The Miami Herald
March 18, 2000
Latin American studies shift to include current events, culture


 Born of the shock of the Cuban Revolution, Latin American studies has come of
 age in the ensuing 40 years, moving into examining the barrio, the boardroom and
 the box office.

 Even the bedroom is not off-limits for the 5,000 academics and researchers in
 Miami for the 22nd International Congress of the Latin American Studies
 Association. Panels on gender and sexuality numbered three times those on law,
 jurisprudence and crime.

 There are only a few hints of the ivory tower -- you can still attend a panel on
 ``Popular Sectors and Elites in Colonial Ecuador'' -- but there is an increasing
 emphasis on current events and popular culture.

 ``Latin American studies as a field has become much more pluralistic, much
 more diverse culturally and in other aspects, and has broadened its field to
 include people who are very engaged politically,'' said Jonathan Fox, a professor
 of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

 ``People who study Latin America today come to study it in Miami,'' Fox said.

 In contrast to U.S.-based Latin Americanists of the 1960s, the field today is
 increasingly filled with people from Latin America, who numbered 2,200 of the
 5,000 scholars in attendance.

 ``LASA was overwhelmingly a U.S. organization when it began in the early
 1960s,'' said Thomas Skidmore, a professor of Brazilian history at Brown
 University who has been a member of the Latin American Studies Association
 since its beginning. ``Today, if I look around this lobby, at least half of the people
 are from Latin America. That is a revolution.''

 Another revolution is the presence of Cuban scholars, who would have been
 barred by the State Department several years ago, Skidmore said. More than 120
 Cuban scholars and researchers attended the Miami conference.


 When Latin American studies first appeared as a multidisciplinary area of
 academic interest four decades ago, the emphasis was on the Cold War.
 Government funding stemmed from the Defense and State departments' concerns
 about national security and the threat of spreading leftist insurgencies.

 ``We're a product of the Cuban Revolution,'' said Ivan Jaksic, Latin American
 history professor at the University of Notre Dame.

 But other forces are at work today. Students studying Spanish branch out into
 Latin American studies, and Latin American immigration has spurred interest in
 learning about the region, Jaksic said.

 Business schools push the idea of international studies as training for American
 business executives in a global world.

 ``At our university, our business department is promoting international studies,''
 said Christina B. Turner of Virginia Commonwealth University. ``They realize they
 need people who can relate to foreign nationals.''


 But academics are drawn in by the excitement of the field and are trying to
 answer the question: How can such a vibrant region filled with such exceptional
 talent be constantly buffeted by economic and social unrest?

 In this sense, U.S. scholars make a difference. ``That makes it an exciting field.
 You feel that you are part of the intellectual community interpreting the country,''
 Skidmore said.

 Participants acknowledge that there are contrasts between those who examine
 the region from the serene campuses of the United States and those in Latin
 America who live in a laboratory of strife, but they insist there is considerable
 collaboration between them.

 Chilean psychologist Elizabeth Lira lives the country's day-to-day struggle to
 complete the transition to democracy, while Brian Loveman, a historian at San
 Diego University, studies the history of conflict and amnesty in Chile -- going back
 to the 19th Century. Together they have written two books on dictatorship and civil
 conflict and reconciliation, and they are finishing the third one, which leads up to
 the present.


 Lira said she needed Loveman's less emotional approach to understand more
 clearly how Chile deals with deep ideological differences in such a close-knit
 society -- an issue that is even more pressing after the return of former military
 ruler Augusto Pinochet from detention in Britain.

 ``What you gain by combining the points of view is a better balance on each
 side,'' Lira said.

 Added Jaksic, who grew up in Chile: ``Academics and people who are in the real
 world need each other.''

 Sharp ideological differences of the 1970s and 1980s with Latin American
 academics who were mainly left-leaning have ended with the close of the Cold

 ``But we do have one leftover,'' Skidmore said. ``Most of the scholars are
 sympathetic with the left and are sympathetic to new ideas such as popular
 culture: music, dance, folklore.''

 So no one was surprised by the title of one panel on the media and cultural myths
 in Mexico: ``Stars, Bars, Supermen, Sex and the Silver Screen: Social Actors
 and the City in 20th Century Mexico.''

                     Copyright 2000 Miami Herald