Introductory Essay

Over the past 200 years, the world changed beyond the imagination.  You might first think of things like the automobile, the internet, and airplanes, but equally transformative were changes in the nature of politics.  In a word, during this era the Western Hemisphere transitioned from a land of colonies to a land of countries.  Today, we still live in the shadow of that transformation.

I designed States of Belonging so that together we may unravel and dissect what it meant for the Americas to become a region of nations.  Our primary concern is not high politics – such as diplomacy and electioneering.  You will not be reading international treaties or trade agreements or the like.  Instead, our focus is low politics: that is, how everyday people and disempowered groups attempted to change the structures of power that shaped their lives.  At times, this took on very obvious forms, such as monumental peasant revolt in Mexico that launched the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) or the advent of the Independent People of Color Party in early independent Cuba.  But other times, popular politics took on less obvious forms in cultural movements and artistic interventions, in writing and song, in tattoos and charitable works.  Through States of Belonging, we are looking to the past to ask, “What does it mean to live in a country? What is the potential for change, justice, and prosperity in this political system?  What will be the future hold for this political arrangement in the 21st century?”

Titles are always a good place to start, so let’s unpack our own: “States of Belonging: Citizenship, Identity, and Globalization in Modern Latin America.” 

Start at the end and move backwards.  Modern Latin America situates this project in time and space. Latin America refers to those parts of the hemisphere that were at one time under Spanish or Portuguese rule.   From 1492 until 1830 (or 1898 in the case of Cuba and Puerto Rico) Spain and Portugal dominated the Americas, and sought to rebuild this hemisphere in their own image (including Catholicism, monarchy, and European culture) and to their own profit.  These empires instigated genocide against Amerindians, imported millions of enslaved Africans, and forged overwhelmingly unequal and exploitative societies from the tip of Patagonia to as far north as California.  Latin America refers to those societies that emerged from that colonial crucible. 

Modern refers to the period from roughly 1800 and the present, during which time most of the hemisphere became divided up into countries. 

Usually, we tend to associate modern with good; look in a thesaurus and you’ll see that typical synonyms are “new,” “improved,” and “advanced.”  Long ago, politicians began calling this era “modern” because this is just what they thought: that independence from the empire was a movement towards justice and civilization.   But even though it is in the title of this course (History of Modern Latin America), we should be highly suspicious of this term, for while for many people independence did spark new freedoms, for others, the transformation was far more ambiguous. 

Globalization might seem obvious but it is not.  Under colonialism (1500-1830), most of the Western Hemisphere was politically united under one or another empire.  The Spanish empire, for instance, ranged from Oregon to Patagonia to Florida.  Through the movements of independence (1810-1830) the region became politically fragmented as that great territory became divided into roughly 20 separate countries (this number varied over the decades).  In theory, these new countries were sovereign: that is, they had exclusive right and power to decide how things would be for themselves.  Independence, however, was also about a new kind of global integration, now into the international economy of industrial capitalism.  This integration would dramatically alter life, as elites exported natural resources to get rich, as new consumer products changed daily habits, as cultural productions moved from society to society, as transnational corporations regulated work life, as populations migrated, and as new imperial powers (esp. USA and Britain) intervened in domestic affairs.  It is fair to say that Latin America has become more globally interconnected, but the modes and consequences of globalization have been far from simple.

Identity is about who people imagine themselves and others to be.  In this project, we are interested in two particular angles on this: how people in Latin America come to understand themselves as members of a nation and how other kinds of identity (indigeneity, race, gender, sexuality, etc.) intersected with national identity.  When most of Latin America won independence from Spain or Portugal, nearly no one in those territories thought of themselves as Venezuelan or Peruvian or Brazilian.  In fact, 70 years later, around 1900, still most Latin Americans did not think of their national identity as a core part of who they were.  But over the course of the 20th century, national identity became an ever more important part of life, as monuments, soccer teams, political movements, beauty pageants, holidays, tourism, and public education all inculcated a sense that the people of the nation are and should be united in a shared community.  The worst manifestations of nationalism emerged with fascist movements (inspired by Italians and Nazis) and military dictatorships, which violently enforced their visions of nationhood.  The current wave of nationalist populism has its roots in these prior visions of “Brazil for the Brazilians.”

Related to but distinct from identity is citizenship.  During imperialism, colonists were the subjects of the king.  Politics was largely a matter of uneven reciprocal exchanges between imperial elites and commoners: We obey the king’s commands, but we therefore also deserve the king’s favor.  With independence, most Latin Americans now became citizens of countries.  In theory, this meant that everyone was equal before the law – with the same rights and with access to the same government resources.  The Brazilian anthropologist Roberto DaMatta, however, writes that this is misleading.  There is a classic Brazilian saying that goes: “For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law!” DaMatta insists that this adage captures a certain truth about citizenship in Brazil (and Latin America): that equality before the law has been only for those people without access to the informal social networks through which real political power is exercised.  The Mexican historian Claudio Lomnitz elaborates, explaining that in Latin American countries with large populations in poverty and without the resources to distribute social benefits to everyone, corruption and clientelism is almost inevitable.  In effect, then, our examination of citizenship is not just about who officially can vote or get a passport, but about how people make demands upon the government.  This has changed over the last two hundred year but not in one single direction.  Rather, strategies of citizenship varied through ages of dictatorship, democracy, revolution, and terrorism.

Finally States of BelongingWhat you probably call a “country” social scientists refer to as a nation-state.   We use this term not just because we think hyphens make us look smart, but because we mean something more specific than simply a country.  When you look at a map of Latin America and you see the lines outlining Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, etc., it is easy to assume the world is this way because… well… that’s the way it is.  Nicaraguans live in Nicaragua under the Nicaraguan government, Mexicans in Mexico under the Mexican government, and so on.  It seems obvious, right?  This assumed connection between the people, the land, and the government is what we mean when we say nation-state.  “Nation” refers to the people; “state” refers to the government.  All nation-states are sustained by this fiction that the nation and the state naturally belong together — its the way the world, or at least that society, ought to be.  History, however, shows us that there is nothing natural about this situation.  Rather, political institutions, populations, and borders have all been created through struggle and indeed very easily they all could have turned out very differently and certainly in the future will change again.  Our goal with States of Belonging is to assess that legacy.