Buddy, Can You Spare a Paradigm?: Reflections on Generational Shifts and Latin American History
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The Americas 57.4 (2001) 453-466

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Buddy, Can you Spare a Paradigm?:
Reflections on Generational Shifts and Latin American History*

Barbara Weinstein

So, just how did you get interested in Latin America anyway?" Latin Americanists who don't have a recognizably Spanish or Portuguese surname are routinely asked this question by acquaintances, distant relatives, recently hired colleagues, and even by that most dreaded of airline passengers, the garrulous fool in the next seat. I don't have a convenient response--I can't claim to be the daughter of missionaries (my last name is a dead giveaway on that account), nor of diplomats or corporative executives posted to São Paulo when I was a young girl. I did have two great aunts from Minsk who took a boat to "America" and ended up in Buenos Aires, but that's a rather slim biographical reed on which to rest my decision to become a Latin Americanist.

No, in my case, it was clearly the radical politics of the late 1960s that led me to choose Latin American history. The first course I ever took on Latin America, in the fall of 1970, was a seminar on the Cuban Revolution. At that time, I fervently believed that a worldwide socialist transformation was a historical possibility. And I felt that Latin America would be in the vanguard of this global revolutionary process. I regarded as elitist or hidebound my peers who opted to study U.S. political history or European intellectual history. In contrast, my choice of Latin America highlighted my political identification with the Third World over the First. And as an avid (if eclectic) student of Marxist theory (though I confess I never got through all of the Grundrisse), Latin America promised endless opportunities to demonstrate the usefulness of social class as the primary category of analysis.

This sketchy but candid description of my motives should help to explain why I feel uncomfortable when asked the unavoidable question about "Why Latin America." Non-academics, upon hearing such an explanation, tend to respond with condescension or bemusement, or (if they're really conservative) [End Page 453] outright ridicule. At best they find my naiveté touching; at worst, they regard me as having been a tool of the world Communist conspiracy. But even more discomforting is the reaction I occasionally get from younger colleagues steeped in critical postmodernist perspectives: to them my explanation smacks of what Vicente Rafael, in a recent piece in the American Historical Review , called "left-wing orientalism."1 This phrase, with its unnerving implications of imperialism and ethnocentricity, conveniently distills the changes and challenges in academia that I want to discuss here. Indeed, for the generation of historians who took up the study of Latin America in the late '60s and '70s, it is a double challenge. Over the last two decades we have been faced with the rather formidable task of situating ourselves vis à vis a major paradigmatic shift in the field of history (and the humanistic disciplines in general), often finding ourselves, the former Young Turks, feeling overwhelmed by the newest theoretical trends. And to complicate matters further, as Latin Americanists, many of us have had to grapple with an often critical evaluation of our decision to study a region outside of our "home" culture; ironically, the very decision I regarded as emblematic of my radical, anti-imperialist affiliations has come to represent, at least in some eyes, my complicity with a certain imperial-knowledge project. 2 I can't say that these issues have caused me to lose a lot of sleep over the years, but they have disturbed me enough to provoke a certain amount of thought and contemplation.

To return to Vicente Rafael's essay in the AHR, after tweaking North American scholars for their "left-wing orientalism," he goes on to chide Southeast Asianists (and by implication, all area-studies types), for their "fascination with things 'eastern' as alternatives to the oppressiveness of the West." And then, for good measure, he invokes Edward Said himself, warning of...