Cuba in Question (Yet Again)  

Image courtesy of   Martha M. Montejo Pizarro

Image courtesy of
Martha M. Montejo Pizarro

César A. Salgado

Why is Cuba so special?  (I’m quoting here—with a twist–the title of a New York Times opinion piece about the U.S. “wet foot, dry foot” policy for Cuban immigrants published yesterday.[1])  Since the Spanish American War of 1898 but especially after the triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959, the question of Cuba has generated fierce debates and even deadly confrontations in the United States and in the world at large. Lines have been drawn and trenches have been dug over Cuba on the arenas of Cold War and post-Soviet conflict in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia since the 1960 start of the U.S. embargo, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  In the United States the disputes over this question—why and how should Cuba remain special–have led to the arrival of several waves of exiles and immigrants that have transformed the ethnic, cultural, social, and racial fabric as well as the electoral tendencies of communities in Florida, New York, New Jersey, and, yes, the great state of Texas (perhaps not demographically but certainly politically—or, shall we say, senatorially).  Some argue that this question has over-influenced the outcome of some presidential elections.

The question of Cuba’s exceptionality again excited a great deal of media speculation after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early nineties.  How long would Cuba’s communist regime last? Could we all meet again next year in Havana?  The almost miraculous sustainability of Cuba’s socialist gamble throughout the harrowing economic privations of its Special Period in Times of Peace has transformed those questions into a discussion about the pragmatics of gerontocratic rule and the limits of resuscitation.  How special can Cuba remain after the passing of Fidel’s and Raúl’s generation of revolutionaries?

Picture courtesy of Mario Mercado-Diaz

Picture courtesy of Mario Mercado-Diaz

The announcement of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in December 17 has again unleashed a great frenzy of speculation in world media regarding what Cuba would be like if the U.S. embargo is finally lifted. Will the Cuban Adjustment Law be rescinded?  How will the new Republican U.S. Congress respond to Obama’s “diplomatic” challenge?  How much of Obama’s three billion shot-in-the-arm of the Cuban economy will benefit el cubano de a pie over the regime official?  What will these new circumstances mean for the Afro-descendant inhabitants in the island, clearly the worst off under the current “Special Period” conditions?  The question of Cuba has now gone supernova, exploding throughout the blogosphere and spreading everywhere like a nasty computer virus. In response to this media overload, instead of a panel of policy experts, we have decided to invite colleagues who both analyze and suffer witness to Cuba, gente cubana de Texas que siguen cargando por acá el peso de su isla.

You will have the opportunity to see the faces and hear the voices of a sector of the Cuban population that bears the brunt of the issues at stake here, artists and academics working on Cuban topics who are also “life experts” representing the full spectrum of their diaspora through the state.  We have asked them to come together in a round table to speak out their views, hopes, and reservations and help us generate useful questions for a consequential, long term conversation about Cuba’s future.

[1] Ann Louise Bardach, “Why Are Cubans So Special?”   New York Times, Jan. 29, 2015.

You can watch here the video of the Roundtable Imagining Cuba in a Post-Embargo Era: Ideas from the Cuban Diaspora in Texas. This event took place on Friday, January 30, 2015 at LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections.


César A. Salgado
Associate Professor
Department of Spanish and Portuguese, College of Liberal Arts




DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.


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Posted in Caribbean, Home, Social Inequalities, Sustainable Democracies

The Remittance Landscape

Sarah Lynn Lopez


This book began in a small café kitchen in Berkeley, California, where I worked as a cook with three migrants from a village near Leon, the capital city of Guanajuato, Mexico. Over time, I learned about their aspirations to build new homes—not in Berkeley—but in their hometowns. My co-workers earned meager salaries, lived in cramped apartments in Oakland, and had been in California for over a decade. Why, then, were they investing in new homes in rural Mexico? As a historian of the built environment, I was curious about the homes themselves. What did they look like? Who built them? How did my co-workers (undocumented Mexican migrants who did not travel home) manage the construction process from a distance?

Upon further reflection, this book began long before I ever spoke with my co-workers about their uninhabited dream houses. I am the product of the aspirations, ambitions, and discomfort that come from such spaces of migration. My mother is a Cuban-Jew, born and raised in Havana, whose parents fled Poland and Romania in the early 1930s. My father’s family made their pilgrimage from a Chihuahuan mining town in Mexico, to strawberry fields in south Texas, and ultimately to the mining and refinery town of Trona in the Mojave Desert, arriving in the 1950s. I grew up reflecting on how processes of migration, the adjustment to radically new and different contexts, shape one’s experience of everyday life. This project borrows from such reflections, interrogating what the spaces of migration mean for migrants themselves.

The culmination of ten years of research into these questions has resulted in an interdisciplinary book called The Remittance Landscape: Spaces of Migration in Rural Mexico and Urban USA. International migrant remittances have received much scholarly attention in the last ten years as—according to the World Bank—flows increased from $72.3 billion in 2001 to an estimated $483 billion in 2011. Yet, the remittance landscape—new architectural and landscape elements financed by dollars migrants earn in the US—has been largely ignored. In 2012, Mexican families received over an estimated $22 billion dollars sent by migrants working in the U.S. New homes, roads, cultural centers, rodeo arenas, and more, have fueled a construction boom across rural localities. From the repaving of roads to the building of opulent cultural centers, migrants are crystallizing their aspirations and desires into built form and assuming new roles as town boosters and developers. These projects are sometimes aided by the Mexican government’s Tres Por Uno(3×1) program, which incorporates remittances into public policy by using municipal, state, and federal funds to quadruple remittances dedicated to development projects. Conducting fine-grained ethnographic research on the construction process, embedded aspirations, and subsequent use of remittance architecture reveals how social worlds in Mexico and the US are increasingly structured by the logic of remittance, a logic in which distance is normalized. Rather than overcome, distance is incorporated into a way of life—remitting becomes a way of life—that manages separation, dispersion, fragmentation and ambivalence on a daily basis. Through analysis of the remittance landscape, this book unveils the experience of migration from the perspective of both those that migrate and those “left behind” in emigrant villages.

Modified Prologue to The Remittance Landscape


Sarah Lynn Lopez
Assistant Professor
School of Architecture




DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.



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Posted in Central America & Mexico, Home, Social Inequalities, Themes

Mexico’s Agony: Ayotzinapa and Beyond

By Ricardo Ainslie

Image: Manifesto 43.

Mexico is still reeling from protests in the continuing aftermath of the September 26 disappearance and apparent murder of 43 students at a teacher’s college in Ayotzinapa, in the state of Guerrero. The search for the missing students has led to the discovery of a series of previously unrecorded mass graves around Iguala, the city where the municipal police initially apprehended the students. Those graves are symptoms of a failed system when it comes to citizen security and the rule of law.  The disappearance of the students has ignited a firestorm of indignation, disgust, and outrage, resulting in nation-wide demonstrations that have been ongoing for weeks. An entrance to the National Palace in Mexico City was set afire by protesters, the state legislature in Guerrero was also set ablaze, and victims’ families and activists temporarily shut down Acapulco International Airport. President Peña Nieto was forced to postpone a state visit to China and Australia due to the uproar. In a rare move, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States issued an extensive statement detailing what was known and what the government was doing to address the Ayotzinapa tragedy, but it did little to tamp down national and international activities in support of the students and their families.

Having endured years of violence on a national scale, Mexicans appear to have been jarred out of the haze of fear, numbness, and denial that has helped maintain the status quo in a nation where the rule of law remains tenuous. With a clear nexus between local and state government officials, local police, and organized crime groups, Ayotzinapa exposes unresolved problems that continue to haunt Mexico.  Citizen demands go beyond the fate of these students; they are pressing for an end to endemic corruption and the implementation of judicial and law enforcement reforms. Throughout Mexico, Ayotzinapa has become emblematic of these failures.

The outrage is not new. Ten years ago a million citizens marched to Mexico City’s Zocalo, the country’s spiritual and political center, to demand an end the epidemic of crime that had engulfed the country since the 1990’s.  Police collusion with crime, corruption in general, and failed institutions were the targets of the largest march in Mexico’s history. Two years ago, millions of Mexicans supported Mexican poet Javier Sicilia’s “Caravan for Peace” that crisscrossed the nation with similar demands following the murder of his son (LLILAS hosted a visit to campus by Sicilia in mid-November). There have been many other protests. The fact is that Mexican citizens have been demanding that the government live up to its most fundamental obligation, the protection of its citizens, for a long time.

But governments are averse to change. In 2007 the Mexican government acted to suppress my documentary film, Ya Basta!, which chronicles the 2004 million-person march and the tragedies that had led its leaders to form Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia (MUCD) in an effort to pressure the government into action. The husband of one had been kidnapped for 29 days during which four of his fingers were cut off to pressure the family into paying a higher ransom. Another’s daughter was kidnapped and murdered despite his having paid the agreed upon ransom.  Just weeks before the film’s premier in Mexico, I screened it for then president Felipe Calderón’s chief of staff under the impression that the new administration was eager to pursue the reforms championed in the film (and by MUCD). Not long after, the MUCD leadership, which was negotiating with the administration over judicial and law enforcement reforms, was told to distance themselves from the film or else risk not having “a seat at the table,” leaving them no alternative but to comply.

Ten years after the Ya Basta march, Mexico’s cancer remains the country’s most important challenge, one that has profound implications for Mexico’s economy, as well. Energy reform, on which Mexico is pinning great hopes, will falter if organized crime controls the territory within which companies must work, or if cartels continue stealing oil and gasoline with impunity. Tourism has been hit hard by Mexico’s crisis (tourism if off by 65% in Acapulco, for example). Corruption and violence are costing the Mexican economy dearly. If president Peña Nieto is serious about addressing these issues he and his party must lead by example. That daunting challenge has been made even more difficult by recent revelations alleging that the Mexican company partnering with the Chinese to build a three billion dollar bullet train also built a seven million dollar home for Peña Nieto and his wife in an exclusive Mexico City neighborhood (the exposé went viral on youtube).

Whether the Ayotzinapa crisis leads Mexico toward real change remains to be seen. The nation may well fall back into silence and resignation as it has in the past following equally horrific moments. What the events at Ayotzinapa make clear is that it will take more than marches and protests to bring about the changes for which Mexicans hunger. Groups like Mexico Unido Contra la Delicuencia and other civic organizations must take the lead in pressuring the “three levels of government” (municipal, state, and federal), making them transparent and accountable to citizens.

Ricardo Ainslie is a native of Mexico City. His latest book, “The Fight to Save Juárez: Life in the Heart of Mexico’s Drug War”  (University of Texas Press, 2013) explores crime and violence in Mexico.

Ricardo C. Ainslie, Ph.D.
M.K. Hage Centennial Professor in Education
Twitter: @RicardoAinslie






DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.


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Posted in Central America & Mexico, Home, Social Inequalities, Sustainable Democracies, The Americas

¿Por qué Ayotzinapa?

Héctor Domínguez Ruvalcaba


Image Source:

El caso de la desaparición de 43 estudiantes de la escuela normal de Ayotzinapa, Guerrero,  México, a manos de policías municipales de Iguala, no es sino una mínima muestra de la gran cadena de violaciones a los derechos humanos registradas en México, por lo menos desde la década de 1960. Cabe aquí la afirmación que, con o sin guerra fría, con o sin neoliberalismo, el estado mexicano es sistemáticamente un estado policial, esto es, un estado donde las decisiones de la policía en contra de los ciudadanos están ampliamente protegidas por el estado, por más ilegales, inconstitucionales y de lesa humanidad que resulten. Lo extraordinario de la tragedia de Iguala no es precisamente el abuso policial contra estudiantes, las desapariciones forzadas, la confusión intencional en torno a las investigaciones, la indolencia de las autoridades: estos hechos se han incorporado ya al inventario de abusos naturalizados en la historia reciente del país. Lo extraordinario ha sido la atención mediática, con la imagen del país de las matazones que circula en la prensa internacional, las redes sociales, los campus universitarios, la protesta de la calle, etc. Sin esta amplia visibilización, las autoridades mexicanas ni siquiera se hubieran molestado en llamar a ruedas de prensa, ni en lanzar declaraciones falaces frente a una opinión internacional que ya ha aprendido, como la opinión nacional, a escuchar con escepticismo sus posturas. No fue así con la noticia de más de 300 cadáveres encontrados en fosas clandestinas de Durango, en 2013; ni con la de las fosas de San Fernando, Tamaulipas, en 2011, con 183 cadáveres, que aunque también le dio la vuelta al mundo, no mereció una protesta social tan amplia como el caso de estos jóvenes. Tampoco los más de 100 000 muertos registrados en los últimos 8 años han parecido indignar tanto a gobiernos ni organizaciones como para emitir recomendaciones, declaraciones, y críticas tan contundentes como las del Parlamento Europeo y el gobierno norteamericano, que tras un mes del evento de Iguala externa su preocupación.

¿Qué exactamente explica este abuso contra los estudiantes?, ¿cuáles son los conflictos que han llevado a que se sumen estos jóvenes al alto número de los desaparecidos en el país? Las normales rurales de Guerrero tienen una vieja tradición de resistencia frente a las políticas educativas del estado. Un evento de protesta en diciembre de 2013, en demanda de mejores condiciones para los normalistas llevó a que dos estudiantes de la misma escuela normal de Ayotzinapa resultaran asesinados por policías. Pero más aún, estos hechos pueden remitirnos a los conflictos de los años setenta en que cientos de guerrilleros, comandados por Lucio Cabañas, un maestro de escuela primaria egresado de una de estas escuelas normales, fueran también desaparecidos. Fue en Aguas Blancas, Guerrero, donde en 1985 se registró una masacre contra campesinos que viajaban a participar de una protesta. Fue en parte por la defensa de campesinos ecologistas de Guerrero, que denunciaban a compañías desforestadoras ligadas a organizaciones criminales, que la activista de derechos humanos Digna Ochoa fue asesinada en 2001. Esta costumbre de criminalizar la protesta y aplastar con toda la fuerza del estado los descontentos sociales estaba sin duda vigente la noche del 26 de septiembre en Iguala.

Por otra parte, no podemos ignorar que es la región de Iguala la mayor productora de heroína en México, considerado el segundo productor mundial de esta droga. Esto ha creado un aparato de corrupción tal que el propio alcalde de Iguala es señalado como protector del cártel local Guerreros Unidos, quienes tienen a su disposición los cuerpos policiacos para ejecutar acciones criminales. Esta relación corrupta tampoco es excepcional, sino parte de una vieja tradición de complicidad entre autoridades y criminales que data desde los mismo inicios del narcotráfico en este país, en los años de la revoución mexicana. Es, en todo caso, la evidencia de que las autoridades y criminales no solamente se asocian para hacer negocios ilegales y realizar ejecuciones relacionadas con esos negocios, sino que ahora están coludidos para emprender una guerra contra la sociedad civil, o más precisamente: para continuar, con más armas y más desfachatez la guerra sucia iniciada hace casi medio siglo. Ya hay quienes hablan de narcodictadura.

Héctor Domínguez Ruvalcaba
Associate Professor
Dept. of  Spanish and Portuguese

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.
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Posted in Central America & Mexico, Home, Social Inequalities, Sustainable Democracies

The Learned Ones: Nahua Intellectuals in Postconquest Mexico

Kelly McDonough

The Learned Ones: Nahua Intellectuals in Postconquest Mexico (2014), challenges two profoundly colonial and ahistorical myths of Latin American indigenous peoples since European contact: the myth of indigenous intellectual degeneration, and that of limited participation in the written sphere of cultural expression. As counter-narrative, I identified and analyzed a series of Nahua intellectuals and their texts—grammars and dictionaries, local histories, political speeches, laws, short stories, personal testimonies, and drama—drawn from a nearly five-hundred year period. Whereas my book responds to a nascent global interest in the nature of indigenous knowledge production and writing, it is one of the few to treat the Latin American context, and it is the first of its kind to systematically address Nahua engagement with the written word from the early Colonial period through the present day.

The indigenous intellectuals whose writings and life experiences I discuss offer examples of how Nahuas took up the pen as agents of their own discourses and agendas. They include Antonio del Rincón, one of the few indigenous men to be ordained as a Jesuit priest during the early colonial period and the first indigenous person in the Americas to write a grammar of his native language; don Juan Buenaventura Zapata y Mendoza, a seventeenth-century elite Nahua statesman who wrote the history of his altepetl (city/state), Tlaxcala; Faustino Galicia Chimalpopoca, the Nahua polymath, who left his mark on the nineteenth century as a staunch defender of indigenous land rights and as a scholar of Nahua texts; doña Luz Jiménez, the only published female Nahua prose writer to date, whose short stories and testimonio provide a window into assimilative education for Indian children at the turn of the twentieth century; Ildefonso Maya Hernández, the prolific playwright and cultural promoter whose open-air theater and painted books outline a project of language and cultural recovery/revitalization; and Sabina Cruz de la Cruz, Victoriano de la Cruz Cruz, and Refugio Nava Nava, all present-day Nahua intellectuals who contributed Nahuatl-language statements or think-pieces specifically for this book. These individuals and their work alert us to fact that, contrary to popular belief, Nahuas have continued to think, produce, transmit, and interpret knowledges beyond European contact and conquest. They also demonstrate that along with oral, embodied, musical, and painted modes of expression, Nahuas appropriated and adapted alphabetic writing in order to assess and influence the world around them.

As a practice of decolonial methodologies, I workshopped the texts in my study with Nahua researchers and students, some of whom were encountering Nahua intellectuals and their writing for the very first time. The majority of the texts I have worked with have also been contributed to a curriculum development project for native and non-native speakers of Nahuatl in Mexico. In this way, this project has been aligned with the cultural and linguistic recovery/revitalization projects of Nahua people, and suggests methods of collaborative research related to indigenous thought and writing with an emphasis on what I call “the four ‘Rs’”:

  1. recovering examples of the dynamic trajectory of Nahua intellectualism and writing since conquest;
  2. “restorying” Mexican and Nahua history: repopulating the history of Mexico with indigenous perspectives; including alphabetic writing in the history of Nahua knowledge practices (along with other oral, embodied, and material practices)
  3. repatriating: returning cultural heritage sources to Nahua communities today through collaborative work with Nahua researchers and students
  4. revitalizing: providing sources and space for Nahua intellectual work today

Learn more about the book The Learned Ones. Nahua Intellectuals in Postconquest Mexico here 

Kelly S. McDonoughKelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Spanish & Portuguese



DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.
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Posted in Central America & Mexico, Cultural Agency, Home

Migration of Unaccompanied Migrant Youth

Photo: Eric Gay, AP

Néstor Rodríguez
The University of Texas at Austin

In recent days, the news media has increased the reporting on the large-scale arrival of unaccompanied migrant youth (younger than 18) from Central America at the Texas-Mexico border.  This influx of unaccompanied children and mothers with young children has caught the Border Patrol unprepared, and now the federal government is scrambling to find places to detain the new arrivals.

The enclosed tables based on apprehension figures given by the Border Patrol indicate several features of the migration of unaccompanied Central American children to the United States.

The migration of unaccompanied Central American youth has accelerated especially since 2012, when the percent increase surpassed 100 percent for the three major groups of Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans.

The growth rate of unaccompanied migration is greatest for Honduran youth.

The numbers of apprehended unaccompanied youth nationalities from Central America reached the number of apprehended unaccompanied youth from Mexico in fiscal year[1] 2014.

Poor economic conditions in Central America and social violence by maras and criminal organizations are seen as underlying causes of the migration, or as causes for the fragmentation of communities and families, which puts youth at risk of migration.  Causes for surges in the migrant flow can include the circulation of rumors that the United States is permitting passage into the country for youth, and the work of smuggling networks in promoting this misinformation (the immigration service is placing some youth with their families in the United States but only until their cases are heard).

A study in 1990 found unaccompanied Central American youth experience several harmful, traumatic events during the migration (Rodriguez & Urrutia-Rojas 1990)[2].  Among 60 unaccompanied youth interviewed, 18 percent met criterion for PTSD, but a greater percentage manifested psychiatric disorders (flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbness, depression, etc.).  On average, the unaccompanied youth experienced 3.7 different potentially traumatic events during the migration, which was about the same number (3.8) of different events they experienced in war zones in their countries during civil wars.  For unaccompanied youth the migration experience is similar to being in a war zone.

The desire to reunite with families is a principal cause of unaccompanied migration by minors.  Hence, as millions of migrants, including parents, remain in the United with undocumented status due to the lack of a comprehensive immigration bill to address the new realities of US immigration, we can expect the large-scale migration of children to continue.

[1] October 1 – September 20

Data 1 Nestor Rodriguez

Data 2 NR

Data 3 NR

NestorNéstor P. Rodríguez
Professor, Dept. of Sociology.

Néstor Rodríguez has conducted international research in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. His present research focuses on Guatemalan migration, U.S. deportations to Mexico and Central America, the unauthorized migration of unaccompanied minors, evolving relations between Latinos and African Americans/Asian Americans, and ethical and human rights issues of border enforcement. Professor Rodríguez and Susanne Jonas’ upcoming publication, Guatemala-U.S. Migration: Transforming Regions, will be available in January 2015.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.

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Posted in Central America & Mexico, Home, Latinos in the U.S., Social Inequalities

Violence, Indigeneities and Human Rights

Arturo Arias
The University of Texas at Austin


     Picture Courtesy of James Rodríguez

      Juan de León Tuyuc Velasquez (Kaqchikel Maya), was killed on January 15, 2014 in Sololá by unknown gunmen. Velasquez was the brother of Rosalinda Tuyuc, founder of the National Association of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA), a leading human rights organization representing Indigenous women whose husbands were killed in the Guatemalan civil war (1960—1996). In June 1982, the Guatemalan Army kidnapped and murdered their father, Francisco Tuyuc. In 1985, Rosalinda Tuyuc’s husband suffered the same fate. In 1994, she founded the National Coordination of Widows of Guatemala (CONAVIGUA for its Spanish acronym). Rosalinda Tuyuc was elected as to Congress in 1995, one of only a handful of Maya representatives ever to serve. In 1994 she was decorated by the French National Order of the Legion of Honor for her humanitarian activities. Her brother Juan de León, in turn, worked tirelessly for the transformation of social inequality and injustice that greatly affects Maya communities.

Tuyuc Velasquez’s murder is emblematic of the multiple assassinations of Maya leaders taking place in Guatemala at present, despite the fact that, in theory, the country ended its 36-year old civil war in 1996 and technically is now a democracy, if by this we understand exclusively free and fair elections to choose a new president every four years. Yet the never-ending continuum of murderous practices over political negotiation evidences that, structural racism, militarism and impunity are by no means problems of the past. Indeed, evidence indicates that the killing of historical and contemporary leaders has increased in this century, instead of waning after the signing of peace accords.

Let me add a further example of structural violence. On April 9, 2013, Maya K’iche’ scholar Francisca Gómez Grijalva, one of only two Maya columnists in Guatemalan newspapers and a holder of a Ph.D. in Political Sciences from the University of Granada (Spain), described in her weekly column Ukemik Na’oj (“our” knowledge; that is, Maya knowledge) how on August 23, 2012, a security guard of Hidroeléctrica Santa Rita, S.A., a hydroelectric power station imposed on a Maya Q’eqchi’ community against its will and despite their continuous protestations, suddenly appeared at the house of community leader David Chen. When he could not find him, he intimidated the father and brother of Chen, prior to shooting two Q’eqchi’ children, Isaac Güitz and David Estuardo Pacay, aged thirteen and eleven years old respectively. They died on August 26th the first, and on the 27th, the second.

As Gómez Grijalva adds, this hydroelectric power station is owned by Inver Energy, a partner of U.S. owned Duke Energy, to which, in 2008, The Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines gave authorization to build over the Dolores River, near the town of Cobán. The Ministry’s authorization was secretive. Needless to say, there was no consultation with Maya Q´eqchi´, Poqomchi´, or Achi families, despite the fact that they depended on this river for survival, as well as for the preservation of the local ecosystem. Amanda Fulmer, Angelina Snodgrass Godoy and Philip Neff has written a similar critique of the Marlin mine in San Marcos, which she argues, typifies “the newly emerging kinds of encounters between global corporations and local communities that will define the twenty-first century” (112—113).

Numberless indigenous accounts of this nature articulate political and cultural critiques of the never-ending junctures of racism, violence and overall abjection in which their communities have been submerged. The racialization process that took place shortly after the 16th century Spanish invasion recurs grotesquely to this day, a “macabre experience of genocide and ecocide” as Adam Lifshey names it (2), questioning the legitimacy of Eurocentric attempts to inscribe human rights within their phantasmatic representations of nation-building in the Americas. Indigenous textualities formulate contestatory heterogeneous critiques that, inevitably, fall within the purview of decolonial perspectives signaling new directions for the future and providing a critical framework on decolonial processes.

In the Latin American context, it is impossible to separate indigenous decolonial maneuvers from the violence and the violation of human rights suffered by these populations in most countries with sizable native communities. We are still witnessing these deplorable conditions in nations otherwise heterogeneous among themselves, such as Guatemala, Peru, and Chile, to just cite a few, where violence, including rape, femicide, assassinations, or torture, still take place on a daily basis against an array of indigenous groups, including Mayas, Quechuas, or Mapuches, to name but the larger and better known ethnicities.

In April 2013, when an array of Maya Ixil women testified in the trial against General Efraín Ríos Montt, the de facto Guatemalan head of state in 1982 and 1983. Ríos Montt was accused of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the massacres, forced displacement, rape and torture of Guatemala’s Maya Ixil population. During the trial, one Ixil woman after another described military incursions on their villages, indiscriminate massacres, rape, torture, and forced dislocation into the mountains where victims faced starvation and military bombing campaigns. Multiple witnesses described being treated “like animals.” Judging a Dictator recounts some of the horrific testimonies. I cite only one in this short article:

Elena Caba limped to the witness stand to tell the court of the April 3, 1982 massacre in which soldiers killed 96 people. Caba, then eight or nine years old, nearly died: soldiers stripped her naked and threw her from a bridge into a river. When she landed in a pool in the river, and injured herself but did not die, the soldiers above threw rocks and shot at her, hitting her foot with a bullet. She saw many dead bodies in the river, but was able to swim to the riverbank and hide, and eventually flee. Her family was not so lucky; soldiers fatally shot her younger siblings, aged four, three, and one; hacked her father to death with a machete after shooting him; and killed her mother. (4)

These aggrieved indigenous women, however, did not intend to send the aged and ailing general to jail. All they wanted was that the general apologize to them.

For most of the last 500 years, the non-recognition of indigenous subjectivity has remained nearly constant. Perhaps because of this, no agreement on the rights of Indigenous peoples has been adopted by the UN General Assembly. Their impotence reminds us that indigeneities remain outside of a cultural re-centering that enables most global subjects to learn from and share with the their cultures’ experience and see them in contrast to other disciplines of knowledge, especially Western forms of knowledge.

Violence from a decolonial perspective would indeed point in this direction, one that makes the indigenous subject unsettled in its daily life along the terms of Saskia Sassen (2009, 228), pointing in the direction of worthless subjects, those considered by global capitalism “without value,” even if mapped, embodied, and performed. In this logic, indigenous subjectivities are not only subject to violence, but also deprived of basic human rights, as are all discardable beings. Nevertheless, the analytic foundations of these modes of thinking produce a place-based epistemology that inevitably articulates a new theoretical and political logic. It confirms, to summon Peruvian anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena (2007) that heightening social conflict, new citizens’ protagonism, and abandonment of traditional political party practices can lead to the ontological-political de-centering of modern politics.

Arturo Arias
Tomás Rivera Professor of Spanish Language and Literature
Dept. of Spanish and Portuguese
UT Austin.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.

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Posted in Central America & Mexico, Home, Social Inequalities

Making Waves

By Kurt Weyland

Often, events in one country inspire people in other countries; just this year, the downfall of Ukraine’s corrupt, authoritarian regime encouraged protesters in Venezuela to challenge their own corrupt and increasingly authoritarian government. These demonstration and contagion effects can give rise to impressive waves of contention, as it happened during the “Arab Spring” of 2011.

Observers commonly assume that these dramatic diffusion processes are recent phenomena: products of globalization with its 24/7 news coverage and modern forms of instantaneous communication. But surprisingly, the 19th century saw similar riptides of rebellion. The unexpected success of Parisian crowds in overthrowing their king in February 1848 set in motion a veritable tsunami: Immediately, discontented people along the Rhine challenged their princes as well, and from there, contention rippled across the European continent, literally day by day. This upsurge in protest advanced faster than the Arab Spring – long before Twitter and Facebook!

While the rebellions of 1848 rarely achieved their goals, they were momentous events for citizens of all stripes. For instance, the very defeat of political liberalism stunted Germany’s democratic development for decades to come. Therefore, these failed revolutions are important events to study. And because these protests and their eventual repression affected people’s lives so deeply, many participants and observers, ranging from radical students to stodgy military commanders, left behind extensive diaries, letters or memoirs. These fascinating documents allow scholars to reconstruct the thinking and feelings, the calculations and passions of the different groupings fighting each other.

Of course, Latin America has also experienced waves of regime change, especially during the region-wide move to democratization starting in the mid-1970s: Military dictatorships fell or withdrew in many countries, ranging from Ecuador in 1979 to Chile in 1990. But as transitions advanced year by year, this “third wave of democratization” progressed much more slowly than the revolutions of 1848 and the Arab Spring, which spread day by day. Why this low speed?

Yet at the same time, democratization efforts in Latin America were much more successful. While both ‘1848’ and the Arab Spring ended up bringing little political progress, all Latin American dictatorships (except Communist Cuba) fell sooner or later. In a similar vein, the Russian Revolution of 1917 inspired a wave of protests and regime changes, which spread much more slowly than the revolutions of 1848, but prompted successful democratization in a number of countries, such as Austria, Germany, and Sweden.

These striking contrasts pose a real puzzle: Why is speed associated with failure, and slow diffusion with success? My new book, Making Waves: Democratic Contention in Europe and Latin America since the Revolutions of 1848 (Cambridge 2014), draws on cognitive psychology and organization theory to design an explanation.

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Researchers have shown that dramatic, vivid events make a disproportionate impression on people; observers overrate their importance, while neglecting more “normal” occurrences. Accordingly, 9/11 had a huge impact: Many Americans switched from planes to cars, although driving is much more dangerous. The psychological “availability” of unusual occurrences distorts people’s judgments, sometimes at considerable cost.

Moreover, people draw improperly firm inferences from superficial similarities. Therefore, they see what happens elsewhere as “representative” of their own country; consequently, Venezuelans followed the turmoil in Ukraine this year, and Austrians and Prussians took inspiration from France in 1848.

These cognitive shortcuts (what psychologists call the availability and representativeness heuristics) explain the quick spread of protests in 1848 in Europe and in 2011 in the Arab World. When people saw a dramatic precedent—the ouster of the French king or the Tunisian dictator—they jumped to the conclusion that their rulers were equally weak and that challenging them held good prospects of success. These rash inferences fueled wildfires of protest.

But political conditions across Europe in 1848 and across the Arab world in 2011 were highly diverse. Whereas France and Tunisia were relatively advanced, many other nations were backward, with powerful rulers and small opposition forces. Therefore, many attempts to emulate the precedents failed. Heavy reliance on cognitive shortcuts unleashed tsunamis of protest, but brought little success.

Why, then, did contentious waves unfold more slowly, yet with great success in Europe after 1917 and in Latin America during the 1970s/80s? My book points to the organizational leadership that had arisen by those times. Political parties accumulate experience and process information more thoroughly than common citizens do. Therefore, party leaders evaluate foreign precedents more carefully and emulate them with prudence. Standing on a firmer base of knowledge, they are less easily swayed by cognitive shortcuts.

European and Latin American party politicians closely followed political developments and had good access to reliable information. As a result, these organizational leaders had a pretty good grasp of the constellation of power. They could estimate how strong opposition forces were and whether they could sustain protests.

Therefore, when a foreign ruler suffered a dramatic overthrow, organizational leaders did not rush into contention. Instead, they waited for a good opportunity – and then marshaled their supporters effectively. They weighed their chances and acted strategically. As a result, waves of protests spread more slowly, but they achieved greater success.

By contrast, there were few if any effective mass organizations in 1848 in Europe and in 2011 in the Middle East. Without political leaders to guide them, common people had to decide how to respond to striking foreign events and whether to participate in protests. Having lived under stifling authoritarian rule, citizens had little political experience and limited knowledge. Therefore, they were highly susceptible to the problematic inferences suggested by cognitive shortcuts. Many got carried away by protesters’ success in Paris and Tunis and inferred that they could achieved the same feat in their own countries. Unfortunately, this hope often proved to be an illusion…

By advancing these arguments, my book develops an explanation that weaves together insights from cognitive psychology and organizational theory – quite a novel approach for political science. And by examining several waves of contention, the study sheds light on major watersheds in the history of European and Latin America democratization.

Learn here about the book Making Waves: Democratic Contention in Europe and Latin America since the Revolutions of 1848




Kurt Weyland
Lozano Long Professor of Latin American Politics
Department of Government






DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.



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Posted in Home, Sustainable Democracies, The Americas

Violence at the Urban Margins: A Workshop and Now a Book

Violence at the Urban Margins, a new book edited by Javier Auyero, Philippe Bourgois, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes, to be published by Oxford University Press.

The 2013 workshop titled “Violence at the Urban Margins,” held at The University of Texas at Austin, brought together scholars conducting cutting-edge ethnographic research on the role of violence in the lives of the urban poor in South, Central, and North America. For two days, conference participants discussed violence and its impacts in their respective field sites—as diverse as Philadelphia, Medellín, and Managua—and compared and contrasted their own findings with those of co-participants working across national and/or continental borders. Although each of the participants brought a unique perspective to the study of violence, they shared a commitment to shedding light on the suffering that violence produces and perpetuates, as well as the individual and collective responses that violence generates among those living at the urban margins of the Americas. Participants’ joint concern for the people at the bottom of the socioeconomic order, whose lives they have each labored so carefully to document, helped facilitate a productive dialogue even where disagreements about field techniques or interpretation of data emerged.

The volume that resulted from the workshop, also titled Violence at the Urban Margins, presents the papers that were workshopped in Austin together in printed form. Our hope is that when put side by side they will spark the same level and depth of dialogue across fields (disciplinary and sites of study) as when the authors themselves sat side by side around a table in the center of the LLILAS Benson conference room, passionately discussing their research together in front of (and sometimes with) graduate student and faculty observers.

Like those who attended the two-day workshop, the readers of this book are invited to see theory in action­­—­­­the creative use of a diverse set of theoretical and analytical tools to illuminate particular aspects of the sources, experiences, uses, and effects of violence. There is no single, overarching theoretical framework shared by the contributors, just as there is no single, unified definition of violence employed in this volume. Reflecting the existing variation in social scientific studies of violence, some contributors draw on a more normative—and narrower—definition of violence, focusing mainly on the deployment of physical force and the intentional infliction of damage, while others rely on a more expansive understanding of violence, broadening their investigation to include symbolic and structural forms. Rather than asking authors to conform the research they presented at the workshop to achieve coherence across this volume, we encouraged them to maintain their distinctive approaches to the analysis of violence in the lives of the poor. This not only allows us to showcase the diversity of ways in which scholars have attempted to understand violence but also provides readers with the opportunity to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each theoretical and conceptual approach through engagement with actual empirical work.

In the United States, as well as in Latin America, debates around issues of citizens’ public safety (from debates that erupt after highly publicized events, such as the shootings of Jordan Davis and Trevon Martin, to those that recurrently dominate the airwaves in Latin America) are dominated by members of the middle and upper-middle classes. However, a cursory count of the victims of urban violence in the Americas reveals that the people suffering the most from violence live (and die) at the bottom of the socio-symbolic order. However, the inhabitants of the urban margins are hardly ever heard in discussions about public safety. They live in danger, but the discourse about violence and risk belongs to, is manufactured and manipulated by, others—others who are prone to view violence at the urban margins as evidence of a cultural (or racial) defect, rather than question its relationship to economic and political marginalization. As a result, the experience of interpersonal violence among the urban poor becomes something unspeakable, and the everyday fear and trauma lived in relegated territories is constantly muted and denied. At a very basic level, this book seeks to counteract this pernicious tendency by putting under the ethnographic microscope (and making public) the way in which violence is “lived” and “acted upon” in the urban peripheries.

Violence at the Urban Margins
This volume is the outcome of a workshop held at LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections at The University of Texas at Austin in the spring of 2013.
Contributors:   Javier Auyero, Adam Baird, Philippe Bourgois, Randol Contreras, Benjamin Fogarty-Valenzuela, Alice Goffman, Mo Hume, Kristine Kilanski, Manuel Llorens, Kevin Lewis O’Neill, Dennis Rodgers, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, John Souto, Ana Villarreal, Polly Wilding, and Verónica Zubillaga


Javier Auyero
Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Professor of Latin American Sociology.
Department of Sociology
University of Texas, Austin

Learn more about the workshop “Violence at the Urban Margins” here

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More pictures here.  (Pictures courtesy of Mari Correa).

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.

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Posted in Home, Social Inequalities, The Americas

The Need to Reach Broader Audiences: Scholars Working with Journalists and the Success of Beca Anfibia

How can scholars tell appealing stories about the research we do? How can we translate the language of our theoretical interpretations into a discourse that is easier to understand? The idea behind these questions is not to give up academia, but to challenge our scope of discussion and make ourselves available to a public that might be interested, if not persuaded by the things we study.

One of the challenges that many humanities and social science scholars face is how to communicate in a more effective way about the products of our research. In times of budget cuts and constant suspicions on the “usefulness” of what we do, it has become indispensable for us to learn how to talk about the importance of our work, and to do it in effective and simple terms.

We train our students to be successful academics, but we should also provide them with the means to become public intellectuals, engaged with the realities they study and qualified to share the findings of their research with larger groups in society.

Two years ago LLILAS invited Visiting Resource Professor Cristian Alarcón, a journalist and writer based in Buenos Aires, to conduct a writing workshop on campus. Over thirty students from different colleges attended, and in less than a week, nine of them came up with an abstract of a story they wanted to tell. In spring 2013, LLILAS offered a summer fellowship, the Beca Anfibia, to one of those students, Jorge Derpic (sociology). The story he wrote and produced with Alex Ayala (his “amphibian” partner and a journalist based in La Paz) was about the lynching in El Alto, one of the biggest and most violent cities in Bolivia. (See story here)

This fellowship owes its name to the place where the story was published. Revista Anfibia is one of the most important online publications in Latin America, with over 40,000 views monthly. What characterizes the stories published in Anfibia is that they are produced by a scholar and a journalist. Both contributors put in practice their expertise, working together, conducting research together, and writing together. The journalist paves the way to research in the field while the scholar helps the journalist make connections that he or she is not trained to make. The result is a well-written story—a crónica—rich in depth and yet told in uncomplicated language.

Not only did Jorge gain experience during his amphibious project, he also won two prestigious dissertation awards after the publication of his crónica. While we cannot claim that all his success is solely due to the Beca Anfibia, there is something about having your essay edited by a group of three highly prestigious journalists based in Argentina that sharpens your writing skills. 

This year we owe the possibility of granting a second Beca Anfibia to the generous support of LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, the Department of Sociology, the Department of Anthropology, and Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Professor of Latin American Sociology Javier Auyero. We offered our second successful writing workshop in March 2014, conducted by Argentinian author Sebastián Hacher, and eleven students from four different colleges sent us their abstracts.  The spring 2014 fellowship was awarded to Daniel Perera, PhD student, Dept. of Anthropology . His crónica is about the violent legacy of a fratricidal war among neighbors of a small Guatemalan town.

Our goal is to make this a stable program. We want to have workshops that last more than one session and we want to invite journalists to write on relevant topics in Latin America. We want to foster this necessary dialogue and invite faculty to take an active part in it. Having journalists around is a good way to make them understand that academics do not live in ivory towers. At the same time, we need to incorporate their experience and expertise to better help our community be heard and read in the world outside the academy.

Gabriela Polit
Associate Professor
Dept. of Spanish and Portuguese




Picture courtesy of Mari Correa






DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.

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Posted in Cultural Agency, Home
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