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All Latin American History Coverage

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Memory is already a slippery thing. And when it’s tangled in family lore and embedded in a country’s violent history, it can prove even more elusive. When Ingrid Rojas Contreras was in her 20s, living far away from her native Colombia, she suffered a head injury and became a terrified amnesiac. Desperate to retrieve her memory and understand the dreams and ghosts that plagued her, she set out for her family’s hometown of Ocaña, Colombia, to find the facts of her family’s history. (Mami heckled her daughter’s use of the word facts: “Can you believe the girl is going to Ocaña to look for facts? To Ocaña! In a family like ours? With the quality of our stories?”)

In Rojas Contreras’ enthralling memoir, The Man Who Could Move Clouds, she finds the historical and genealogical facts she’s looking for, but the stories her family reveals are far more powerful. In fact, they are magical, especially those involving Mami and her father, Nono, who could move clouds “for farmers who needed rain.”

In a dream Rojas Contreras had—the same dream her Mami and two aunts also had—her dead grandfather, Nono, made it clear to her that he wanted his remains disinterred, and so the author’s journey from Chicago to Colombia began. Nono was known as a curandero, or homeopath. He was sought after as a healer and feared as a mystic, endowed with “secrets” such as communing with the dead and foreseeing the future. When Mami fell—or was pushed—down a well as a child, he saved her life, and she seemed to inherit his powers. Rojas Contreras’ head injury also left her with “secrets,” such as the ability to appear in two places at the same time. In her large Colombian family, none of these skills seemed strange, though some members saw them as blessings and others feared them as a curse.

Rojas Contreras’ acclaimed first novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, introduced the fraught landscape of Colombia in the late 20th century, when assassins and kidnappers thrived while parents struggled to keep their children safe. Now, in her deftly woven memoir, she makes this history more immediate and personal, with prose that in itself is enchantingly poetic.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras makes the recent history of Colombia immediate, personal and magical, with prose that in itself is enchantingly poetic.

The term “coffeeland” could easily describe the United States today. Long part of daily life and culture, coffee has evolved from an inexpensive, plain cup of joe to a dizzying array of menu choices. But in this fascinating history, Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug, Augustine Sedgewick digs deeper to explore the little-known saga of James Hill, an Englishman who founded a coffee dynasty in El Salvador, where he arrived in 1889 at age 19. Not only did Hill change his own family’s fortunes, he transformed his adopted country into a coffee monoculture. By the second half of the 20th century, coffee made up more than 90% of El Salvador’s exports, bringing wealth to some and poverty to others.

Sedgewick sets Hill’s story against the backdrop of the history of the coffee business, which has its roots in the mid-1500s in Constantinople. By the mid-1650s, the coffee craze had taken England by storm. The coffeehouse, and the replacement of ale by coffee as people’s daily drink, has been linked to societal transformation and innovation. But it was textiles, not coffee, that originally brought Hill to Central America. Once there, he met and married Lola Bernal, whose dowry included coffee plantations. (Today, the company he founded continues as J. Hill and Company.)

Some of the most interesting sections of Sedgewick’s narrative trace Hill’s efforts to make his coffee the best, becoming an eager student of all aspects of coffee, from production to marketing. Sedgewick also is adept at incorporating Hill’s enterprise into the fabric of major historical events that impacted the world coffee market, such as the Great Depression. Sedgewick brings his narrative to a close with a discussion of the role of coffee today, arguing that coffee has replaced sugar as the commodity that most often drives discussion about the world economy and issues of economic justice.

Impeccably researched, with an extensive bibliography, source notes and an index, Coffeeland is a rich and immensely readable journey into an aspect of 21st-century life worth learning more about.

The term “coffeeland” could easily describe the United States today. Long part of daily life and culture, coffee has evolved from an inexpensive, plain cup of joe to a dizzying array of menu choices. But in this fascinating history, Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug, Augustine Sedgewick digs deeper […]
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For generations, historians have gleaned their understanding of the conquest of Mexico from Spanish accounts—whether from the conquistadors, who stressed Aztec human sacrifice, or Catholic missionaries, who were sometimes more sympathetic to the indigenous Nahua people. If you’d asked why the approach was so one-sided, the scholars would have said: Because nothing else is available. 

That’s simply not true. The people Americans call Aztecs, who called themselves Mexica, had a strong tradition of historical annals that didn’t stop with the conquest. For years afterward, the descendants of Nahua nobles, both Mexica and others, continued to write Nahuatl-language chronicles.

Happily, the long neglect of those documents has now ended. Historian Camilla Townsend continues her groundbreaking work in the field in the marvelous Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, a dramatic and accessible narrative that tells the story as the Nahuas saw it.

Yes, the Mexica sacrificed humans and were unpopular enough that some of the regions they had conquered allied with the Spanish. But they were also pragmatic, funny, clever, artistic and enmeshed in a civilization as sophisticated as Spain, if not as technologically advanced. Fifth Sun helps explode denigrating myths: Moctezuma was not a coward, just a realist. He did not think Hernán Cortés was a “god.” The translator known to posterity as Malinche (really Malintzin) was not a “traitor.”

Townsend, a first-rate writer, explores each era through the lives of real Nahuas who lived through or wrote about it. Among them are a captive daughter of Moctezuma, who bore one of Cortés’ many illegitimate children; a local ruler who learned to work in a Spanish-governed world and sponsored an important chronicle; and an indigenous Catholic priest, proud of both his ancestry and his Christian faith. 

The Mexica were smart and effective, but they couldn’t overcome Spanish horses, steel and guns. Even so, they didn’t give up. As is often true after a conquest, the defeated generation’s children rebelled a few decades later, and the grandchildren pushed to preserve their history. Fifth Sun continues that crucial task. 

For generations, historians have gleaned their understanding of the conquest of Mexico from Spanish accounts—whether from the conquistadors, who stressed Aztec human sacrifice, or Catholic missionaries, who were sometimes more sympathetic to the indigenous Nahua people. If you’d asked why the approach was so one-sided, the scholars would have said: Because nothing else is available.  […]

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