War, Literature Professors, and How Latin American Studies Came to Be

April 17, 2019

In his new book, Professor Fernando Degiovanni explores how war and U.S. business interests influenced the emergence of a new discipline.

multitude of people in art

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

Imagine this scenario: Diplomats, bankers, and manufacturers need information on a region of the world to further U.S. political agendas and business interests. Whom do they turn to for advice?

Literature professors.

That’s the story told in Vernacular Latin Americanisms: War, the Market, and the Making of a Disciplineby Graduate Center Professor Fernando Degiovanni (Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures). The book provides a deeply researched and original account of the emergence of Latin American studies in the U.S. between 1900 and 1960. The field was virtually nonexistent before that, but the Spanish-American War of 1898, the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, and geopolitical shifts in World Wars I and II created a demand for Spanish language fluency and insight into Latin American markets.

As Degiovanni tells it, government agencies and businesses alike turned to literature and language professors to explain the cultures they sought contact with. “The Latin American soul is to be found in Latin-American literature,” Degiovanni quotes Alfred Coester, a Brooklyn high school Spanish teacher who later worked as a U.S. spy and Stanford professor, as saying.

Degiovanni structures his narrative around profiles of Coester and other leading intellectuals. “It’s a book about professors,” Degiovanni said in an interview. “That would be a way to put it. It’s about how the field of Latin American studies was shaped by international diplomacy and the consolidation of a hemispheric market in wartimes. It’s also about how academics got involved in spaces that are not entirely academic, such as the government sector, the public sphere, and the business community.” The professors’ optimistic view of Latin America as ripe for capitalist exploitation reshaped perceptions that the region was a sleepy, disordered place where spirituality trumped materialism.

Degiovanni ends the book with the Cold War, when bureaucrats and financiers turned to social scientists for expertise rather than humanities professors. But Degiovanni says Latin American studies continues to evolve. For example, the term “Hispanic” was once widely used in higher ed departmental names as a nod to the field’s roots in Spain’s language, culture, and history. Today, many schools have replaced “Hispanic” with more inclusive terms. The Graduate Center recently changed its departmental name from Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages to Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures. That broadens the scope to include the study of migrant communities in the U.S., along with areas north and south of the border with African and indigenous heritage.

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Professor Fernando Degiovanni

“The idea of aligning Latino to Latin American and Iberian studies is relatively new in our field,” said Degiovanni, the department’s executive officer. “By creating this name, we seek to open new spaces of scholarly inquiry, and rethink cross-cultural encounters.”

At the GC, students tend to specialize in literary studies, performance studies, visual studies, including film and TV, and sociolinguistics. While Degiovanni sees the GC as contributing to the “redefining” of the field, he adds: “The training of critical thinkers is the most important thing for us.”

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.