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Stumbling into Latin American Studies: And never looking back

Written by H. Glenn Penny, Department of History, UCLA

Stumbling into Latin American Studies: And never looking back

Although I have spent most of the last decade thinking about migrant histories in Latin America, that is not what I was trained to do. I never took a class on Latin America—not in history, political science, sociology, or any other field. The only courses that came close, were the three semesters of Spanish I took in 2007 as an Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa. Instead, my training focused on Europe. My undergraduate degree was in Central and Eastern European Studies. My graduate work was in European history, and my dissertation was a study of ethnology and ethnographic museums in Imperial Germany (1871-1918). If I thought my interests in material culture, the history of science, and German polycentrism drove that research, it ultimately launched my shift toward Latin America. I just did not realize it until much later.  

I often say that my primary research method is to stumble into problems that irritate or perplex me and then try to figure them out. One of the things that most perplexed me during my dissertation research, was that the German ethnologists I followed around the globe seemed to encounter German communities wherever they went. 

Those communities were especially dynamic in Brazil during the decade before World War I. At that time, ethnologists, such as Karl von den Steinen, who led two expeditions into the Xingú region of Brazil in the 1880s, often did so armed with dictionaries and grammars for indigenous languages produced by other Germans in places like Blumenau, in Santa Catarina. 

I was not surprised that curious and talented autodidacts supplied scientists such as von den Steinen with advice, data, and support. German ethnologists encountered people like that in many corners of the world. Rather, I was surprised by the extent of the German communities in the three southern-most states of Brazil, the number of German associations, businesses, clubs, and schools, the variety of German-language newspapers, the degree to which these Germans were involved in all kinds of Brazilian agriculture, industry, and trade, and the myriad ways in which Germans’ lives in Brazil were tied into German lives in Europe.  

Von den Steinen’s accounts of those Germans irritated me, because although I had just spent over a decade of my life studying and producing German history, I knew nothing about the breadth and depth of German history in Brazil. Moreover, as I returned to my textbooks to find what I have overlooked, it became clear that I have not missed anything—it simply was not there. Nor, I later learned, were the many German communities and sundry individuals across the rest of Latin America.

Why was that? Why had historians and other scholars left these people and their activities out of their narratives of German history? The numbers are not trivial: German migrants to Latin America included hundreds of thousands of people after the 1880s, millions when we count the decedents. Moreover, largely because of those migrants’ efforts, the German nation-state became one of the leading trading partners for many Latin American states by the end of the nineteenth century. In many cases, it retained that position with few interruptions through the interwar period, after World War II, and even until today.  

If I was troubled by the historiographic lacuna, and wanted to unpack its implications, I also simply wanted to know why so many Germans migrated to Latin America after the 1880s, and what roles they might have played in European and Latin American history. These seemed like simple questions, and I thought I had an easy solution: while writing my dissertation in Berlin during the late 1990s, I had often worked in the reading room of the Ibero-Amerikanisches-Institut (IAI). It was there that I found most of the material I needed on von den Stein and other German scientists in Brazil and Mexico. My thought was that I could simply return for a summer, work up a bibliography on Germans in Latin America, and write up a historiographic essay around my findings that would both answer my questions and fill this stunning historiographic gap. So, I applied for a fellowship, got on a plane in 2011, and down the rabbit hole I went. 

I never really looked back. The IAI in Berlin is one of the largest research libraries in the world devoted to Latin American studies. It functions simultaneously in English, German, Portuguese, and Spanish. It now has a tremendous on-line catalogue that can be harnessed from abroad, and it has substantial archival holdings. It only took a few weeks of being there to disabuse me of the idea that I might complete a bibliography of all the work on Germans in Latin America. As I quickly learned, the Portuguese-language historiography produced over generations in Brazil was daunting; so too was the Spanish-language material on Germans in the rest of the Southern Cone, in Mexico, and in Central America. There also was, and still is, an extensive German-language historiography on Germans in Latin America produced by a vibrant scholarly world of Latin American studies in central Europe.

The funny thing was, few of my colleagues in the United States knew much about any of that—neither the people working on European history nor the ones working on Latin America. That too was perplexing. Scholarship is often compartmentalized; and container histories, usually aligned with national histories, have dominated our research for a long time. I have spent the rest of my career pushing back against that.

While I did ultimately write a historiographic essay in 2013 focused on Germans in Latin America, which staked out the many ways in which that work could enhance scholars’ understandings of Germans’ engagement with the non-European world, I ultimately became most interested in the history of the vast array of German migrants and their communities in Latin America for their own sake.  

It’s safe to say that those interests shifted my scholarly focus dramatically into the history of migration, and I quickly became keen to team up with others to bring the divergent historiographies I had been encountering into dialog. To do that, I have been working closely with Stefan Rinke at the Latin American Institute at Berlin’s Free University—hosting meetings on Germans in Latin America, producing a special issue of the German journal Geschichte und Gesellschaft on Germans abroad, and supporting younger scholars from Europe as well as North and South America who share these interests. I also brought together a group of junior scholars, largely Latin Americanists, at the annual meeting of the German Studies Association for a series of panels on the topic, and together with some of them, I organized a special issue of the British journal German History on Germans and Brazilians.  

Simona Lässig, the current director of the German Historical Institute (GHI) in Washington DC, which has a Pacific Branch Office in Berkeley, has been a critical partner as well. She helped bring my interests in migration and the history of knowledge together, which greatly improved the work I had been doing on German communities in Argentina, Chile, and Guatemala. She also encouraged me to think more directly about migrant children as knowledge producers, which completely changed the work I was doing on German schools in Latin America. Some of that emerged in essays and blog postings, some informed my most recent book, German History Unbound: From 1750 to the Present, and it continues to inform what I am doing now. In November 2022, for example, Simone Lässig, Stefan Rinke, and I will be hosting a meeting in Washington DC on German Migrants and Migrating Knowledge in Latin America, which purposely brings together mid-career scholars from all three continents to generate conversations among them.  

Working with the GHI in Washington and Berkely has opened myriad avenues for collaboration. The Berkely office, for instance, is focused on migration and the Pacific, and it quite naturally looks towards Central and South America. That’s been a fantastic boon for my current research, which includes three inter-related projects: one is a study on being German in Guatemala, which focuses a great deal on the period after WWII and draws on research with people whose families have long thought of themselves as both German and Guatemalan. The second is a comparative analysis of the varied German communities in Chile and their ongoing connections to global networks of travel, transport, and trade since the 1880s.

These are very different locations, and the people who identified themselves as Germans as well as Latin American in these two states had strikingly different journeys through the radical political ruptures that often punctuate our histories of the twentieth century. Yet they share commonalities, and they not only have a great deal to teach us about being German as well as other things (e. g. Chilean or Guatemalan) in the modern era but also about Latin American interactions with foreign actors.  

The third projects is grounded in what I have come to think of as the southern German borderlands, stretching from Salzburg, Austria to Basel, Switzerland. Many of the people who I have been following in Latin America came from this region, which has long been a site of cross-border mobilities, migrations, as well as a place of integration and coexistence, where code-switching between multiple dialects and languages and belonging in a world that is both intensely local and globally oriented have been consistent commonalities of life. Better understanding that region helps me to better make sense of the actions of people from there in particular historical situations on both sides of the Atlantic.

Being at UCLA, with a research chair in German history and affiliations with both the Latin American Institute and the Center for the Study of International Migration is the dream situation for me. When I add to that the proximity of the GHI’s Pacific Branch Office, I can draw on a wealth of resources and interlocutors. Currently, as I am settling into Los Angeles, I have also been diving into its history, which includes a history of German migration, and even associations of Germans that come from Swabia, that part of Germany that is my current focus, and where I teach at the Ludwig Uhland Institute for Cultural Anthropology at the University of Tübingen every summer. One of the courses I most enjoyed teaching there was “Being German in Latin America.” In 2021, it attracted a number of German students who had either spent time in Latin America, had family there, or both. That was a fantastic experience. I expect to teach a new version of that course at UCLA during the 2023-2024 academic year, and I am eager to compare the interests and reactions of my European students with students at UCLA.



The opinions expressed in this blog post represent the views of the author and not of the UCLA Latin American Institute.