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Tequila, Tarahumara, and Turkeys: Recent Research Topics in the Handbook of Latin American Studies

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 (The following is a post by Tracy North, Reference Librarian and Social Sciences Editor, Handbook of Latin American Studies, Hispanic Division.)

In the blog post to announce the publication of Volume 71 of the “Handbook of Latin American Studies” (HLAS), we drew attention to a study of pisco, the popular South American brandy. In Volume 73, the spotlight is on Mexico with a historical study about tequila, made from the ubiquitous agave plant. As mezcal gains popularity in the US, we may see more studies on the origins and usage of the beverage in pre-Columbian times, such as in the edited volume “Agua de las verdes matas: tequila y mescal,” where the authors present ethnobotanical knowledge about the fermentation of the agave plant and describe “the historical development of local economies and transportation routes based upon tequila and mescal production.” In 2017, Food & Wine magazine published an article clarifying the difference between tequila and mezcal. Both beverages are made from agave, but tequila must be made only from blue agave. As the article nicely explains: “All tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas” (Max Bonem, 19 April 2017).

Century plant. Published between 1900-1920. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A number of recent innovative works describe the lives and traditions of indigenous peoples – both pre-Columbian civilizations and contemporary cultures. In “Tarahumara Medicine: Ethnobotany and Healing among the Rarámuri of Mexico,” the author’s unique background first as a medical student and then as a physician and observer positioned him well to document healing within this indigenous group known for their incredible long-distance running capabilities. As HLAS Contributing Editor (CE) for Mesoamerican Ethnology Duncan Earle explains, the ethnography first describes the “setting, history, people and their culture, social activities, life cycle and rites of passage, festivals… [and the] healers, healing ceremony and health concepts” of this group. The second part of the rich ethnobotanical resource offers a compendium of herbal remedies and healing practices of the Tarahumara. A number of works in Volume 73 look at different aspects of the Tarahumara culture, including studies on mental health, higher education, and local resistance.

[Tarahumara Indians of Villas command]. Blumenthal, Harry, photographer. c1911. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Research on the importance and significance of animals as tools of conquest, objects of trade, sources of nutrition, and loyal companions are part of an emerging subfield of Latin American Studies. Still, it seems remarkable that HLAS Volume 73 includes no fewer than three publications about turkeys and turkey husbandry in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica – especially given their pervasiveness in contemporary kitchens as a healthy option. The first study analyzes turkey remains – from eggs to adult birds – in Oaxaca, Mexico, during the classic period (250 CE to 900 CE). The second study reports that it is possible to make sex determinations of turkeys by measuring their femurs. The results suggest that females were more prevalent, indicating the cultivation of turkeys for consumption. The third study differentiates faunal remains between two species of turkeys to suggest that they were important resources in classic-period Oaxaca. Motivated by these recent research discoveries, I believe that turkeys may have been the original poultry eaten with traditional mole sauce (nowadays, mole is more commonly served with chicken). I would also like to report a successful experiment of taste-testing the dish!

Rather tame wild turkey at Shelburne Farms, a nonprofit education center and working farm,on the shores of Lake Champlain in Shelburne, Vermont. The property is nationally significant as a well-preserved example of a Gilded Age “ornamental farm”, developed in the late 19th century with architecture by Robert Henderson Robertson and landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted.

While we’re talking about archaeology, I would like to call your attention to a beautiful publication in tribute to longtime HLAS CE Betty Meggers. I was lucky enough to have worked with Dr. Meggers (1921-2012) for several years before she retired from HLAS. She was one of the rare scholars who was a dedicated HLAS contributor for over 50 years. We will forever be indebted to her for her contribution to Brazilian and Ecuadorian archeology. As this publication demonstrates, she made an indelible mark on the field. A short obituary appears in HLAS Volume 69 (p. xvi-xvii).

In addition to the studies mentioned above, a number of unique resources in this volume are noteworthy for their format and topic covered. One 2013 Nicaraguan book, “Postsandinismo: crónica de un diálogo intergeneracional e interpretación del pensamiento político de la Generación XXI”, is a collection of blog posts from the author’s university course in which students responded to probing questions about their political beliefs. In “Barbarie: comics sobre violencia política en el Perú, 1985-1990,” Jesús Cossio uses a comic book format to present cases of political violence committed by the Peruvian armed forces and Shining Path, the Communist Party of Peru. He pulled information from several sources including the Final Report of the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, academic books, reports written by human rights organizations, and articles from magazines and newspapers. HLAS CE Astrid Arrarás argues that “this book is a very valuable source for all interested in political violence and transitional justice in Peru” (p. 283). Finally, a study on slum tourism caught our attention due to its broad approach. According to HLAS CE for General Geography Kent Mathewson, “the emerging interdisciplinary field of slum tourism… can help to connect issues of urban poverty with the tourism industry in Latin America” (p. 110). This article, in particular, analyzes case studies in Mexico and Jamaica “to theorize about slums and inequality.”

It is impossible to consume any current news without hearing a discussion of the reasons for and effects of migration. Studies on a number of countries in the region show that migrants leave home due to a variety of causes ranging from persistent violence and economic conditions to climate change. At present, the main area of scholarly and political preoccupation is Central American and Mexican migration to the US. A recent study by the Pew Research Center shows that the number of unauthorized immigrants entering the US is trending downward. Significantly, fewer Mexicans are heading to the US than in years past. While we continue to see studies on emigrant remittances and their economic impact on sending communities, HLAS CE for General Sociology Enrique Pumar notes that the number of studies on return migration, like the number of return migrants themselves, is trending upward (p. 489-490).

[Jackie Robinson in Kansas City Monarchs uniform]. 1945. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
I’d like to wrap up this post with a bit of news about the Library of Congress. Under the leadership of Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden, the Library is moving open the doors to our collections and provide access from near and far. One way that we are accomplishing this goal is by offering gallery talks in our exhibit spaces. To commemorate the 2018 Major League Baseball (MLB) all-star game, which took place in Washington, DC, on 17 July 2018, the Library coordinated an exhibit about the history of baseball. (Although the exhibit closes in July 2019, the online presence will remain available.) The influence and importance of Latin Americans and Latinos for US baseball is undeniable. To draw attention to this part of baseball history, the Hispanic Division hosted a gallery talk during our 2018 Hispanic Heritage Month celebration to highlight the objects in the exhibit and to display LC’s collections on this popular topic. In addition to some of the obvious characters and story lines – who could forget Mexican Fernando Valenzuela’s pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers, particularly in 1981 when he won rookie of the year and the Cy Young award? – it has been exciting to share information about the important contributions of Caribbean, Mexican, Central and South American baseball players to the MLB and the Negro Leagues. It is especially gratifying to mention a connection to this HLAS volume in which a series of research studies looks at baseball in the Caribbean. Researcher Nicholas Wise has been observing a recreational site in the Dominican Republic where Dominicans have set up baseball fields, but Haitian immigrants prefer to play soccer. His investigation points to the importance of sports for both national and cultural identity.

In another effort to make connections beyond our walls in Washington, DC, the Library of Congress created a new office, LC Labs, to encourage innovation with our digital collections. One of the first projects is a crowd-sourcing experiment. Library staff members selected five collections to initiate the project, one of which was the Branch Rickey Collection. Rickey, a baseball player and executive, is credited with breaking baseball’s color line by signing Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract in 1945. In early 2018, the Library digitized his papers, making freely available thousands of scouting reports of baseball players from the US, Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere. The second set of collections includes two Americans with ties to Latin America: Walt Whitman and Clara Barton. Who is the “crowd” that is “sourcing” these projects? It’s you!  Members of the public are encouraged to visit the Library’s website and help transcribe documents. We’re proud to say that HLAS also builds connections beyond the physical library through our website, printed volume, and through our community of contributors who write reviews and share HLAS with their students. In fact, with over one hundred members of the scholarly community currently writing annotated bibliographies and introductory essays, and hundreds more contributors over the years, one might suggest that HLAS has been a crowd-sourced project since its inception in 1935.

We look forward to more opportunities to share the marvels of the Library’s collections with you. For over 80 years, HLAS has been a gateway to the vast riches of the Library’s Latin American collections. We’ll continue to invite you to take part in the discovery of the dynamic cultural resources that are collected by and safeguarded in this institution for your use. The printed HLAS volume is available at many libraries around the world, including right here at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. You can also find us online.


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