“If the past has nothing to say to the present, history may go on sleeping undisturbed in the closet where the system keeps its old disguises.” Eduardo Galeano said it best when he explained the importance of looking back.
And with back-to-school season and Hispanic Heritage Month taking place simultaneously, it made sense to look at history books – everything from before the conquista to present-day Latin America. All of them contain individuals speaking to their moments in history – often complicated, deeply troubling moments much like our own. So pick one of them up, see if it has anything to say to you; see if you can’t wake history up from its slumber.
The Conquest of the New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castillo
Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s book is less history than primary text – as a member of Cortes’s army, his account is one of the few first-person narratives that span everything from Cortes’s arrival in Mexico to the Spanish overthrow of the Aztec empire. Part history and part myth-building around Cortes and himself, del Castillo provides a long but powerful account that often glosses over a lot of the atrocities committed by the Spanish. A bonus for this one is that you can find an online version for free on Project Gutenberg in either English or the original Spanish.
The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel Leon Portilla
Miguel Leon Portilla’s The Broken Spears serves as the counter to The Conquest of the New Spain. While this text was published a little more than 400 years after la conquista, Leon Portilla gathered up a variety of eyewitness accounts, stories transmitted orally down the generations and writings from the colonial period – all from Indigenous sources. Given the Spanish efforts to quash the voices of the conquered through the destruction of codices, Leon Portilla’s book represents a meaningful attempt to re-encounter voices lost to history.
Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico by Camilla Townsend
Malintzin, a.k.a. La Malinche, is one of the most interesting figures in the story of the conquista. The daughter of a cacique sold into slavery and eventually given as a gift to the conquistadores, Malintzin used her knowledge of various languages to become Cortes’ translator. Camila Townsend’s book is far from the machista nonsense in Octavio Paz’s famous essay, “The Sons of la Malinche,” and instead takes Malintzin as her own deeply complicated figure, trying to survive and gain autonomy in a complicated time.
Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana
We’ve covered conquest, so let’s spend a little time talking about liberation. And when you’re talking Latin American liberation, many think of Simón Bolívar. He’s credited for liberating six Latin American countries (Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama) and ended up founding his own kind of empire. Bolívar, the biography, takes on this complicated character, and in the process, sheds some light on some of the most interesting times in Latin American history.
The Tupac Amaru Rebellion by Charles Walker
In 1780s Peru, a very different kind of rebellion began. Tupac Amaru II, the son of a Quechua kuraka, led an uprising against the Spanish Empire intended to better the lives of Indigenous people there. Despite the uprising’s ultimate failure and Tupac Amaru’s execution, the uprising was the largest against the Spanish Empire, and Tupac Amaru succeeded in uniting several different linguistic and Indigenous groups in the fight against the Spanish – alliances that would survive the quashing of the revolution. (And yes, that Tupac was named after Tupac Amaru.)
José Martí: A Revolutionary Life by Alfred J. Lopez
Fast forward just about 100 years and hey! Latin American nations are still in the middle of a fight for independence, and José Martí is in the middle of Cuba’s fight for freedom from Spain. Poet, politician and soldier, this biography of Martí examines him not as a statue or a founding father, but as a real person, struggling for a better future.
Racial Migrations: New York City and the Revolutionary Politics of the Spanish Caribbean by Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof
In the late 1800s, a group of Black Cubans and Puerto Ricans found a home in New York City. A generation before the Harlem Renaissance, they created a vibrant community full of art and political action, coming to heavily influence the thinking of José Martí. By focusing on individuals within the community, Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof creates a vibrant portrait of a community often forgotten in the history books.
Becoming Julia de Burgos: The Making of a Puerto Rican Icon by Vanessa Perez Rosario
Vanessa Perez Rosario’s book speaks deeply to the history of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans as a whole. Born on the island in 1914 and eventually moving to New York, Julia de Burgos served as a bridge between the poetry and language of Puerto Rico and that of the emerging Nuyorican movement. As an advocate for Puerto Rican freedom and a political and literary figure, Burgos’ biography goes beyond just telling her own story, and illuminates a turning point in Puerto Rican history.
Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano
Eduardo Galeano’s text is now a classic. He traces a line straight from the conquista of Latin America to today’s exploitation of the material wealth of the land, while ignoring the poverty of the people. Part history, part polemic, this is a foundational text in understanding the place that Latin America plays in the world today.
Black in Latin America by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a prominent historian of blackness in the United States, and in this book (and the accompanying PBS documentary!), he takes us on a tour of blackness through Latin America – from the slave trade in colonial Mexico leading to vibrant communities today to the links between slavery and the sugar trade in Cuba to the Black origins of Brazil’s Carnaval.
Bitter Fruit: The Story of an American Coup in Guatemala by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer
The last year or so of news mean that the phrase “American interventionism in Latin America” has gotten…a whole lot of airtime. Bitter Fruit tells the story of just one of those interventions, where the U.S. tried to overthrow Guatemala’s democratically elected government in favor of someone with better policies toward the United Fruit Company, which sold and packaged bananas in Guatemala. (United Fruit was also responsible for the banana massacre memorialized in 100 Years of Solitude.)Bitter Fruit works as basically a case study of the principles outlined by Galeano and shows the deep consequences of the relationship between power, capital and colonialism.
I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala by Rigoberta Menchú and Elisabeth Burgos-Debray
Rigoberta Menchú is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning K’iche’ woman living in Guatemala, and this book was published in 1983 when she was just 23 years old. In it, she details the death of her mother and brother at the hands of the Guatemalan army, and the death of her father in the Burning of the Spanish Embassy, as well as her own beginnings as an activist. After the book’s publication, Menchú went on to become an important voice in calling for justice after the Guatemalan Civil War (kicked off, of course, by the coup detailed in Bitter Fruit). I, Rigoberta Menchú introduces us to a singular voice in a turbulent time.
A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers by Lawrence Weschler
Lawrence Weschler gives an account of two situations with similar setups: torture survivors and human rights activists in Brazil and Uruguay set out to confront newly stable governments and bring their torturers to justice. This scenario is all too common across Latin American countries affected by political instability thanks to good ol’ American intervention. Argentina has its Abuelas in the Plaza de Mayo, looking for their children desaparecidos, Chile has the women memorialized in the documentary Nostalgia for the Light, who comb the Atacama desert, looking for the remains of their loved ones. Here, Weschler lays out the story of people fighting to ensure that the future will always remember the horrifying past.
The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? by Francisco Goldman
In 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in his garage. Rather than trust the government to take on the investigation, the Catholic church instead took on the investigation, and Goldman, a journalist for The New Yorker, follows in their tracks, spinning out a narrative of more contemporary Guatemalan politics and violence.
Exile within Exiles: Herbert Daniel, Gay Brazilian Revolutionary by James N. Green
As a medical student involved in a guerilla movement, Herbert Daniel was often forced to hide his queerness in order to live out his politics – a hiding he called “internal exile.” After he was forced into physical exile in Europe, as his politics and queer movements in Brazil continued, Daniel fought to return home and continue his project to further gay rights, feminism, and environmentalism. In this lovingly told biography, James N. Green brings to light a deeply interesting and not-often-heard of subject.