Forty-three years ago today, an organization calling itself the North American Congress on Latin America held its first public meeting at New York University’s Loeb Student Center. It was surely unforeseen by those present that, more than four decades later, the building that housed the meeting would have been torn down and replaced, but the organization would still be standing.
As reported by the second edition of the NACLA Newsletter, published in March of 1967, some 85 people attended that meeting, including professors, journalists, and Latin American students and academics, as well as individuals representing student groups like SDS, progressive Christian movements like the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the University Christian Movement, and undefined “Canadian groups.” After a morning of sessions detailing “magazine proposals, financial problems, action possibilities, research priorities, and methods of making closer ties with Latin American revolutionaries,” those present moved to a discussion of NACLA’s role within the larger movement for social justice.
As NACLA co-founder Fred Goff reported in the Newsletter, there were a few “overlapping schools of thought” on NACLA’s purpose, including the proposition that “it should work to create a broad-based coalition of groups and individuals building a radical foreign policy public, which would pressure for reforms in U.S. Latin American policy,” and that it should be “a group facilitating communication among various individuals and groups interested in changing U.S. Latin American policy.”
Sitting in the NACLA office just a few blocks south from the site of that first meeting, reading these early newsletters, I am struck by the overwhelming continuity with today’s NACLA: Despite vast changes in the organization and the world at large, we still meet to haggle over magazine proposals, possibilities for action, and financial problems; we still constantly struggle to define our place within a heterogeneous group of North Americans interested in social change throughout the hemisphere and to bring together, if often in only a virtual sense, the “congress” for which we were named.
Among those present at the first meeting, the Newsletter reported “a difference in emphasis between the academically and the agitationally oriented.” But Brady Tyson, a professor at American University and a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) board member who served as a deputy to UN Ambassador Andrew Young, wrote “As long as the essentially associational nature of NACLA is remembered, and it is conceived as a forum and not as a movement, these differences can contribute to a common, deeper understanding of U.S-Latin American relations and can aid in defining common action projects.”
That distinction, between a forum and a movement, underscores why the work we do remains so crucial—and perhaps why NACLA has lasted so long. For hundreds of people over the years, working with NACLA has been an entrée into radical politics, a place where political consciousness was, and is, developed through research, writing, exchange, and argument. To be sure, there were, and still are, moments of division: For every few former naclistas that I meet who remember their time here fondly, there is one who can describe it only with four-letter words.
But even in times of the fiercest disagreements, NACLA—as an organization, and through its magazine—was a venue for diverse left viewpoints on Latin America and U.S. foreign policy. Movements, friendships, even marriages broke down and broke apart, but NACLA has remained, even through the most tumultuous times, precisely because it provided a space open to those crucial conversations.
Now, 43 years later, NACLA remains a forum for seeking out the facts and uncovering the truths that stir people to action. When describing the rationale for producing a publication on Latin America, NACLA’s founders hoped that it would help “to encourage in-depth research and journalism conducive to analysis and action; to encourage those Latin Americans who feel few North Americans know or care what the effects of U.S. policy are; and to help build and inform a community of people who wish to learn more about how our lives affect the lives and aspirations” of Latin Americans. Building that community is, above all, what we try to do in every aspect of our work.
And so, 43 years to the day after that first meeting, we here at NACLA would like to offer our sincere gratitude to those who came before us, and to those who have supported us, both financially and politically, throughout the years. But above all, we’d like to invite you to you to join this community by subscribing to the NACLA Report, making a donation, or contacting us with your suggestions and ideas—and to help keep these crucial conversations going.
February 11, 2009
New York City