Diogo de Carvalho Cabral
Although it has received less scholarly attention than firearms, microbes, domestic animals and plants, market economy, and statecraft, alphabetic reading and writing was crucial in the European conquest and colonization of the Americas from the late 15th century on. Unlike the agrarian empires the Spaniards encountered in the Andes and the Mexican highlands, the Portuguese frontier advanced upon tribal peoples who relied exclusively on oral language, such as the Tupi of Atlantic Brazil. These were semi-sedentary horticultural villagers whose entire socio-ecology (myths and knowledge, territoriality, subsistence strategies, etc.) was conditioned by the face-to-faceness and fugacity of spoken words. In turn, their Portuguese colonizers—for a while rivaled by the French, who enjoyed short periods of stable settlement through the early 17th century—were urban-based, oceangoing merchants, bureaucrats, soldiers, and religious missionaries whose organization strictly depended on the durability and transferability of written texts. Even if most of the Portuguese who came to Brazil in the 16th century were themselves illiterate, colonization as a social enterprise framed their actions according to prescribed roles set down in writing (both handwriting and printed script). Thus, the Portuguese colonization of Brazilian native lands and human populations can be interpreted from the point of view of the imposition of an alphabetically organized way of life. Two major dimensions of this “letterscaping” can be discerned as to its impact on Amerindian bodies (human and nonhuman) and modes of understanding. Although the 16th century was only the introductory act in that drama, its historical record shows the basic outlines of the alphabetic colonization that would play out through the early 19th century: native decimation and enslavement, territory usurpation by sesmaria grants, forest recovery in former native croplands (then resignified as “virgin forest”), loss of native ecological knowledge not recorded in writing, disempowerment of native cultural attunement to the wild soundscape, among other processes.
The evolutionary history of vertebrate nonhuman animals such as mammals in what is now Latin America extends back tens of millions of years. Given that anatomically modern humans first appeared in Africa a mere 200,000 years ago and would not reach Latin America until some 12,000 years ago, nonhuman animals in the region evolved for most of their history without interference from human activities. Once they appeared, humans began to shape the history of the region’s animals in profound ways. In fact, one could argue that animal history in Latin America has been a story of increasing human impact; from the Paleo-Indians, who may have driven countless species of megafauna to extinction; to the agrarian societies that domesticated species such as dogs, turkeys, and llamas (or tolerated the animals’ self-domestication); to the radical transformations brought about by the Columbian Exchange; to the industrialization process of the last two centuries. But animal history in the region is also marked by adaptation and agency on the part of animals, who have influenced the course of human history. This dynamic and adaptive human–animal relationship has been pushed to the limit during extinction pulses, manifest in the currently accelerating biodiversity crisis. Environmental history makes the convincing case that any historical account that neglects the environment offers an inaccurate depiction of the past. By the same token, animal historians suggest that a more complete understanding of history requires redefining its boundaries to include the often underappreciated story of nonhuman species and their interrelationships with human societies.
From the earliest days of Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule up until the late 19th century, banana cultivation in the Americas was carried out mostly by smallholders. That changed around 1880, when schooner captains based in Boston and New Orleans began to buy bananas in the Caribbean and sell them in the United States.
In the geographically small countries of Central America, a couple of US-based banana companies have wielded enormous influence. The United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita) acquired so much power in Guatemala and Honduras that it came to function as a state within a state, giving rise to the notion of “banana republics.” The company consolidated its power through various means: it installed authoritarian civilian and military governments that gave concessions to land, railroads, and ports; it divided its labor force along ethnic and racial lines; it built hospitals, schools, workers’ barracks, and houses for its management; and it used massive amounts of pesticides and herbicides in a capital intensive effort to cultivate varieties of the fruit that North American consumers came to expect but which were susceptible to Panama disease and Black Sigatoka. Bananas and plantains are a dietary staple throughout the tropics, and the diseases that beset the Gros Michel and Cavendish varieties that are grown on monocrop plantations threaten a vital source of healthy and relatively cheap calories that much of the world has come to rely upon. In recent years, consumers and civil society groups have organized to demand more socially and environmentally responsible bananas, creating organic and “fair trade” alternatives to conventional “free trade” bananas.
José Luiz de Andrade Franco and José Augusto Drummond
The rich variety of the tropical ecosystems and wildlife native to the current territory of Brazil has captured the attention of several groups of observers since the early 1800s. Wildlife and landscapes in particular generated a continuous stream of appreciation of their uniqueness and concern about their integrity. This perception affected government officials and foreign traveling naturalists of the 19th century, when dozens of French, German, Austrian, English, Belgians and North American naturalists traversed the immense territory of the former Portuguese colony that had been virtually closed to trained scientists. Throughout the 20th century, newly trained Brazilian scientists and again foreign scientists, besides government officials and activist citizens, continued to explore species, ecosystems, and landscapes of what now recognized as the largest tropical country of the world. More recently, the growing amount of information about the global distribution of biodiversity placed Brazil at the top of the ranking, as a truly “megadiverse” country. As a consequence, Brazil has engaged, through environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government agencies, and foreign and locally trained scientists, in a remarkable series of successful projects aimed at the identification and protection of endangered species. The country has only recently built a cadre of wildlife and ecological scientists trained to initiate and manage these types of projects. Despite the fact that these efforts are still far from being a priority in terms of its national environmental policies, Brazil has been quite active and successful in the protection of some of its most endangered animal species and their habitats.
Nicole L. Pacino
César Moscoso Carrasco (1904–1966), a central figure in Bolivia’s mid-20th-century public health system, wanted to liberate Bolivia from malaria. In a career that spanned three decades, he came close to achieving this goal, but ultimately did not live to see successful eradication. Moscoso was one of the first Bolivian public health specialists in malariology, and was recognized by the World Health Organization for his contributions to the field in 1963. At all stages of his career, he fortuitously aligned himself with the individual or organization that could help him accomplish his professional ambitions and his mission of eradicating malaria in Bolivia. He was the founder and director of the National Anti-Malaria Service in 1929, where he made a name for himself working to halt the spread of malaria in Mizque, in the Cochabamba region. In the 1940s, he secured a position with the Rockefeller Foundation, where he had access to resources beyond the scope of the Bolivian government and an international network of public health specialists. Finally, in the 1950s, he headed the newly formed National Service for Malaria Eradication, which was a Bolivian government initiative supported by international organizations, such as the World Health Organization and the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau. In the 1950s and 1960s, he came the closest to achieving his goal. Unfortunately, he died the same way he lived: fighting a disease, possibly malaria, which he contracted on a visit to Ceylon as a malaria expert and consultant.
Moscoso’s life is a window into many aspects of Bolivia’s 20th-century history. First, his life story illustrates both the potential and limitations of the Bolivian healthcare system. Indeed, Moscoso often had to work with international or binational organizations to accomplish the work that he saw as necessary and important. Second, his career shows how political changes in Bolivia impacted healthcare. Since his career spans the Chaco War of 1932–1935, the politically tumultuous 1940s, and the 1952 National Revolution, it provides a personal account of how these events changed healthcare in Bolivia. His story demonstrates the hardships that Bolivian doctors faced as they worked to improve their healthcare system, including low pay, few resources, and little respect from their foreign colleagues.
Edward D. Melillo
Since the early 1800s, Chileans have imagined their nation’s history and destiny through an ever-changing array of transoceanic connections with the rest of the planet. At a deeper level, Chile’s relationship with the Pacific Ocean is built upon myriad collective memories and aspirational identities. The long arc of Chile’s linkages with the Pacific World—or the peoples and ecosystems in and around the Pacific Ocean—has yet to be fully explored by historians. This article fills this lacuna by analyzing five diverse historical episodes that span more than two centuries: first, Valparaíso’s growth into a Pacific commercial hub during the early 1800s; second, Chile’s role in the Californian and Australian gold rushes of the mid-1800s; third, the Chilean victory in the late-19th-century War of the Pacific; fourth, Chile’s burgeoning commercial relationship with China, which began in the years following the Second World War; and, finally, the emergence of a Chilean-Pacific variant of neoliberal ideology in the final decades of the 20th century. These five developments reveal a litany of ambiguities and antagonisms in Chile’s complicated, ongoing association with its western ocean.
Rafael de Bivar Marquese
The coffee economy was decisive for the construction of independent Brazil. By the middle of the 19th century, the country was responsible for about half of the coffee global supply; in 1900, that number had increased to about three-quarters of the world’s production. In the Brazilian monarchical period (1822–1889) the center of the activity was located in the valley of the Paraiba do Sul river. Brazilian coffee production from its very beginnings demonstrated an inherent spatial mobility and a great demand for workers. Before 1850, labor supply was guaranteed by the transatlantic slave trade; after that, by an internal slave trade. The two basic characteristics of the coffee economy created during the era of slavery (the intensive exploitation of workers through the extensive exploitation of natural resources) were maintained after the crisis and the abolition of the institution (1888), when the center of the coffee economy moved to the West of São Paulo. Now counting on a new arrangement of free labor (the colonato) and on the subsidized immigration of European peasants, the São Paulo coffee economy in the new republican regime (founded in 1889) underwent a huge productive leap. Overproduction and falling prices became the new problem. The coffee valorization policy adopted by the State of São Paulo after 1906 and then the federal government indicates the reconfiguration of the class relations experienced in the new republican era, which nevertheless kept many of the historical structures of the slave legacy intact.
Matthew Butler and David A. Bliss
The Hijuelas project is a multi-domain international collaboration that makes available in digital form a large and valuable source on nineteenth-century indigenous history––the so-called libros de hijuelas or deed books recording the statewide privatization of indigenous lands in Michoacán, Mexico. These deed books, 194 in total, have been digitized and described over a two-year period by a team of History students from Michoacán’s state university, the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás Hidalgo (UMSNH), trained by and working under the supervision of archivists of the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies-Benson Latin American Collection of (LLILAS Benson) of the University of Texas at Austin. Additional logistical support has been provided by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS) as a partner institution in Mexico of the University of Texas at Austin and by the state government of Michoacán via the Archivo General e Histórico del Poder Ejecutivo de Michoacán (AGHPEM), which is custodian of the hijuelas books. The project was generously funded by the British Library through its Endangered Archives Programme (EAP 931, “Conserving Indigenous Memories of Land Privatization in Mexico: Michoacán’s Libros de Hijuelas, 1719–1929”).
The project seeks to be innovative in two ways. As a post-custodial archiving project, first and foremost, it uses digital methods to make easily accessible to historians, anthropologists, and indigenous communities the only consolidated state-level record of the land privatizations (reparto de tierras) affecting Mexican indigenous communities in the 19th century. It therefore projects digitally a key source for historians and one that possesses clear identitarian and agrarian importance for indigenous communities. It also makes widely available a source that is becoming physically unstable and inaccessible because of the difficult public security conditions affecting Michoacán. As a collaboration involving diverse institutional actors, furthermore, the project brings together institutions from three different countries and is an example of what may be achieved through equitable international collaborations.
Bradley Skopyk and Elinor G. K. Melville
The onset of Spanish imperial rule in Mexico in 1521 had profound consequences well beyond the political and cultural spheres. It also altered Mexico’s environment, reconstituting the region’s ecology as new fauna, flora, and microorganisms were added and as the population dynamics of native Mexican biota fluctuated in response to Old World arrivals. While the consequences of myriad interactions between native and non-native species were vast and complex, it was the decimation of indigenous persons by pathogens that was one of the first biological consequences of colonization (in fact, occurring first in 1520, one year before the fall of the Aztec state) and one of the most important. Mexican human populations were reduced by 80 to 90 percent, effecting cascading ecological consequences across the physical and biological geography of Mexico. Forests regenerated, terraced slopes degraded, and much of the Mexican landscape lost its anthropogenic aspect. Simultaneously, ungulate introductions transformed Mexican flora and likely initiated soil erosion in some regions that, when transported to fluvial environments, disrupted the flow of rivers. On the other hand, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, and other ungulates altered plant communities through selective seed dispersion. New economic pursuits such as brick making and silver mining increased demand for heat energy that, in an unprecedented manner, encouraged intensive forest usage and, probably, regional deforestation, although empirical data on historical forest cover are still lacking.
Severe climate variability, of a scale not experienced for at least five hundred years and perhaps many millennia, occurred simultaneously with colonial-induced ecological change. A significant conquest-era drought was followed by one of the coolest and wettest periods of the Holocene; a strong pluvial in the Mexican context lasted from 1540 to around 1620. Subsequent anomalies of both temperature (cold) and precipitation (either wet or dry) occurred in the 1640s and 1650s, and from the 1690s until about 1705. Together, these climate anomalies are known as the core Little Ice Age, and initiated agrarian transitions, hazardous flooding, prolonged droughts, epidemics, epizootics, and recurring agrarian crises that destabilized human health and spurred high rates of mortality. Soil degradation and suppressed forest cover are also likely outcomes of this process. Although debate abounds regarding the timing, extent, and causes of soil and water degradation, there is little doubt that extensive degradation occurred and destabilized late-colonial and early-Republic societies.
Mikael D. Wolfe
What role did drought play in the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution of 1910? Although historians of the Mexican Revolution acknowledge that the effects of drought helped catalyze it, they have not explored in any depth what connects drought to revolution. Instead, they usually subsume it within a more general discussion of agricultural cycles to explain the conduct and fortunes of popular revolutionary armies. In particular, they reference the onset of drought between 1907 and 1909 as exacerbating an economic downturn induced by severe recession in the United States. By then, Mexico had become economically integrated with its northern neighbor through rapidly growing foreign investment, trade, and cross-border migration facilitated by the railroad transportation revolution. These socioeconomic and ecological factors together led to steep declines in wages and earnings, devastating crop failures, spikes in food prices (principally corn and beans), and even famine in the lower and middle classes.
Although suggestive, such passing references to drought in the historiography of the revolution do not furnish a clear picture of its effects and how they may have contributed to social and political conflict. In the 21st century, new technologies, methods, and sources—from historical meteorological reports and climate-related accounts gleaned from archival sources to modern historical climatological data reconstructions—facilitate doing more rigorous climate history. This article provides a sampling of these methods and sources on the role of drought in late 19th- and early 20th-century Mexico that can supplement, elucidate, and even revise our understanding of the origins of the Mexican Revolution.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.
Fieldwork in Latin America and the Caribbean has played a major role in the development of the modern science of ecology––the study of organisms’ relationships with each other and the physical environment. Since the colonial era, natural historical knowledge grew and circulated through expeditions and naturalists’ encounters with indigenous and enslaved people’s environmental knowledge. Observations of the life histories, behavior, and geographical distribution of the regions’ species laid the groundwork for the emergence of ecology as a self-conscious discipline during the late 19th century. Major figures in the foundation of ecology were inspired by travel throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and especially by the large number and variety of species found in rainforests and other tropical areas. The growth of colonial and independent national scientific institutions––including botanical gardens, museums, and geographical surveys––also created important foundations for ecological research, although these were primarily oriented toward agricultural and economic improvement. As field stations specifically devoted to ecological research emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, long-term, place-based studies of living organisms became possible for the first time. Research at such institutions helped to shape key ecological concepts––including the ecological community, ecosystems, and species diversity––and contributed directly to the rise of the biodiversity ideal in conservation. Despite their historic importance, field studies in Latin America and the Caribbean remain significantly underrepresented in ecology today.
Regina Horta Duarte
Brazil’s environmental history is often told as a tale of irresponsible exploitation and societal indifference. However, a broader perspective must consider the country’s diverging traditions of environmental thought and practice. During the 19th century, several naturalists wrote about the need for the rational use of natural resources, founding a conservationist cultural tradition. In the 1920s and 1930s, a group of naturalists from the National Museum produced various initiatives related to biological research and conservationism. In the 1950s, another group of scientists, agronomists, and journalists founded the National Foundation for the Protection of Nature, active until the 1980s. Although none of these initiatives led to a continuous environmental mobilization, they shaped public policies and cultural sensibilities toward the environment. Beginning in the 1970s, a new wave of environmentalism emerged in several cities—with protests against pollution, nuclear energy, and deforestation—but also in rural areas and forests, with demands from traditional peoples. Over the years, several conservation units and federal institutions were founded to implement environmental policies. Finally, the 1992 Earth Summit gave a special boost to these movements in an era of growing NGO activism. All of these fueled the feeling that environmental activism in Brazil had entered a golden age of dialogue and negotiation.
Contrary to this view, some activists claimed that major political advances were still needed. Through the lens of socio-environmentalism and environmental justice, they denounced the displacement of communities by mining companies and the construction of hydroelectric plants, as well as the unhealthy and violent conditions faced by inhabitants of urban peripheries and areas where agribusiness was expanding.
Skepticism toward gradual advances was warranted following the election of Jair Bolsonaro, whose administration threatened environmental legislation and institutions and prior achievements. To confront these perils, environmental activism must become a political, scientific, and cultural movement.
Small fishermen have lost their ability to make use of the maritime and coastal environments at the same time that the Chilean state has facilitated the introduction of capital and the privatization of the sea, impacting ecosystems and ancestral productive activities alike. However, faced with the industrialization of maritime spaces, artisanal fishermen developed mechanisms and strategies that allowed them to dispute the privatization of the sea and exercise their rights to occupy coastal areas.
Guillermo Castro H.
An environmental crisis is neither the result of a single factor nor of a combination of such. On the contrary, it results from a complex combination of modes of interaction between natural and social systems, operating for periods in time and space. This holds true for the environmental crisis in Latin America, understood within the context of the first global environmental crisis in the history of our species. The combination of facts and processes with respect to the crisis in Latin America is associated with three distinct and interdependent historical periods: (1) The first period, one of long duration, marks the interaction with the natural world of the first humans to occupy the Americas and encompasses a timespan of at least 15,000 years before the European conquest of 1500–1550. (2) The second period, one of medium duration, corresponds to European control of the region between the 16th and 19th centuries, a timespan that witnessed the creation of tributary societies grounded in noncapitalist forms of organization, such as the indigenous commune, feudal primogeniture, and the great ecclesiastical properties, which were characteristics of peripheral economies that existed within the wider framework of the emerging modern global economic system. (3) The third period, one of shorter duration, extended from 1870 to 1970 during which capitalist forms of relationships between social systems and natural systems in the region developed. This period was succeeded, beginning about 1980, by decades of transition and crisis, a process that is still ongoing.
In this transition, old and unresolved conflicts reemerge in a new context, which combines indigenous and peasant resistance to incorporation into a market economy with the fight of urban dwellers for access to the basic environmental conditions for life, such as safe drinking water, waste disposal, energy, and clean air. In this scenario, a culture of nature is taking shape, which combines general democratic demands with values and visions from indigenous and African American cultures and those of a middle-class intellectuality increasingly linked to global environmentalism. This culture faces state policies often associated with the interests of transnational corporations and complex negotiation processes for agreements on global environmental problems. In this process, the actions of the past have led to the emergence of a great diversity of development options, all of which are centered in one basic fact: that, in Latin America as elsewhere around the word, if we want a different environment we need to create different societies.
Coffee has played complex and diverse roles in shaping livelihoods and landscapes in Latin America. This tropical understory tree has been profitably cultivated on large estates, on peasant smallholdings, and at many scales in between. Coffee exports have fueled the economies of many parts of Latin America. At first, coffee farmers cleared and burned tropical forests to make way for their farms and increase production. Early farms benefited from the humus accumulated over centuries. In Brazil, farmers treated these tropical soils as nonrenewable resources and abandoned their farms once the soils were exhausted. In smaller coffee farms along the Cordillera—from Peru up to Mexico—coffee farming was not quite as wasteful of forests and soils. In the mid-20th century, scientific innovation in coffee farming became more widespread, especially in established coffee zones that were struggling with decreasing soil fertility, increasing soil erosion, and new diseases and pests. In the 1970s, national and international organizations promoted large-scale programs to “renovate” coffee production. These programs sought to dramatically increase productivity on coffee farms by eliminating shade, cultivating high-yielding coffee cultivars, and using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Renovation brought tremendous gains in productivity over the short term, but at the cost of added economic and environmental vulnerability over the longer term. Since the end of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, the global coffee market has become much more volatile. New coffee pioneer fronts are opening up in Brazil, Peru, and Honduras, while elsewhere coffee production is shrinking. NGOs and coffee farmers have promoted new forms of coffee production, especially Fair Trade and certified organic coffee. Still, most coffee farms in Latin America remain “conventional” farms, using a hybrid of modern and traditional tools. Economic and environmental sustainability remain elusive goals for many coffee farmers, and the threat is likely to increase as they grapple with the effects of climate change.
Gregory T. Cushman
Agrarian societies in Latin America and the Caribbean have accomplished some of the most important and influential innovations in agricultural knowledge and practice in world history—both ancient and modern. These enabled indigenous civilizations in Mesoamerica and the Andes to attain some of the highest population densities and levels of cultural accomplishment of the premodern world. During the colonial era, produce from the region’s haciendas, plantations, and smallholdings provided an essential ecological underpinning for the development of the world’s first truly global networks of trade. From the 18th to the early 20th century, the transnational activities of agricultural improvers helped turn the region into one of the world’s primary exporters of agricultural commodities. This was one of the most tangible outcomes of the Enlightenment and early state-building efforts in the hemisphere. During the second half of the 20th century, the region provided a prime testing ground for input-intensive farming practices associated with the Green Revolution, which developed in close relation with import-substituting industrialization and technocratic forms of governance. The ability of farmers and ranchers to intensify production from the land using new cultivars, technologies, and techniques was critical to all of these accomplishments, but often occurred at the cost of irreversible environmental transformation and violent social conflict. Manure was often central to these histories of intensification because of its importance to the cycling of nutrients. The history of the extraction and use of guano as a fertilizer profoundly shaped the globalization of input-intensive agricultural practices around the globe, and exemplifies often-overlooked connectivities reaching across regional boundaries and between terrestrial and aquatic environments.
The Caribbean’s most emblematic weather symbol is the hurricane, a large rotating storm that can bring destructive winds, coastal and inland flooding, and torrential rain. A hurricane begins as a tropical depression, an area of low atmospheric pressure that produces clouds and thunderstorms. Hurricane season in the Caribbean runs from June 1 through November 30, although there have been infrequent storms that formed outside these dates. Hurricanes are classified according to their maximum wind speed, and when a tropical system reaches the wind speed of a tropical storm (35 mph), it is given a name. Lists of names, which are rotated periodically, are specific to certain regions. If a named storm is responsible for causing a significant number of deaths or property damage, the name is retired and replaced with another.
Most deaths in a storm came from drowning, from storm surge along the coast or from flooding or mudslides in the interior. Storm-related deaths also occur when structures collapse or when victims are struck by flying debris. One important and underestimated cause of death after the passage of a storm is disease. Even if the destruction is not immediate, the passage of a hurricane can leave significant ecological damage along the coast and in the interior.
Hurricanes can have a devastating effect on a community that takes a direct hit. Repeated hurricane strikes can leave a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, “hurricane fatigue.” Conversely, survivors of a disaster are often left with a feeling of confidence that, since they have endured the effects of at least one deadly hurricane, they can do so again.
Until the last half of the 18th century, meteorology remained primitive, but the Age of Enlightenment brought scientific and ideological advances. Major beneficiaries were royal navies whose navigation manuals and nautical charts became increasingly more accurate. In 1821, William C. Redfield established the circular nature of storms and their counterclockwise rotation, while other scientists showed how wind currents within the storms moved upward. Once the coiled structure of hurricanes were established by mid-century, the term “cyclone” was applied, based upon the Greek word for the coils of a snake.
After the mid-19th century, scientists moved from information gathering to attempts to predict hurricane strikes. Technology, in the form of the telegraph, was a key component in creating a forecasting system aided by organizations such as the Colegio de Belén, in Havana, Cuba. Later in the century, governments worldwide created official observation networks in which weather reports were radiotelegraphed from ships at sea to stations on land. The 20th century experienced advances, such as the use of kites and balloons, and the introduction of weather reconnaissance aircraft during World War II. In April 1960, the first satellite was launched to observe weather patterns, and by the early 1980s, ocean buoys and sophisticated radar systems made forecasts increasingly more accurate.
The History and Visual Culture of Mexico City’s Xochimilco Potable Water System during the Porfiriato
Jeffrey M. Banister and Stacie G. Widdifield
Historians have extensively explored the topic of water control in Mexico City. From the relationship between political power and hydraulics to detailed studies of drainage and other large-scale infrastructure projects, the epic story of water in this megalopolis, constructed over a series of ancient lakes, continues to captivate people’s imaginations. Securing potable water for the fast-growing city is also a constant struggle, yet it has received comparatively less attention than drainage in historical research. Moreover, until quite recently scholars have not been especially concerned with water control as a process of representation—that is, a process shaped by, and shaping, visual culture. Yet, potable water brings together many stories about people and places both within and outside of the Basin of Mexico. As such, the history of potable water is communicated through a diverse array of objects and modern infrastructures not limited to the idea of waterworks in the traditional sense of the term. A more expansive view of “infrastructure” incorporates more than the commonplace objects of hydraulic management such as aqueducts, pumps, wells, and pipes: it also involves architecture, photography, and narrative history, official and unofficial. Built in the first decade of the 20th century as a response to acute water shortages, the impressively modern Xochimilco Potable Water Works exemplifies a system that delivered far more than fresh drinking water through its series of modern electric pumps and aqueduct. The system was a result of a larger modernization initiative launched by the administration of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911). It wove together an official history of water, which included the annexation of Xochimilco’s springs, through its diverse infrastructures, including the engineering of the potable water system as well as the significance of the structures themselves in terms of locations and architectural elaboration in neo-styles (also known as historical styles) typical of the period. Demonstrably clear from the sheer investment in making the Xochimilco waterworks appealing to the public is that infrastructure can possess a rich visual culture of its own.
During his breathtaking 19th-century scientific explorations of New Spain (as Mexico was known under Spanish rule), illustrious German scientific traveler Alexander von Humboldt crammed a lifetime of scientific studies into one extraordinary year: exhausting inspections of three major colonial silver mines, prodigious hikes to the summits of most of Mexico’s major volcanoes while taking scientific measurements and botanical samples, careful study of hitherto secret Spanish colonial archives in Mexico City, and visits to recently uncovered archaeological sites of pre-Hispanic cultures. Humboldt wrote voluminously about his Mexican experiences and is an indispensable source of insights into the colony of New Spain on the eve of its troubled birth as independent Mexico a decade later.
Latin American labor has a well-established historiography, in dialogue with trends outside of the region. Environmental history is a newer and more exploratory field. In basic terms, environmental history explores the relationships of humans with the natural world, sometimes referred to as “nonhuman nature.” This can include how humans have affected the natural world, how the natural world has affected human history, and histories of human ideas and belief systems about nature. Labor and environmental history grows from explorations of the connections between these two spheres. Humans interact with the natural world through their labor and from their class perspective. The natural world shapes the work that people do and the institutions and structures humans create to organize and control labor. Changing labor regimes change the ways that humans interact with, and think about, the natural world. Both labor and environmental histories are in some senses investigations of how humans relate to nature. This essay sets Latin American labor and environmental history in global historical context. After offering a chronological summary, it briefly examines connections between U.S. Latino and Latin American labor and environmental histories, and ends with a discussion of contemporary Latin American critical environmentalisms.