HL90 EN: Latin American Revolutions

We’ve got more HL90s to shop! James Mestaz is teaching “Latin American Revolutions” this fall, and talked to us about how his experiences growing up influenced his class, the importance of understanding Latin American history in today’s political environment, and the best Latin American cuisine (don’t read on an empty stomach!)!

What inspired you to teach this class?

Understanding my unique experiences growing up as a Mexican-American in a small town in California compelled me to find out more about Mexico, and Latin America in general. When I got to college, I realized that a history existed beyond the narratives of rich White men I had learned about in High School. I became obsessed with all things related to Latin American history and how our society continues to be shaped by developments there. I was particularly drawn to twentieth century revolutions, when a vast array of disgruntled people rose up to decide the future of their nations. It reminded me how, when I was a child, my Grandmother used to tell stories about Pancho Villa and his elite soldiers riding through her town in Mexico, an army of African-American soldiers soon following in hot pursuit. In college I heard several friends relate the heart-breaking details and inspirational lessons of growing up in Nicaragua during that country’s Revolution. After college I had the pleasure of visiting Cuba, speaking with community leaders, and even hearing Fidel Castro give a three-hour long speech. Each of these stories and personal experiences seemed to refute many of the official histories I had learned about. This is when I noticed that only critical analysis of both primary and secondary sources can help us truly understand the complexities of armed revolution and the vital role that Latin America has played in world history, but just as important, to comprehend our own notions of freedom, democracy, grassroots organizing, and gender/ethnic differences in US society.

What kind of sources will you be working with in class?

Latin American History is a treasure chest filled with compelling sources. The Mexican Revolution was the first major conflict in the Western hemisphere to be photographed extensively. Students will have the opportunity to critically interrogate the importance of iconic images from this revolution, such as photographs of the only meeting between the infamous revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Che Guevara is the most well-known revolutionary in the world. By conducting a deep dive into his speeches (to the United Nations) and written manifestos (such as “Socialism and Man”) students will grasp his vision for de-colonizing the mind and liberating developing countries. Knowing the power of propaganda, leaders of the Nicaraguan Revolution wrote some of the most compelling speeches in recent history. We will analyze the positive impact of these speeches in gaining societal support from such sectors as women, but also their limitations as opposition mounted from marginalized groups including indigenous people. In addition, novels, movies, short stories, poems, films, song lyrics, and paintings will help students grasp the immense power the ideas that came out of these revolutions still hold globally today.

What does your class help us understand about the present?

We find ourselves in a moment in history when great change is on the horizon. All three of the Latin American Revolutions we will learn about this semester have provided key lessons that political activists today have learned from. Black Lives Matter, Native American Water Protectors, and all grassroots activists around the world have gathered inspiration and knowledge, in some form or another, from these revolutions. All nations in turmoil must understand the difficulties of first toppling oppressive regimes, and then creating systems that truly represent the needs of all sectors of society. As we can learn from Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua, violent upheaval was not necessarily the best answer to improving society, which is why this course also thoroughly interrogates the advantages of political and communal mobilization. Only by understanding historical patterns of massive change in other nations of the Americas can we fully grasp what the future may hold in this country.

What is truly the best Latin American cuisine?

I am personally biased towards Mexican food, not only due to the fact that I grew up with it and continue to prepare it myself, but because of its diversity. Tacos, tortas, tamales, carne asada, mariscos, carnitas, and enchiladas are particularly delicious. Of course, it’s difficult to ignore South American flavors, Peru (ceviche) and Chile (seabass) have the best seafood, and Brazilians and Argentinians prepare incredible steaks. And don’t let me forget about island cuisine, not a day goes by when I don’t crave Dominican sancocho or Puerto Rican mofongo. I got hungry just writing this, and happy to talk about food any time!

To learn more, you can see the syllabus on Canvas, drop by during shopping period (Monday August 17 and Wednesday, August 19 4:30-5:45), or email James to set up an appointment!

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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