Vera S. Candiani
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. I work in the region where social, economic and environmental history intersect with the history of technology. 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.
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).
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.
Future projects include a comparative study of early modern wetlands and the processes by which they were desiccated in context of the emergence of European nation-states and their overseas empires. Whatever topic I explore will always be driven by questions, as I am less interested in making claims than in understanding and explaining processes.
I encourage students to interrogate the physical realities framing their everyday lives with questions conducive to uncovering the logic behind the human choices that shaped them. These material realities can range from industrialized food provision to indoor plumbing and sewage layouts, from grid urban layouts to schools that segregate the space, content and method of learning from manual work. Second, I instill the kind of literacy necessary to answer these questions fully – the ability to “read” landscapes, infrastructures and objects historically. I do this because I believe these skills are essential to understanding the obstacles to necessary changes in the way humans live and to creating solutions that are viable. To marry these convictions with the traditions that shape the history curriculum, my teaching program at the graduate and undergraduate level is based strongly on the political economy and ecology involved in historical processes.
Graduate students can study with me along two tracks. Obviously, I teach the historiography of colonial Latin America and its early modern Atlantic context. But I am now also developing a pedagogical approach with which I hope to help broaden the training of students such that they can think about and work with history in ways far more diverse than they have traditionally been expected to. Concretely, this means that as of Spring 2015, I am mentoring and teaching graduate students in any field or period who are interested in the literacy and pedagogy of material culture and built and unbuilt landscapes. My goal is to advance students' ability to use the historical evolution of familiar surroundings as a microcosm in which to develop the habit of asking and explaining why our tangible surroundings and realities are the way they are, on the one hand, and to develop ways to transmit this to others beyond academia: in public schools, "public" history, museums, and so on, on the other. In my view, it is imperative that graduate training in history address the challenges of the present.
My current undergraduate courses include: surveys of the history of colonial Latin America (HIS 303/LAS 305) and of Modern Mexico from 1810 on (HIS 309/LAS 312); a research seminar on how to use material and environmental sources historically (HIS 400) and a new reading seminar on Objects and Landscapes in History (HIS 464). I teach undergraduates much as I teach grads, by challenging them to ask questions and take intellectual risks.
To make the Iberoamerican colonial world more accessible and audible, so to speak, I have collaborated with Ireri Chávez-Bárcenas, PhD candidate in Musicology, 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)