RMCLAS 2009, Santa Fe

The Rocky Mountain Conference on Latin American Studies annual conference was held again in Santa Fe, NM this past week/weekend. I was only able to make it for two of the days, and only for a few panels due to some logistics. Still, I make it a priority to attend RMCLAS whenever it is in New Mexico (which seems to be every two years, or so)- largely because I just love New Mexico and any excuse to hangout in Santa Fe is a good one, as far as I’m concerned. That said, in looking at the program for this year’s conference (ably organized by conference co-presidents Susan Kellogg of the University of Houston and Susan Socolow of Emory) I think RMCLAS can also boast of being the highest quality of the regional yearly conferences. No slight intended for SECOLAS, PCCLAS, or MALAS. I admit that I say this as an historian, and more specifically as a colonialist. It may be that the heavy involvement of historians at the top– in addition to the Susans (including immediate past-president Susan Deeds of Northern Arizona), the secretary of RMCLAS this year was Bill Beezley (Arizona) with Mark Burkholder (Missouri) as Treasurer. The exec committee is chock full of historians too- Christian Archer, Linda Curcio-Nagy, Michael Ducey, Sterling Evans, Donna Guy, William French, Lyman Johnson, Kris Lane, Jeffrey Pilcher, Susan Ramirez, Susan Schroeder, Ann Twinam, etc. Of the seventy panels on the program, thirty dealt with the colonial period or nineteenth century, something I find encouraging. And, in that way that regional conferences are specially able, the combination of established scholars and eager grad students is one of those things that makes the conference so good.

My first RMCLAS experience was in Colorado Springs in 1999, where I gave a paper on my masters work about the history of the indigenous movement in Ecuador. It has always been a warm venue for graduate students to get their feet wet in the world of paper presentations. My second RMCLAS, in 2004, was of course held in Santa Fe, and marked the first time I had ever publicly presented ideas born of my dissertation research. That year, I gave a paper entitled, “Gender and the Judiciary: A Case of Bad Shrimp in Late Colonial Quito,” which told the story of a woman who operated a number of tiendas in Quito and found herself stuck with a mess of shrimps in a deal with a Guayaquil merchant that smelled, eh hem, rotten. I’m so used to RMCLAS meeting in Santa Fe, that when I drove up on Thursday, I auto-piloted to the same hotel it was hosted at the last three times it was in town. Well, this year they moved it closer to the train station, which actually made more convenient the possibility of taking the newly-in-service RailRunner commuter train between Abq and SF.

At this year’s edition I was still trying a few new ideas out. I was part of a panel with Marc Becker and Karen Powers that presented new work on the North Andes. We were all re-presenting, in a form, work that had been put together for the ASE in Eugene last fall. Marc changed his focus from tinterillos more generally in Ecuador, to the case of Gonzalo Oleas, Ecuadorian tinterillo, socialist organizer, agitator, pol, indigenista, etc. Oleas had his hands everywhere, and demonstrated that the work of the tinterillo can’t be interpreted simply as exploitative of indigenous communities, or paternalistic, or whatever, but rather exists along a sort of spectrum of engagement. For example, once Oleas became involved representing certain indigenous communities in protection of land against aggressive hacendados, he quickly found himself in demand amongst members of those communities that wanted to sue each other. There is nothing particularly startling in this– indigenas have used the courts to sue not only people outside the community, but each other for 400 years now. But, it is worthwhile to note the continuance of these practices, even as postcolonial legal systems became less responsive to indigenous legal needs as indigenous. Likewise, the tinterillo himself is really an extension of the colonial procurador, who was hired by indigenous communities (sometimes on permanent retainer) to represent communal and individual interests at home and abroad.

Speaking of interesting continuities, Karen Powers presented the work that she and anthropologist Rachel Corr of the University of Illinois have done on the history of ethnogenesis in Salasaca, Ecuador. Salasaca is in the central highlands of Ecuador, south of Quito in the vicinity of Ambato. This work is really exciting, as Karen and Rachel have been able to reconstruct a series of migrations from the region surrounding Latacunga and elsewhere to Salasaca by analyzing naming patterns in bills of sale, census data, and the like. It is of note in part because Salasacans maintain that the integrity of the community’s ethnic identity dates to Inka-era mitamaq migrations from present-day Bolivia. It seems, from their work, that Corr and Powers are able to demonstrate conclusively that Salasaca, as a thoroughly indigenous town to this day, is the product of a series of native migrations both “local” and long-distance origin, producing in the 18th and 19th century what was essentially a new ethnic identification.

The most fun I had attending sessions, and I suspect this was true for everyone in the room, was on Friday afternoon at a “roast” of Asunción Lavrin, who has retired from teaching (though not research and writing). Lavrin recently published a magnum opus on one of her life’s intellectual fascinations– Brides of Christ: Conventual Life in Colonial Mexico . Her work on both nuns and on sexuality and the church in colonial Mexico was truly pathbreaking, and I would consider all of us who work on women and/or sex in the colonial period to be in her debt. The “papers” read to celebrate her work sweet, entertaining, emblematic of the depth of her impact on a couple of generations of women historians and women’s historians. Participants included a vicarious Kathryn Burns, Ann Twinam, Sandra McGee Deutsch, Lynn Stoner, Patricia Harms, and Donna Guy. The organizers came up with great titles such as, “Why Harvard Women Love Nuns,” “What Asuncion Taught Me about Sex,” “Asunscion, the F Word and the Southern Cone,” and “The Convent, Babies, and the Mother Superior.”

Ann Twinam recounted a recent graduate seminar exercise in which she and her students read the titles to all of the articles that have been published in the HAHR since its inception, drawing particular attention to a number of “lost women of the HAHR” who published in the early decades of the 20th century, only to be forgotten in the post-war decades of disciplinary “professionalization.” I did something akin to this when I first discovered JSTOR in the late 1990s. I remember at the time being surprised by the number of women who published in the HAHR before 1940. Donna Guy had one of the best lines of the evening when, in following Ann’s comments, she quipped that she considered herself a doubly lost woman of the HAHR (which she pronounced HarHar) since the journal had rejected every submission she ever made. It definitely made me feel better about a recent HAHR rejection!


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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Chad Black

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