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As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine September 2008 Issue

Latin American Reader Series

Reviewed by Living Abroad Contributing Editor Volker Poelzl

For travelers interested in deepening their knowledge and understanding of Latin America before their trip, there is an interesting series of books: the Latin America Reader series, published by Duke University Press. The series currently consists of seven titles that cover four South American countries, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, and Ecuador (soon to be published), in addition to Mexico, Cuba, and Costa Rica.

The editors of each volume are academics and experts in their field, and they put together comprehensive anthologies that provide an in-depth look at the complex history of these diverse countries. The editors do not retell history in a conventional way, but instead use a wide variety of materials to create a mosaic-like impression of the turbulent past and present of the respective countries. Rather than writing about and analyzing historic and cultural events, the editors let the documents, essays, and book excerpts speak for themselves. This allows readers to gain access to first-hand information about the country of their interest and to explore Latin America’s history and culture through a great variety of sources and documents. In addition to primary sources and scholarly analyses there are newspaper articles, excerpts from websites, letters, short stories, photographs, historic travel accounts and other documents--many of which appear for the first time in English translation. In addition to writing by politicians, journalists, artists, historians and writers, there are also interviews and documents by people whose voices are not normally heard in history anthologies--such as workers, peasants, women, indigenous people, and minorities. This diverse variety of material brings to life each country’s history and culture and helps readers gain a deeper understanding of each country’s complex cultural and historic realities.

Each book has about ten sections dedicated to important historic periods and topics. The anthologies cover topics such as pre-Columbian and colonial history, independence, economic development, culture, and national identity. Special emphasis is placed on social and political events of the past century and recent past that have largely shaped the current state of affairs in each country. Among the contemporary issues discussed in the Latin American Reader series are race relations, indigenous minorities, women, social realities, and the arts. Each volume also contains historic photographs, illustrations, and reproductions of artwork to complement various texts and documents.

However, the large variety of documents, voices and materials can be confusing for readers not familiar with the general history of South American countries. There is so much information that it is sometimes difficult to separate relevant material from the anecdotal, and seminal events from the marginal. There are academic commentaries, government documents, essays written in the most lively and literary language, novel excerpts, as well as personal testimonies from ordinary citizens affected by notable historic events. While this approach provides a great compliment to ordinary history books, it is hard for readers to piece together the history of a country, based only on the presented material. In this sense the Latin American Reader series is a great complement to conventional history books, but does not replace them.

Although sometimes a little overly didactic and scholarly, with a slight text-book quality and penchant for political correctness, the Latin American Reader series is among the most insightful, comprehensive and updated collection about South America available to English speakers. For those readers with a serious interest in Peru, Argentina, Brazil, or Ecuador, and who want to go beyond the basics to deepen their knowledge about these complex and fascinating cultures, the Latin American Reader volumes are doubtlessly informative and useful references.

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