Academic journal article Social Education

Teaching Modern Latin America in the Social Science Curriculum: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Academic journal article Social Education

Teaching Modern Latin America in the Social Science Curriculum: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Article excerpt

One of the most frequent challenges faced by those who teach Latin America at any level is how to provide a sense of the diversity of the region. The risks range from simplifying and reducing the multiplicity of experience through the study of dominant cultures and cultural forms, on the one hand, to including too much information or too many groups and overwhelming students in the process, on the other hand. The selection of appropriate methodologies and relevant materials is crucial to avoiding these two extremes. An interdisciplinary approach helps to solve these problems.

The first question that comes to mind in deciding how to teach Latin America is, what are the defining elements of a Latin American identity? It is not easy to find an answer since, as Susana Nuccetelli reminds us, we need to remember that even though "some Latin Americans have European background (which may or may not be Iberian), others are of Indian, African, Middle Eastern, or East Asian descent. Some speak European languages, mainly but not uniquely Spanish and Portuguese, others Indian ones such as Quechua and Guarani." In order to find a common thread among the different cultures and countries, we need to remember that the thinkers of this region have often noted that "in spite of their diversity, these people share a common past marked by the world-changing encounter of 1492." (1)

Unlike the case of the United States, where the independence process failed to launch any discussion of a common identity shared with the other members of the British colonial world, the identity of post-colonial Latin America was tied up with the discussion of a common project that unified the continent against any form of colonial domination. The idea of a continental emancipation that transcends the geographical limits of nations is still raised by such contemporary political figures as the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. And it is precisely here, in the process of identity formation, that we can find a good way to incorporate Latin American content into the teaching of the social studies in a way that it will facilitate for students to grasp the material and for teachers to organize it.

It is important to use the diversity of Latin America as a good example of the very diverse reality surrounding students in this country. Organizing thematic units that help students make connections among different areas covered by the social studies is the most important strategy for teaching about this region successfully.


These are some examples of thematic units with which to teach Modern Latin America:

* Race/ethnicity: Racial and ethnic differences have been crucial to understanding the cultural and social foundation of many Latin American countries. Introducing these themes and concepts allows the teacher to explain a source of conflict that remains relevant to this day. In Cuba and Mexico, for example, race and ethnicity have played a crucial role in defining the historical development of these nations. In the case of Cuba, students need to understand how slavery influenced the history of the nineteenth century. In introducing Mexico, teachers should explain the existence of different indigenous cultures that are usually grouped under the label "Indians." Students need to recognize that by the end of the fifteenth century, more than 300 languages and cultures flourished in this area, and some of them are still alive in the country today. (2) It is important to connect this unit with the historical experience of other countries that, even if not part of Latin America, went through the same kinds of conflict. (3)

* Progress and Civilization: these concepts determined the political organization of the first republics, and also were essential in establishing who and what should be included or excluded. The exclusive association of these ideas with European culture determined that the majority of the new nations followed a path in which their new identity only recognized those who could be assimilated, and discarded the rest. …

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