- Celebrating Critical Geographies of Latin America: Inspired by an NFL Quarterback
Normally, I have no idea when the NFL football season begins. It seems to simply appear as summer turns to autumn. In 2016, however, the start of the NFL season could not go unnoticed, nor could San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. For those who managed to miss this story, Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem during a pre-game moment of military appreciation made international headlines. At the time, his one-man protest was as an act of civil disobedience in the face of a long and recent history of police brutality and racial oppression in the United States.1 As Kaepernick insisted, “I’m not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…there are bodies in the street and people [police officers] getting paid leave and getting away with murder” (NFL.com 2016). Kaepernick’s protest reveals someone who recognizes that racism (and injustices more generally) will not simply disappear by looking away.
It is in this vein that I welcome the invitation to reflect on what a critical turn, a move towards more “critical and progressive scholarship,” might look like in the Journal of Latin American Geography (JLAG) (Gaffney et al. 2016: 1). Of course, this is not the first time in recent memory that critical geographers working in the region have sought to reflect on what it means to be “critical.” These efforts have popped up as both special issues and conference presentations since at least 2005 (Sundberg 2005; Kingsbury and Sletto 2005). Also we must acknowledge that there exists a robust mini-subfield of critical Latin Americanists who have made important contributions on various topics including migration and inequality, gentrification, race and urban space, women’s environmental knowledges, indigenous mapping, the politics of biodiversity conservation, extraction, land titling, labour injustice and femicide to name a few (Wainwright 2008; Swanson 2010; Werner 2011; Finn 2012; Mollett 2013; Ojeda 2013; Wright 2014; Hanson 2015; Bastia 2015; Bryan 2015). What is different now, however, is that the new editorial team is calling upon scholars, much like those cited above, to populate the journal with scholarship that offers “a conceptually pluralistic and geographically extensive understanding of Latin America” and research that “explicitly challenges the injustices of this notoriously unequal [End Page 165] region and explores avenues for change” (Gaffney et al. 2016: 1).
Such a cogent call deserves celebration, particularly because much of the inequality that occurs in Latin America operates globally as well. Indeed, racial and gender violence is planetary: racial profiling and police brutality, the recent Brexit decision in the UK, the Trump Presidency in the US, the detention of child migrants and refugee claimants, human trafficking; a post-apartheid era that has only galvanizes racial hierarchies in South Africa; impunity for gang rapes in both conflict zones and so-called democratic states; honor killings, disproportionate rates of poverty among indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, the list goes on. Notwithstanding important forms of resistance, the continuity of racial and gender inequalities is so rampant that one wonders if most people unaffected by such events actually move through the world asleep. Kaepernick certainly does not, and nor should we. If we want our work to be meaningful beyond academia, then commitment to more progressive and critical geographic knowledge production is urgent.
In this commentary, I reflect on JLAG’s invitation for critical scholarship on Latin America. In doing so, I suggest that this turn should prioritize and counter what has been undertheorized and ignored to date, namely, racial and gendered power. In an admittedly unscientific and superficial peruse of JLAG titles, abstracts, and keywords since 2010, I could not ignore the paucity of research attending to racial power and racialized processes, patriarchy, Afro-descendant peoples, and gendered-based violence. While there is slightly more interest in indigenous peoples, particularly their landscapes, livelihoods, and mapping them both, very few articles engage in racial formations of plantation agriculture or settler appropriation, and there is almost no trace of critical feminist and postcolonial theorizing. While the current (all white male) editorial...