Brazil is renowned for many things, from the Amazon Basin to the samba. One of the most famous and exciting aspects of Brazilian culture is the celebration of Carnival. Carnival, the period just before the Christian observance of Lent, is a joyous celebration that contrasts starkly with the solemnity and sacrifice of the period that follows it. Closely related to Mardi Gras—in fact, Mardi Gras is a component of the Carnival period—the Brazilian celebration is often compared to the similar atmosphere of New Orleans. A quick note on language: Carnaval is the Portuguese spelling, while Carnival is the Spanish and English spelling. To maintain consistency and ease of access for English and Spanish readers, I will use the latter spelling throughout this post.

Depending on which calendar is used, the Christian year is divided into six or seven seasons, the most famous of which are Christmas and Easter. A third season is that of Lent, which is a time of repentance and fasting before the Easter holiday.1 Since Easter is a vital holiday for Christians to observe, and one which commemorates Jesus sacrificing himself to save mankind then rising again, those who observe Lent pray a great deal and partake in quiet reflection. Another key component of the Lenten season is abstinence or fasting—sweet and fatty foods, alcohol, meats, and various personal activities might be given up during the season in order to reflect the sacrifices made by Jesus while he fasted in the desert.2 The season of Lent begins in late February or early March every year, ending at the Holy Week before Easter.

File:Rok liturgiczny - Liturgical year.jpg
The Roman Catholic year broken into sections. Carnival occurs at the end of Ordinary Time and before Lent.
Source: Patnac,

Carnival immediately precedes Lent and is the last opportunity to use up and consume the items that will soon be prohibited. As a result, the foods and drinks that are sacrificed during Lent are used up so that they don’t spoil—for instance, someone who promises not to eat meat during the fasting season might eat more meat than usual during the days preceding Lent.3 On top of the feasting that occurs during this time, Carnival is a natural period to relieve stress and engage in social activities, as the season of Lent is more focused on inward thought and self-reflection. Indeed, even the name of the celebration signifies self-restraint: it comes from Latin and means, roughly, “farewell to flesh.”4 The name has two meanings—the first is a signal that meat will be given up, as was traditionally the case during Lent, while the second is a recognition that people ought not to think of their “flesh” or bodily needs during Lent, but instead emphasize their spiritual growth over that time. This time of transition, when people are preparing to forego daily pleasures for the restrictions of Lent, lends itself to a “last hurrah”-style commemoration. Parades, musical events, masks, and costumes usually make up part of the Carnival celebration, with different aspects depending on local customs and traditions.

Among the most famous recognitions of Carnival are Brazil’s. Nearly every city in Brazil has its own celebration of the holiday, typically united by the presence of parades, costumes, and delicious food. The grandest of these is Rio de Janeiro’s festival, first held in 1723, which is considered the largest not just in Brazil but in the entire world.5 One of the unique components of Rio’s Carnival is the appearance of samba schools, community groups that perform the Afro-Brazilian samba. Some 200 or more samba schools build floats and practice routines for the annual parade that draws two million people per day.6 Outside of the street parade, Carnival in Rio consists of dancing, music, and parties over a large area of the city. Vendors sell commemorative items and delicious foods like feijoada (slow-cooked pork with rice and beans) and carurú (a gumbo-like dish full of nuts and shrimp).7 São Paulo, Brasilia, and Recife, among other Brazilian cities, also have distinctive Carnival celebrations with foods and customs unique to their region.

Samba School Rio de Janeiro Brazil
A line of dancers in Rio’s Carnival. Source:

Virtually all of Latin America celebrates Carnival in one fashion or another. Some of the oldest Carnival traditions can be found in Ecuador, where traditional indigenous festivals merged with Christian holidays to form massive Carnival celebrations.8 Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Colombia all have Carnival traditions dating back several hundred years.9 In Uruguay, the Carnival festivities last for more than a month, while in Trinidad and Tobago huge celebrations take place for a week or more before Mardi Gras, each day with a specific theme.10 And New Orleans has a shared French and Spanish heritage, making it the perfect North American city for Carnival celebrations. The city’s famed Mardi Gras parties and historic French Quarter make it a popular setting for those who want to have fun while celebrating the Carnival season.11

Carnival is a celebratory period that differs a great deal from the season following it, and people all over the world have their own ways to recognize the holiday. While the festivals in Rio and the parties in New Orleans might catch the headlines, people throughout Latin America have recognized Carnival for centuries. It’s an important part of the cultural fiber of the region, even for non-Christians, and the joyous celebrations that accompany Carnival are unlike any other. Please check out the below photos to see the spectacle of the festival.

Carnival in the Brazilian city of Recife.
By governadoreduardocampos – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,
A festival in Colombia. By Etienne Le Cocq – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Mardi Gras in New Orleans. By Infrogmation of New Orleans – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
  2., 19-21.

Weekly Digest 8/3/2020

The coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the disease spreading faster than in any other part of the world. However, other news from the region has also cropped up for this week, with a tropical storm barreling through the Caribbean, and a new study challenging understandings of the South Pacific.

The ninth named storm of the 2020 hurricane season, Isaias entered the Caribbean as a tropical depression before strengthening and briefly becoming a hurricane while it battered the Bahamas. Currently downgraded back to tropical storm status, Isaias is threatening Florida and the southeastern United States. The storm reached Puerto Rico on July 29, delivering more than 10 inches of rain to the island in a 48-hour period. The trend continued as Isaias moved westward, dumping 13 inches of rain on the Dominican Republic and causing flooding on islands throughout the northern Caribbean.1 As it reached the Bahamas on July 31, officials cut the power to parts of the island nation as a preventative measure. At this time, injuries and deaths are not being reported, but as the storm moves out of the region there will be more clarity.

A scientific study proposes that Polynesian and South American peoples intermingled nearly 1000 years ago, prompting the sharing of culture and genetic identity between the indigenous peoples of the two regions. Published in Nature in early July, a study argues that Polynesians and Native Americans made contact approximately 800 years ago, around the year 1200.2 Researchers sampled the genes of modern peoples living across the Pacific and along the South American coast, finding striking similarities between the genomes of East Polynesians and indigenous tribes from the Colombia and Ecuador area—two regions separated by more than 4,000 miles of ocean. In addition to genetic intermingling, the role of the sweet potato is at the heart of this study—the food, with origins in Central or South America, is a staple of Polynesian cuisine and has similar names in Polynesian languages to some indigenous American languages.3 There is still much to be learned about the interaction between these groups, such as who journeyed where and why, but this study does propose a sharper link from Polynesia to South America.

As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the world, Latin America remains a hotspot for the viral pandemic. Recent data released by the World Health Organization shows that more than a quarter of COVID-19 infections and nearly a third of deaths from the virus have occurred in Latin America, where positive cases continue to balloon. Driven mostly by large infected populations in Brazil and Mexico, the region is home to 8% of the world’s population, but 26% of the world’s positive tests and 29% of deaths from the virus.4 Mexico is the latest country to dominate COVID-19 headlines, surpassing the United Kingdom as the nation with the third-most deaths, behind the United States and Brazil. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has resisted the idea of wearing a mask, spurned the enforcement of social distancing, and criticized media coverage of his handling of the pandemic. On August 1, he compared the coronavirus pandemic to his country’s fight against corruption, stating that only when corruption was no longer a problem would he “put on a mask and…stop talking.”5 Experts believe that downplaying of the pandemic’s severity and politicization of best practices such as mask-wearing have contributed to the quick spread of the virus in the region. Additionally, much of Latin America continues to struggle with the pandemic as the region’s economic inequality and lack of equitable access to healthcare make the region more vulnerable to transmission.

AMLO y Bolsonaro, en un duelo por los inversionistas * GSF ...
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (left) and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (right) have been criticized for their countries’ pandemic responses. Source:

In addition to the virus’s effect on public health systems, a multinational organization points out that COVID-19 could cause and exacerbate food shortages in the region. According to the World Food Program (WFP), the number of people facing severe food shortages could reach 16 million—or roughly three times the number of Latin American deaths from COVID-19—in coming weeks and months.6 Many of the rural areas in Latin America require a close-knit network of consumption, with local farmers selling their produce to neighbors and townspeople, but because of the pandemic there are fewer opportunities for market days and other opportunities to sell goods. This lack of business means that many people are unable to purchase the items they need to subsist, while a large number of farmers cannot buy items that they do not produce. As a result, more and more people face food shortages that could border on catastrophic, adding starvation and mass migration to compound the problems of the pandemic.

Bolivia continues to struggle with containing the coronavirus as its people look to alternative remedies, as covered in the July 20 digest. Poisonings from false cures continue to grow, and the nation also faces more COVID-19 positive tests than ever before. As a result, Bolivia’s electoral court has postponed its general election to October 18; originally scheduled for May, the election has already been pushed back once before due to coronavirus fears.7 Officials hope that the second postponement will allow COVID-19 to peak and begin to subside before elections occur. The country has faced electoral concerns since November of 2019, following a controversial election that prompted the resignation of President Evo Morales. Morales left Bolivia to live in exile in Argentina, leaving Jeanine Áñez as the country’s interim president. The transition from Morales to Áñez is deserving of its own long-form piece, but in brief, there are those who believe the transfer of power was part of a United States-backed coup to determine control of the country’s lithium deposits, as detailed in this teleSUR article. Suspicions were increased by Elon Musk’s recent “we will coup whoever we want” tweet; Musk’s company Tesla, Inc., requires large amounts of lithium for the production of electric car batteries. Regardless of the causes for Áñez’s assumption of the presidency, the latest postponement ensures that she will remain interim president through mid-October at the earliest.

We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it. : ShitAmericansSay
A screenshot of Elon Musk’s recent tweet seeming to indicate complicity in a Bolivian coup.

The South American Dreadnought Race

I have a soft spot for naval history, as I’ve always had a fascination with the sea. Today’s post is my first foray into writing about military warships, and I’ve chosen one of the more unique and overlooked aspects of naval history as my topic.

In the modern age, battleships are mostly a relic of the past, as aircraft carriers and submarines are the stuff from which modern navies are built. The ability to strike at an enemy fleet or strategic target from hundreds of miles away and the capacity to move vast distances undetected are more important than the means to launch massive explosives at comparatively close targets. But this state of affairs is relatively new; until World War II, the battleship ruled the waves, as it had for several centuries. In fact, the importance of the battleship and rapid technological advances in the early 20th century prompted a three-way arms race in South America, with the nations of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile nearly bankrupting themselves in the contest to have the most modern navy in South America.

File:German High Seas Fleet (Hoschseeflotte) during World War I.jpg
The German High Seas Fleet during World War I. Photograph taken from de.wikipedia, where the photograph is listed as being in the public domain, released under the GFDL.

Argentina and Chile share the longest border in South America, and the third longest in the world. Much of the border consists of the Patagonia, a sparsely populated region over which both nations claim partial ownership. In the 1860s this border region’s contested status, combined with a large Brazilian navy and Chile’s involvement in a war against Spain’s intervention in the Americas, prompted Argentina to embark on a program of expanding and modernizing its navy.1 The 1879 War of the Pacific between Chile on one side and Peru and Bolivia on the other prompted a major expansion of the Chilean navy, as well, and Argentina continued to grow its navy in order to keep up with its western neighbor.2 Between 1887 and 1901, Argentina and Chile consistently built up their navies, with Chile adding three battleships, five protected cruisers, and two armored cruisers; in the same period, Argentina brought on two battleships, three protected cruisers, and five armored cruisers.3 The two nations would continue to buy and build bigger and better warships, until a 1902 agreement—arbitrated by the British, who feared the erosion of their dominance on the seas—ended their arms race.

Administrative Map of Argentina - Nations Online Project
A map demonstrating the length of the border between Argentina and Chile, as well as Argentine administrative divisions. From

Following this mediated end to the Southern Cone arms race, Brazil recognized a strategic weakness in both the size and the quality of its navy. Further, the Brazilian government was able to export its primary trade goods of coffee and rubber at higher prices following increased demand. This spike in revenue prompted the country’s legislature to devote funds to improving the Brazilian Navy. Politicians and naval commanders shared a belief that a strong navy was necessary to modernize the country, improve the nation’s status internationally, and protect Brazil from external threats.4 With that in mind, the Brazilian government ordered three small battleships from the United Kingdom in late 1905, with the intention of pulling equal with its South American naval rivals.

The ships would never be completed. The following year, the British Royal Navy launched HMS Dreadnought, a revolutionary warship that completely altered the landscape of naval power. Dreadnought’s design had two unique features: an armament scheme that emphasized as many large guns as possible instead of diversifying the ship’s armament, and propulsion by a steam turbine with modern screw propellers.5 The arrival of this ship in 1906 quickly scrapped any plans to build ships that would already be obsolete by the time they were launched, leading the world powers of the era to engage in a battleship race. The first post-Dreadnought battleships (themselves called dreadnoughts) were relatively close in price and time commitments to complete, but the cost per ship grew rapidly thereafter. Naval power was considered the key to a strong military in this era, and large, modern battleships were the key to naval power and international prestige. Following Britain, the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Russia, Italy, and Austria all built their own dreadnoughts; aspiring naval powers like the Ottoman Empire and Brazil contracted with American and European shipyards to build their own dreadnoughts.6

File:British Battleships of the First World War; HMS Dreadnought Q21183.jpg
HMS Dreadnought, which ushered in a new era of naval development.;_HMS_Dreadnought_Q21183.jpg; Public Domain

Instead of completing its three pre-dreadnought ships, Brazil ordered three new ships that would be bigger and more powerful than the Dreadnought; in fact, the Minas Geraes class would be the most powerful ships in the world for a short time after they were launched. Given battleships’ role in international prestige calculations, the Brazilian order brought global attention to a country striving to become a major power.7 Newspapers and politicians believed that Brazil was purchasing the ships to act as intermediary for another major power up until the first two ships were commissioned into the Brazilian Navy.8 Upon the two ships’ arrival in Brazil, Argentina and Chile immediately cancelled their treaty limiting naval construction, embarking on a new era of naval development and ordering two dreadnoughts each, all of which would be larger and more powerful than the new Brazilian ships.

Battleship Minas Gerais
The Minas Geraes, which was the largest and most powerful ship in the world when first launched. Source:

As the dreadnought race heated up and the third Brazilian dreadnought began construction, political opposition grew. Brazil’s rubber and coffee exports were less prosperous than they had been, while a widespread naval revolt in 1910 had turned much of the populace against naval expansion.9 Still, the order had been placed, and a new ship—bigger and better even than the new Argentine and Chilean ships—was begun in Britain. This ship was called the Rio de Janeiro, and because of constant design changes it was far behind schedule and somewhat outclassed by the time it was completed. With the Brazilian economy cratering after its export prices plummeted, Brazil sold the new ship to the Ottoman Empire before it could serve in the Brazilian Navy. The ship would be rechristened the Sultan Osman I, but as it neared completion it would be confiscated by the British Royal Navy to participate in World War I.10 Brazil would order one more ship, considered a super-dreadnought because of the innovations it would incorporate, but it was cancelled by the outbreak of the war, which directly caused rapid naval expansion in Britain, limiting the ability of British dockyards to work on foreign ships.

Indeed, the First World War completely ended to the South American Dreadnought Race, as the countries involved did not have the domestic dockyards to build large ships and could no longer purchase dreadnoughts from the belligerent nations. The Chilean dreadnoughts were being built in Britain, but the British government purchased them from Chile before their completion. After the war, one ship was sold back to Chile, while the other was converted to an aircraft carrier for the British Royal Navy.11 Argentina, on the other hand, used firms from the United States for its two dreadnoughts, which were commissioned in 1914 and 1915 after several delays. Argentina had the upper hand in the arms race after these ships arrived, but all three countries developed naval expansion plans for after World War I ended—although these would not be completed, given naval arms limitation treaties and political opposition in the aftermath of the conflict.

None of the South American dreadnoughts saw combat in World War I—Argentina and Chile remained neutral for the duration of the war, while the Brazilian ships by that time had been surpassed in terms of capability. Still, the dreadnoughts of South America remained in service for many years after the war. Even by World War II in the 1940s, only the Brazilian Rio de Janeiro and Chilean Almirante Cochrane were no longer in service, and those ships had been taken over by the British decades previously. During this second global conflict, the Brazilian ships served as coastal defense batteries in the Americas, while the Argentine and Chilean dreadnoughts performed limited service as patrol ships off the coast of South America. As the navies of the world modernized, though, the governments of South America quickly sold their venerable old battleships for scrap. The Brazilian Navy’s dreadnoughts were the oldest battleships still in active service after World War II, so Brazil was keen to dispose of the ships. São Paulo was sold for scrap in 1951 but sank in a storm before she could be broken up and wrecked. Minas Geraes ended its career just a couple of years later and was scrapped in Genoa in 1954. The Argentine dreadnought Moreno was towed to Japan for scrapping in 1957, while Rivadavia met its fate in Italy beginning two years later. Chile’s Almirante Latorre served on active duty for the longest of any South American dreadnoughts, but following a 1951 explosion remained unrepaired. The ship was decommissioned in 1958 and sold for scrap in Japan in 1959.12

The South American Dreadnought Race was a brief chapter in the maritime history of the region, but it remains one of my favorite aspects of lesser-known Latin American and naval history. The naval investments particularly affected Brazil’s peacetime economy and politics, but they also brought Argentina, Brazil, and Chile to international attention prior to World War I.

  1. Guinot, Dolores Luna (2009). Conspiracy In Mendoza, 307-308.
  2. Historia de las relaciones exteriores argentinas:
  3. Statistics compiled from Robert L. Scheina, Latin America: A Naval History, 1810–1987, 46–51, 297–299.
  4. “The Mystery of the Great Brazilian Dreadnoughts,” World’s Work 17, no. 1: 10867. Linked at
  5. Gardiner, Robert, ed. (1992). The Eclipse of the Big Gun, 15.
  6. Sondhaus, Lawrence (2001). Naval Warfare 1815–1914, 227-228.
  7. Scheina, Robert L. “Brazil.” In Gardiner and Gray, Conway’s 1906–21, 403.
  8. Mead, Edwin D. “Reaction in South America.” Advocate of Peace 70, no. 10: 238.
  9. Scheina, Latin America: A Naval History, 81-82.
  11. Scheina, Latin America: A Naval History, 322.
  12. Austin, H.O. “Brazil: Small, Modern Ships.” All Hands no. 375, “Largest South American Navy.” All Hands no. 378, “The Fleets of Chile and Peru.” All Hands no. 379.

Weekly Digest 7/27/2020

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate headlines in Latin America and throughout most of the world. This week, stories about the public health and economic impact of the pandemic continue, with another natural disaster receiving coverage as well. 

Latin America has passed a worrying milestone, passing the United States and Canada as the region hardest hit by COVID-19. According to a Reuters analysis, Latin America leads the world with 4.327 million people having tested positive for COVID-19, more than a quarter of the world’s 16 million positive cases. Brazil, with 2.4 million positive cases and nearly 90,000 deaths from the virus, drives much of the Latin American figure, but Mexico, Peru, and Chile also find themselves among the top ten countries with the most COVID-19 cases. The United States accounts for 4.2 million cases and almost 150,000 deaths, rivaling the numbers of all of Latin America combined.1

A gravedigger wearing protective suit digs a grave to bury the coffin of a person who died from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Vila Formosa cemetery, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, July 16, 2020. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

Complicating the response to the pandemic in Latin America is a surge in misinformation and unproven claims about cures. Last week’s digest included an update about Bolivia’s senate, which approved the use of chlorine dioxide as a cure for COVID-19.2 At least ten cases of chlorine dioxide poisoning have now been reported in the country.3 In addition, social media posts and messages on WhatsApp have peddled miracle cures, promoted conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19, and prompted violence in communities. Some videos claim that 5G telecommunications hardware is causing the disease to spread; this rumor led Peruvians in Huancavelica to abduct and hold captive eight telecoms engineers.4 In Chiapas, in southern Mexico, citizens attacked government-run medical facilities and the town hall in response to allegations that the Mexican government was deliberately spreading the virus among indigenous peoples. Misinformation is spreading at roughly the same rate as COVID-19, with politicians and conspiracy theorists spreading their favorite rumors despite a lack of evidence to support their claims.

In recent weeks, there have been claims that Brazilian coffins were being filled with rocks to inflate the country’s Covid-19 death toll; that drones were being used to deliberately contaminate indigenous communities in Mexico; that the CIA was helping spread the coronavirus in Argentina; that seafood in northern Peru was not safe to eat because the corpses of Covid-19 victims were being dumped in the Pacific Ocean; and even that the World Health Organization chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had been spotted boogying and boozing at a bar on the São Paulo coast.

Tom Phillips, David Agren, Dan Collyns, Uki Goñi, “Tsunami of Fake News Hurts Latin America’s Effort to Fight Coronavirus,” The Guardian

Many countries in the Caribbean have banned citizens of the United States from visiting during the pandemic. Other countries continue to allow Americans to visit, citing the need to keep the tourism industry up and running in an era when other economic activities have been adversely affected. For weeks, the Bahamas had allowed visitors from the United States, but last week the archipelago became the latest nation to ban Americans from entering the country.5 On July 1, the Bahamas opened its borders to international travelers; in less than a month, the country of just under 400,000 counted 49 additional COVID-19 cases, most of them located near or linked to tourist hotspots on the island of Grand Bahama. Despite Americans no longer being invited to visit the country, commercial flights from Canada and Europe will still be permitted, although all passengers are required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test in the preceding 10 days. Nighttime curfews and beach closures are also in effect.

The Chinese government has previously expressed that any vaccine for COVID-19 developed in Chinese laboratories will be made available for global use, rather than keeping the compound a state secret. Last week the Chinese government also stated that they would provide a loan to Latin America to fund the vaccine once it is being mass-produced.6 In a call with Latin American leaders, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi announced an expansion of the country’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) designed to facilitate recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic. A Mexican participant on the call later said, “China’s foreign minister said that the vaccine developed in his country will be a public benefit of universal access, and that his country will designate a loan of $1 billion to support access for the nations of the region.” The BRI is China’s foreign aid plan for the 21st century, an initiative designed to improve relations with other countries by helping them fund infrastructure projects. BRI already reaches 70 countries, with investment expected to reach $1 trillion by the program’s completion.7 Terms of the proposed loan, such as how the money would be divided among countries or a repayment timeline, are not readily available.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will include well over 100 countries and 60% of the world’s population.

Despite the country’s relatively small population, which ranks 63rd in the world, Chile finds itself in the top ten of confirmed COVID-19 cases.8 In recent weeks, thousands of Chileans marched, protested, and obstructed governmental offices in an effort to receive additional governmental funding for those who lost jobs because of COVID-19. The Chilean government had previously announced that it would support its struggling citizens through increased governmental spending, but it recently changed course to allow for early pension withdrawals of up to 10% of saved value.9 Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and others expressed concern regarding the measure, warning that it is likely unsustainable and might have massive negative consequences for the country’s long-term economic health. Other commentators have noted that the move will likely boost the Chilean economy in the short-term, while allowing people to pay for necessities like food and electricity. There remain many unknowns about the measure, such as its long-term effects and alternatives for those without pension plans, but the Chilean legislature and president have already passed the law.

Finally, a natural and ecological disaster is unfolding in Pantanal, where wildfires are raging. The Pantanal wetlands—straddling Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay—are among the most biodiverse regions in the world. Last year, wildfires in the area as well as in the neighboring Amazon rain forest devastated ecosystems; this year, the fires are even more severe, with observers measuring three times as many.10 Brazil’s space agency, Inpe, has photographed the region and recorded 3,682 distinct fires since the beginning of the year. That is a 201% increase from the same period last year, and a massive leap from previous years. This year’s total is already the highest since administrators began keeping records in 1998; at this time in 2018 there had been 277 fires in the area.11 In addition to being home to anaconda, jaguar, anteater, and monkey variants, Pantanal is home to thousands of species of plants. Officials note that in addition to the biodiversity at risk in the fires, human communities are threatened with economic loss and home devastation, as well as fire-related injuries.


An Overview of Latin American Literature

The literature of Latin America has undergone a steady process of change and development over the last several centuries. The history of Latin American literature begins with the oral traditions of indigenous peoples of the pre-Columbian Americas and continues through the e-books and electronic newspapers of the present day. The topic is far too broad and has far too many subcategories to be covered in a single thousand-word post, but the following is a concise summary of literature in Latin America.

People of the Maya, Aztec, and other indigenous groups recorded their history in both oral and written form. Tragically, Spanish conquistadores and colonizers destroyed the vast majority of indigenous writings after their arrival in the Americas. Many of the surviving records were looted from conquered and assimilated cultures and sent back to Europe, where they now sit in museums and private collections. The surviving texts, in the form of codices, are primarily named for their current location rather than for their place of origin. The codices address a variety of topics, but most of them focus on religious and scientific understandings of the world. The most famous of these codices is the Dresden Codex, which is widely accepted to be the oldest surviving book from the Americas.1 The Dresden Codex, written by Mayans around the 13th century, functions as a calendar and astronomical text.

File:Dresden Codex pp.58-62 78.jpg
A section of the Dresden Codex depicting mathematics and astronomy.; unknown author/public domain

Even after the Spanish conquest, indigenous Americans continued to resist assimilation and produce great works of literature. Many of the works produced in the century or two after Spanish arrival focus on preserving indigenous history, folklore, and religion for future generations. Although it is impossible to know how many of these cultural tomes were lost to Spanish torches, one of the most important surviving texts was written by Peruvian Huamán (or Guamán) Poma around 1615. Titled El primer nueva crónica y buen gobierno (The First New Chronicle and Good Government), Poma’s work was originally a letter to the Spanish king describing the origins of the Inca people and their history up until the arrival of Spaniards.2 In addition, the First New Chronicle describes the harsh and brutal treatment of indigenous peoples by the Spanish and includes nearly 400 illustrations of daily life in Peru. It is unclear if King Philip II ever read the First New Chronicle, but the document has been invaluable for researchers studying the era of Spanish conquest.

The Spanish and their descendants also produced many works of literature in Latin America. Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés, and Francisco Pizarro each produced accounts of their exploration and conquest that informed Spanish opinions and policies for decades to come.3 Religious leaders and colonial officials continued to record what they saw and did in their lives, and in the 17th century poetry arose as a popular genre for missionaries in the region. Juana Inés de la Cruz—a Mexican nun, writer, and philosopher—was an early advocate of feminist ideology, and her poetry and prose attracted a number of followers, although her works were forgotten for a long period of time before scholars began disseminating them again in the last century.4 Literature also played a role in the movement to gain independence from Spain; in successive generations, anti-colonialists like Simón Bolívar made great use of pamphlets and mass-produced writings to recruit followers to their causes and overthrow Spanish rule.5

Modernismo arose in the late 19th century as the first purely Latin American field of literature, connecting all of Latin America and eventually spreading to Spain and France, among other countries. While the movement began in Nicaragua in the 1880s, writers from Mexico, Cuba, Uruguay, and Argentina all gained followings in this era. Modernismo authors often gave their works exotic and elegant settings, which served both to highlight the materialism of everyday life as well as provide an escape for the ugliness of the real world.6 Modernismo was also notable for its strong resistance to imperialism, particularly that of the United States. In particular, the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s prompted a new wave of avant-garde literature.

File:Madero en Cuernavaca.jpg
The unrest of the Mexican Revolution proved fertile ground for the authors of Latin America during the era of Modernismo.; public domain

The next major era of Latin American literature was the Boom of the 1960s and 1970s. Characterized by a willingness to experiment with new techniques and topics, as well as by reflections on the unstable political climate of the era, the Latin American Boom launched authors from the region onto the global stage. Heavily influenced by modernism, Boom writers challenged the established conventions of Latin American literature, most notably bringing to the forefront the genre of magical realism.7 Magical realism is a broad term describing a style of fiction that depicts a realistic view of the modern world, but with magical elements added.8 Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, who utilized magical realism to great effect, would become the most famous and successful of the Boom-era writers, and perhaps the most famous Latin American author in history.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Quote: Wisdom comes to us when it can no ...
A picture depicting Gabriel García Márquez alongside a quote reading, “Wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good.” The quote comes from Love in the Time of Cholera. Found at

In the last forty years, Latin American literature has continued to evolve, as contemporary writers find new subjects and approach old ones with fresh perspectives. One of my favorite works from the 1980s is Jamaica Kincaid’s controversial A Small Place, an emotional essay that examines the impact of colonial practices and tourism on Kincaid’s home island of Antigua. This work notes the inequalities of life in Antigua in the aftermath of British dominion. Essays continue to be a popular form of literature, with other authors finding their niche in short stories. Journalists, novelists, and poets have carved out their own niches in contemporary literature. But today, the literature of Latin America is as varied as the peoples of the region, as it has been for centuries.

  1. World Digital Library:
  2. Royal Library of Denmark:
  3. National Humanities Center:
  4. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Project:
  7. Pope, Randolph D. (1996), “The Spanish American novel from 1950 to 1975”, in González Echevarría, Roberto (ed.), The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature, Volume 2: The Twentieth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 226–279.
  8. MasterClass:

Weekly Digest 7/20/2020

Many of this week’s news items relate directly or indirectly to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Economic and public health repercussions remain important, but another newsworthy item from last week is a cartel’s strong challenge to the authority of the Mexican government. 

In Brazil, COVID-19 infections have crested the two-million mark, cementing the country’s confirmed cases as second-most in the world, trailing only the United States. However, the World Health Organization contends that Brazil might have reached a turning point in its fight against the virus, which can be contained with “sustained, concerted action.” WHO Executive Director Michael Ryan stated on July 17 that the growth of COVID-19 cases in Brazil was no longer increasing exponentially and that while new cases continue to appear, the country has an opportunity to mitigate those cases. In a press conference, Ryan said, “There is a plateau, there is an opportunity here now for Brazil to push the disease down, to suppress the transmission of the virus, to take control.” The country of some 200 million people, which counts more than 75,000 fatalities from COVID-19, has registered more than a quarter of a million positive cases weekly and more than 7,000 weekly deaths for the last month or more.1 The disease’s vectors are shifting, as the hard-hit urban centers of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have managed to slow its spread while it wreaks havoc throughout vast rural swaths of the country. Despite the good news of the nation’s cases reaching a plateau, a sustained effort will be needed to check and eradicate COVID-19 throughout Brazil.

Brazil’s neighbor Bolivia is having its own struggles in trying to rein in COVID-19. Following a surge of cases in the country, whose medical professionals are running short on necessary resources for managing the pandemic, the Bolivian senate passed a resolution approving the use of chlorine dioxide to treat the disease.2 Chlorine dioxide is a bleaching agent sometimes sold under the name Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS) or Water Purification Solution (WPS). Sellers of MMS have claimed that their product can protect against or cure such wide-ranging diagnoses as AIDS, autism, cancer, hepatitis, and influenza, among other illnesses. In recent months, those selling the product have claimed that it can prevent or cure COVID-19. However, there is little scientific backing to this claim, as the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that when mixed with a citric acid (as instructed on packaging), MMS becomes a chemical that can be used as household cleaner or bleach. The FDA warns consumers not to purchase MMS or other chlorine dioxide products as ingesting the solution can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and symptoms of severe dehydration.3 Additionally, Bolivia’s own health ministry has warned against using MMS to treat COVID-19. Despite these objections, the Bolivian senate’s resolution would allow for chlorine dioxide to be available in pharmacies without a prescription and for doctors in the state health system to provide it to patients. Despite passing the senate, Bolivia’s lower house and president must also sign the resolution for it to become law.

A graphic from the FDA showing various types of chlorine dioxide and stating that all of them equate to a powerful bleaching agent. Source:

The pandemic’s effects on economic activity in the region cannot be overstated. Colombia’s largest airport, El Dorado, is also one of the largest in Latin America. The Bogota airport recently embarked on a $2.5 billion expansion project that would more than double its annual capacity for travelers by 2050, but those plans have been scaled back following a drastic reduction in air passengers and a major economic blow to the air travel industry.4 Three of the region’s largest airlines—Latam Airlines Group SA, Avianca Holdings SA, and Grupo Aeromexico SAB—have filed for bankruptcy since the beginning of the pandemic, and the travel industry’s downturn is likely to affect airports for years into the future.

More broadly, COVID-19 is related to a dismal economic outlook throughout the Latin American region. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), economic activity in the region will fall by more than 9% as a direct result of the pandemic. A recent ECLAC report projects that the region will witness a reduction of 9.1% in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2020.5 That figure is further broken down with projections of 9.4% in South America, 8.4% in Central America and Mexico, and 5.4% in the Caribbean. That last figure is heavily dependent upon Guyana, which is experiencing economic growth despite the pandemic; should that growth cease, the Caribbean’s projected contraction in economic activity would adjust to 7.9%. The overall projection of a 9.1% reduction in GDP would essentially reset the region to 2010’s economic levels, resulting in “a lost decade” of economic activity. Further, ECLAC projects the region’s unemployment rate to reach 13.5%, up from 8.1% in 2019. Initial projections that the region might be able to weather the pandemic have given way to the reality that COVID-19 is wrecking national and regional economies, as well.

A table detailing projected change in GDP for Latin American and Caribbean nations. Source:

The final news update for this week comes from Mexico, where the federal government and drug cartels have been fighting for control of the country for more than a decade. On July 17, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador visited states over which the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) claims ownership, just as CJNG released video of its members in a long convoy. CJNG is run by Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera, and in the video cartel members are shown with military-style uniforms and equipment.6 Observer Mike Vigil, formerly chief of international operations for the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), believes that the video is the cartel’s way of saying that the CJNG, not the federal government, has authority over their region of Mexico. The CJNG has grown more brazen in flaunting the Mexican government’s dominance over the last year or more, with a June attack standing as the most obvious challenge to date. On June 26, Mexico City security head Omar García Harfuch was attacked in public but survived; the cartel was quickly named as the prime suspect in the bold attack that killed 3.7 Taken together with the June attack, last week’s video is a sign of increasing cartel activity and decreasing governmental authority in the country.


The Building of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is not the longest manmade waterway in the Western Hemisphere, but it is the most important, as it bridges the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Additionally, its construction is one of the most impressive feats of human engineering in history. Numerous political leaders bandied about plans for connecting East and West through Panama over several centuries, but those ambitions would only be reached in 1914. The history of this modern marvel is long and complicated, and several books have been written on the project. This post is intended as a brief history of the canal’s construction, although I’ll probably work on a more in-depth treatment of the subject in the future.

The geography of the Americas is such that from the time of European arrival in the Western Hemisphere until the completion of the Panama Canal, the only way to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was by journeying around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. Spanish administrators in the 16th and 17th centuries recognized the opportunity presented by the Panama isthmus and began moving goods over land—Spanish ships from the Philippines would arrive on the west coast of Panama and unload goods, which would then be transported to the east coast and loaded on different ships as cargo for Spain. But because of generally difficult construction conditions and political instability in the late 18th and early 19th century, no canal plans were formalized until the mid-19th century.1

A sketch showing the approximate lengths and routes used by the through-Panama route and the around-South America route.

By 1850, United States politicians recognized the need for a quicker route between the east and west coast of the U.S. The discovery of large gold deposits in California sent Americans scrambling westward, but also necessitated massive quantities of cargo space to send back east. Since the railway linking New York and San Francisco was still many years away, the quickest route between the two cities included steamships to and from Panama and a short overland voyage across the isthmus. By 1855 the U.S. government worked with the government of Colombia, which had controlled Panama since independence from Spain in 1821, to finance a railroad to quicken this part of the journey.

By the 1870s, trans-continental road and rail systems existed, but many leaders and businessmen wanted an all-water route for shipping goods. Despite the fact that a railroad now existed in Panama, there was no guarantee that the canal would run through the isthmus at the same point. In Central America, canal engineers had multiple locations from which to choose. Panama offered the shortest overland distance for the canal, but its location at the far south of Central America made journeys for ships longer both before they entered and after they left the canal. Proposed routes farther north offered longer routes but better terrain for construction. Panama’s most serious competition came from Nicaragua, which offered a slightly longer route but much flatter terrain; the Nicaraguan route was also closer to the lanes used by many cargo ships, and it would make use of large lakes and inland waterways to make construction easier. As the 1870s passed by, both routes underwent serious consideration, but seismic activity in Nicaragua led European and American investors to select what they considered the safer choice: Panama.2

A map showing five proposed canal routes through Central America. Route 1 is the Panama Canal, while Route 2 is the Nicaragua Route.
From Port Economics Management:

French companies, aided by the French government, began work on cutting a canal through Panama in 1881, but the effort was doomed by high mortality among workers and a shortage of funds.3 After the project temporarily lay dormant for many years until the United States picked it up, picking up where the French had left off. Panama remained part of Colombia, and the Colombian government continued to hold out for better terms once the Americans decided to build their canal in Panama. American President Theodore Roosevelt, impatient to begin the project, instigated and funded a Panamanian independence movement and stationed warships off the coast of Colombia in 1903.4 Soon after, Panama was declared independent (although it remained a U.S. protectorate for decades longer) and the canal would finish construction in 1914—more than three decades after construction began and twelve years after Americans inherited the project.

American workers utilizing a digging machine to construct the Panama Canal, ca. 1908.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division:

At various times, Colombia, France, and the United States controlled the territory surrounding the canal during construction. Even after it was completed, U.S. forces would occupy the surrounding area—called the Panama Canal Zone—until the 1977 Torrijos–Carter Treaties provided for handover to Panama.5 In 1999, the canal was taken over by the Panamanian government, where it is now managed and operated by the government-owned Panama Canal Authority. Dreams of building a transport system across the Isthmus of Panama began soon after the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and while it took them nearly 400 years to come to fruition, the canal that links West to East is now regarded as a marvel of modern engineering. Listed as one of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ “7 Wonders of the Modern World,”6 the Panama Canal now permits nearly 15,000 ships to cross from one ocean to the other annually.7

File:Panamax ship exiting the Miraflores locks.jpg
A large Panamanian freight ship leaving a set of locks in the Panama Canal.
Dicklyon / CC BY-SA (;
  1. Panama Canal Authority:
  2. Office of the Historian:
  3. From America’s Triumph in Panama by Ralph E. Avery:
  4. Hay-Herrán Treaty:
  6. ASCE:

An Overview of Sports in Latin America

The cultures found within Latin America are highly varied, and what is popular in one part of the region might have no following in another. Despite these differences, sports are an important way for people and countries of diverse backgrounds to come together, and a huge number of Latin Americans love sports. Throughout much of South and Central America, football (soccer for American readers) is untouchable as the king of sport. Much of the Caribbean adores cricket. And baseball is highly popular in a smaller number of countries, most notably Venezuela, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Throughout Latin America, people bond through sports, although that bonding is sometimes interrupted when tempers run high.

No sport has enmeshed itself in the fabric of Latin American culture the way football has. The game first arrived in the Americas in the late 1800s, as European sailors would play the game during down time in the Argentinian port of Buenos Aires.1 From this beginning, the sport has grown to be the one most synonymous with Latin American culture. A good barometer for the region’s passion for football is the results table for FIFA World Cup tournaments. In second place behind Europe (12), South America is the continent with the most World Cup titles (9)—in fact, no other continent has won a single iteration of the tournament. Additionally, perhaps the greatest football player the world has ever seen, Pelé, hails from Brazil, and Leo Messi (Argentina) and Neymar (Brazil) are two of the most recognized athletes in the world.2 Football is more than a pastime in Latin America: it is a passion.

Brazilian and Croatian fans at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, held in Brazil. / CC BY (

Sometimes, passions erupt into something more sinister, as in the case of the Football War. It might sound ridiculous to hear of a war over a football match but that’s exactly what broke out between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. The name is a bit of a misnomer, as the war wasn’t fought solely because of the sport, but a football match did ignite a conflict that had been smoldering for years. In the decade leading up to the Football War, Salvadorans had moved into neighboring Honduras in search of land and work. Honduran officials worked with American corporations and large landowners in their country to pass sweeping reforms that reduced Salvadorans in Honduras—both legal immigrants and clandestine squatters—to migrants with no claim to the land they had been living on and working.

At the height of these tensions between El Salvador and Honduras, the two countries were slated to play each other in order to qualify for the 1970 World Cup. The national teams split their two games among hostile fans and in the midst of a deteriorating diplomatic crisis. The two teams met for a tiebreaker match in Mexico City, which El Salvador won. Following the Salvadoran victory, riots broke out in both countries, and less than three weeks later, El Salvador went to war with its neighbor. In four days of intense fighting, a few thousand civilians died while hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced. After intervention by the Organization of American States, El Salvador ceased hostilities; their national team would lose three straight World Cup matches, returning home after being unceremoniously swept out of the tournament.3

A map showing the relative sizes of Central American nations El Salvador and Honduras. In 1969, despite its larger geographic area, Honduras contained a smaller population than its southwestern neighbor.

Like football, cricket gained its following as Europeans brought their pastimes to the Western Hemisphere. British colonies throughout the world learned to love cricket, and the West Indies were no exception; cricket is the sport of choice in former British holdings like Jamaica, Trinidad, and the British Virgin Islands. Cricket team supporters are some of the most passionate in Latin America, with pre-game parties reminiscent of American football tailgates.4 West Indies teams won the first two iterations of the ICC Cricket World Cup and came in second in the third iteration, although their success has been limited as South Asian and Pacific teams have won many tournaments in the last thirty years.

 The third major sport in Latin America is baseball, which saw rapid growth in the mid-20th century and remains popular in some parts of the region. The island nations of Cuba and the Dominican Republic are the strongest bastions of baseball support in the Caribbean; according to data from MLB in 2018, some ten percent of players in Major League Baseball hail from the D.R., with another five percent coming from Cuba or Puerto Rico. Venezuela leads mainland South America with another ten percent, meaning that Latin Americans comprise fully a quarter of MLB’s players.5 Some of the sport’s most recognizable names from the 1950s onward have been Latin Americans—Albert Pujols, Mariano Rivera, and my personal hero Roberto Clemente each became household names over the last few decades.6 But passion for baseball goes beyond just finding success in the MLB: the countries of Latin America have won, placed, or been semifinalists for every iteration of the World Baseball Classic since the inaugural tournament in 2006.

In addition to football, cricket, and baseball, dozens of other sports have achieved popularity in Latin America. Basketball has a rapidly growing following in the region, Formula One racing has had its share of great champions, and tennis, golf, and rugby all have their own fan bases. In the United States, sports have a role as a unifier of our often highly divided society, and Latin American sports are no different. While fans are passionate about their teams, sports do more to unite countries than to divide them. And when sports give their fans something to root for beyond a team—when great humanitarians like Roberto Clemente and Enzo Francescoli rise above their games to improve the conditions of humanity—sport is something special.


In Defense of the Liberal Arts

I credit my liberal arts education with playing an important role in making me the well-rounded person I strive to be. In undergrad, I had the privilege to attend a liberal arts university, and while I graduated with two majors, I also took a variety of additional courses outside of those disciplines. I spent most of my time studying philosophy and history, but I rounded out my transcript with courses in two different foreign languages, multiple fields of science, government, rhetoric, and interdisciplinary studies—not to mention an extra couple of classes in my double majors. I earnestly believe that these additional courses combined with what I learned in my majors to make me a better, smarter, and more fully developed person.

The liberal arts are a group of disciplines that provide learners with grounding in a variety of different fields. Most American colleges and universities break the liberal arts into three components: humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences/mathematics. Humanities courses include philosophy, religion, fine arts, and literature. The social sciences umbrella covers history, economics, political science, psychology, law, and communication studies. Natural sciences comprise biology, chemistry, physics, and other traditional science classes. There’s a brief overview of each division below, but in short the humanities emphasize studying the individual human experience; the social sciences highlight how humans interact with the world; and the natural sciences focus on the world as humans understand it.

The term “humanities” includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.

National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-209)

The social sciences are key to the understanding of many…societal issues such as the balance between economic growth and impact on the environment. In other words the social sciences examine what it means to be a social being, ranging from the minutiae of human behaviour and brain functions, to large scale social movements, demographics, economics and politics.

European Science Foundation, “What are the social sciences?”

The scientific study of phenomena or laws of the physical world. Natural science includes physics, chemistry, biology and other cross-disciplines. Mathematics, statistics, and computer science may not be regarded as natural sciences but they are essential tools and framework in natural sciences.

Biology Online

In medieval and early modern times, Western universities offered little more than liberal arts options, as the purpose of education was to form men who could lead their citizens as politicians, military leaders, doctors, and educators. The guiding principle was that well-educated men would better understand the context of their time and be more ethical than their counterparts, making them selfless leaders who could steer their people through difficult times. In several ways, that approach no longer applies in the modern era. For starters, Western education for several centuries was limited to men, with virtually no female scholars. Further, university attendance was limited to the noble and clergy classes, meaning that for the vast majority of people, there was no need and especially no means to attend a college. The opening of academia to wider swaths of the population has changed the landscape of higher education.1 Finally, in some ways, our society seems to have eclipsed the need for a diverse and thorough education in a variety of subjects. Today, there are advanced degrees in virtually every discipline, meaning that there can be more specialization in higher education. If our political leaders need to be well-versed in the legal system, they can earn law degrees. Our doctors spend the better part of a decade in school, learning the important information that will help them keep us healthy. Colleges and universities centered around particular fields—the military academies, M.I.T., business schools—have arisen to take higher ed specialization to a new level, seemingly making liberal arts programs irrelevant.

Philosophia et septem artes liberales, the seven liberal arts. From the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century).
Source: Wikimedia Commons, license CC-BY-SA 3.0

However, liberal arts programs are not simply some relic of the past. They are invaluable approaches to education that bring out the best in learners. A huge number of students go into a university with one idea of what they want to do professionally and then graduate with a completely different career aspiration, having taken courses that changed their mindset. Dabbling in a variety of courses allows students to find their calling and enhance their skills while still in the relatively low-stakes world of university, as opposed to having to start over after spending a year in a field they have no passion for. Additionally, a background in the liberal arts—while not necessarily a steppingstone to civic leadership—helps prepare citizens for civic involvement in their community. A liberal arts education reaches beyond the classroom and the workplace to give graduates a perspective that enables them to thrive in a rapidly changing world, connect and communicate with the people around them (even those who are different from themselves), and participate in civic processes like voting and serving on a jury.

Another critique of liberal arts programs is that they unnecessarily add to the college student’s required course load. An important criticism of contemporary universities, especially in the United States, is that tuition costs have skyrocketed. With that in mind, many people would prefer to get a degree that teaches them the specialties of their field rather than a general education with some degree of specialization based on their major.

Tweet from Twitter user @JasonMWX. Text reads “If we hate the cost of college so much, let’s get rid of all gen Eds that are unrelated to a major. Why do I have to take a music class when my major is meteorology? It makes no sense and is a huge waste of money. HS [high school] is for broad education, college is for specialization.”

But this argument misses three important points. First, the sticker price of tuition has certainly increased over the last few decades, most notably in the lead-up to the economic downturn of the late 2000s. It is important to note that tuition is not the primary driver of these inflated prices. Each year, College Board publishes a study on cost trends in higher education, and the data have consistently shown that tuition and associated fees do not drive rising college costs. Even room and board, once an afterthought to college costs and now the second-highest expense for most students, has stayed more or less stagnant when compared to inflation. Instead, the changes in college cost over the last two decades have grown in tandem with grants and federal funding assistance that covers students’ costs. While schools have gotten more expensive, the federal government has defrayed many of these costs for students, resulting in a manageable increase of roughly $100 per year. According to College Board’s report, the average net price for tuition, fees, and room and board at private four-year schools (usually the most expensive institutions) “increased from about $13,400 (in 2019 dollars) in 2011-12 to an estimated $14,400 in 2019-20; this net price remains below its level from 2001-02 through 2008-09.”2 The cost of college remains high and inaccessible for many people, but the rate at which costs are increasing has been grossly exaggerated and misunderstood.

Image description: Text and photo of empty lecture hall over light green background. Text: “The changes in college cost over the last two decades have grown in tandem with grants and federal funding assistance that covers students’ costs.”

Second, the well-rounded individuals who come out of liberal arts degree programs have two significant advantages on the job market. Their broad training and background lead to higher rates of hire and employment. And once they are in a job, their unique approach to problems makes them more likely to be promoted and earn raises. For instance, a programmer who plans to work on artificial intelligence projects might see no need for a philosophy class in undergraduate. But when that same programmer is put on a project that helps resolve ethical dilemmata—think of the debates over self-driving cars—they’ll need a grounding in ethics to be of use to the project.3 If that programmer sticks out for not having any experience in ethics, they will look bad to their project manager, who might not recommend them for a future project, despite the programmer’s strengths and  contributions in other areas. On the other hand, in a room full of programmers who have no background in philosophy or ethics, the one programmer who does have that training might quickly make an impression on the project manager, fast-tracking their way to another project and perhaps a management position of their own.

Third, this position misunderstands how college degrees work. A bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution will require roughly 120 credit hours, whether all of those hours are in one’s major or spread throughout the university. Only taking courses in one’s major won’t suddenly make a four-year degree obtainable in two years. One way to cut down on costs is to spend two years taking courses at a two-year institution or community college, but those courses will likely be in general education and liberal arts. One way or another, those with bachelor’s degrees must complete 120 hours of classes—and taking only classes within their major won’t decrease the time or financial commitment they have to make.

Liberal arts programs have a rich and storied history in the annals of higher education. No longer the marker of a distinguished noble citizen, but instead representing a well-educated graduate who will be adaptable to whatever their job requires of them, liberal arts education represents the best parts of the Western academic tradition. There are legitimate critiques of American colleges and universities, and the cost of these institutions remains a barrier to many who seek higher education. But the liberal arts are a boon to students, not something to be shunned, and their influence on millions of students each year prepares graduates for the world after college.

  2., pg. 19

Additional information from

Weekly Digest 7/13/2020

   In what will be a recurring theme, there are plenty of news items from Latin America this week. Below are a few highlights from media coverage throughout the region.

COVID-19 was slower to spread to and through Latin America than North America and Europe, but the peoples and countries of the region are now facing the pandemic in full. The lack of direct air travel between infected countries like China and Italy prevented the first wave from reaching much of Central and South America immediately, but the second wave of the virus has arrived in these countries with a vengeance. Indeed, several countries in South America now face some of the highest rates of infection in the world. Peru and Chile find themselves among the 10 countries with the most cases in the world, despite neither being in the top 40 most populous countries.1 Meanwhile, Brazil’s rate of infection has climbed steadily in recent weeks, with nearly two million confirmed cases in the country. Death totals due to COVID-19 in Brazil are also high, with some 70,000 Brazilians dead of the virus since February and more than 1,000 deaths daily for the last week.2

A graph showing per capita COVID-19 infections for 9 different nations. (Source:

Complicating the response to COVID-19, especially in the Caribbean, is the arrival of hurricane season. While the pandemic arrived later in the Caribbean than in mainland North America, the region’s popularity among tourists and lack of stockpiled medical equipment meant that the Caribbean would not stay isolated for long.3 The Commonwealth of Nations, an affiliation of 54 countries (mostly former British colonies) notes that pandemic response will soon by complicated by other factors; Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland highlights a loss in travel/tourism revenue and the impending extreme weather season as dangers for Caribbean nations.4 “The Caribbean is facing not only COVID-19, but the fact that when the new hurricane season hits…their economy will be greatly weakened, and we are looking at some of the most heavily indebted countries in the world. And this debt hasn’t come about because of their fiscal ineptitude—it has come about because they have had to respond to climatic and other events like the pandemic which are beyond their control.” Typically, hurricane season lasts from the start of June until the start of December, and the United States National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has predicted “above-normal activity” for the 2020 season. Given the uncertainty and destruction caused by COVID-19, it remains to be seen how the Caribbean will respond to further crises.

Robert Unanue (left), Chief Executive of Goya Foods, caused controversy when he praised U.S. President Donald Trump’s leadership.
Photo Credit: United Press International

Goya Foods items—from beans and seasonings to frozen meals and ready-to-eat snacks—can be found on supermarket shelves throughout the United States. Goya prides itself on being “the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the United States,” but many Hispanic Americans are taking umbrage at recent remarks from the head of the company.5 Chief Executive Robert Unanue attended and spoke at a White House event ramping up support among Hispanic voters, stating, “we are all truly blessed … to have a leader like President Trump.” However, many Americans have criticized Trump for his politics and rhetoric that make frequent targets of the Hispanic community. When announcing his bid for president in 2015, he took a hardline anti-immigration stance when he proclaimed, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”6 Trump received further criticism for his handling of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the American territory of Puerto Rico while the White House seemed not to respond to the crisis. Following the announcement of a death toll of 2,975 on the island, Trump praised his administration, stating, “I think Puerto Rico was incredibly successful… It was one of the best jobs that’s ever been done.”7 Prominent Latinx Americans Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (U.S. House of Representatives) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) have spoken against Unanue’s recent comments and begun a boycott of Goya’s products, which have also been supported by non-Latinos like Chrissy Teigen (model and author) and James Beard Award winner Michael W. Twitty (The Cooking Gene).8

One of the many Brazilians with COVID-19 is the country’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro.9 In the several weeks before he tested positive for the virus, Bolsonaro downplayed the severity of the pandemic and mocked preventative measures such as the wearing of masks. According to reports, just days before his positive test, Bolsonaro used a homophobic slur to describe those who chose to wore masks to slow the spread of COVID-19.10 The pandemic skeptic and self-described “proud homophobe” has neither confirmed nor denied his use of the slur, but has announced that he is being treated with hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug touted by Donald Trump as preventing the spread of COVID-19.11, 12 Bolsonaro’s hesitancy in addressing the pandemic within Brazil, as well as his embrace of a medication that lacks proven effectiveness, is not surprising given his close ties to Trump. The two visited together at a Trump property earlier this year, and the pair have implemented similar responses to the pandemic, including voicing skepticism about public health officials, expressing a desire to leave the World Health Organization, and emphasizing safeguarding their nations’ economies even at the cost of citizens’ lives.13 In addition, Bolsonaro has joined with Trump in rejecting notions of manmade climate change, with the Brazilian government allowing massive swaths of the Amazon rain forest to be slashed and burned. At the time of publication, Bolsonaro reported that he was feeling well despite the virus and that his wife and her two daughters had tested negative for COVID-19.

Jair Bolsonaro (left) poses with Donald Trump in this photo from 2019.
Photo Credit: BBC News