Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Shortchanging Latin America

At a bookstore in Saugus on Monday, I asked a staff member if they had any titles on Aztec history. (You might find out why later this week, faithful readers.) The staffer was very helpful and pointed me to the Latin American history section. Yet while I did find works that covered the Aztecs, I was dismayed by a larger issue: The store's entire Latin American history section only covered about one-third of a single shelf.
This illuminates a problem with the American -- or should I say, the United States -- mindset. In our educational systems and media, we devote too little attention to the nations of Latin America, with which we share geographic ties that we ignore at our peril.
I realized the extent of my own ignorance yesterday, when I opened one of the volumes on Mexican history and found that I had never heard of many of the country's natural features, such as its rivers. (Not including the Rio Grande, of course.) This surprised me because I considered myself better-informed about Mexico from the many trips I've taken to visit family there. I can rattle off the names of rivers in far-off places in Europe and the Middle East, but when it comes to basic features on my own continent, I struck out.
The only features of Latin America with which people in the US seem to show a particular interest come in three categories: when we want to go on vacation there (Acapulco, Cancun and Toby Keith‘s Cabo San Lucas), when a political leader does something we don't like (Hugo Chavez of Venezuela being the most prominent example lately), or when we feel the effects from a problem that roils a Latin American nation, such as the Mexican drug cartels or illegal immigration.
Our general lack of interest in Latin America has also helped our government pursue some pretty unsavory policies there, such as the thug-training School of the Americas and the coups we supported in Guatemala in the 1950s and Chile in the 1970s. If we learned more about such schemes and vented as much outrage about them as, say, the international community recently demonstrated on the Israeli blockade in Gaza, perhaps our Latin American policies would be more pacific.
What would be the result if, say, teachers in US public schools taught their students as much about Latin America as they did about Europe? Or if the US media covered Latin America as frequently as the Middle East? Or if bookstores opened their shelves to a spectrum of the richness of Latin American history? We would have a clearer picture of both North and South America: a clearer understanding of why many people from Latin America illegally immigrate to the US, a clearer awareness of why a leader like Chavez appeals to his followers in Venezuela, and a clearer sense that the two continents that form America are not ours to dominate, but to share.
And so I encourage people in the United States to cultivate a greater interest in Latin America. A desire to learn more about our neighboring nations to the south might help us understand them better, and to see the connections across two continents.

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