Race in the Scientific Imagination at the Turn of the Twentieth Century in Brazil and Cuba

Mario Eloy Valero

Race in the Scientific Imagination at the Turn of the Twentieth Century in Brazil and Cuba
Valero, Mario Eloy
Thesis Advisor(s):
Montaldo, Graciela Raquel
Ph.D., Columbia University
Latin American and Iberian Cultures
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Geographic Area:
Latin America
This dissertation examines the instrumental role played by race in the scientific conceptions of society at the turn of the Twentieth Century in Brazil and Cuba. The examination of scientific rhetoric in the work of Euclides da Cunha and Fernando Ortiz, as well as a large number of photographs, from this period of institutional modernization, identifies the racial variable as the conceptual locus of coexistence and struggle amongst multiple representational regimens produced by anthropology, sociology, literature and medicine. These diverse interdisciplinary matrices of meaning (set forth in texts and images) constructed the foundations of the concept of race through the equivalent notion of exoticism and anomaly as expressions of the axiom of difference. This ideological conceit was offered in countries marked by racial miscegenation as the means for cultural originality as well as the main threat to their political consolidation. This constituent relation of the racial difference, evident in Euclides da Cunha's masterpiece Os sertàµes (1902) or in Fernando Ortiz's early criminological work Los negros brujos (1906), prompted an alternative approach to the critical apparatus that has privileged the analysis of their aesthetic qualities. In addition, the design of ethnographic and medical portraits of the time evidenced a correlation between aesthetic value and biological description in disciplines such as criminal anthropology, tropical medicine or ethnology. This project sheds some light on the particular concern for governability and cultural legitimacy raised at the time by nationalistic ideology which influenced the racial hypothesis offered by Euclides da Cunha and Fernando Ortiz. Nonetheless this crucial aspect has been considered incidental to their intellectual careers. The work of these intellectuals has been canonized into Latin American contemporary history as models for cultural emancipation. Yet, the hypothesis of racial difference they helped to foster have explicitly or implicitly guided the implementation of state policies in culture, public health and police control in Brazil and Cuba. The analysis of the social and scientific uses of photography in the construction of the exotic and the anomalous as racial categories offers an alternative methodological approach indispensable for the reconsideration of photographic production in Latin America during the period of modernization.
Latin American literature
Latin Americans
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Suggested Citation:
Mario Eloy Valero, , Race in the Scientific Imagination at the Turn of the Twentieth Century in Brazil and Cuba, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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