This past week, I spent some time researching ideas for my short essay when I found something that really made me reflect on the methods and concepts we have been learning so far. 

I knew starting my research that I really wanted to write about the historiography around Transnational History and Gender History in Latin America (or Iberoamerica). From what I have seen so far there is much less development on the field of Transnational History in Latin America when compared to Europe, the United States or Asia. I also haven’t really gotten the chance to study Latin America in university almost at all, there are no modules in either History or IR (the other half of my degree) which focus on any country/countries in Central or South America. It is also deeply personal to me, I was born in Spain to Brazilian parents, and grew up between Madrid, Buenos Aires and São Paulo – whilst always attending an English speaking school. The way that I experience Latin identity and culture is inherently transnational, so there was no better starting point for my research project. 

The first article I came across is an article by Michel Gobat, titled The Invention of Latin America: A Transnational History of Anti-Imperialism, Democracy and Race. Out of all the things this article could have focused on, I would have never thought before reading it that it focused on the history of the term “Latin America”. Gobat explains how the term emerged in the mid 19th century, at a time when the continent was attempting to distance itself from U.S. and European Imperialism and also find a common identity for its people. 

In the early 1800s citizens of the region referred to themselves as Americans, or Americanos. Slowly this term become popularised in the United States, and both the North Americans (who viewed the South Americans as ‘less white’) and the South Americans wanted a new term to highlight their cultural differences. America then became Spanish or Hispanic America. This new  term, which did recognise a common culture and language  was too tied to Spanish monarchical rule at a time where the continent prided itself in independence, it also excluded Brazil, the region’s Hegemon. There was also turn in U.S. expansionism post-1848 towards the Southern Hemisphere as the U.S. tried to create the idea of of a common American Identity, but one which believed on the North’s responsibility to dominate the ‘lesser race’ of the South.

The term ‘Latin America’ emerges as a response to all of these problems, yet it is not as simple as that. Gobat presents that there were two discourses regarding the term at at the time. There were those who constructed the term in opposition to Anglo-Saxon influence, and believed the term to include all races as long as they were Catholic and Spanish/Portuguese speakers. However, another group, came to identify the term ‘Latin’ exclusively with whiteness – they saw the whites in the North as descendants of the Anglo-Saxon’s and the whites in the south as descendant of the ‘Latin’ countries, Spain, Portugal, France and Italy. They knew that the north regarded them as belonging to a ‘lesser white’ and more effeminate Spanish race so they aimed to create a ‘more white’, more masculine, Latin race (perhaps this is the beginning of ‘macho’ culture in Latin America, but that story is for another blog post).

The term was set up to differentiate the white elites of the continent from the African or indigenous inhabitants, in this case, it was a term to separate identities rather than unite them. A term which aimed to combat U.S. and European domination was also set up to uphold colonial standards. It was a term to combat white privilege but to also enforce it, which demonstrates the anxieties around race and identity in the Americas at the time. 

I am glad to say that with hindsight, it was the first discourse surrounding the term which stuck. ‘Latin American’ today encompasses all of the people who have their roots south of the Mexican border – it is a term which today indeed does unite us, and a term which many have fought to be able to say proudly. Articles like this not only demonstrate the relevance of Transnational history in exploring the origins of something so ‘simple’ as a name, but also how Transnational history can help us uncover hidden gender, racial and class biases that have been overlooked which help us better understand the experiences and identities of those around us. 

What’s in a Name?