- Centering Animals in Latin American History ed. by Martha Few and Zeb Tortorici
The Americas have arguably experienced the most ecologically radical transformation of fauna within the span of human memory. Europeans brought with them not only their religion, economy, diseases, and cultures, but their livestock [End Page 267] and other animal hitchhikers as well. While path-breaking historians such as Elinor Melville and Andrew Isenberg have studied how people treated animals and the impact of newly introduced domestic fauna on the landscape, only recently have scholars sought to historicize the cognitive and affective relationship that links animals with people. Animal studies have developed as a recognizable scholarly trend in North America and Europe over the past several years, and this edited volume announces its arrival in Latin America as well.
Centering Animals is an outstanding collection of ten animal histories that span the age of conquest to the present day, and address creatures large and small from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego. The contributors include established scholars from Latin and North America, as well as emerging voices in the field. Such breadth could have made for an unwieldy hodge-podge of themes and arguments, but the chapters hang together beautifully. Most explore how people created new cognitive spaces vis-à-vis animals, such as the Otomí diviner analyzed by León García Garagarza who preached that eating the flesh of the cattle so recently introduced into New Spain would transform native people into beasts, or Regina Horta Duarte’s analysis of how the development of Brazilian ornithology helped to set the stage for a reevaluation of bird life and scientific conservation. A trio of chapters in Part 2 explains the relationship between animals and human health: how Europeans understood the use of animals in indigenous medicine; how elites in nineteenth-century attempted to regulate animal and indigenous bodies (and later, insects) in the Yucatán, and Neel Ahuja’s chapter on monkeys discussed below. Still others investigate how people have exploited animal labor and bodies; as in the case of beasts of burden on Cuban sugar plantations or the hunting of fur seals in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Patagonia. What links all of these discussions is their authors’ insistence that human orientations toward animals is malleable and structured by social context. Nearly all of the (human) historical actors whom the authors discuss regard animals in fundamentally utilitarian terms, yet many of these people also developed strong affective bonds of one sort or another with the creatures they encountered.
The interplay between the animal and the human is also what lends the book much of its analytical richness. For example, Reinaldo Funes Mozote investigates the links between slave and animal labor on sugar plantations in order to show that some landowners regarded the two as, if not interchangeable, then at least complimentary. Enslaved Afro-Cubans had a more ambivalent relationship with their bovine helpmeets, and oxen themselves usually had arduous and short lives. Likewise, Lauren Derby’s examination of how Dominicans came to characterize dictator Rafael Trujillo as a goat takes us into the realm of popular religion, rural life, and political satire. Like the other contributions, these chapters show how human interpretations of animal behavior have consequences for both sides of the human/animal divide.
An analytic tension nevertheless stalks some of these discussions. On the one hand, the book seeks to “counteract the relative invisibility of animals” (p. 5) and place them at the center of Latin American history. On the other hand, the editors and several contributors approvingly cite Erika Fudge (who also wrote the book’s foreword) to suggest that studying humans’ changing orientations toward animals can reveal evolving understandings of what it means to be human. In the end, does Centering Animals uncover the history of animals themselves, or of human understandings of animals? This equivocality [End Page 268] occasionally surfaces in the text, as when authors muse on how animals experienced the circumstances in which humans placed them, only...