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Mapping Latin America: A Cartographic Reader ed. by Jordana Dym and Karl Offen (review)

From: Caribbean Studies
Volume 40, Number 2, July - December 2012
pp. 217-219 | 10.1353/crb.2012.0033

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Brilliant in conception and beautiful in execution, Mapping Latin America explores ways of reading maps. In doing so, it raises two fundamental questions about “mapping” and “reading.”

First question, what is a map? In the introduction, the editors define a map as a “graphic representation of space (real or imagined, terrestrial or otherwise) that organizes, presents, and communicates spatial information visually” (p. 6). This is an inclusive, expansive definition that goes beyond the more modern preoccupations with scale, projection, orientation, titles, and legends in two-dimensional graphical representations. The ample scope of the volume encompasses a number of representations that strict, modern definitions would classify, at best, as “map-like.” For example, this volume includes: a mural-map from an ancient Mayan palace; illustrations from the colonial period in Bolivia, Mexico and Peru; several topographical profiles of mountainous areas of South America; schematic drawings used in hydrological works in Mexico and Chile; propaganda maps that combine art, country silhouettes, and texts in Argentina and Mexico; and mental maps from twentieth century Chile. More conventional examples, such as charts, routes, property surveys, and modern maps, are also analyzed.

Second question, what does it mean to “read” a map? We should begin with a series of specific, contextual questions: who made the map, for whom, how was it made, and what was its use? In order to answer these seemingly simple questions we must be familiar with the conventions and languages of maps and we must know thoroughly, by means of additional primary or secondary sources, the history of Latin America. Thus, the history of the map reveals both the history of cartography and the history, not only of Latin America, but also of the European empires that once claimed sovereignty over its territories. This volume encourages us to seek out the “meaning of space” in the context of political economy, cultural conventions, and above all, as instruments of power and also of resistance.

One learns much from the book about the history of Latin America as well as the history of cartography. More importantly, the chapters show many different kinds of maps and diverse ways to read them. Hence, the book is a “cartographic reader” in that it explores maps as “graphic texts” and discovers ways of reading them. Following the principles of critical geography, the authors seek out the “meaning of maps” and their connection with power. In this respect it is important to consider both the elements that the map includes as well as what the map excludes. The selection and exclusion of cartographic features in order to fashion ways of representing and seeing led one contributor to proclaim that all maps tell lies (p. 293). Since critical geography proceeds from an analysis of “power,” it is surprising that the editors never define it or its possible dimensions. Likewise, the editors do not define “space,” even though it would seem to be a central analytical concept.

Edited by Jordanna Dym and Karl Offen, the book comprises a forward by Matthew Edney, an introduction by the editors, and almost one hundred maps discussed by 54 authors in 57 short chapters. Each chapter is a several-page analysis of one or more maps from the history of Latin America. Each is conveniently footnoted and referenced. In addition, the bibliographic essay written by the editors is an excellent resource for continued reading and research. The book is organized chronologically into three periods. The colonial period, comprising the sixteenth and seventeenth century is interpreted as one of “explorations and empires.” Sub-themes include the imaginary of the New World, the development of urban centers, the exploitation of the environment, imperial rivalries, and local resistance. The nineteenth century is defined as one of “enlightenment, independence, and the nation-state.” Sub-themes emphasize the creation of nation-states by means of territorial control and political economy. Finally, the twentieth century is characterized by maps of widely different purposes and variegated mapmakers, with sub-themes ranging from planning, management of natural resources, propaganda, education, ethnicity, and so forth.

Caribbean scholars will find many maps, but will wish for even more. We find a fascinating chapter on a sixteenth-century map of Guiana by Sir Walter Raleigh...

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