“East is East and West is West,” Rudyard Kipling believed, and the difference could only be resolved “at God’s Great Judgment Seat.” When it came to cultural mysteries, sixteenth-century Spanish friars were more optimistic about understanding the differences between North and South. With a foot in both Europe and the Indies, often speaking Indian languages as well as Spanish, they undertook a self-conscious effort to explain one side to the other. In the nineteenth century, the role of informational intermediary was often filled by the travelers whose sketches and prose brought vivid accounts of Latin American ways of life (and investment opportunities) home to Europeans and North Americans.

The past 60 years or so have produced a fairly large number of European and North American history textbooks on various Latin American countries—or the region as a whole—which might be seen as a continuation...

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