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Reviewed by:
  • Children of Fate: Childhood, Class, and the State in Chile, 1850–1930
  • Elizabeth Quay Hutchison
Children of Fate: Childhood, Class, and the State in Chile, 1850–1930. By Nara B. Milanich (Durham, Duke University Press, 2009) 355 pp. $89.95 cloth $24.95 paper

In Children of Fate, Milanich provides a richly textured study of childhood and filiation in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Chile that culls important stories from new archives and analyzes the liberal state’s role in “generating kinlessness.” Squarely addressing two of Chilean history’s most powerful symbols—family and its absence, as exemplified by the huacho or orphan—Milanich’s study ably demonstrates the interpretive power of a social history of children and childhood, an approach that de-centers the usual frameworks of labor, state, and politics while also providing key insights into class and state formation in liberal Chile.

The book’s title roots this work in both the enduring stereotype and historical revisionism of Milanich’s principal subject—the problem of kinlessness in Chilean society. “Children of fate” references an essay by social critic Augusto Orrego Luco—“La cuestión sociale” (Santiago, 1884)—which cataloged the social ills of a society beset by rural poverty, illegitimacy, and urbanization. Bemoaning the problem of huachismo, Orrego Luco attributed proletarian vice—from alcoholism to anarchism—to the original sins of illegitimacy and family disarray, a theme echoed and revised in both nationalist and Marxist historiography for more than 100 years. Milanich directly engages these enduring tropes, seeking not so much to disprove them empirically—Chilean illegitimacy and child abandonment rates were indeed alarmingly high—as to reexamine the cause and significance of these phenomena. Through rigorous scrutiny of legal and institutional archives, Milanich demonstrates that illegitimacy, abandonment, and kinlessness were caused not by the pathological [End Page 487] behavior of poor Chileans but by the legal norms and bureaucratic mechanisms of the liberal state.

To advance this important conclusion, Milanich worked through over 1,000 civil cases, hundreds of notarial records, published paternity suits, legal theses, and the untapped records of Santiago’s principal orphanage, as well as Pablo Pérez’s autobiography, The Orphan (Santiago, 1898), that traces his life from orphanage to adulthood. As explained in the book’s excellent methodological appendix, Milanich attended carefully to nuances of language about kinship and affection in sources that only rarely foreground such issues. This reading is particularly important in Milanich’s work with the legal and notarial records, in which claims of kinship—or lack thereof—had concrete material outcomes, as in a woman’s suit for child support or a testator’s bequest to illegitimate children. Eschewing the temptation to reduce these cases to ready narratives of elite dalliance and subaltern resistance, Milanich instead reveals the vernacular practices through which unmarried mothers ensured their own and their children’s survival, and the labor and affective dynamics of orphanages and families that received abandoned children. By tracing these child circulation practices—and documenting the state’s resolute indifference to them—Milanich offers a compelling counter-narrative to romantic notions of huachismo common in Chilean historiography. By Milanich’s account, these orphans have “families,” and illegitimate children have known “fathers,” whether or not such ties were recognized by the Chilean state.

Children of Fate is an important work driven by several priorities: First, Milanich seeks to demonstrate how class and status in Chilean society have been defined not only by labor and ethnic relations but also by vernacular and legal definitions of family and kinship; her book thus serves as a powerful compliment to recent historiography on labor, gender, and the state in modern Chile. Second, Milanich not only revises the meanings of huachismo, but also shows how the practice of excluding some Chileans from legitimate family formations contributed to liberal state formation. Finally, by crafting her study on the basis of careful and exhaustive reading of different types of sources, Milanich brings to the study of Latin American family, class relations, and childhood a much-needed emphasis on the affective nature of these relations: Milanich reads paternity suits both for their legal reasoning and for evidence of fatherly concern and oversight, and orphanage...


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pp. 487-488
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