AHA Member Spotlight: Alfredo Avila

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership,AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series. The members featured in this column have been randomly selected and then contacted by AHA staff, but if you would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight, please contact Nike Nivar.

Alfredo Avila is a professor and researcher at the Institute for Historical Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He lives in Mexico City, and has been an AHA member since 2009.

Alma mater: National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)

Fields of interest: 19th-century Latin America, 19th-century Spain, political culture, intellectual history.

When did you first develop an interest in history?
I developed my interest in history because I love to read. As a child, I liked to imagine the places and customs of the characters in the Arabian Nights; immersing myself in Salgari’s Tigers of Mompracem and The King of Sea; taking to the South Seas with Stevenson’s Treasure Island. In high school, I became interested by the novelists of the 19th century: of course, I loved Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; I was thrilled with The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky; Washington Square and The Bostonians by Henry James showed me everyday life in America; Washington Irving and William Prescott led me into Spain. I also always enjoyed the Spanish novels like Don Quixote, but especially liked the 19th-century ones. La Regenta written by Leopoldo Alas “Clarín” made me think of Oviedo, in a time when the Catholic Church had great influence in society. Thanks to Los Episodios Nacionales by Benito Perez Galdós, I could imagine the battle of Trafalgar and the Napoleonic Wars.

What projects are you working on currently?
I’m working on early 19th-century Spanish American reformism. For the Spanish Enlightenment, the word that could solve the problems of Spain was “reform,” not “revolution.” In the 18th century, Melchor de Jovellanos (Spain), Antonio de San Miguel (colonial Mexico), and Victorián de Villava (Charcas) proposed social reforms to avoid a revolution; their goal was to generate wealth, reduce poverty, and strengthen the state.

In Spain the reforms were stopped in 1823, but some Spanish liberals traveled to Latin America to continue their work, and to participate in the reforms carried out in Mexico, Guatemala, and the Río de la Plata. In countries as diverse as Colombia, led by Francisco de Paula Santander, and Bolivia, under the government of Antonio José de Sucre, laws were enacted to improve education, to disempower the Catholic Church, and to promote a society of small landowners. In Buenos Aires, Bernardino de Rivadavia endorsed laws to force all citizens to pay taxes regardless of privileges. In Mexico, Valentín Gómez Farías would take the same steps as their counterparts in South America. They abolished the obligation to pay tithes to the Catholic Church. In Guatemala, the Governor Mariano Gálvez declared that marriage was a civil contract, not religious.

Finally, conservative groups reacted to these laws. They overthrew the liberal politicians that promoted the reforms, but maintained the most important.
To date, I have researched in archives and libraries of Argentina, Mexico, Spain, and United States. I must soon go to Guatemala and Colombia.

What is the last great book or article you have read? 
I am reading The Workshop of Revolution. Plebeian Buenos Aires and the Atlantic World 1778–1810, by Lyman Johnson. Professor Johnson is a well-known specialist in the history of colonial artisans. The Workshop of Revolution is an extraordinary book about the social and economic transformations of Buenos Aires at the beginning of 19th century, in the best tradition of E. P. Thompson and Sean Wilentz. The book has an Atlantic perspective. Johnson studies the importance of the immigration of Europeans and African slaves in colonial society. These changes led to the emergence of social groups that successfully fought the British in 1806 and 1807, and were the architects of the Revolución de Mayo.

I am also reading the novel Las nubes, by Juan José Saer. Dr. Real, a psychiatrist at the Río de la Plata,  must conduct a caravan of mentally ill people from Santa Fe to Buenos Aires, across the dangerous pampas. Saer was a great Argentinean author. In English you can read his novel The Witness.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
An article:
John Tutino, “The Revolution in Mexican Independence: Insurgency and the Renegotiation of Property, Production, and Patriarchy in the Bajio, 1800–1855” (Hispanic American Historical Review 78, no. 3 (1998): 367–418). It is a brilliant combination of economic and social history, gender studies, and analysis of political culture.

Many books:
Nineteenth-century novels. Only one recommendation: do not read as a scholar. Read them as did the people who were waiting for them every week, in taverns, squares, and with family.

Three movies: The Mexican Revolution Trilogy, by Fernando de Fuentes (1894–1958).

  1. Prisoner 13 (El Prisionero 13, 1933) is a story of corruption in the military forces of the Porfirio Díaz regime.
  2. El Compadre Mendoza (1934) shows how a powerful landowner survives the Mexican Revolution in alliance with Porfiristas, Zapatistas, Huertistas, and Carrancistas.
  3. Let’s Go with Pancho Villa! (¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! 1936) is a dramatic story of six peasants that joined the Mexican Revolution, with Pancho Villa.

One blog:
www.booksandideas.net

One CD (or MP3 if you prefer):
El Nuevo Mundo. Folías criollas (Montserrat Figueras, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, directed by Jordi Savall). It’s the most beautiful Latin American music from colonial times.

What do you value most about the history profession?
I love libraries. When I visit a city, even on vacation, I look for libraries. There are some huge ones, like the Library of Congress in D.C. Other libraries are small, with few books, but comfortable to study. I like reading old books and newspapers from other centuries. Sometimes, I find anonymous books and pamphlets; they are intriguing. I like to see the typography of the books of the 18th century and I’m excited to read what the 19th-century intellectuals and politicians had read.
I also love teaching. I have taught at several universities—Georgetown, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and of course, at my university. Students are always different, but they have something in common: they are enthusiastic. I learn when I am teaching history. Is it an oxymoron? I don’t care!

Other than history of course, what are you passionate about?
I love soccer. I am fan of Mexico’s Pumas, Spain’s Atlético de Madrid, and Brazil’s Palmeiras de São Paulo.

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