Latin American Textbooks

September 25, 2007

Well, Johnny, what did you learn
in school today? Ah, Mom, my
teacher told me to read my text-
book, and it said,
Critics of the Alliance say it is a
failure because it has not met
certain goals. Is this fair? ...
The Alliance for Progress is a
grand experiment. We don't
know the best way to progress
in Latin America. We try, make
mistakes, try again. People
reach goals in life at different
ages. Are countries any dif-
ferent? (The Story of Latin
America, Greco & Bacon,
California: Addison-Wesley,
1972, p. 174.)
What are children learning
about Latin America in their social
studies and history textbooks at
school? To answer this question
an assessment of social studies
textbooks formally adopted by the
State of California for classroom
use in grades one through eight
was conducted by Project REAL
(Recursos Educacionales de
America Latina-Educational
Resources on Latin America) at
Stanford University.
One of the clearest weaknesses
in the books examined is the omis-
sion of crucial information. The
textbooks give the impression that
Latin America is nearly one hun-
dred percent male, notwith-
standing the occasional photo-
graph depicting a peasant woman
or crowded street scene. Aside
from the rare mention of Gabriela
Mistral virtually no female
figures appear in these books.
Likewise, the history of black
people in Latin America and the
Caribbean is continuously under-
played. Very casual treatment is
given to slavery and even less at-
tention to contemporary Afro-
Latino culture. The issue of race in
the present day is most commonly
skipped over by euphemistic
references to Brazil's harmonious
"multiracial" society.
Indigenous peoples of Latin
America are treated as historical
artifacts. Their history abruptly
ends with the European conquest
and colonization of Latin America.
Few of the texts surveyed include
significant information on their
continuing struggles for economic,
social and cultural integrity. At
most one encounters a picture of
a market scene in the altiplano
region or a picturesque photo of
Macchu Picchu.
Finally, the existence of an in-
dustrial proletariat is usually side-
stepped as is the concept of social
class. Latin America is typically
depicted as having been divided
into simply rich and poor, but now
headed toward more "balanced"
development, with a growing
"middle class"--of factory
workers, store clerks and office
In the textbooks examined the
United States political system is
continuously described as demo-
cratic, while dictatorships and
military coups are presented as
almost endemic to the Latin
American political process. Expla-
nations for dictatorial and authori-
tarian regimes in Latin America
are based on the idea that Latin
Americans were immature, educa-
tionally and politically, at the time
of independence, and consequent-
ly unable to rise to the task of
democratic self-government.
The typical textbook discussion
of political dictatorship as a "Latin
tradition" generally provides a
convenient framework for examin-
ing contemporary Cuba. For ex-
Although Cubans wanted a
greater voice in their govern-
ment, dictators ruled Cuba most
of the time. The newest dictator
is Fidel Castro. In power since
1959, he has turned Cuba into a
one man state .... (M.
Schwartz, J.R. O'Connor, Ex-
ploring the Western World: Its
Peoples, Cultures and Geog-
raphy, Globe Book Company,
Inc., 1973, p. 361.)
At the same time there is a
strong tendency to overlook other
Latin American dictatorships.
Brazil is, perhaps, the best case in
point. It is rare to find mention of
the military coup which took place
NovlDec 1979
in 1964, forcing the democratically
elected Goulart government out of
power. Instead, textbooks choose
to emphasize the vast potential of
Brazil's economy; its economic
"miracle" of the late sixties and
early seventies, and the explora-
tion and development of the
Amazon region. References to the
disastrous consequences of mili-
tary rule for the "bottom" sixty
percent of the population are scat-
tered and often weak by compari-
son with the optimistic picture of
development taking place. For ex-
Much of Brazil's economic
history has been a series of ups
and downs. ... However, since
the beginning of the 1960's,
Brazil has had a turnabout in
the way its people meet their
needs and wants.... Brazil's
economy is booming at a
growth rate of 11.4% each
year. The value of exports has
doubled every two years since
1966. (World Cultures, Clarence
L. Ver Steeg, Scott, Foresman
and Company, 1977, p. 216.
Grade 6.)
Virtually none of the textbooks
provide any references to substan-
tiate the "facts" being published
as knowledge and truth, even in
the most obvious cases: the use of
statistical tables, graphs and
charts. Population statistics are
often antiquated, even though the
book's copyright may be fairly re-
cent. A 1975 edition may, for ex-
ample, be using 1960's statistical
information. Many textbooks are
simply spiffed up from one edition
to the next, adding a few new
photos or changing the names to
update the political profiles of the
"constantly revolving dictator-
ships." The lack of information
sources, however, contributes to
the impression which textbooks
tend to create among students:
that they speak the undisputed
gospel truth, requiring no further
While a grade school textbook
cannot be expected to include
everything, or even nearly every-
thing, it is not unreasonable to ex-
pect the book to include and
discuss the more important topics.
Here again, we are continuously
disappointed. Textbooks often do
include the topic of agricultural
problems, while land reform is
usually allotted one paragraph.
Foreign investment is generally
mentioned, but often in near code
form or with such euphemisms
that one might be inclined to wish
it had been left out altogether. For
Colombia depends on
businesses and banks from
other countries to invest there.
... Colombia is trying to in-
crease its own capital .... But it
takes a long time for a country
to create new capital by itself. In
the meantime, other countries
can help by lending money.
(People in the Americas, Robin-
son, editor, Silver Burdett Com-
pany, 1976, pp. 375-376.)
Moreover, any issue which
smacks of controversy is either
glossed over, omitted in its entirety
or depoliticized. The result is that
the content of these books is often
a bland, dull series of concepts
and events which have no bear-
ing at all to the flesh and
blood reality they purport to
The treatment of U.S.-Latin
American relations in large part
parallels the dominant thinking
among North American
academics and policy makers
about one decade prior to the date
of publication of the textbooks.
Some of the older books fall into
the Cold War category: our mission
is to fight the spread of communism
throughout the world and
particularly in Latin America and
the Caribbean-our own backyard.
Then, there are a number of
texts from the 1960's Alliance for
Progress era. These books reflect
the attitude that Latin America is
indeed a problematic, underdeveloped
region which must be
helped. The sources of problems
are described variously as
geographic, lack of natural
resources, the predominance of
backward/traditional social and
economic structures and not
enough modern North American
technology and industry.
Several of the more recent
books take a social science
developmentalist approach. This
approach relies on more complex
treatment of economic and social
issues, but basically falls back
upon the notions of economic
growth through the importation of
foreign capital and technology as
the solution to Latin America's
North America is pictured as a
source of knowledge and technology
which Latin Americans need
in order to "be like us." And this is,
naturally, the crux of the matter:
that Latin Americans should be
striving to be like us, that the
United States is the correct
paradigm which should be desired
and imitated.
While ideological biases and
opinions expressed in most of the
textbooks are far from subtle,
perhaps more than anything else it
is the subtle and invidious ethnocentric
economic and political
comparisons between "them"
and "us" which will stick with the
students and be most difficult to
change in the years to come.


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