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Latin American Research and Publication in Times of COVID-19

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The following is a post by Tracy North, Reference Librarian and Social Sciences Editor, Handbook of Latin American Studies, Hispanic Reading Room, Latin American, Caribbean and European Division (LAC&E).

Handbook opened to the final page of the Table of Contents and the first page of the Editor's note
Editor’s Note, Tracy North & Katherine D. McCann (Eds.). 2021 Handbook of Latin American Studies: Social Sciences (Vol. 75). University of Texas Press.

We are excited to announce the publication of Volume 75 of the “Handbook of Latin American Studies (HLAS).” This milestone is confirmation of the Library’s impressive commitment to promoting scholarship and providing access to its international collections. Spanning more than 80 years of scholarly work, the Handbook records trends and changing methodologies in Latin American studies, building a solid bridge connecting past and current publications.

The selection of publications in Volume 75 (2021) reflects current themes in research on Latin America, while harkening back, directly or indirectly, to earlier publications. Indeed, scholarly publishing is an ongoing dialogue between researchers of past generations and those developing topics of study today. HLAS Contributing Editors (CE) call our attention to these connections. Online search systems such as HLAS Web allow immediate linking forward and backward, teaching students that research and interpretations are neither permanent nor static, but instead evolving and changing.  “Matlatzinco before the Aztecs: José García Payón and the Sculptural Corpus of Calixtlahuaca,” for instance, illustrates this connection by exploring the origins of a precolumbian Indigenous group in Mesoamerica. The HLAS Contributor for Mesoamerican archeology Arthur A. Joyce notes that the findings of this study contradict previous suppositions of José García Payón in his 1974 book, La zona arqueológica Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca y los Matlatzincas, itself a facsimile of a 1936 edition. At the time, HLAS Contributor for archeology Hasso von Winning included that publication in his submission for Volume 39 (1977). This newer study links the two publications.

Developing effective search strategies for locating desired materials within a collection of over 170 million items takes practice, patience, and community. The Handbook gives Latin American studies researchers that community by relying on established researchers to identify the Library’s essential collections in Latin American studies – especially publications from Latin America. Occasionally, a publication mentioned in HLAS describes and interprets primary resources in the Library of Congress collections. The Library’s Jay I. Kislak collection contains nearly 1,400 items related to the history of the early Americas, including over 100 ceremonial and ritual Maya vessels. An article reviewed in HLAS 75 offers an analysis of 75 of these flasks, “Maya Flasks: The ‘Home’ of Tobacco and Godly Substances.” Drawing on archeological investigation and chemical analysis, the authors hypothesize that people may have used the flasks as containers for cacao or tobacco. You can read more about the Maya flasks in this blog post.

Flask with measuring instruments provided for scale
Miniature Classic Period Maya Civilization from the Jay I. Kislak Collection. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Archeologists are using other creative approaches to better understand Mesoamerican peoples. Three studies draw on dental analysis – recognizing that our teeth give away a good deal about our diets and lifestyles. Even ancient teeth can reveal a precolumbian taste for beer, corn, and, a later addition to the prehistoric diet, seafood, “Corn, Beer, and Marine Resources at Casas Grandes, Mexico: An Analysis of Prehistoric Diets using Microfossils Recovered from Dental Calculus.” Two other works use dental and genetic analysis to trace the movement of Zapotec and Mixtec people in the classic and postclassic periods, “Oaxaca and its Neighbors in Prehispanic Times” and to understand migration in prehispanic west Mexico, “Regional Population Structure in Postclassic Mexico.”

HLAS 75 also includes studies of contemporary migration. Valeria Luiselli’s poignant and heart-wrenching Tell Me How It Ends describes the plight of undocumented children from Mexico and Central America in the US. As HLAS Contributor for Central American sociology Cecilia Menjívar writes, “Luiselli’s position as a translator for these children gave her inside access to the cruel world that is the US court and immigration system, which sabotages the children’s cases by narrowing their time frame to find a lawyer, among other tactics” (HLAS Vol. 75, p. 489).

While countless studies examine the causes for migration the lives of those who stay behind are attracting attention from researchers (see Editor’s Note, HLAS Vol. 73). Sophisticated research from scholars of Brazil evaluate the ethics of traveling for leisure and turning poverty into a pastime by addressing complex connections and disconnects between race, class, and privilege and their impact on identity and livelihood. Bianca Freire Medeiros’ Touring Poverty is the first study of tourism in Brazil’s favelas. The “poverty tours” allow guides, favela residents, and vendors a unique way to generate income, but at the same time, they exploit other members of the community. HLAS CE for Brazilian sociology Erica Lorraine Williams notes that, incredibly, the Rocinha favela “is now the eighth most popular tourist attraction in Rio de Janeiro” (HLAS Vol. 75, p. 547).

photograph of men with surfboard on a hill with Rio de Janeiro slum in backdrop
Membros do Surfavela from the Rocinha Portfolio by André Cypriano. 1999. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

As telecommunications, the internet, and an array of messaging tools collapse our understanding of distance, space, and even location, geographers are increasingly incorporating Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology in their investigations. HLAS CE for Southern Cone geography David Robinson declares, “GIS is clearly replacing cartography as a hallmark of geographical analysis” (HLAS Vol. 75, p. 143). In Argentina, geographer Gustavo Buzai and other researchers at the Universidad Nacional de Luján (Buenos Aires province) use GIS technology to consider land-use patterns, human geography, and the like. One of Buzai’s creative studies maps internet connectivity between a hub (Buenos Aires) and selected cities (nodes) throughout the world, measuring the distance in connectivity in microseconds: “Fronteras en el ciberespacio”; read this article online).

With the proliferating use of social media by politicians and activists to rapidly disseminate their platforms, researchers weigh the political impact of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and blogs. The approaches vary and there is no straightforward method for collecting data, especially from proprietary systems owned by private companies. Some recent studies include: Medios de lucha: comunicación de gobierno en América Latina; Partidos políticos, campañas electorales y redes sociales en lo local; Anatomía política de Twitter en Argentina; and “La política uruguaya en la red” (read this article online). Stefania Vicari’s article, “Blogging Politics in Cuba,” is another case in point, examining 62 blogs that either support or oppose the Cuban government. HLAS CE for Caribbean government and politics José A. Laguarta Ramírez explains that despite government restrictions, internet usage in Cuba “has grown significantly in recent years” and that blogging in particular “has expanded significantly since 2007” (HLAS Vol. 75, p. 254). Visibility—digital or otherwise—comes with a cost. Toward the end of 2020, the Cuban government reportedly arrested opposition activists who spoke out in person and on the internet (Sarah Marsh, “Cuban Dissidents Report House Arrests and Social Media Blackouts since Protest,” Reuters, 10 December 2020).

Like blogging, bylines can expose reporters to retaliation. Journalists throughout Latin America grapple with an immediate crisis as their investigative work increasingly puts their lives in danger. Mexico has one of the highest rates of journalists killed in the world and has averaged 10 deaths per year for the past decade. According to UNESCO, in the year 2020 alone, more than 20 journalists were murdered in Latin America; Mexico recorded the most deaths with nine, while Honduras, Brazil, Guatemala, and Venezuela reported multiple murders of journalists. HLAS CEs for Mexican government and politics Shannan L. Mattiace and Joseph L. Klesner highlight two journal articles assessing the sources of violence against journalists in Mexico and the impact of the threat of violence on their reporting: “Murder in Mexico: Are Journalists Victims of General Violence or Targeted Political Violence?” and “Examining the Practices that Mexican Journalists Employ to Reduce Risk in a Context of Violence” (read this article online).

HLAS and other Library of Congress staff, working together with HLAS Contributing Editors around the world, compiled and published this volume under unique conditions. We are not surprised that the HLAS CEs rose to the challenges that the pandemic introduced, especially as we transitioned to home offices for research, teaching, writing, and editing. In the volume, several CEs commented on the immediate ramifications of the public health crisis for the region. As HLAS CE for general political economy Jonathan Hiskey cautions, “once again, these essays on the impact of a global economic crisis promise to have increased relevance as the world moves into yet another global downturn brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic” (Dimensiones sociopolíticas y económicas de la crisis global y su impacto en los países emergentes, HLAS Vol. 75, p. 397-398). The pandemic has exacerbated social inequalities across the globe. HLAS CE for Ecuador government and politics Jennifer Collins vividly describes the conditions in that country as the coronavirus pandemic hit (HLAS Vol. 75, p. 260). Not only has the pandemic affected the production of the Handbook, but may have significantly influenced the approaches to research throughout Latin America – and indeed the world.

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