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Reviewed by:
  • Children of Fate: Childhood, Class, and the State in Chile, 1850–1930
  • Tobias Hecht
Children of Fate: Childhood, Class, and the State in Chile, 1850–1930. By Nara B. Milanich (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. xv plus 355 pp.).

If the family is an intimate structure and class a public one, they both have their reciprocal echoes. Kinship is enmeshed in politics just as the terms and limits of the family are tempered by class arrangements. Meanwhile, the social and economic class of very young children is determined not by Marxist ideas [End Page 281] of what they produce and how—because before a certain time they of course do not produce at all—but by malleable practices and concepts of childrearing and filiation. Children of Fate is a book that skillfully traces its way back and forth between the public and the private spheres, in and out of intimate lives and through contested legal reforms and the class relations that unite and divide.

At its inception in the 1960s, the history of childhood focused on the sentiments of parents toward the infants and children they lost—something so intimate that, looking back, some have suggested they were all but impossible to know.1 But the history of childhood is also concerned with large economic and political phenomena, such as child labor, education, and health. Whereas women’s history gradually came to be simply history, that hasn’t happened with the history of childhood, which remains a discrete subfield. Children of Fate reveals children in their public lives without wresting them from the private realm. Milanch writes:

Ultimately … this book is a history of children and family. But it is also a history of social inequality and class. It is abundantly clear that in modern Latin America, profound social inequalities have coexisted alongside the promise of formal equality. How have these inequalities been produced and reproduced?

The author elucidates how childhood is part of social and political life writ large. In Milanich’s social historical approach, children are situated in relation to the social organization of gender, migration, and settlement patterns and their status as legitimate or not, orphaned or not. There were different family formations in Chile over the period 1850–1930. Of particular importance were the patriarchal family with a stable union of husband and wife and children and the families formed by women who had no choice but to be subordinated by someone else’s family, as servants. In the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth in Chile, laws on inheritance, legitimacy, and labor were subject to considerable change in terms of both law and practice. Milanich argues that “familial patterns emerge in, are sustained by and help reproduce the profound social hierarchies that have characterized Latin American societies” (5–6).

The book is divided into three sections, and the first concerns the Chilean Civil Code, which came into force in 1857. In particular the author traces its implications for paternity investigation: fathers were granted the right to recognize or reject their illegitimate children. This new right granted men a power that disempowered women and children and altered notions of filiation.

Part II focuses on kinship as a social, cultural and bureaucratic category in Chile. The method here is to elucidate the reach of kinship, with its social and legal implications, through an examination of kinlessness, that is, of an under-class of uncertain or simply unknown origins, including the issue of men who did not want to recognize them.

Part III is about the children who have been circulated, that is, informally adopted. Wealthy families took in Amerindian and other poor or illegitimate children as servants while plebian families took in children as well. The spectrum of motivations and outcome was everything from servitude to a sort of [End Page 282] informal welfare system that compensated, to a very limited extent, for the failings of laws and institutions.

Hardly a sentence in this book is superfluous and there is something interesting or surprising in every paragraph. Children of Fate will be a point of reference in the history of childhood in Latin America and beyond, not only...


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pp. 281-283
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