Vera S. Candiani
& by appointment
A native of Argentina, I studied at the University of California at Berkeley with Tulio Halperin Donghi, Margaret Chowning, Jan de Vries and Carla Hesse. Although my area of specialization is Colonial Latin America, most of the questions I ask force me to think and write comparatively, and to delve into the role of human interactions with the material world of dirt, plants, animals and energy through work and everyday objects in broad historical processes.
In my view, history has the potential to better inform our decisions about the present and future, at the very least providing living experiments about the prospects for policies and projects of all sorts that few if any impact reports or predictions based on the study of current behaviors can match. But this potential is largely being wasted, putting the practice and teaching of history at risk of being seen as increasingly irrelevant to the urgent civilizational problems posed by environmental and social crises brewing all over the planet. In research and teaching I try to remedy this.
In addition to History, I am also affiliated with the Princeton-Mellon Urban Studies Program, the Princeton Environmental Institute, and the Program of Latin American Studies. I also serve on Executive Committee of the University's Center for Architecture, Urbanism, and Infrastructure.
Current and Future Projects
My first book, Dreaming of Dry Land: Environmental Transformation in Colonial Mexico City, is about one of the largest and most complex environmental engineering projects in the early modern era, which aimed to desiccate the lakes that used to surround the City of Mexico. Driven by the question of why our surroundings look the way they do, this book studies the social priorities embedded in the various structures and technological decisions that comprised the drainage project. In the process, it explains how colonization actually worked on the water, land and biota (humans included). It won the Conference for Latin American History Elinor Melville Prize for best book in environmental history, and has be critically acclaimed in US and international journal reviews.
Currently, I am working on a project tentatively entitled "Common histories: Peasants and urban plebeians in the colonization of the early modern Atlantic." This comparative project embracing Spanish, French and English settlement in the continental Americas analyzes the connection between two of the most impactful phenomena of Atlantic early modernity – colonization, and tensions over access to the basic means of direct subsistence: the commons. It seeks to answer two interconnected questions. The first is how and why over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries some colonizing enterprises transferred the European institution of commons and practices of communal access to land, water and the resources in them while others did not. The second, how the resulting strength, weakness and persistence of commons in the Americas impacted the formation and development of peasantries, on the one hand, and the social autonomy of plebeian rural and urban populations with access to such resources, on the other. My entry point into the project is therefore the role of commons in this process taken comparatively. The ultimate aim is to provide a much needed broad and comparative explanation of key historical differences in class formation throughout the continent and in so doing better explain the roots of enduring and epoch-changing peasant, rural and urban socio-political movements that characterize Latin America in contrast to North America.
Whatever topic I explore will always be driven by questions, as I am less interested in making claims and arguments than in understanding and explaining processes.
How and why I teach
Teaching cannot remain impervious to the multiplying crises for human societies and ecosystems of our epoch. All of my work as a teacher is centered around the urgency to equip youth with the sharpest analytical, theoretical, and interpretive tools, as a well as the knowledge base, to understand and act in an increasingly perilous future. This is my principle for undergraduate and graduate education, and how I decide what and how to teach. At the moment, my pedagogical focus is in three areas, one topical and two methodological and theoretical: Early Modernity and Latin America; material and landscape analysis, and Marxism and the dialectical materialist method. In my formal and informal teaching and advising, I will always connect the subject matter and the methodologies to urgent problems facing our societies -- at the moment, the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact. In my view, it is imperative that training in history address the challenges of the present.
Graduate students can study with me along different tracks. Obviously, I teach the historiography of colonial Latin America and its early modern Atlantic context. But in addition, I am keen to broaden the training of students in all fields and disciplines such that they can think about and work with history and social sciences in ways far more diverse than they have traditionally been expected to. Concretely, this means that I mentor and teach graduate students in any field or period who are interested in the literacy and pedagogy of material culture and built and unbuilt landscapes, and that I also offer training in the Marxist method. In all my graduate courses I stress pedagogy -- that is, students' figuring out how to teach and how learning happens. I do all this to diversify the sets of skills that PhD students need throughout their studies and into the job market, with the assumption that under current conditions many will need to find work outside of academia.
My pedagogical philosophy stresses problem-solving, questions, and intellectual risk-taking. It treats History as a science with explanatory purpose and potential, while embracing the value of narrative as form. I encourage students to prioritize the interrogation of realities past and present and the formulation of hypotheses about these questions over the staking out of proprietary claims and arguments. I try to keep learning about cognition and pedagogy, so that I may pass on the lessons to my students.
Please do contact me about syllabi, applying to Princeton to work with me and others, and anthing else this profile makes you curious about.
I have also collaborated with musicologist Ireri Chávez-Bárcenas in developing a website containing and explaining the music of the period that I use in conjuntion with my undergraduate colonial survey. The project is called Listening to Colonial Latin America: Music, Sounds and Silence as Historical Sources. Below are screenshots of sample pages. It is freely accessible to anyone affiliated with Princeton. Others please ask me for an access ticket. We expect to be able to make the website public in the near future, hoping also to expand the project to encompass the continent as a whole by collaborating with musicians, musicologists and historians of colonial Franco-, Luso- and Anglo-America, to whom we extend an invitation.
Selected Articles and Chapters
"Bourbons and Water," in Jordana Dym and Karl Offen, eds., Mapping Latin America. A Journey through Latin American Maps from the Columbian Encounter to the Present (University of Chicago Press, 2011)
"The Desagüe reconsidered: Environmental dimensions of class conflict in colonial Mexico," special issue on environmental history of The Hispanic American Historical Review, 92:1 (Feb. 2012). doi: https://doi-org.ezproxy.princeton.edu/10.1215/00182168-1470959
"Reframing Knowledge in Colonization: Plebeians and Municipalities in the Environmental Expertise of the Spanish Atlantic.” History of Science, vol. 55, no. 2, June 2017, pp. 234–252, http://journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.princeton.edu/share/G8E39XGZSXIMAPQV...
"Social and ecological impacts of conquest and colonization in New Spain," in William Beezley ed., Oxford Handbook of Mexican History (forthcoming, 2020)