ADFL Bulletin
34, no. 2 (Winter 2003): 6-14

After Civilization: The Theory and Practice of Introducing Latin American Culture


THE rising importance of cultural studies for faculty members in foreign language departments has played a significant role in concerns over canon reform and curriculum development. While the term cultural studies eludes a unified and stable definition, a number of core concepts are commonly associated with the practice, and for the purposes of my argument, I would like to point to three of them.1 First, as a method, cultural studies employs an interdisciplinary approach in which, for instance, scholars in the humanities seek insights from the social sciences, and vice versa. Such exchanges facilitate skepticism of the premises central to one’s discipline. Second, among practitioners of cultural studies, key areas of critique are the notion of the literary canon, the concept of absolute truth, and systems of cultural value. The third feature of cultural studies I would like to highlight is the move to study culture, especially popular culture, as a central source of information about society. For example, our courses increasingly examine films, texts by women authors, the work of ethnic minority writers, and examples of popular culture, which were virtually absent from upper-level course syllabi before the 1980s. The efforts by foreign language departments to move away from a focus on “great” literature has led many programs to strengthen their course offerings in “culture.” As Linda M. von Hoene points out, many departments have renamed themselves to indicate their shift in emphasis toward cultural studies (26). For instance, when Princeton recently created the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures, the university indicated “that the department will enrich its curriculum with an increasing attention to the extraordinary plurality of high and popular cultures found in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world.”2 At the State University of New York, Albany, the foreign language department is now called Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, and Duke University’s Department of Romance Languages became the Department of Romance Studies in the early 1990s. These name changes parallel recent adaptations of and additions to the curricula of foreign language departments.3 Nevertheless, key questions remain: How do the new courses reflect the issues raised in debates over the curriculum? How have we applied our theories about useful approaches and materials to the practice of teaching? The Latin American civilization course, offered by most departments with a Spanish major, can serve as the focal point of an investigation into the ways in which cultural studies has shaped the curriculum. If the course serves as an introduction to culture, is it an introduction to cultural studies?

The course goes under different names in different departments. Of the forty-three online syllabi for this course I surveyed, twenty-seven still include “civilization” in the title, but in sixteen cases, the title is some combination of “culture and civilization.” At my university, Illinois State, the name has not been changed, and the course is listed as Spanish-American Civilization. While I favor a name change to some version of “Latin American cultural history,” my research into syllabi and course materials indicates that a name change does not necessarily indicate a radical transformation of the course itself. The persistence of traditional teaching methods and materials used in this course suggests that many faculty members have yet to align practice with theory when teaching culture. One would hope that, because the course functions as an introduction to cultural study and as a pedagogical base for future teachers of culture, the course would be sensitive to issues of multiculturalism, postcolonialism, and cultural studies. This article suggests a number of ways in which the course can be adapted to serve as an introduction to these concepts.

Before examining the particulars of the course, I would like to suggest that the continuing reliance on traditional approaches to teaching the Latin American cultural history course mirrors campus-wide practices. Readers may recall the heated polemics that followed Stanford’s decision, in the late 1980s, to multiculturalize its Western civilization course; now may be the time to ask whether we have really seen much change since then. Von Hoene argues that, while course offerings and materials have been transformed, “the structures that guide the endeavor have remained mostly unchanged,” and she suggests that “we have poured new wine into old wineskins” (26). Most universities have new or transformed courses, which reflect greater attention to cross-cultural issues, but has there been a substantial change in how the material is approached and how students interact with the material? Altering the configuration of the canon was an important step; the next crucial phase is a shift in approach. Universities often claim to provide students with an international outlook, but, as Claire Kramsch points out, “Because students know little about the world, it is tempting to take internationalization to mean only the transmission of facts about other peoples and cultures. However . . . if these facts are not evaluated critically and put in relation to students' own cultural experience, students run the risk of nationalizing the other rather than becoming international themselves.” She goes on to say that “these efforts have remained scattered across institutions, and departments have therefore failed to counteract the Anglocentric forces at work in the academy” (10–11).

For instance, I would argue that universities without standard foreign language requirements for all students misrepresent themselves when advertising a curriculum that is international in orientation. The study of foreign cultures from a United States perspective holds no promise of redirecting student awareness of other cultures away from media stereotyping. Edward Mullen explains: “Both the students' and many faculty members' definitions of multicultural . . . omitted any mention of the central role of foreign languages and literatures in expanding notions of cultural diversity” (29). Moreover, we should realize that multiculturalism in the university curriculum has usually meant a greater recognition of cultural diversity in the United States and has not resulted in the placement of foreign language courses and programs at the center of diversity in education.

Another issue that confronts university-wide practice is the degree to which we bring the insights of our research to bear on our teaching practice. Questions of value and universality are a key component of the debate over the canon. Some in our profession have argued that the notion of a textual classic is flawed because one cannot claim absolute value. The resulting inquiry into the notion of representation should have had a practical impact on the way we teach knowledge. Yet Amitava Kumar suggests that the chasm between theory and pedagogical practice is vast: “seriously assessing what one does in the classroom—and how—is a task that remains largely ignored” (4). For instance, in a course on foreign civilization taught at a United States university, a critical awareness of questions of cultural hegemony seems essential. Our teaching (not just our research) should be informed by an assessment of Allan Bloom’s conservative account of canon reform and Edward Said’s challenge to Western ways of knowing in Orientalism. In the case of Latin America, we should consider whether a critic like Bloom would even think that the term civilization applies to the region. Do we include only material that Bloom would approve of or that Western perspectives on the region deem “civilized” when we teach the civilization of Latin America? Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes could serve as a useful source for reconsidering the way we teach Latin American civilization. When teaching an introductory course on Latin American cultural history we should ask, What do our students most need to learn? And we must keep in mind the context in which the student learns, so that we can foster international consciousness instead of perpetuating an exotic notion of difference and a Western-oriented notion of value and culture (see Said; Pratt; Kramsch). The way we teach this course, or any course that introduces a foreign culture, establishes a series of assumptions, premises, and suppositions about our role as educators. The degree to which the course contradicts our theoretical claims about cultural value reveals the ways the debate over canon reform has failed to produce a substantial change in our teaching methods.

There are three key areas to consider in a reformulation of the Latin American cultural history class. First, recent theoretical shifts have destabilized the idea of an absolute source of truth and have caused us to question the power relations associated with particular sources of truth; this sensitivity to absolutes should be reflected in the materials we use in teaching Latin American culture. Second, teaching methods should emphasize critical thinking and inquiry-guided learning over the acquisition of facts, since the social context of Latin America is complex and cannot be appreciated through memorization. The third area, which incorporates both materials and methods, focuses on teaching students the context of their education. Because students need to be sensitive to the role that the United States has played in Latin America, we must teach about colonialism and neocolonialism. Students learn about Christopher Columbus, but few can identify the Monroe Doctrine, the Roosevelt Corollary, or the United States military’s School of the Americas, all instruments used by the United States to control the region. Regarding United States-Latin American economic relations, I am often surprised by the number of students who are unaware of the existence of sweatshops. Students know of the problems of immigration but may not understand the economic factors that motivate so many people to leave their homeland. Any course on Latin American culture and history should integrate a critical assessment of the role of the United States in the region. Such an appreciation of context will help students recognize the cultural pressures on the region and the connections between Latin American and United States culture. What I am proposing, then, is that a course on Latin American cultural history use materials and methods that reflect recent theoretical and pedagogical insights. Today’s introduction to the study of Latin American culture requires new materials, innovative teaching methodology, and an emphasis on cultural context to bring to the classroom the scholarly insights of Latin American cultural studies and the pedagogical goals of interdisciplinary, cross-cultural studies.

On Materials

Most courses that teach Latin American cultural history rely on a single-authored textbook and a selection of ancillary materials, such as videos or newspapers. Of the forty-three course syllabi I surveyed, thirty-six used a textbook as the centerpiece of the course. In these courses a major textbook written from the point of view of one scholar provides students with the bulk of course material.4 Almost every textbook that covers the region explains in the preface or introduction that the text is a collection of the most important facts and events. While authors may acknowledge that space limitation forced them to make difficult choices, they avoid or gloss over the problems of value, representational accuracy, and historical truth. For instance, Carlos A. Loprete, in Iberoamérica: Historia de su civilización y cultura (“Iberoamerica: History of Its Civilization and Culture”), states, “El volumen está compuesto sobre la base de los sucesos más importantes, las obras capitales de la cultura producidas y las figuras individuales que la tradición y la crítica han consagrado como más significativas a través de los años” (ix). (“The volume is based on the most important events, the key works of culture and the individual figures that, over the years, tradition and critics have consecrated as the most significant.”) Juan Kattán-Ibarra writes, in Perspectivas culturales de Hispanoamérica (“Cultural Perspectives of Hispanic America”), that “chapters covering contemporary history take into account all the major events that have shaken the continent in its struggle for development” (iii), but, for instance, the text never refers to the Monroe Doctrine. Or Eugenio Chang-Rodríguez, in the preface to Latinoamérica: Su civilización y su cultura (“Latin America: Its Civilization and Culture”) claims, “I have revised the chapter summaries to highlight the most important cultural facts, events, conflicts, problems and contributions” (xi). These summaries are usually two pages long.

These examples come from three of the most frequently used textbooks for this course. As all three excerpts suggest, the authors claim that their texts contain the key events, figures, and concepts. They do not acknowledge that their own subject position might affect their sense of what is important and what constitutes valuable knowledge.5 When we begin with a book that asks no questions about representational politics, it is hard to teach students to be critical of their own similarly biased practices. Because the authors claim absolute authority over their material and because their texts are inclined not to ask students to question sources of information but rather to absorb a large corpus of facts, relying on such texts for the bulk of material undermines progressive pedagogical practice. Moreover, the insights of cultural studies, subaltern studies, and postcolonial studies have taught us to question traditional sources of knowledge and have exposed previously accepted cultural authorities as biased guardians of dominant social relations. Such theories suggest that using a single source of information to teach about a complex culture only perpetuates a passive relationship to knowledge.

The solution to the practice of relying on a single-authored textbook is to use mixed media and multiple historical accounts while limiting the material covered in the course to a series of core issues.6 For instance, Middlebury College’s course description acknowledges that the breadth of material requires a focus on selected key themes: “This course will introduce students to the richness and diversity of the cultures of Spanish America from their inception to the present. Such a large project requires a selection of themes that will reveal the political, social and artistic components that contributed to the unique cultural development of Spanish America.”7 If we use a variety of media and resources devoted to a particular topic, we can more adequately represent the complexity of history and more readily teach students to be critical of the biases of each perspective. Students who take the Middlebury course combine textbook readings with film viewings and Internet resources; and they are expected to bring additional materials to class to share with their colleagues. In my course, when we cover the encounter between the Spaniards and the indigenous people of America, I use a variety of sources: firsthand accounts written by Spaniards and secondhand sources that critique the conquest by providing social-scientific analysis; I also include a feature film about the period and an article on the historical accuracy of the film. When I ask the students which version of an event they think is more accurate, they typically give most credibility to the firsthand accounts. It is then easy enough to problematize our assumptions about primary sources by pointing out the discrepancies between Christopher Columbus’s account and that of Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas or Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca: Columbus principally stressed how simple it would be to dominate the Indians, whereas Las Casas and Cabeza de Vaca had far more sensitive images of the indigenous people. I suggest that, if the observations by these three eyewitnesses provide us with different perspectives, then the whole idea that there is one true version of events can be called into question. Instead, we investigate what we can learn from each account. Not only are we able to challenge our own bases for evaluating credibility and accuracy, but we can unravel the differences in the way these three writers understood the truth of the colonial project.

In questioning the existence of an absolute source of truth, we, by association, question the omnipotent authority of the teacher. Ira Shor, in dialogue with Paulo Freire, explains: “Critical education has to integrate the students and the teachers in a mutual creation and re-creation of knowledge” (8). After exposure to multiple accounts of historical events, students are more inclined to recognize the need to be skeptical about sources of knowledge and to acknowledge that there are grave problems in trying to encapsulate an entire culture in a single semester. Destabilizing the concept of a true source of history allows classroom discussion of the perplexities involved in defining a culture. Because there is too much information to cover in one course, teachers must establish core concepts and encourage critical thinking rather than present students with a smorgasbord of anecdotal facts. Instead of arguing that the core concepts covered are the “best” or “most important” features of Latin American culture, we should emphasize that they are only a sampling of a myriad of possibilities, all of which are rich areas of inquiry. By pointing out that time constraints have caused us to limit our studies so that we can delve into a few areas in greater detail, we demonstrate to our students that this course should serve as a gateway to further study of Latin American culture. Such an approach is quite different from that found in the prefaces of most textbooks on the subject, which, as I mentioned, tend to suggest that the books encompass all the important material on the subject.

The other important feature of this solution is the use of mixed media, especially films, videos, and Internet resources. Using both high and low cultural accounts to provide information about an event motivates students to engage analytically with problems of representation. Rick Shepherd, with the Media Awareness Network, describes its Media Literacy Framework and the advantages of teaching students to be critical about the representation of truth in the media: “The central concept of the model is the idea that all communication, all discourse, is a construction of reality. . . . There are no neutral, value-free descriptions of reality—in print, in word, in visual form. An understanding of this concept is the starting point for a critical relationship to the media.” Because students have wide exposure to the media and because much of their knowledge about Latin America comes from the media, it is vital to teach them to be suspicious of the media as a source of information. Moreover, mixing high and low culture in course materials allows students to investigate the relationship between canonical and mass culture. According to Azade Seyhan, materials should be presented as a dialogue in which the canon interacts with the nontraditional. Seyhan further suggests the need to draw attention to questions of representational validity by placing texts and their relation to language and culture into a dialectical engagement: “such study can create a heightened awareness of the role of representational status of knowledge, theory, and ideology” (9).

For example, I teach the film Yo, la peor de todas (“I, the Worst of All”), directed by María Luisa Bemberg in 1990, on the life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. We watch this film when we cover the topic of women and colonialism. Student readings include primary texts by Sor Juana and a number of articles. The articles cover the Inquisition and the figures of the Virgin of Guadalupe, La Llorona, and La Malinche, and they provide an overview of African, indigenous, and European women’s experiences during the colonial period. Students also visit Web sites dedicated to Sor Juana and to the Virgin of Guadalupe.8 At this point in the course, students have learned substantial vocabulary for critiquing films and have read an article about the historical accuracy of the film on Sor Juana. After watching the film, we analyze the diverse discursive registers embedded in these various sources about the colonial period. Not only do we discuss important facts about the period; we engage in lively debate about representational politics and the interactions between high and low culture.

Many professors use a combination of cultural sources in their classes. Of the courses I surveyed, almost all the teachers had their students work with visual culture, using documentaries or feature films for the classes. Approximately one-third of the professors asked students to consult Web sites, especially news-related sites. A few professors had students write critiques, reviews, or summaries of Web materials they found, but these exercises varied greatly in their emphasis on critical thinking or information summary. One course that employed a combination of innovative materials is the one taught at Middlebury College, mentioned above. The course has a number of sections taught by different professors, and their main textbook is Latinoamérica: Su civilización y su cultura, by Eugenio Chang-Rodríguez, which has a series of Web exercises in an affiliated site at Heinle and Heinle. In addition to the text and its corresponding Web resources, the students use Web exercises, developed by their professors, that ask them to consider critically the information they are learning. In a section on the Malvinas and the Dirty War in Argentina, for instance, students respond to the following problem: “Ha habido gobiernos democráticos en la Argentina desde 1983. Después de leer estos artículos, ¿cómo puedes explicar el hecho de que estos gobiernos hayan perdonado a los responsables de las torturas y las matanzas? ¿Por qué crees que el gobierno ha tomado esa posición?”9 (There have been democratic governments in Argentina since 1983. After reading these articles, how can you explain the fact that these governments have pardoned those responsible for torture and murder? Why do you think that the government has taken this position?) Students are given a series of Web resources to consult as they consider this cultural issue.

While some professors have moved beyond a single-authored text for teaching this course, they are the exception. Since this course is ostensibly meant to introduce students to Latin American culture, the materials should reflect this objective.10 Latin American culture is not static, nor is it easily summarized. By providing a multiperspectival view of issues, we can more easily teach students about the complexity of history and the ways in which different versions of the past compete for legitimacy and power.

On Methods

The use of a single-authored textbook that typically covers substantially more than five hundred years of history for approximately eighteen nations (give or take Brazil, and including Mexico) is a problem not only of material but of method. The enormous amount of information suggests that students enrolled in the course acquire encyclopedic knowledge of Latin America. Yet without teaching students how to approach the material critically, we are essentially giving them a car without the keys. We have to ask what is more important—that students remember the dates of Columbus’s voyages to the Americas or that they understand the social impact of colonization.

Two major pedagogical approaches, problem-based learning and inquiry-guided learning, provide a rich starting point for a reconsideration of the methods we use in teaching students about cultural diversity and complexity. The Southern Illinois School of Medicine is the home of the Problem-Based Learning Initiative, and both San Diego State University and the University of Delaware have centers dedicated to this teaching method.11 According to Robin Fogarty: “Problem-based learning engages students in intriguing, real and relevant intellectual inquiry and allows them to learn from these life situations” (2). North Carolina State University has been a center for investigations into the educational benefits of inquiry-guided learning. According to the university’s Web site, “Inquiry-guided learning (IGL) refers to an array of classroom practices that promote student learning through guided and, increasingly, independent investigation of questions and problems for which there is no single answer.”12 Such methods are useful in dealing with the complexity of cross-cultural issues. Asking students to consider the problem of the deforestation of the Amazon, for instance, allows the class to grapple with issues of globalization, the rights of indigenous populations, economic development, biodiversity, and the cultural history of the Brazilian people. Because deforestation threatens our oxygen supply, students learn about a number of issues as they apply them to a situation that is relevant to their own lives. The learning process also helps students appreciate the complexity of the culture they are studying. Problem-based and inquiry-guided pedagogies facilitate many of the key elements of cultural studies: they emphasize critical thinking, interdisciplinary study, active learning, and they challenge assumptions of truth and value.

The two approaches are based on the argument that it is not the text (or the fact) that matters; it is the students' relation to it, and his or her ability to understand and engage with it. In John Guillory’s view, moreover, we should be wary of overemphasizing a representative selection of texts:

An alternative theoretical formulation of the curriculum problem will thus have to repudiate the practice of fetishizing the curriculum, of locating the politics of pedagogy in the anxious drawing up of a list of representative names. The particular names matter even less at the university level, since the number of historical and modern works worth studying is vastly greater than any (remedial) course of study could begin to consider. The syllabus should rather be conceived as the means of providing access to cultural works. . . . (51)

If we want to teach access to and engagement with texts, we should focus less on the accumulation of facts and more on the development of critical skills. As Diana Jones states, “Most students retain and use little of what they memorize in classroom situations. . . . Problem based learning attempts to break this focus by engaging students in structuring solutions to real life, relevant, contextualized problems.” While students need to learn relevant facts as a means to critical thinking, activities that result only in the repetition of facts do not lead to cultural awareness. Exercises and group work should build from identifying facts and key aspects of historical figures and events toward critical evaluation of the information gathered. In this way students acquire a significant knowledge base, one that is obtained in the service of greater cultural understanding.

Teaching the cultural history of Latin America does not necessarily lead to teaching cultural sensitivity, in much the same way that including, on one’s syllabus, texts by previously marginalized authors does not necessarily subvert cultural hegemony. For instance, Seyhan states “that the failure to situate cultural study in its larger critical history risks complicity in the misrepresentation of the culture(s) studied” (8). If we want students to respond analytically to the material, we have to radically change traditional methods of teaching the material. Lectures should be used minimally (if ever); instead, we can conduct discussions driven by a series of reflective questions students consider before coming to class. Class discussions and small-group work should encourage students to engage actively with cultural history. Exercises stressing that history is neither static nor absolute highlight the role of interpretation in historiography and promote critical thinking. Also central to this approach are student presentations on cultural problems, such as the example of the issues that relate to deforestation in the Amazon. Students in my course also give presentations on the historical accuracy and representational politics of films about Latin American history. Ira Shor explains that “the syllabus, the reading list, and the didactic lecture predominate as the educational forms for containing teachers inside the official consensus. The lecture-based, passive curriculum is not simply poor pedagogical practice. It is the teaching model most compatible with promoting the dominant authority in society and with disempowering students” (10). One could argue that the teacher-as-authority, student-as-passive-receiver model is destined to replicate existing power structures regardless of the material presented in the classroom. When teaching about Latin America, however, we must be especially alert to the need for methods that subvert dominant conceptions of the region.

David Dent and Paul Sondrol, both professors of Latin American affairs in political science departments, suggest that “without the proper mix of thematic and conceptual focus, we run the risk of failing to convey the importance inherent in topics dealing with the Latin American region.” I would agree that the solution to this problem requires that a course on the cultural history of the region should explore a few historical moments in depth. Limiting the breadth of information covered promotes a method that encourages students to interact with the material. By focusing on central themes and historical periods and by recognizing that we will not cover all of Latin America’s cultural past, I can organize the course so that we can spend more time questioning stereotypes and value judgments, evaluating discourses of power, and assessing the way these relations are culturally represented.

Ron Strickland, in his work on confrontational pedagogy, suggests that the classroom should encourage skepticism of the material. This approach “enables one to acknowledge conflict and open up the classroom for a productive contestation and interrogation of existing paradigms of knowledge (as opposed to the mere reproduction of knowledge, or the transmission of information as knowledge)” (292). To encourage critical engagement with material, for instance, my students debate class topics with their peers and with me through an electronic bulletin board. This type of public interaction teaches students that their opinions matter and demystifies the process of learning.

Another method, which encourages interaction rather than passive absorption, exposes the critical trajectory of the course. I begin by asking students what they know about Latin America, and especially what they know about stereotypes of the region. We start by discussing the ways in which our opinions on cultural difference often result from unquestioning acceptance of media images. I then outline the course plan, emphasizing the fact that the course is as much about being critical as it is about learning Latin American cultural history. (There is no advantage in keeping the agenda hidden, and doing so may lead to student frustration.) Each text, I explain, was created in a specific historical context by an author who occupied a particular position in relation to the power structure of the time; understanding that structure and its representational practices is far more important than learning the so-called truths of the text. I also explain that understanding details and facts is important because the information provides us with a more informed critical stance. My students learn facts, but only for the express purpose of facilitating critical thinking. This type of method, ironically, teaches cultural literacy, because students are taught to read material in context. Kramsch makes a similar point when she argues that “literacy in a global age is more than functional literacy, but it is also more than blind respect for the authority of canonical texts. Literacy requires critical understanding and deep appreciation of the conditions of production and reception of texts in a variety of contexts” (11).

On Context

If we are to confront the issue of what it means to teach a course on Latin American cultural history, progressive pedagogical practice requires us to consider the unequal relations of power between Latin America and its colonizers as well as neocolonizers. While all the courses on this topic I surveyed cover the colonial period in some detail, few pay attention to foreign control and domination after Spanish and Portuguese rule.13 We have to be realistic about the context of this course—in a United States classroom, for a population that is primarily Anglo, and for students who are probably studying the material because it will increase their job marketability. Consequently, the value of bringing multiculturalism to the curriculum is diminished if we present the material in a way that perpetuates the kind of cultural imperialism that Said describes in Orientalism. As Said explains, “ideas, cultures, and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied” (5). Guillory further argues that cultural interactions are an essential component when teaching students about other cultures: “No program of multiculturalism will succeed in producing more than a kind of favorable media-image of minority cultures if it is not supported at every point by an understanding of the historical relations between cultures. At the same time one must insist that it is no longer intellectually feasible to equate historical knowledge with 'Western history'” (53).

In the case of a course on Latin America taught in the United States classroom, we ought to conduct a frank and open conversation about the ways in which the region has struggled with colonialism and neocolonialism. The historical relation between the culture of the United States and the culture of Latin America has been one of United States hegemony and Latin American complicity and resistance. We might look to the sites of resistance as a valuable lesson for students, but the powerful consequences of the role of the United States culture industry and its foreign policy in the region should not be underestimated or neglected.

Understanding the instances in which the United States functions as a dominant culture and Latin America as a subordinate one helps to flush out the relations of power and conflict between the two regions. According to Henry Giroux, “culture becomes a critical construct when it is used to analyze the concrete instances that characterize the relations between different social formations as they evolve through time and place.” Such an approach, following Antonio Gramsci, allows for the study of culture’s repressive and transformative qualities (Giroux 164). Studying the cultures of resistance from Latin America and the circumstances that sparked them provides students with a complex understanding of Latin America. Teaching the region’s long history of resistance might involve asking students to trace Latin American rebels from the colonial period to today. Studying the case of Chiapas, for instance, demonstrates that the struggles over land rights, which began in the colonial period, are still taking place. It is equally important, however, to ask students to examine critically the long history of counterrevolution and the role of the United States in these movements.

Along with the need to teach students about global power relations, we have to address the misinformation that serves as the knowledge base for most students entering a course on Latin America. While students know that emigrants from the region flee to the United States, they are unaware of the ways in which Latin American economies are tied to that of the United States. Students have very limited exposure to the history of United States-Latin American relations. What knowledge they do bring to class is often garnered from sources that provide only the most superficial information. Dent and Sondrol, speaking of the problems in teaching Latin American government in political science departments, explain that “many students have little knowledge of the Latin American region, [or] of the role of the United States in Latin America’s historical development. . . .” This lack of knowledge about the region reflects the general assumption of United States cultural superiority over Latin America. A simple question like “In your opinion, which culture, Latin American or United States, has been a source of more valuable achievements?” allows us to begin a conversation about the perceived cultural inequality between the regions, where those perceptions come from, why those perceptions persist, and whether we should subscribe to them. We then consider the sources for our assumptions, so that we can analyze more critically the way the region is represented in the media.

Although, as evidenced by our scholarship, most teachers of the course consider these questions to be valuable, the issues have rarely moved from theory to practice. In a study on teaching Latin American government in political science departments, Henry Dietz and Abraham Lowenthal surveyed eighty-one courses in 1973 and found that few courses related Latin American politics to politics in the United States. “Those that do make this connection generally devote a week or a discussion period at the end of the course to inter-American relations; our impression is that this unit is usually grafted on to a course the contents of which it does not otherwise affect” (85). Dietz and Lowenthal consider this lack to be a tremendous shortcoming in the pedagogical approach to Latin American politics. What they see as an inadequacy in the teaching of politics would certainly relate to a course focusing on cultural history. Most important, Dent and Sondrol found this pedagogical weakness to persist in history courses in 1998, twenty-five years after Dietz and Lowenthal’s study. The research by Dent and Sondrol demonstrates that professors of Latin America have yet to undertake a major overhaul of teaching practice.

While some might suspect that faculty members in foreign language departments would be less conservative than their counterparts in political science, I found that significant consideration of United States-Latin American relations was also a rarity in the Latin American cultural history course taught in language departments. Surveying the lists of key themes for the courses I reviewed, I found that United States-Latino culture was covered in eight out of forty-three cases, for a period of one day to one week. It is of course impossible to know what material the professor actually covered in class, but it does seem significant that so few courses even mentioned the issue as a key topic in the weekly plan of study. An additional course listed the cultural, economic, or political influence of the United States in Latin America as a possible research paper topic. Only two courses dealt with the issue of the political and economic relations between the United States and Latin America.14

Another important argument in favor of teaching students to be sensitive to the context of their study of Latin America concerns the need to counter the media image of Latin America produced by the United States culture industry. A course on Latin American cultural history should include examples of the region’s great art whether in the paintings by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the poetry by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, or Gabriel García Márquez’s works of fiction, to cite only a few of the many possibilities. Teaching the great works of Latin America is a subversive act when your students' first mental image of Latin American culture is the Chihuahua “Dinky” from Taco Bell ads or the gyrating body of Shakira, Colombia’s newest crossover pop star, in Pepsi commercials. While bearing in mind the problem of textual excellence and of the canon in general, we should emphasize that there are cultural products from the region that can compete—within a rhetoric of excellence—as works of greatness, lest our students think that we avoid the great works because there are none.

A further way to address the students' context and the context of the course is to relate the concept of civilization to its negative counterpart barbarity, because it is through the interplay of the two that we can best expose the intersections of cultural hegemony and academic ideology. The study of civilization is also the study of the acts of barbarity carried out in the name of civilization, and the teaching of civilization, which seamlessly transmits the notion of civilization from one generation to the next, is itself implicated in barbarism. The demystification of the notion of civilization is crucial to a pedagogical praxis committed to teaching students cultural diversity. The professor teaching a Latin American cultural history course in the United States must take into account the role played by United States institutions, including higher education, in propagating the power imbalance between North and South. If we agree that the material taught has the potential to shape the students' notion of the world, then we must recognize this inherent power and call attention to it. Explaining the goals of the course clearly and openly is, according to Strickland, one step in this process: “What the teacher can do, however, is to acknowledge his or her implication in the institutional assumptions and conceptual frames which produce our particular constructions of knowledge” (294). Highlighting the professor’s role in the United States academy is an important way to illustrate the relation between the United States and Latin America. Such reflexive criticism should be made manifest in classroom discussions. Once students begin to have a confrontational stance toward the knowledge-power structure, they will more readily engage critically with an examination of Latin American cultural history and will more aggressively investigate the notion of cultural value.

This model of supplying students with multiperspectival materials in a context skeptical of cultural authority, including that of the teacher, and of emphasizing the ways in which a study of culture is also a study of relations of power, signals the next step in curricular reform. While I have suggested that the introductory course to Latin American culture is a logical starting point for such pedagogical revision, we should consider these issues in each of the courses we teach. Those of us who are truly committed to moving away from the traditional curriculum and the conservative canon should recognize that the next step in the process is a reconsideration of our teaching practices. Most important, we should be prepared to constantly reevaluate our teaching methods in keeping with issues we consider in our research. Many scholars of Latin American culture believe that there is no absolute source of historical truth, that each text must be considered critically, and that cultural context plays a major role in textual meaning. How might cultural studies help build the foundation for our courses on Latin American culture? This article has suggested a way to start.

The author is Assistant Professor of Latin American studies at Illinois State University, Normal. This article is based on her presentation at the 2000 MLA convention in Washington, DC.


1Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler, and Lawrence Grossberg have a more extensive explanation of both the elusive nature of cultural studies and the core concepts that are generally considered to be at the heart of the practice.


2The home page is at

3Examples of additions to the curriculum are courses devoted to women’s writing, to United States-Latino culture, to film, and to popular culture. Such courses appear in catalogs at a wide variety of schools, including North Carolina State, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Duke, Davidson College, and Colby College.

4A single-authored textbook is significantly different from an anthology, which can provide students with multiple points of view on a topic and many primary sources. While the textbooks I refer to here may include cultural examples, they are, nevertheless, secondary sources.

5Perhaps because of editorial requirements, publishers may discourage authors’ recognition of their subjectivity. It seems ironic that these textbooks not only avoid acknowledging inherent biases; they actually begin, as I note, with statements of authorial mastery.

6The need to limit oneself to a small number of core materials was indicated by Judith Rusciolelli: “The impossibility of presenting a thorough analysis of all groups of Hispanics in one semester means that the instructor must be selective in course materials” (127). Her comments would be even more applicable to the broader task of teaching a one-semester course on the cultural history of all of Latin America.

7The home page for the course is at

8The Sor Juana site, hosted by Dartmouth, is at The site of the Virgin of Guadalupe is based in Mexico and is at

9The site for these assignments is at The site on the Malvinas and the Dirty Wars is at

10It is difficult to determine the materials to include in such a course, because each choice of a component means that another will not be covered. It is also complicated to use mixed media productively. For my most recent selection of the course concepts to cover and the materials to represent them, see the syllabus at American Culture.htm.

11Southern Illinois University’s Problem-Based Learning Initiative is at San Diego State’s is at Delaware’s Web site is at

12The Web site is at

13In general, these courses begin with the colonial period and end at the present. Some universities list two courses and divide the course in the nineteenth century.

14These courses are taught by Emil Dolphin at Lakehead University ( and by Maria Cristina Burgueno at Marshall University (

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ADFL Bulletin 34, no. 2 (Winter 2003): 6-14