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Transcending boundaries

Luis Roniger

Luis Roniger, new Reynolds Professor of Latin American Studies, is a believer in comparative studies.

hen Luis Roniger was a visiting professor at Wake Forest in 1998-99, he was assigned to the anthropology and sociology departments. Now he is back as an endowed professor—in the political science department.

He has co-authored books with a political scientist in Jerusalem, a historian in Chicago, and a sociologist in San Diego. He has been a scientific advisor to research and development programs and research foundations in Argentina, Brazil, Germany, and Israel. He has taught at universities in the U.S., Canada, Spain, Argentina, and Israel. He analyzes trends in Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile by drawing comparisons with South Africa, France and Japan.

Even at Wake Forest, which is known for its proliferation of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural scholarship, he stands out in transcending boundaries and classifications.

"I am a believer in comparative studies and in crossing disciplinary lines," says Roniger, who is in his first year as Reynolds Professor and Director of Latin American Studies. "Often, we are bound by our cultural assumptions and social practices, and we cannot break them unless we assume the views and experience of other cultures and societies. I have also found that some of my most fruitful collaborations have been done across disciplinary lines."

Born in Argentina, Roniger was attracted to the logical rigor of the social sciences and earned his undergraduate degree in sociology at the Universidad Nacional de Buenos Aires in 1974. "At that time and place, social science research was constrained by culture-bound and disciplinary restrictions," he recalls. "It was only when I arrived in Jerusalem [to pursue graduate studies at Hebrew University] that I was exposed to comparative and cross-disciplinary research."

For his dissertation on political clientelism, or patronage, in Brazil and Mexico, Roniger compared similar systems in other hierarchical societies, such as Japan. "Research on informal networks and on the control of political and economic markets led me to conclude that scholars in the core democratic and capitalist societies of the West had tended to disregard the impact of some important phenomena such as hierarchy and clientelism, which run against their culture-bound expectations," he says. "My interest grew increasingly from there into comparative political sociology, working together with renowned sociologist S.N. Eisenstadt and co-authoring with him a book [titled] Patrons, Clients and Friends."

Roniger focuses on the relationship between politics and culture. "Recent decades have witness transitions to democracies across Latin America," he notes. "The traumatic experiences [under repressive regimes] of Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay became black holes in their societal memories. How they rebuilt their collective identities and shaped their memories of the past was as much a cultural and intellectual process as it was a political and institutional one.

"It's interesting to note," he adds, "that South Africa has benefited from adopting—albeit with some changes—the Chilean model of a truth and reconciliation commission. It demonstrates how the experiences of one region of the world can affect another, even if reformulating them to fit domestic institutions and expectations."

One of Roniger's current projects concentrates on a different form of cross-cultural influence—that of political exiles. "By settling in a host country, exiles not only contribute to their new environment, but also redefine their identity and that of their home country, as many of them have a chance to return following political openings," he says. "The riddle at the center of this research is why the Latin American polities have increasingly used exile as a major political practice, and what were the consequences of exile in terms of constraining domestic political participation and opening these polities to transnational influences, carried out by diaspora networks, committees of solidarity, and international organizations.

"As part of a broad spectrum of forced migration, the research on exile reveals the transnational character of Latin American politics and its formative role in these polities," he adds. "It shows how globalizing forces have been at work there long before the very notion of globalization was coined and diffused."

Wake Forest's Latin American Studies program is an interdisciplinary minor, with courses drawn from the history, Romance languages, economics, music, anthropology, and political science departments. Its director lists four reasons why he thinks it is primed for growth.

"First, the U.S. in general, and North Carolina in particular, are becoming increasingly diversified demographically," he notes. "In the not-too-distant future, children of Hispanic immigrants will be coming to school searching for an understanding of their historical and cultural roots.

"Second, by looking at Latin America, we can gain greater understanding of the complexities of societies in the West," he goes on. "Latin America is part of the West—the Conquest reshaped its identity in that regard forever—but it also stands on the margin, with traditions uncharacteristic of other Western societies. For example, its peculiar traditions of populism and neo-populism, its religious syncretism and hybrid identities, its miscegenation and multiple grading mestizo or mulatto character—the mingling of European and Indian or European and African—which produced distinctive racial and ethnic attitudes. As a result, to bring but one illustration, there was no persecution of Jews or Gypsies in the thirties and forties in Latin America, even while there was significant social stratification and full awareness of nuanced differences of race and ethnicity.

"Third, Latin America has been moving to the left politically over the last decade," he points out. "Venezuela and Brazil are well-known examples. In Uruguay late last year, the left gained power through the democratic process. The presidents of Chile and Ecuador are converted socialists. While they have been willing to accommodate market economies, they are also searching for alternative approaches, and U.S. policymakers must take this into account. Since September 11, U.S. attention has been focused on the Middle East, and, except for Colombia due to the drug trade, Latin America has been left aside. But I foresee that very soon, Latin America will force itself back to the center of our attention.

"Last but not least," he adds, "Latin American culture—its literature, art, film, and theater—have greatly influences our own culture, and will only continue to grow more influential.

Roniger, who is at work on his tenth book, says Americans tend to overlook another source of their founding identity— Spanish America, through the annexation of vast tracts of Mexican territory in the nineteenth century and the impact of the waves of newcomers from the Caribbean and Central and South America in the twentieth century. "Americans tend to think of Europe and the influences of Puritanism, capitalism, the frontier, and immigration, as the primary shapers of their collective identity," he notes. "Our collective identity—who we are—depends on an understanding of all of the forces that have shaped us dynamically. Latin American Studies have something important to convey, contributing to this understanding of cross-American exchanges and mutual influence. Paradoxically, globalization will further reinforce both the tensions and awareness of this impact.

David Fyten


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