Historiographical Reflections On Health And Medicine In Latin America: A Conversation With Diego Armus

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Canadian Journal Of Latin American And Caribbean Studies


During a pause in the 2008 colloquium at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México where the contributions to this special issue of CJLACS were first presented, Diego Armus agreed to submit to a "historiographical interview," a relaxed discussion of the tendencies that he sees at work in the field, the reasons for his own trajectory into thinking about the history of disease and public health, and his thoughts on the paths historians of Latin American medicine are likely to pursue in the coming years. Armus is la persona indicada for such an interview: in the past seven years, he has edited or co-edited four important collections that have been instrumental in constituting the field. Both Entre médicos y curanderos: Cultura, historia, y enfermedad en la América Latina moderna (2002) and Avatares de la medicalización en América latina, 1870-1970 (2005) were issued by important Argentine publishing houses; Disease in the History of Modern Latin America: From Malaria to AIDS (paperback 2003; e-book 2007) artfully and ecumenically presented these themes and some of their leading authors to an English-speaking audience; and in 2004 he co-edited, with Gilberto Hochman, a Portuguese-language collection, Cuidar, controlar, curar: Ensaios históricos sobre saúde e doença na América Latina e Caribe, which was released by Brazil's leading publisher in the area of health and medicine. The breadth of these works is revealed by the fact that they all involve authors from across the major "regions" of scholarship in the Americas and with few exceptions the contributions are not repeated across collections. His innovative work, La ciudad impura: Salud, tuberculosis y cultura en Buenos Aires, 1870-1950, appeared in Argentina in 2007, and a North American version of the book will shortly be published in the US. Armus, who lives in New York City, is a professor of Latin American history at Swarthmore College and teaches regularly at several Latin American universities.I began to work on a very broad topic - health conditions of urban popular sectors in the Southern Cone of Latin America - with other young researchers from Uruguay and Chile and with a more mature and always enthusiastic urban historian, the late Jorge Enrique Hardoy. Soon the possibility to do my Ph.D. at Berkeley under the direction of Tulio Halperín Donghi became real. It was at Berkeley that I understood the significance of my encounter with [Susan Sontag]'s book. It was a sort of first chapter in my discovery of the vibrant and fastgrowing British, French, and US historiographies that were already celebrating Illness as Metaphor, but also bringing in nuances and even expressing some reservations. By then I was beginning to draft my dissertation project: a "total history" of tuberculosis [TB] in modern Buenos Aires. Certainly it was a very ambitious start, one that I now judge both necessary but also a little bit naive. I had no idea about the availability of primary sources for such a topic and for that approach. In any case, and perhaps revealing how difficult it was to gather those sources, the edited collections came out before my "total history" of TB in Buenos Aires - one that, in fact, tried to be "total" but now I know it isn't.In this effort to creatively weave the local with the global, my impression is that we are particularly well equipped, even better equipped than historians working on the centre of capitalism. After all, Latin Americanists - not North Americanists or Europeanists-were trained with the "obligation" of knowing the available literature on a certain topic, no matter how far away from the Latin American experiences those places might have been. A byproduct ofthat "obligation" generated among Latin Americanists the custom of adding footnotes in books and articles dealing with Latin American cases that mentioned studies located outside the region. I am referring to that unfortunately very common "for this issue in France or in England please see such and such authors." Sometimes, especially in studies written in Latin America, the same pretentious style works, but referring to Latin American examples. Of course, there are cases in which these references are necessary. What I really dislike is what I consider an unnecessary way of legitimization and false erudition that has nothing to do with global or regional approaches.

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