OPINION: Take a class! (on Latin American history)

A drawing of an open book with a map of Latin America coming out of it, in front of a fruit tree.
(Sasha Matthews • The Student Life)

I felt the warm spring air on the back of my neck as my friend Chiara and I made the trek down the hill from Pitzer College to Pomona College. It was a Wednesday and we were on our way to our favorite class, Latin America Since Independence, a survey course that introduces histories of Latin America, from indigenous beginnings to Columbus and Iberian conquest and all the way until the late 20th century.

Through taking this class, I came to a realization: We call ourselves “Americans,” yet we often ignore the whole other half of Americans who live to our south.

Where I grew up was WHITE white, not even close to the “Pitzer is a PWI” complaints that I hear from my classmates. I come from a semi-rural area in Connecticut, an 82.3 percent white high school and a town that was 86 percent white. I hadn’t had much exposure to Latin American culture, let alone learned about its history.

Latin America Since Independence filled that gap and completely changed my worldview. Most of what I had learned in high school was the typical colonized history of conquistadors, with a big focus on the Aztecs. I hadn’t questioned U.S. foreign policy or the neocolonial actions of U.S. multinational companies in Latin America. It was a complete erasure of a history so important, so relevant to a United States high school student – and my experience is not unique.

Studies find that Latin American history is left out of high school history books. For example, a study conducted by Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and UnidosUS found that history textbooks used in high schools only covered about 28 out of the 222 topics relating to Latino history that they deemed important — about 13 percent. Thirteen percent of Latino history isn’t just negligent, but a blatant act of laziness by textbook authors.

Of course, not all history can be encompassed in one book, but surely more than 13 percent of it isn’t too much to ask — especially when some 4,370,000 out of 15,436,000 United States high school students are Hispanic/Latino.

In Latin America Since Independence, our professor particularly focused on the history of U.S. involvement in Latin America. Most notably, we spent significant time learning about the Boston-based United Fruit Company (UFCO), now known as Chiquita. Operating in Guatemala under the dictator Jorge Ubico, UFCO owned over 42 percent of the land in the country. However, when democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz stepped into office, things changed.

Passing Decree 900, Árbenz began redistributing large plots of undeveloped lands to landless farmers, threatening UFCO’s large landholdings. Two years later — after a UFCO-sponsored propaganda campaign depicting Guatemala as a communist country in the United States media — the CIA backed a coup against Árbenz in June 1954, which replaced the democratic leader with the military dictator Carlos Castillo Armas.

To me, it is stories like this that show the importance of this history, not only to learn about other countries, but to take a critical look at the system that we are living within. Here, the U.S. government, the supposed “defender of democracy,” takes hypocritical actions by replacing a democratically elected leader with a dictator after a U.S.-based corporation, fearing a lower bottom line, made a ruckus in American media.

There’s something to think about the next time you pick up a banana from a dining hall.

There are so many of these “hidden histories” like the Bracero Program, a Mexico-U.S. agreement that allowed Mexican workers to fill agricultural labor shortages during World War II. Scholar Teresa A. Meade points out in her book “History of Modern Latin America: 1800 to the Present” that “most residents of the United States are unaware that without the work of Mexican migrants during World War II and the Korean War, the United States would not have been able to produce enough food to meet demand on the home front and for the military abroad.”

The Bracero Program is an important piece of history that shows directly just how important learning Latin American history is. The United States public directly benefited from Mexican labor — in fact, a lot of the population might have gone hungry without those Mexican workers — but still, many hold prejudices against immigrants from Latin America.

The United States can no longer maintain its ignorance of Latin American history, histories that are intertwined with U.S. politics and our daily lives. We shouldn’t be content waiting to learn this in college. We must advocate for increased visibility of these histories within high schools. We must take on this task to educate ourselves on these histories.

Next semester, think about registering for Latin America Since Independence or Colonial Latin America or History of Mexico or any other related course. You might be surprised by how much you learn. You might be surprised at how much more you see.

Semi-rural Connecticut native Aaron Matsuoka PZ ’26 returns from his writing hiatus to give you a history lesson. He enjoys coffee, hiking, running and learning new things.

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