The Birth and Evolution of Latin American Studies


The study of Latin American literature and language barely existed in the U.S. until it was championed in the 1910s by Jeremiah Ford, a Harvard professor of romance languages. It took off as a discipline thanks to an explicit mission: supporting U.S. political agendas and commercial interests. Professor Fernando Degiovanni (The Graduate Center, CUNY) chronicles the field’s emergence and evolution in his new book, Vernacular Latin Americanisms: War, the Market and the Making of a Discipline.

Degiovanni shows how historic events fueled the need for expertise on Latin America, starting with the Spanish-American War of 1898, when the U.S. acquired control of Puerto Rico and Cuba. The opening of the Panama Canal and the advent of World War I, which quelled interest in studying German, also “increased demand for Spanish language courses,” Degiovanni writes.

Degiovanni did extensive original research for the book, drawing on letters, speeches, journalism, and other material. He structures his narrative around profiles of the men who led the field. One of the most colorful was Alfred Coester, who started out teaching Brooklyn high school students how to write business letters in Spanish and later became the first professor of Spanish American literature in the U.S. He even served as a spy. His book on Latin American literature was promoted as a guide to understanding the region’s business elite. “The Latin American soul is to be found in Latin-American literature,” Coester said.

During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the Good Neighbor Policy to counteract German influence in Latin America. Ironically, as fascists rose to power in Europe, “Washington did not hesitate to support Latin American authoritarian governments” as a way to keep markets there stable for U.S. economic interests. Degiovanni’s final chapters profile intellectuals who opposed the rise of totalitarian regimes in Latin America, but who were eventually co-opted into the comfortable world of U.S. universities: Luis Alberto Sanchez, Pedro Henriquez Urena, and Enrique Anderson Imbert, all South American exiles.

As the Cold War dawned, bankers, diplomats, and industrialists who once sought insight from literature professors turned instead to economists and political scientists. “The value of literature as a knowledge tool” was replaced, Degiovanni writes, by “professional-managerial knowledge” from social sciences.