Mapas para la nación. Episodios en la historia de la cartografía argentina by Carla Lois (review)
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Mapas para la nación. Episodios en la historia de la cartografía argentina. Carla Lois. Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos, 2014, 291pp., maps, photos, bibliography. Approx. US$25.00 paper (ISBN: 978-987-691-237-2).

Carla Lois has been researching on topics at the interface of the history of cartography, visual culture, and nation-building in Argentina for almost two decades. This book is the result of her endeavor to investigate territorial politics, nationalist policies, and mapping cultures in her country. Mapas para la nación is comprised of revised versions of nine previously published articles and book chapters on a wide range of themes.

The aim of this volume is twofold: to introduce ideas of critical cartography to the Latin American academic community and to document and analyze events and moments in the cartographic and territorial history of Argentina. In the first two parts that comprise four chapters, Lois discusses recent trends, theories, and methodologies in the study of maps and the history of cartography. At first glance, this may appear to be “old hat” for the reader, but one must take into account that the debates on the deconstruction [End Page 171] of maps, which have emerged in North America and Europe in the 1980s with the writings and musings of authors like J.B. Harley, David Woodward, and Denis Wood, and have only recently gained attention and space in the research agendas of Latin American geographers and historians.

In the last decade, Latin American scholars have been establishing an international scientific network to discuss the role of cartography and maps in different countries. Initiatives such as the biennial Ibero American Symposium on the History of Cartography (inaugurated in Buenos Aires in 2006 and coming to its sixth edition in Santiago de Chile in 2016), the razón cartográfica website (maintained by a group of Colombian geographers), and Terra Brasilis, a journal published by the Brazilian network on the History of Geography and Historical Geography, are prominent examples of a growing interest in mapping cultures, historical cartography, and the role of maps in nation-building and territorial development in Latin America. In the third chapter of the book, Lois thoroughly discusses the tensions and commonalities among studies in the history of cartography from within and without the region. Many such studies are still haunted by the specter of (neo)colonialism and the violent military past that taints the history of many Latin American countries. How, for example, can one explain the curious fact that in 2010 the Argentinean Congress approved a law that obliges officials and educators to exclusively use a bi-continental map of the country which represents the continental parts and the country’s possessions in Antarctica in the same scale? The author eagerly seeks answers to this question by delving into the cartographic myths of the country.

Part three deals with Lois’s second concern: the need for more studies on the relations between cartography and the shaping of regional and national identities in Latin America. For this purpose, she presents five key episodes in Argentinean cartography that illustrate the complex historical and political processes behind the supposedly cold and objective mask of maps. These maps are not necessarily the main objects of study in the chapters, but serve as triggers to understand how territorial history in Argentina has been frequently and continuously written, rewritten, or unwritten.

In chapter six, Lois presents the case of the annexation process of the Gran Chaco and the role of the Geographic Institute of Argentina in shaping territories. Instead of representing the region as a blank spot or an empty quarter inhabited by a sparse and insignificant indigenous population, official maps display the Chaco as occupied and known space. Baudrillard was right: the map can precede the territory.

In the case of the integration of Patagonia into Argentinean territory in the second half of the 19th century (chapter five), cartographers retained indigenous place names on the maps, not to honor the severely decimated or annihilated native populations, but instead to wipe out the three centuries of Spanish governance in the country and create or even invent Argentina’s own past. The...