This post is published in conjunction with the Latin American Studies Association congress in Barcelona. Check for other posts from the conference. #LASA2018

by Lawrence A. Clayton, co-author of A New History of Modern Latin America

Unlike writing about, let’s say, the Enlightenment, or Caesar’s Rome, writing about modern history engages the memory. My first memories, probably of the age of four or five, are of playing in the streets of Avenida Dos de Mayo, in the suburb of San Isidro, Lima, Peru, about 1946 or 1947.

Fast forward to today, and here I am hawking a textbook on Latin American history which includes Peru.

As a little guy, I remember riding by some Embassy in Lima where a famous bad guy, Haya de la Torre, was holed up. I had no idea who Victor Raul Haya de la Torre was, or what he had done, but I remember a slight sense of peril riding past a place of obvious importance. I suspect I had my mom—Chilean-born–with me and so I was ok.

Later, much later, I discovered that Haya was a hero of sorts not only to many Peruvians and but not a few Latin Americans as well. Indeed, by the 1960s I was hooked on history, already with a deep connection to Peru and having been in and out of places like Santo Domingo, Port au Prince, Rota, etc. courtesy of the United States Navy. When I discovered the magic and grandness and tragedy of the conquest of the Americas in graduate school, I was hooked.

I remember reading Garrett Mattingly’s biography of Catherine of Aragon and before that his The Armada and then I returned to Spain and Ecuador and Peru as I wrote my own dissertation on colonial economics and society, two hot button issues like race, gender, agency, imagination, and a few others today you will encounter in A New History of Modern Latin America. I was on my way to studying and writing about Peru and the rest of Latin America from then until today.

If as Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested, all history is biography, I completely agree. Our textbook is more than a compilation and interpretation of the documents and facts. It is syntheses and perspectives, of past and contemporary historiography, but it looks beyond structures, institutions, economies, societies, religion, rich and poor–although it integrates them all into our history–always favoring the biographical detail that brings the past to life.

For that, all three of us—Susan Gauss, Michael Conniff and I—have looked to our own travels and observations and experiences in Latin America to give readers a feel for what they are reading. There is little substitute for walking the ground of the monumental and the seemingly mundane byways of Latin America, from the Panama Canal to a pub in Mexico City, or a favela in Rio de Janeiro, or do an interview with someone like Mario Vargas Llosa, to write about the land and people not only with accuracy and authority, but with a sense of place and of the dignity and pathos and the highs and lows of our common humanity.