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Merrell, Floyd, and María Teresa DePaoli. Las culturas y civilizaciones latinoamericanas. 2nd ed. Lanham: UP of America, 2017. Pp. 314. ISBN 978-0-76186-800-2.

Las culturas y civilizaciones latinoamericas is not merely intended to present the historical material that may be found in other textbooks of its kind, but to engage students and encourage them to go beyond the knowledge acquired from reading its pages. Unlike many of the standard Latin American culture and civilization textbooks, Merrell and DePaoli’s was written to challenge students by foregoing a few editorial conventions and, at times, drawing unexpected conclusions. For example, there is no index: after an ample glossary, lists of films and videos, and the bibliography titled “Para aprender más,” the reader arrives at the back cover of the book. There are no graphs, maps, tables, or illustrations, either. The authors explain that “[a]fter serious deliberation” they decided to omit maps and tables because “the internet now offers a rich variety of information in this regard” (x). The absence of these features reflects perhaps the goal of engaging students without superfluous figures and statistics, but it may also point to the difficulty of pruning down the material of this second edition to 300 pages. The authors themselves suggest such a difficulty early in the book (ix), and elsewhere. (The first edition of Sobre las culturas y civilizaciones latinoamericanas was over 400 pages long.)

In the Preface, subtitled “Why This Textbook is Unique,” the authors explain that they hope to provoke insights “without the use of myriad details the vast majority of which would soon be relegated to the dusty closets of forgetfulness” (x). A similar emphasis on meaningful events and their causes, rather than on a compilation of innumerable names and dates, has also been expressed by the authors of other recent textbooks in this field. However, the authors of Las culturas y civilizaciones latinoamericas make it exceedingly clear that their goal is to help [End Page 325] students become informed, independent thinkers. To this end, some sections of Merrell and DePaoli’s textbook feature interpretations of important topics that challenge the historical consensus. For example, readers interested about the “leyenda negra” of the Spanish Conquest may find this book particularly profitable because of its depiction of the Conquest’s historical context. The authors reason that the Amerindians had committed many atrocities of their own prior to the European invasion and had hardly lived in “un estado de bienestar paradisiaco y placer comunal” (55). A surprising conclusion comes by way of a comparison of the Brazilian institution of slavery with that of the United States. Brazilian slavery, according to Merrell and DePaoli, was relatively merciful: “en ninguna parte del mundo hubiera un tratamiento más humanitario y menos deshumanizador para los esclavos africanos que en Brasil. . . . Los castigos tendían a ser más moderados, y el sadismo por parte del amo era relativamente escaso en comparación con el tratamiento de los esclavos en EE.UU.” (73). Although the comparison would prove quite interesting to American students using this book, the conclusion that the Brazilian slave experience was more “humane” and less “dehumanizing” than the American goes well beyond the devil’s advocacy occasionally needed to fuel a class discussion. On a general level, the magnitude of Brazilian slavery makes such a conclusion dubious. Also, it is widely understood that the US slave population had a near balance of the sexes and was able to increase its numbers by natural reproduction; in Brazil, however, the importation of some four to five million slaves was deemed to be necessary because of the low birth rate and high death rate. Elsewhere in the book, Merrell and DePaoli have provided excellent sections about Latin American music, cinema, and television, introducing students to musicians such as Carlos Gardel, Carlos Chávez, Antônio Carlos Jobim, and the popular Brazilian television star of the 1980s and 90s, Xuxa. In spite of the fact that there is no discussion of films, programs, or music produced after the mid-1990s, the detailed treatment given to popular culture in this textbook sets it apart from many others of its...


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