Chomsky, Aviva and Lauria-Santiago, Aldo (eds.), Identity and Struggle at the Margins of the Nation-State

Chomsky, Aviva and Lauria-Santiago, Aldo (eds.) (1998), Identity and Struggle at the Margins of the Nation-State: The Laboring Peoples of Central America and the Hispanic Caribbean, Duke University Press (Durham and London). iv -f 404 pp., $64.95 hbk.

Since the mid-1980s, labour history in Latin America has undergone a profound transformation. Latin American labour historians have embraced the analytical tools and insights of the ‘new labour history’, and begun to draw upon European, US, and, to a lesser extent, South Asian labour histories. Until recently both the larger, more ‘industrial’ countries and visibly proletarian workers have received the bulk of attention. Of late, scholars have turned to examine smaller economies and less obviously proletarian or non-proletarian workforces. Identity and Struggle at the Margins ofthe Nation-State: The Laboring Peoples of Central America and the Hispanic Caribbean, edited by Aviva Chomsky and Aldo Lauria-Santiago, is a welcome addition to this growing literature. In addition to the introductory chapter written by the editors, the volume consists of seven chapters on Central America and three chapters on the Hispanic Caribbean, as well as a concluding chapter by Lowell Gudmunson and Francisco A. Scarano.

As the editors point out, this volume sets out to meet a number of thematic, methodological and historiographical objectives. Thematically, most chapters delve into hitherto little or unexplored areas of historical investigation, such as rural policing in El Salvador or early forms of feminism in Puerto Rico. Though perhaps no longer a methodological novelty, emphasis is placed on both non-conventional historical sources and a ‘reading against the grain’ appraisal of these sources. More suggestive perhaps, the chapters raise a number of historiographical questions that strongly challenge the orthodox, often national, histories of the countries under review and specifically, of the role played by working peoples in those histories. Either by design or default, unitary national histories have tended to ignore the role of working peoples in shaping these respective histories. Contrary to current trends, the authors of these chapters do not reject class formation as a unit of analysis. Instead, class is approached from a ‘culturally sophisticated and non-reductionist’ perspective that incorporates and is informed by analyses of ‘ethnicity and gender, of ideological and cultural formation and of popular strategies of everyday resistance and accommodation’ in order to ‘uncover’ the histories of popular sectors.

Contrary to dominant interpretations, as Julia Charlip shows, the rise of the Nicaraguan coffee economy was characterised by the widespread participation of small farmers, and not dominated by landed oligarchies. Aldo-Lauria Santiago makes a similar point in the case of El Salvador, where, he shows, the local ladino peasantry orchestrated land privatisation. A varied and large pool of moneylenders facilitated the growth of this small holding peasantry. Patricia Alvarenga shows how civilian rural patrols formed the backbone of repression in El Salvador in the early 20th century. The incorporation of the popular sectors into the repressive apparatus, Alvarenga contends, guaranteed the latter’s successful operation. Dario Euraque argues that the construction of an elite mestizo discourse in Honduras, which excluded both indigenous and immigrant blacks, in Honduras responded to an attempt to reaffirm the nation in the face of increasing economic domination by foreign companies. Jeffrey Gould challenges Jaime Wheelock’s contention that Nicaraguan Indians had ceased to exist by 1900 and shows how the hegemony of ‘Nicaragua mestiza’, an elite ideological construction effectively removed Indians from the country’s national historical record. Aviva Chomsky’s chapter examines the contrast in resistance strategies of workers in the mining region of Costa Rica. On the one hand, workers in the foreign-owned gold mines were typically quiescent, as the companies effectively channeled discontent away from labour organisation and protest. On the other, land squatters proved adept in wresting concessions from the companies by exploiting the contradiction in the state’s s-imultaneous favouring of foreign investment and small holding peasantry. Cindy Foster shows how rural workers were actively involved in shaping the Guatemalan revolution from below: workers called for a number of reforms prior to these entering the national discourse. Eileen J. Findlay examines the early forms of anarchist feminism in Puerto Rico. She argues that male workers, whose visions of gender relations differed little from those of the bourgeoisie, scaled down the more radical proposals of early feminist. Barry Carr challenges a major aspect of the orthodox interpretation of the Cuban sugar industry. He shows that both inter-plantation competition for labour and access to subsistence agriculture gave sugar workers a greater degree of leverage in their relations with the sugar companies than is usually acknowledged. Finally Richard L. Turits argues that the longevity and stability of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic cannot be explained simply by the regime’s reliance on coercion and terror. Turits shows how Trujillo built a solid social base through widespread land redistribution. The concluding chapter by Gudmunson and Scarano draws out a number of common themes in the chapters.

Overall, this volume contains substantial and innovative research. Moreover, it signals the way for further research both in the geographical and thematic areas covered and beyond. As the editors point out the risk of emphasising the local and the specific is of losing the wood for the trees. The chapter authors do attempt to place their findings within the broader trajectory of the respective national histories and avoid homogenising generalisations from what are, in most cases, regional or local case studies. Ultimately, however, the greater significance of such studies will only be borne out when, in the light of this fruitful revisionism, scholars begin to revisit certain historiographical debates on, say, the development of agrarian capitalism. Perhaps time round, armed with thorough and nuanced studies such as this one, a great deal more may be gained from such debates.

Originally published in Bulletin of Latin American Research 19:1 (Jan., 2000), pp. 122-124.