Get my new book on U.S. fantasies of Latin America and the changing geography of wealth and poverty in the hemisphere–now out from the University of Virginia Press!
The book examines how Americans have mapped the hemisphere from the mid-19th century to the end of the Cold War in terms of an economic geography in which the United States was a rich nation among poor ones. Yet to define this flattering distinction, U.S. intellectuals routinely resorted to comparison: to some observers, Latin American poverty resembled the United States’ past. To others, it looked like uniquely troubled parts of the country, like the rural south or the urban tenements. Instead of demonstrating a clear-cut relationship of dominance and subordination, in other words, U.S. readings of Latin America look like the swings of a pendulum, in which Latin America moves from confederate to competitor, from familiar neighbor to exotic adversary.
A Cultural History of Underdevelopment looks at how economic terms came to define national difference, and how the most enduring such term, “underdevelopment,” emerged out of nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. readings of Latin America and Caribbean culture. The book traces a set of popular conventions for representing Latin America and the United States’ relationship to it, in travel writing, journalism, literature, film, and photography: as a place of “tropical” wilderness, cultural vitality, revolutionary violence, and heroic possibility. These conventions identify Latin Americans variously as good neighbors and insurgent threats, as images of the United States’ possible future and as relics of its past. Rather than a simply exotic place, Latin America has been the United States’ vanity-mirror, where Americans have glimpsed a flattering reflection of themselves. It has also been a place where U.S. thinkers have seen their own country’s uneven development staring back at them.