In the fall of 2016, undergraduate students in the "Latin America in the 19th Century" class explored the Benson Latin American Collection to develop a public exhibition. Even though many students had ties of blood or love bonding them to the region, few had ever focused on Latin America’s 19th century before. Almost none learned anything about Latin America when they were in high school. The members of the class could easily put themselves in the shoes of Austin-area high school students who might go through this exhibit. That was the imaginary audience they had in mind when selecting and explaining the objects displayed here. All of them form part of the Benson Latin American Collection’s treasure trove of rare documents, a collection unlike any other in the world.
The ‘19th century’ offers a shorthand way of thinking about ‘modernity.’ Is it possible for us to talk about the modernity of Latin America? After all, portrayals of Latin Americans in recent political speeches, in the news, and in popular culture have centered on drugs, crime, and disorder. Our class response to these insidiously harmful depictions that drown out the complexity and nuances of Latin American history is the following:
“How we remember (and forget) Latin American history, the region's ties to modernity, its global connections, and the everyday life of ‘its’ people impacts our lives in Austin, Texas, today.”
During the 19th century, everyday people in Latin America fought for independence. They fought to abolish slavery, and they fought to establish direct universal manhood suffrage. All too often these same nation-building endeavors silenced people deemed threatening (Independence section). Threats came from Independent Indians, like the Comanche, who launched devastating raids that explain far more about the US-Mexican War and its fallout than anything else (U.S.-Mexican War and Remembering the Forgotten Actors section). Mexico’s ties to Europe exemplify the region’s significant global connections (U.S.-Mexican War and Remembering the Forgotten Actors and Shifting Mexican Identity sections). Images of everyday people living, working, celebrating, fighting, and healing give us a glimpse into their humanity (Shifting Mexican Identity and From Porfiriato to Mexican Revolution sections). The spaces and landscapes people inhabited and transformed reveal their very modern need to dominate nature while erasing some histories so others could prevail (From Porfiriato to Mexican Revolution and Modernization and Global Connections sections).