A broad overview of one of the world’s most historically volatile regions.
Plenty has been written already about the near and distant past of Latin America, but Chasteen (History/Univ. of North Carolina) provides an account that is strikingly thorough, as well as readable and brief. He follows a strict chronology, beginning with indigenous civilizations and continuing to the present day, and he covers not only the highly developed Aztec, Maya, and Inca empires and the larger nations of Mexico and Brazil, but also the many minor pre-colonial cultures and smaller nations (such as Cuba, Peru, Guatemala, and others) in the post-colonial era. Especially notable is Chasteen’s treatment of religious and anti-religious sentiments, liberal and conservative ideologies, and the transcultural “melting pot” of immigration. His approach is wide-ranging and carefully addresses economics, politics, religion, gender, race, and popular culture in order to fully present the complexities of Latin America’s long and turbulent march toward “progress.” His writing is down-to-earth and fast-paced: easy-to-understand statistical snapshots, relevant biographical information about prominent figures (e.g., Carmen Miranda, Juan and Eva Perón, Che Guevara, Pablo Neruda, and others) and colorful stories (the rubber barons who built an opera hall deep in the Amazonian forest) make this a quick and engaging read.
Chasteen occasionally adopts too casual a tone, and there are portions of his narrative that could use more to reinforce credibility and help point the way for further research, but these are minor quibbles in light of his achievement overall.