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Nara B. Milanich, Children of Fate: Childhood, Class, and the State in Chile, 1850-1930.

Nara B. Milanich, Children of Fate: Childhood, Class, and the State in Chile, 1850-1930 (Durham: Duke University Press 2009)

IN THIS BEAUTIFULLY written and well-crafted book, Nara B. Milanich convincingly argues that the family served as the nexus for class formation in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Chile. Combining poignant vignettes that bring to life the hardships faced by plebeian children with sharp analyses of civil law and elite discourse, this study makes a major contribution to the burgeoning historiography of children in Latin America. In addition, Children of Fate should become required reading for students of class and state formation beyond Latin America.

In a country where elite and popular narratives figured Chileans as uniformly mestizo, class, not race, emerged as the primary determinant of someone's place in the social hierarchy as the republican state took hold in the early nineteenth century. It was precisely at this juncture that the state came to confer rights and entitlements on practices and legal structures surrounding the family. As a consequence, the family came to establish a person's class location. Children from working, middle, and upper class families would be placed in their respective class positions based on filial ties; illegitimate children would consequently find themselves as part of a kinless underclass.

The Civil Code of 1857 figures prominently in Milanich's story. The brainchild of Andres Bello, one of Latin America's greatest intellectuals, the Code abolished colonial Spanish legal codes that had remained Chilean law throughout the first half century after independence. Chapter 1 examines how the civil code transformed family law, revolutionizing "the gender, generational, and class dynamics of filiation." (42) Most notably, the Code provided a legal structure for a liberal economy and for a patriarchal society. In the process, the code transformed the relationship between citizens and the state.

Milanich argues that the key difference between colonial and republican law focuses on the issue of paternity. While both laws disinherited illegitimate children, they acknowledged paternity differently. Colonial law granted paternity when there existed sentimental or economic ties between a man and a child or a man and the mother of the child in question. Drawing on 102 paternity suits, the author finds that women or children who took men to court over paternity claims won 53 per cent of the time. Since the Crown entrusted the colonial court with protecting the empire's children, the colonial court often settled in the plaintiff's favour, conferring on the man responsibility for his offspring.

The liberal Code proved detrimental to illegitimate children and their mothers filing paternity suits, as the Code came to reinforce the patriarchal liberal order. Based on liberal precepts that emphasized individual rights over collective obligations, the Civil Code configured paternity as a free and voluntary act on the part of the man, granting fathers the right to choose whether to acknowledge extramarital offspring. Paternity investigations were prohibited, and paternity status of extramarital children would now be acknowledged through contracts, with parents appearing before courts to declare kinship ties. As a result of this new requirement for establishing filiation, countless more children were deemed illegitimate. Deprived of property and socially stigmatized, they joined the ranks of the underclass. In short, the liberalization of family law had a profound role in class formation in modern Chile. Tracing the trajectory of the impact of this change in family law provides a major contribution to the literature on Latin American state formation.

In adjudicating cases contesting kinship ties, by the 1870s the court came to interpret the Code through the prism of class. Chapter 2 demonstrates how paternal recognition came to define an offspring's class position. Drawing on over 90 paternity suits filed after the enactment of the Code, Milanich demonstrates how family law reproduced class differences in republican Chile. Paternity status came to be based on the actions that a biological father undertook regarding his offspring. "If a man," writes Milanich, "had made manifest efforts to assimilate his alleged offspring into his social status through class-appropriate education and upbringing, then it said he possessed the will to recognize." (74) If he permitted his alleged offspring to become impoverished, then the court would rule that no kinship ties could be proven. Hence, the court itself became an instance for the legal affirmation of class distinction.

Part II, "The Children of Don Nobody," examines the enduring importance of kinship in republican Chile. Chapter , "Kindred and Kinless: A People Without History," explores the lives of a kinless underclass, poor children who grew up without natal ties. The socioeconomic consequences of illegitimacy underscore the importance of kinship to individuals, particularly children. Moreover, this discussion illuminates how laws and customs regarding kinship continued to shape the overall class structure.

Chapter 4, "Birthrights: Natal Dispossession and the State," argues that as the state secularized marriage, kinship, and legal identity, the family came to determine someone's estado civil, or civil status. According to the Code, the estado civil defined "one's status as a parent or a child; legitimate or illegitimate; married, widowed, or single; or as an adult or minor still subject to parental authority." (134) Hence, the state based civil personhood on an individual's kinship ties. Illegitimates had no civil status and were thus denied kin-based benefits, such as social security, worker's indemnity, and inheritance. In short, the state buttressed a social and legal category - "illegitimate"--that deprived those without legally recognized kin of economic benefits, resulting in their impoverishment.

Milanich makes a key contribution to the study of Latin American state formation by showing how Chilean liberalism departed from classical liberal thought, which constructs the autonomous individual as constitutive to state-civil relations. In contrast to the idealized liberal state, the Chilean government held enormous power over establishing the civil subject, as it, in effect, produced legal kinlessness, or the category of the orphan. The Casa de Huerfanos, entrusted by the state with caring for many orphans, further established the children in its care as orphans by denying the existence of their illegitimate fathers. In sum, social institutions along with the Chilean state drew on family law to deprive illegitimate children of civil status, producing a people without kin and without history.

Part III, "Other People's Children: The Politics of Child Circulation," describes the lives of children dispossessed of natal kinship by exploring the practice of child circulation, defined loosely as the placement of children outside of kin networks. Chapter 5, "Vernacular Kinships in the Shadow of the State," explores the informal practice of child fostering for working-class family formation, showing how plebeian families negotiated liberal law, while Chapter 6 explores child circulation from the angle of domestic servitude.

Chapter 5's investigation of circumstances that led to child circulation throws light on a common but understudied practice. Using court and notary records, Milanich focuses on families that took in kinless children, as well as the children themselves, to conclude that child circulation constituted a form of welfare provision for illegitimate children. At the same time, however, the practice often led to the exploitation of children, as they became a source of cheap labour for host families. Most important, the chapter reveals the sharp divide between the Civil Code and the fictive kin relations that developed as a result of child circulation. Reflecting the elite worldview of its authors, the Civil Code held no provisions for addressing the practice of child circulation, which primarily affected the poor. In short, Milanich's study of child circulation underscores the marginalization of a kinless underclass of children.

The last chapter, "Child Bondage in the Liberal Republic," describes the tutelary domestic servitude of poor children as a form of bondage that the author groups with other types of unfree labour, such as penal labour and debt peonage. Drawing on documents from the Casa de Huerfanos, Milanich argues that the state helped produce paternalistic relationships between kinless children and adults by endorsing seemingly benevolent institutions, such as charities and the Church, to take in children.

The state did not however intervene in children's lives. On the contrary, by offering no legal provisions for regulating child circulation while recognizing charitable organizations, the state relegated the phenomenon of kinlessness as a problem to be addressed by the private sphere. As a consequence, illegitimate children found themselves in new webs of exploitation and dependencies, as they became domestic labourers in plebeian households. In the process, the underclass reproduced itself, as kinless children grew up to become peons and servants, not just to the middle and upper classes, but to the working class as well.

Children of Fate ends with an epilogue that provides an overview of the legal reforms enacted in the early twentieth century that altered illegitimacy and child circulation. Despite the emergence in the early twentieth century of a national discourse among the middle and upper classes on the plight of poor children, it was not until the New Filiation Law of 1998 that an end was put to "the historical distinction between illegitimate and legitimate children from civil law." (234) Milanich's masterful study provides the context for understanding the 1998 law as a victory for Chilean illegitimates.


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Author:Alegre, Robert
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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