- Placing Latin America: Contemporary Themes in Human Geography
An edited volume such as this interesting new textbook depends essentially on the selection of the themes to be dealt with and the quality of the authors' essays. Six of the seventeen authors are senior scholars, the others junior colleagues including doctoral students and an undergraduate. While the editors attempt to explain the gerund in the main title, asking the reader to "place" Latin America, whatever that might mean, the contents are simply, as the subtitle indicates, essays on selected contemporary themes in human geography related to Latin America; we all understand and suffer from publishers' demands for catchy, if often misleading titles. Each author was asked (pp. 2-3) to "think about Latin America's most pressing and interesting issues and selected themes and to write about them in summary chapters…" and "to highlight the changing and dynamic human geographies [while recognizing] the historical legacy and continuity of many place-based phenomena across the region." The resulting fourteen chapters thus range over many aspects of contemporary Latin America, from socio-economic and political development, to migration and urbanization, the impact of neoliberalism and modernization, the role of tourism in its many forms, patterns of drug production and distribution, and the role of a variety of formal and informal social agencies.
Though the concepts of region, landscape and place are mentioned, only the U. S.- Mexican border region receives any major attention, and Larry Ford's chapter is the only one dealing with the landscape in any substantive manner, and that focusing on urban architectural icons rather than the multiplicity of changing landscape elements, both urban and rural. Places are located and occasionally described throughout the chapters but are not the specific focus of analysis and reporting. A "roadmap" to each of the chapters is offered "to summarize and contextualize the global and local dimensions of economic, political, cultural and social change in the region" (p. 9) for those who might benefit from the same, so their detailed contents will not be repeated here. It is clear, however, that the editors attempt in their Introduction to "provide a cohesive narrative" (p. 15) is at best forced. It is quite evident from these essays that contemporary Latin America is a fuzzy region, one undergoing disparate changes at multiple scales in some places, and yet very little change in others.
One wonders why two separate chapters (6 and 7) are dedicated to partial aspects of tourism when they could easily have been combined to make way for perhaps a chapter on political ecology that is such a key theme of current research and debate? Drugs trafficking and its consequences are certainly important in contemporary Latin America, but the bibliographic listing (102 citations) exaggerates that theme when compared to the average bibliographies of 29 citations, and the humble seven allotted to [End Page 192] "Beyond the Nation State…and Latinos", and "the Mexican Border Region". Again, if one examines the lengths of chapters it is difficult to understand why some are allowed 30 pages ("Transnational Communities…", and yet four others only 14? Of course, one cannot tell whether this is the result of editorial cutting, or the simple fact that some authors simply wrote fewer words? Balance, however, is a critical factor in presenting data and opinions in textbooks written, as this one probably is, aimed at advanced undergrads, for shorter is often read to mean less significant. Equally, graphic material is also quite unevenly distributed among the chapters, only 10 of the 15 (if one includes the Introduction as a major component, which is certainly is) have any. Do the themes of urbanization, migration, the drug trade and NGOs merit no maps? These are issues that have been well-represented cartographically by dozens of authors, yet here one finds nothing.
While the chapter on the drug trade is both innovative and sufficiently extensive to provide a superbly coherent analysis, the one chapter...