- Fidel’s Child: A Half-Century Doing Latin American History
By no fault of my own I have lived long enough to see many changes in the historical profession, and it may be useful today at this luncheon to look backward a bit over the last half-century and see where we have been. My first thought was that we have moved from carbon copies on onionskin paper and no Xerox machines to the laptop computer. Our writing has not necessarily improved. And mine has not even gotten faster, perhaps because rewriting has become seductively easy. But changes in how we do history and who does history dwarf the importance of such technologies.
As to the “who,” a revolution rolled through our profession during this time, as the place of women was transformed. I can add this illustrative bit to the story of gender discrimination: When the first Ph.D. student I worked with, a woman, was applying for jobs in 1966, I broached the subject with Bob Quirk, then editor of the Hispanic American Historical Review (HAHR), at the annual cocktail party of the Conference on Latin American History. But as soon as I began, he interrupted me, saying, “You know, Richard, it’s a man’s world”—and walked off.1
I was shocked. I had always known professionally active and engaged women. My parents were missionaries in central Brazil. While my father, a kind of circuit rider, visited his scattered congregation on horseback—a journey that could take three or four months—my mother not only ran our busy household, but established and directed a primary school. She annually made the long trip to São Paulo—two days on the back of an open truck, sitting on sacks and boxes of whatever was being transported, and three more by train—to interview and [End Page 1] hire two or three recent normal-school graduates, offering them internships with board and room at our house. She taught classes herself. She managed the school’s finances. Because she was Brazilian-born, she qualified to prepare the frequent reports demanded by the expanding state bureaucracy under President Getúlio Vargas to validate the school curriculum and its diplomas. Her mother, my grandmother, was a missionary to Persia in the 1880s. Having traveled as far as possible by ship and train, she did the last leg of the trip and entered Tehran riding a camel! They were a family of intelligent, energetic, adventuresome women.
Fast-forward to my undergraduate years at the College of Wooster, in Ohio, my first experience with academic life. The head of the history department, Aileen Dunham, a first-rate teacher who kept up with the latest literature on European history, was a formidable person both in class and out of it. I was too naive and too unobservant to notice that as a woman with authority she stood out in America at that time. That’s why it was so jarring for me to hear the editor of the HAHR say that “It’s a man’s world.” Fortunately, that is no longer so. Today the editors of the HAHR are just as likely to be women as men, and academic jobs are filled without regard to gender. This is not to say that the problem of salaries and promotions are solved. But we have come a long way.
A different kind of change has to do with conceptual frameworks. When I set off in 1959 to do dissertation research in Brazil on the British presence there in the nineteenth century, I had a broad topic approved by my adviser, Lewis Hanke, but no hypothesis, no argument in mind. I knew only that I wanted to extend the work of Alan K. Manchester forward in time.2 The sources I consulted then moved me away from diplomatic relations to slavery, to business investment, to the ideas of Herbert Spencer, and to the role of religion. But I needed a way to bring these disparate topics into a coherent whole. I began to read on the theory of social change. One concept that permeated much of the social sciences in the United States...