Last week, I was in Wilmington, NC for the annual meeting of the South Eastern Conference on Latin American Studies (SECOLAS). Last year was my first SECOLAS, which drew me in by having it’s meeting in Mexico City. As the new guy on the block, I was quickly recruited to be the program director for submissions in History and Social Science. (The other program director received submissions in literature and the humanities. It’s a strange distinction to me, given that as a historian I count myself in the humanities much more than I do in the social sciences.) Helping with the conference was a good experience, and given my inability to recruit enough moderators/commenters for the panels I constructed, also sat in on a few panels I likely would have missed. I was happy to have a panel on early colonial history in Mexico, which included an interesting paper by E.A. Polanco, a graduate student at UC-Riverside, on Nahuatl infant ablution ceremonies and a paper by Catherine Fountain, a professor in Spanish at Appalachian State, on Linguistic Attitudes towards indigenous languages in colonial Mexico. Both papers were really interesting, and E.A. offered an argument for the continued relevance of Mexica midwife involvement in ablution ceremonies well into the colonial period. Fountain looked at portrayals of indigenous language in colonial grammars of those languages, particularly Nahuatl and other central Mexican languages. I found it most interesting that a large concentration of these grammars were written in the 18th century and seemed, to me, to hoe that row of past indigenous glories and current indigenous barbarism/degradation.
I also chaired a panel with two very interesting paper on modern social movements. Whitney Lopez-Hardin, a grad student at the University of Florida, gave a paper on the role of women’s movements in transitions from and to democracy in Chile, including both the beginning and end of the Pinochet regime. Whitney highlighted the extent to which class inflected the particular expectations and involvement of women’s groups during Allende’s rule and at the end of Pinochet’s. She was followed by David Ortiz of Tulane University, who gave a paper that was much more theoretical in its orientation and treated the role of natural disasters in sparking both short and long term social movement organization. Ortiz’s nominal focus was on the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, which resulted in a the formation of a large number of neighborhood and sectional associations of damnificados, those left homeless by the devastation of the quake. Social movement theory has long held that natural disasters compel quick, ad hoc relationships amongst social actors in the formation of organizations designed to respond to new circumstances of shock. This applies not only to natural disaster, but to any of a number of types of shocks. What Ortiz wants to do in his current research is to trace the longitudinal and networked affects of the relationships that emerged in response to natural disaster. By following direct and indirect relationships of individuals, Ortiz shows the down range affects of organizing the damnificados to latter social movements in the 1990s and 2000s in Mexico City. Makes sense, given that individuals with organizing experience take that on, together with their relationships, to new social problems they face later. Ortiz came to this project for personal reasons– from experiencing the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans and watching its effects on social action in the parishes of the US’s most Latinate city. I found myself thinking as he was talking how similar the processes he was describing connect with dynamics of online communities.
Finally, I’d like to mention a spectacular paper I heard on the conference’s final day, and final set of sessions. John Wertheimer, a legal historian from Davidson College, gave a very personal and compelling talk on the impact of new laws against domestic violence in Guatemala. I say personal because John in married to a guatamaleca, and his interest in this topic came from conversations with her family at a celebration on the event of a cousin’s appointment in the Guatemalan special forces, the Kaibales. This notorious brigade of the Guatemalan military focuses on counter insurgency. Not much needs to be said about that given the history of Guatemala over the past few decades. Suffice to say, that John recounted a conversation he ended up in concerning who wears the pants in his family and how a woman should be disciplined by the open hand or with a whip on the buttocks. This personal anecdote, replete with pictures of the machos who were trying to man him up, led to a description of important legal and social work being done by the Guatemalan government and international community together to combat domestic violence. Included in this effort have been a series of laws passed to criminalize domestic abuse (violent, verbal, emotional), but also includes the formation of special courts where women can file complaints and receive the help of social workers, a serious PR effort to publicize this new system and encourage women to seek help and file charges, and finally judicial will, publicized in the paper, to punish to some extent or another the abuse. It was a moving paper, and one of the best I’ve seen at a conference.
Next year SECOLAS is scheduled to meet in Gainesville, Florida, and from their either Panama City, Panama or Antigua, Guatemala. I’d encourage my fellow Latin American historians to join in the fun.