Minor Omissions: Children in Latin American History and Society.
In recent decades, scholars have pointed to the importance of incorporating age as a category of analysis in conjunction with gender, race, and class. They have asserted that examining age cohorts, from the newborn to the elderly, not only serves to integrate the previously underrepresented, but also gives new perspectives on larger social change within both historical and contemporary contexts. Studies on children have undoubtedly constituted the majority in this exploration of age. However, while the literature on childhood in regions such as the United States and Europe has undergone a recent explosion, research on the subject in Latin America is still in its infancy. This collection therefore represents a pioneering and greatly welcomed contribution to our understanding of children's experiences in Brazil, Spanish America, and the Caribbean.
Tobias Hecht has compiled an eclectic and well-chosen selection of essays by authors who examine childhood in relationship to issues including colonization, criminality, nation building, illegitimacy, abandonment, violence and revolution. One of the primary obstacles to the study of children's experiences in Latin America is the dearth of documentation. The contributors to this volume should be applauded for their innovative use of sources available to them such as criminal records, interviews, church murals, art and photography. Hecht also cleverly incorporates the first hand account of a Brazilian street child and a short story by Cristina Rossi about the boys and girls who were taken from their families after Uruguay was seized by military coup in the 1970s. These final chapters provide the reader with a glimpse at life in contemporary Latin America from a child's perspective and point to the countless possibilities for future research on childhood utilizing sources such as fiction and oral histories.
The first two essays in this volume focus on early Mexico and Peru, comparing Spanish conceptions of childhood with those of the Aztec and Inca. In "Sketches of Childhood", Carolyn Dean provides an original and fascinating analysis of images of children in seventeenth-century church paintings of the Cuzco Corpus Christi procession. Dean asserts that the paintings utilize images of youthful misbehavior in contrast to well-mannered adults to convey an order-promoting message to common Andeans. This message was that mischief belonged to the realm of the irrational child. Adults of all classes and ethnicities were to behave rationally and in an orderly fashion. Dean, however, posits that differing Andean and European concepts of childhood complicated the success of the Hispanic colonizers in conveying this message, an example of how failures to communicate ultimately limited their ability to control their subjects. Dean's essay makes skillful use of images to explore concepts of childhood for a period where little documentation exists and successfully demonstrates the ways in which concepts of childhood were at the center of historical issues such as colonization
The third essay in this volume, written by Nara Milanich, provides an overview of illegitimacy in Latin American history. Milanich rightly points to the importance of this issue in Spanish America and Brazil given the complex and multifaceted ways in which the concept was defined and the historically high incidence of illegitimate births in the region in comparison to European societies. Readers accustomed to the British legal tradition of "once a bastard, always a bastard", will find her discussion of the fluid nature of illegitimacy in Latin America, where many successfully petitioned for legitimate status, a fruitful source for comparison.
The shifting boundaries of family and state authority over children is a common theme in the contributions of Bianca Premo, Donna Guy, and Irene Rizzini. In her carefully researched chapter on child criminal cases in eighteenth-century Lima, Premo examines the ways in which the colonial state stepped in as patriarch, when a male head of household was either absent or in some way "deficient" in performing this role. Her work provides an excellent case study on the intertwining relationship among age, gender, race and social status in the promotion of social hierarchy. For example, casta or mixed race youth were more often brought before the courts than Spanish children or even slaves. The author argues that this was likely to due to the high levels of illegitimacy among castas, which typically signified the lack of a patriarchal figure within the home.
In a synthetic examination of the impact of Latin America's developing welfare state on children and their families, Guy's essay provides a captivating analysis of the potential limits that government programs placed on traditional patriarchal authority as state interests in the role of the young as future citizens increased. Irene Rizzini examines similar issues to those addressed in the work of Guy within the context of Brazil and its "Child-Saving" movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rizzini considers the ways in which the Brazilian state and social reformers, influenced by the ideas of their North American and European counterparts, sought to "save" poor children from the moral corruption of their families and mold the boys and girls into useful and productive citizens. She asserts that such ideas only emerged in Brazil at the end of the nineteenth century after the fall of the Empire and the establishment of a republic. While Rizzini provides an intriguing discussion of the importance the Brazilian state placed on children during the nation building process of the early twentieth century, her analysis might have benefited from considering the ways in which the movement differed from efforts made during the Empire (1808-1889), where officials also commonly discussed the importance of removing children from their immoral families and educating them so that they would one day become "useful to themselves and their patria (fatherland)." Still, Rizzini's work lays an excellent foundation for future research comparing the relationship between childhood and state in Brazil during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which might potentially offer new perspectives on both its transformation from monarchy to republic and its transition from a slave to a wage labor economy.
If there is a missing link in this volume on children in Latin America, it is the lack of analysis of middle class and elite experiences of childhood. Such research might allow us to better understand the multiple and coexisting definitions and experiences of childhood in Latin American societies of the past and present. However, this omission reveals more about the nascent state of the literature on children in the region than any oversight on the part of the editor or contributors.
Due to the limits of space and the readership of this journal, I have primarily focused this review on the historical essays included in Minor Omissions. However, those interested in more recent issues are encouraged to look at the thought-provoking essays on contemporary Latin America. This edited collection speaks to the dynamic nature of emerging research on children in Latin America and will be of great interest to graduate students and professors interested in the region. Those working on childhood and the family in other areas will find it to be a useful source for comparison. Finally, the readable and approachable nature of the text would make it an excellent choice for survey courses on Latin American history.
University of Miami
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2004|
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