? What about their fading black and white pictures of smiling young people in mini skirts and flowered shirts?

In the United States, the sixties has been mostly reduced to a market phenomenon or a fashion statement. In Latin America, instead, it has been subsumed to very real stories of political confrontation and extreme repression. And just as US historians have been trying to recapture the political meaning of the era, I set off to recapture a time when the young people of my country could still dream of revolution in both the cultural and political arenas.

This is, in 500 words, the story of my book Uruguay, 1968: Student Activism from Global Counterculture to Molotov Cocktails. This is also why the crossed out date in Time magazine was so appealing to me: 1968 keeps coming from history to speak to the memories of many generations.


Vania Markarian is Associate Professor at Universidad de la República in Montevideo, Uruguay, and is the author of Left in Transformation: Uruguayan Exiles and the Latin American Human Rights Networks, 1967–1984.


Fighting for Farm Workers’ Rights: A Cesar Chavez Reading List

Today we honor the life and legacy of civil rights activist Cesar Chavez on what would have been his 90th birthday. He is remembered not just as a champion for labor rights and founder of the United Farm Workers Union, but as a social justice hero for fair wages and humane working conditions. This day serves to remember his great work and to continue to spread his mission: that when workers are treated fairly, everybody benefits. We’ve included some recommended reading in honor of his mission and welcome your suggestions in the comments.

In the Fields of the North / En los campos del norte
by David Bacon

In this landmark work of photo-journalism, activist and photographer David Bacon documents the experiences of some of the hardest-working and most disenfranchised laborers in the country: the farmworkers who are responsible for making California “America’s breadbasket.” Combining haunting photographs with the voices of migrant farmworkers, Bacon offers three-dimensional portraits of laborers living under tarps, in trailer camps, and between countries, following jobs that last only for the harvesting season. He uncovers the inherent abuse in the labor contractor work system, and drives home the almost feudal nature of laboring in America’s fields.

“Extraordinary, carefully chosen portraits of farmworkers, their families and communities  . . . A copy should be distributed to every member of the Legislature.” —Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz and Magical Urbanism 

From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement
by Matthew Garcia

This is the most comprehensive history ever written on the meteoric rise and precipitous decline of the United Farm Workers, the most successful farm labor union in United States history. Based on little-known sources and one-of-a-kind oral histories with many veterans of the farm worker movement, this book revises much of what we know about the UFW. Matt Garcia’s gripping account of the expansion of the union’s grape boycott reveals how the boycott, which UFW leader Cesar Chavez initially resisted, became the defining feature of the movement and drove the growers to sign labor contracts in 1970.

“The most comprehensive history on the United Farm Workers to date, with many new oral histories that will change how we think about the UFW.”—Los Angeles Magazine

The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez: Crossing Religious Borders
by Luis D. Leon

The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez maps and challenges many of the mythologies that surround the late iconic labor leader. Focusing on Chavez’s own writings, León argues that La Causa can be fruitfully understood as a quasi-religious movement based on Chavez’s charismatic leadership, which he modeled after Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. Chavez recognized that spiritual prophecy, or political spirituality, was the key to disrupting centuries-old dehumanizing narratives that conflated religion with race. By refocusing Chavez’s life and beliefs into three broad movements—mythology, prophecy, and religion—León brings us a moral and spiritual agent to match the political leader.

“Chavez treated religion as he treated so many topics of importance in his life: as something to be willed into contribution to a higher good.”—Kathryn Lofton, Yale University

The New Latino Studies Reader: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective 
Edited by Ramon A. Gutierrez and Tomas Almaguer

With The New Latino Studies Reader, students explore the sociohistorical formation of Latinos as a distinct panethnic group in the United States, delving into issues of class formation; social stratification; racial, gender, and sexual identities; and politics and cultural production. And while other readers now in print may discuss Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Central Americans as distinct groups with unique experiences, this text explores both the commonalities and the differences that structure the experiences of Latino Americans. Timely, thorough, and thought-provoking, The New Latino Studies Reader provides a genuine view of the Latino experience as a whole.

“A sorely needed introductory text that integrates analyses of race, class, and color with gender, sexuality, and politics.”—Patricia Zavella, UC Santa Cruz 

America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century
by Gabriel Thompson

Fred Ross was one of the most influential community organizers in American history. His activism began alongside Dust Bowl migrants, where he managed the same labor camp that inspired John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. During World War II, Ross worked for the release of interned Japanese Americans, and after the war, he dedicated his life to building the political power of Latinos across California. Labor organizing in this country was forever changed when Ross knocked on the door of a young Cesar Chavez and encouraged him to become an organizer. Gabriel Thompson provides a full picture of this complicated and driven man, recovering a forgotten chapter of American history and providing vital lessons for organizers today.

“Thompson captures Ross’ life story and core ideas. It is among the books to be read by anyone interested in labor or community organizing and the future of democracy.”—Counter Punch

Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution
by Peter Matthiessen, foreword by Marc Grossman

In the summer of 1968 Peter Matthiessen met Cesar Chavez for the first time. They were the same age: forty-one. Matthiessen lived in New York City, while Chavez lived in the Central Valley farm town of Delano, where the grape strike was unfolding. This book is Matthiessen’s panoramic yet finely detailed account of the three years he spent working and traveling with Chavez, including to Sal Si Puedes, the San Jose barrio where Chavez began his organizing.

“Cesar Chavez is gracefully revealed by Peter Matthiessen as a curiously private public figure who is in love with people.”—Chicago Tribune

Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike
by John Gregory Dunne, foreword by Ilan Stavans

In September 1965, Filipino and Mexican American farm workers went on strike against grape growers in and around Delano, California. More than a labor dispute, the strike became a movement for social justice that helped redefine Latino and American politics. The strike also catapulted its leader, Cesar Chavez, into prominence as one of the most celebrated American political figures of the twentieth century. More than forty years after its original publication, Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike, based on compelling first-hand reportage and interviews, retains both its freshness and its urgency in illuminating a moment of unusually significant social ferment.

 

From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement
by Fred Glass

California has held an exceptional place in the imagination of Americans and immigrants since the Gold Rush, which saw the first of many waves of working people moving to the state to find work. From Mission to Microchip unearths the hidden stories of these people throughout California’s history. The difficult task of the state’s labor movement has been to overcome perceived barriers such as race, national origin, and language to unite newcomers and natives in their shared interest. As chronicled in this comprehensive history, workers have creatively used collective bargaining, politics, strikes, and varied organizing strategies to find common ground among California’s diverse communities and achieve a measure of economic fairness and social justice.

“[Glass] has managed to catalogue the most meaningful moments for working people in the biggest state in the union.”—East Bay Express