The Company They Kept: Migrants and the Politics of Gender in Caribbean Costa Rica, 1870-1960.
In 1906, in Port Limon, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, Sebastiana Veragua, then a 16 year old, black Panamania immigrant, underwent a vaginal exam at the hands of Dr. Benjamin de Cespedes. Local officials had required Dr. de Cespedes to perform this act in the context of charges by Sebastiana's lawyer, and house patron, that her boyfriend had "deflowered" "his ward." Contrary to her patron's opinion, Sebastiana defended her sexual conduct and passions. She insisted that the she "was not the victim but the author of her loss of her virginity." So begins Lara Putnam's pioneering book in Central American historiography, a major contribution to the field.
Between the late 1990s and 2000, Central American historiography registered a deepening of earlier trends of the former decade, including pioneering work on the past of women and relations between men and women. The period registered continuing work on women's history in general, and more nuanced contributions from a gender perspective. The book discussed here falls firmly in the camp of the history of women from the angle of gender and its role in society as a whole. However, it also engages other historiographies in fascinating ways, and does so with rich archival work and a sophisticated research design.
This book is also truly innovative in its use of gender in rethinking race relations and ethnic identities in Costa Rica. In fact, it is kind of model for similar studies needed elsewhere in Central America. Putnam systematically engages connections between gender and race not only between West Indian women and Hispanic-Indian populations, for she sees it as equally important to analyze how West Indian men related to West Indian women in the context of adaptation and struggle in the banana growing and exporting regions of Costa Rica.
Equally important, this book is conceptually innovative because its regionalized, gendered, and racialized subjects are located and relocated in the processes of their migrations, re-migrations, settlements and resettlements from and in many locales of what Putnam calls the Western Caribbean, While the port of Limon is the regional focus of the story and analysis, the story and analysis are consistently linked to the Anglo-Caribbean, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, and of course the global connections established by the United Fruit Co. over three generations of migrants between the 1870s and 1950s.
The research design that generated this book begins with the premise that the lives of the men and women under study, from their sexual conduct, in marriage and commercialized settings, to how and why they died and even to how they insulted lovers and enemies, embodied the domain of complicated and often interlocked discourses that traditional state or corporate-centered documents did not register. This is not to say that Putnam has not scoured the relevant Costa Rican archives, especially the Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica, the best organized and most accessible of its kind in Central America and possibly Latin America. (I was surprised to see little use of U.S. or British diplomatic archives, very often rich sources of data for other countries in Central America in this period.)
More importantly, Putnam sought the voices and ideas linking gender, race and sexuality of common people in judicial records generated in Limon, and apparently well stored in the Serie Juridica of the Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica, and in the Archivo Judicial de la Corte Suprema de Justicia in San Pablo de Heredia. Moreover, she was also very lucky to find a significant cache of taped autobiographical interviews with elderly men and women from the Caribbean region done in the 1970s by another researcher. These and their vital transcriptions too are well preserved in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Putnam put all this and some terrific visual material to excellent use. The book is structured in innovative ways that are inviting for the non-specialist but that simultaneously appeal to the scholar interested in the minutiae of social history. For example, ten rich, complicated tables that register everything from homicide rates to patterns of "insult cases," are deftly located in an appendix referenced in the text. There, however, the tables do not detract from the narrative in the chapters. Meanwhile, the text itself is wonderfully illustrated with twenty-two black and white photographs from two excellent collections: the United Fruit Co. Collection housed at the Baker Library of the Harvard Business School, and the Coleccion Fotografica of the Museo Nacional in San Jose, Costa Rica.
In short, this is a terrific book. It is well researched, well written and analytically sophisticated.
Dario A. Euraque
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|Author:||Euraque, Dario A.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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