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Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 514-516

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Book Review

Identity and Struggle at the Margins of the Nation-State: The Laboring Peoples of Central America and the Hispanic Caribbean

Identity and Struggle at the Margins of the Nation-State: The Laboring Peoples of Central America and the Hispanic Caribbean. Edited by AVIVA CHOMSKY and ALDO LAURIA-SANTIAGO. Comparative and International Working-class History Series, Andrew Gordon, Daniel James, and Alexander Keyssar, gen. eds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998. Pp. 405. $64.95 (cloth), $21.95 (paper).

This volume samples some of the best recent work in the Anglophone social history of "laboring peoples" (from coffee smallholders to indigenous peasants to plantation and industrial workers, male and female) in modern (1850-1950) Central America and the Hispanic Caribbean. The binocular focus on Central America and the Hispanic Caribbean is justified by the shared legacies of Spanish colonialism and "the strong political, social, and economic influence of the United States and development of agro-export economies." Although the master narratives informing the book are those of the nation and agro-export economy, "the volume's chapters examine multiple forms of worker and peasant culture, identity, consciousness, and resistance."

This book has two parts, one for each region. The first presents seven case studies on Central America, including, in the order of their appearance: Lauria-Santiago on coffee smallholders in El Salvador; Gould on highland Indians and the myth of Mestizaje (Indian/Spanish racial hybridity) in Nicaragua (previously published in HAHR); Charlip on coffee farmers in Nicaragua; Alvarenga on the role of "auxiliary forces" in the apparatus of repression in El Salvador; Euraque on the nationalist myth of Mestizaje in Honduras; Chomsky on workers and smallholders in the foreign-owned gold mines of northern highland Costa Rica; and Forster on peasant struggles during Guatemala's reformist period. The second part presents three case studies on the [End Page 514] Hispanic Caribbean islands, including: Findlay on sexuality and working-class feminism in Puerto Rico; Carr on worker mobility and strategies in the US-dominated Cuban sugar industry of the early twentieth century; and Turits on the consensual, even popular elements that sustained the Trujillato in the Dominican Republic. Finally, an extended and engaging essay by Lowell Gudmundson and Francisco Scarano highlights the contributions of each of the case studies, while calling for new studies to address a number of key problems raised by the present volume.

Gudmundson and Scarano are justified in claiming that the case studies uncover "the diversity of historical experiences, far too often buried beneath a homogenizing discourse of nationalist unity." The co-editors announce at the outset that "traditional histories of this period have been written from the top down, and, from the international perspective, from the outside in. The contributors to this volume take the opposite approach." The volume's "opposite approach" wants to correct "elite ideologies and histories [which] in all of these countries have served to promote distorted visions and versions of the nation that erase the experiences of popular sectors and justify their subordination." Although the essays in this volume clearly enrich the elitist historiography of the region(s) in necessary and critical ways, the oppositionary "bottom-up, inside-out" approach probably has limitations of its own. Indeed, the project here may be akin to what Dipesh Chakrabarty ("Minority Histories, Subaltern Pasts," Perspectives 35, [November 1997]: 37-43) has identified with "minority histories" in the American historical profession. In "minority histories" the idea is to incorporate previously excluded groups into mainstream historical narratives. In this case, as co-editors Chomsky and Lauria-Santiago announce, the task is to "incorporate the history of working peoples into the narratives of states and nation formation." But what if, Chakrabarty asks, those "subaltern pasts" resist, or otherwise run sideways to such narratives? As Gudmundson and Scarano note, "imagining a future for the subaltern past of Central America and the Hispanic Caribbean remains a formidable challenge."

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