Unearthing Forgotten Perspectives on 19th Century Latin America

How do we talk about a ‘place’? What words might you use to describe it, which images come to mind, what people? How might our education play a role in defining a region like Latin America? In the United States, Latin America has historically been an underrepresented region in public education. Similarly, students in Latin American countries often learn more about select national historical narratives than they do about Latin America as a region. Furthermore, we take for granted the existence of Latin America as a region, something we could call into question. For instance, which countries belong to Latin America, and which do not? Why?

In this exhibit, we include countries in North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean. Despite this broad inclusion, consider how Haiti’s history as a former French colony and its status as the first country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery distinguishes it from the rest of the region. Another question that is rarely asked, but might be useful to consider: When is Latin America?

The term “Latin America” emerged after the 1856 William Walker invasion of Nicaragua—an event documented by a primary source in this exhibit. What might the implications be of taking that regional moniker, rooted in the racialized thinking of the mid-19th century, and applying it to places and peoples that had not considered themselves to be “Latin American” before 1856? Was it a coherent region before then? Can it be considered a region still?

The primary sources in this exhibit help raise some of these critical questions. The originals are held in the LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at the University of Texas at Austin. These documents are rare and include never-before digitized handwritten letters, maps, government documents, and personal journals. We hope they will help give students first-hand experience with materials that would otherwise remain buried and unseen.

A Note on the ‘Why’ of Our Primary Sources

Primary sources allow us to view past events through two unique lenses: one of the historical actor, and the other of the medium. The source can yield insight into aspects of an individual or collective identity, political affiliation, economic or social position, age, gender, or even level of education. The medium through which information was communicated helps reveal how people transmitted information and can affect how contemporary audiences remember the past. Finally, curators and archivists decide which sources to preserve and make visible, thereby playing a significant role in influencing historical interpretation.

As the curators of this exhibit, we hope future students around the world can to use this site to gain a better understanding of Latin America during the 19th century. Furthermore, we hope our interpretations of these documents serve to challenge contemporary fallacies about Latin America and the Global South. Most notably, these documents begin to show how countries in the region shaped Western democratic ideals and fought off imperial interventions from Europe and the United States. The conclusions drawn from these primary sources may help call into question—and in many ways contradict—common perceptions of Latin America.