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Kenneth Mills on why we study Latin American History

“I see history as the study of the human condition in an array of pasts”

I  see history as the study of the human condition in an array of pasts


Kenneth Mills, an anthropological historian of the early modern Spanish world, spoke to A&S News about his teaching and the importance of studying Latin American History.

Mills is the editor, along with Evonne Levy of the Department of Art, of Lexikon of the Hispanic Baroque: Transatlantic Exchange and Transformation. The multi-disciplinary work —featuring scholars from across a number of disciplines — explores the profound cultural transfers and transformations that defined the transatlantic Spanish world in the Baroque era.

How would you convince a non-historian of the importance of understanding the colonial period in Latin America?

Lots of subjects are significant, and deserve understanding. But history, in my view, ought to be of particularly broad appeal because of all it potentially encompasses.

I see history as the study of the human condition in an array of pasts — pasts being continuously reinterpreted by historians from vastly different perspectives, and pasts in constant and inevitable dialogue with our own selves and presents. In this sense, history seems an unparalleled invitation to so-called non-historians.

Colonial Latin America invites any curious individual into a key moment in human history. As a consequence of a series of accidental landfalls in the Caribbean and on the coast of Brazil, the worlds of people in the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia came into sustained contact, collision and mixture.

In the wake of the undeniable thrusts of European expansion, ruthless determination and diffusion, there is the equally compelling twist and tug of transformations, of recreations — even for the actors who could not bear to face the facts of cultural mobility, of change.

For students, what is there to gain from studying Latin American history?

The subject area, and its array of primary sources, invites students to see past and present as polycentric, as subjects that can be studied from many points of entry, and from many angles.

My job is to present this complex set of people within a complex crucible as memorably as possible, with as much detail and verve as I can muster.

As a teacher, I take advantage of the fact that Colonial Latin America and the broader Early Modern World seem, to most students, both distant and familiar.

There are the pre-contact civilizations in the Americas and in Africa, there is the European and Mediterranean medieval taking ship to the place Columbus called the Indies, and there is the uncannily “early modernness” — the sense of a world gradually opening up and proceeding, violently, imperfectly, and often unintentionally all at once.

I love showing students why Columbus and 1492 —or any number of other conventional “starting lines” or “zero points” — need not be fetishized by all who come after; for there ended up being a succession of “new worlds” for all — not only for those arriving and invading in Spanish ships.

Histories in the vast region we now refer to as Latin America are decidedly multi-directional and plural, and they were more often the products of accidents than designs.

What do you want your students to walk away with from your classes?

Curiosity and enhanced noticing skills, an expectation that different points of view and apparent contradictions will be vital for understanding human expressions and actions, an appreciation for beauty in its most surprising and often unintended forms, and a commitment to communicating, reading and writing in an open and generous fashion.