A bewildered Colombian friend once asked me why I (or any North American of sound mind) would willingly choose to study the complicated history of his troubled country. Los colombianistas should help answer his question. The book contains interviews with 30 European and North American scholars in history and other disciplines who specialize on Colombia. The editors were motivated to compile these interviews by the lack of international scholarly attention on Colombia in comparison to other Latin American nations and by a need for Colombia “to be seen by the world as something more than coffee and cocaine” (p. 15). The book provides a wealth of information regarding scholarship on Colombia and should aid in strengthening contacts between Colombians and Colombianists.
The interviews are organized into four chapters, each of which corresponds to a generation of Colombia experts. The book begins with the “pioneers,” such as historians David Bushnell and Malcom Deas, and ends with a group referred to as los jóvenes, including Pamela Murray and anthropologist Peter Wade. This structure works well in that it provides a sense of the chronological development of international scholarship on Colombia since the 1950s and the closely related growth of Colombian academia over the same period.
The complexity of Colombian history is a recurrent theme. Several of the interviewed historians note the difficulty they face in incorporating Colombia into survey courses on modern Latin America because the categories they use to explain Latin America’s political history—such as populism, dictatorship, and revolution—do not fully apply. While agreeing on Colombia’s complexity, the interviewees interpret this complexity in different ways. Malcom Deas, for example, emphasizes democracy and consensus, while others emphasize exclusion, conflict, and hierarchy. Unfortunately the interviews are structured according to a standardized list of questions that does little to foster substantive debate on such differences of interpretation. The editors always bring the discussion back to the issue of why Latin Americanists often slight Colombia, an important question that nonetheless becomes repetitive when asked in every interview. One of the more thought-provoking interviews is that of anthropologist Joanne Rappaport, in which the interviewers inquire about the content of her research.
Surprisingly, few of the interviewees refer to political and criminal violence as a major impediment to research on Colombia. They refer to violence as a subject for study and as a lamentable aspect of Colombia’s stereotypical “bad image” abroad. But there is little discussion of what it means to do research in a country that suffers chronic (and worsening) strife, of to what extent the violence may affect the direction or limit the scope of our research, or of what, if anything, academics should do about it.
In addition to the interviews, an index of 170 Colombianists at the end of the book is an excellent resource. Unfortunately the index contains some misinformation and lacks entries for some important scholars. For example, historian Ann Farnsworth-Alvear of the University of Pennsylvania, who publishes on labor and gender history in Medellín, is not mentioned. In addition to a more up-to-date list of Colombianists, I would have welcomed a clearer explanation in the introduction as to whether all of the interviews were conducted in English. I found no reference to how, or by whom, the interviews were translated.
In general the best parts of Los colombianistas are those in which the interviewees discuss their own work, the state of research in their respective disciplines, and the personal and professional trajectories that led them to Colombian topics. Details about personal contacts and institutional support are fascinating to a reader familiar with the individuals and institutions involved. This book is essential reading for any historian embarking on research in Colombia for the first time. But as long as it is available only in Spanish from a Colombian press, its contributions in terms of furthering international interest in Colombia will be limited.