People first become aware of Latin America and its history through stories of violent death. Aztec ritual sacrifice provides a fascinating initial exemplar of the region's changing traditions associated with bloodletting. Spanish practices also warrant early mention. Historian David Brading's First America,1 published to coincide with the quincentenary [End Page 224] of European presence in the New World, begins with an 1843 statement by historian Lord Macaulay, which includes mention that every English school boy knew the story of Atahualpa's execution by Pizarro in Peru. The region's well-known penchant for breeding stories of violent death has persisted for more than a century. Observers and participants of the large oppositional political and economic forces of the twentieth century have sometimes used this sanguinary image to explain the persistence of violence and death across the region's historical trajectory.
Historians practicing today continue to draw upon stories of bloodshed as they write the twentieth century into the breadth and depth of Latin American history. The books under review in this essay avoid discussions of the Conquest but deal directly with various forms of fatal violence in the twentieth century. As a result, violent death often becomes a central theme. Consider the following titles: Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Martyr, Saint by Paul Vanderwood; Greg Grandin's The Last Colonial Massacre; and the macabre moniker of The Inferno: A Story of Terror and Survival in Chile by Luz Arce. Other titles that imply death, rather than offering it up directly, include Remembering Pinochet's Chile: On the Eve of London 1998 by Steve Stern, and June Carolyn Erlick's Disappeared: A Journalist Silenced. The titles in which the reference to death seems more muted also imply it because, as Peter Kornbluh explained in The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, throughout the world since the 1970s both Pinochet's Chile and the words "disappeared" and "silenced" came to stand for the death-soaked terror they invoked.2 Could it be that violence makes the region's history accessible and appealing? And if so, what does the preoccupation with violent death imply for the writing of the region's history?
The immediate implication of this death-centrism for the writing of Latin American history means that observers might perceive a place of unchanging violence. A sweeping historical interpretation, it flattens difference and effaces variation. It is a fatalist vision that raises few questions about how violence helped articulate and define power relations over time, and instead assumes an unchanging relationship between violence and power. Tina Rosenberg's 1991 book Children of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America provides the clearest example of the immutability of violent death in Latin America: "Considering the way the continent was conquered and colonized, it is miraculous that violence is not more pervasive and that Latin American societies function at all."3 Violent death strengthens the persistence of a long-standing trope about Latin America's historical trajectory. [End Page 225]
Make no mistake: violent death plays an important, perhaps central role in Latin American life. A recent collection...