Latin American labor has a well-established historiography, in dialogue with trends outside of the region. Environmental history is a newer and more exploratory field. In basic terms, environmental history explores the relationships of humans with the natural world, sometimes referred to as “nonhuman nature.” This can include how humans have affected the natural world, how the natural world has affected human history, and histories of human ideas and belief systems about nature. Labor and environmental history grows from explorations of the connections between these two spheres. Humans interact with the natural world through their labor and from their class perspective. The natural world shapes the work that people do and the institutions and structures humans create to organize and control labor. Changing labor regimes change the ways that humans interact with, and think about, the natural world. Both labor and environmental histories are in some senses investigations of how humans relate to nature. This essay sets Latin American labor and environmental history in global historical context. After offering a chronological summary, it briefly examines connections between U.S. Latino and Latin American labor and environmental histories, and ends with a discussion of contemporary Latin American critical environmentalisms.
Since the mid-19th century, Argentine society has undergone significant demographic shifts. The expansion of capitalism and the growing complexity of the state apparatus increased the social importance of occupations that are usually considered to be part of the middle class, especially in the Pampas. There was a rapid increase in salaried labor and income distribution worsened significantly. A consumer society arose amid this climate and a good portion of the new trade opportunities rested in the hands of European immigrants, therein generating a complex panorama of both new and old forms of inequality. At the same time, various middle-class trades began to organize themselves in order to mobilize their specific demands. Nevertheless, they did not develop ties of solidarity between one another, nor a unified “middle class” identity. Such an identity would begin to form much later within the political sphere. Starting in 1919, politicians and intellectuals became concerned about the expansion of revolutionary ideas and labor activism, and in order to counteract this, they began to encourage pride in a middle class identity within the public sphere. The historical evidence suggests that from that time on, some members of the common people began to identify as middle class, thereby slowly transforming the perception of social difference that had up until that moment still been binary. A middle-class identity definitively took root after 1945 as a part of the political experience of the middle strata. Peronism, for its plebeian elements and for the social and symbolic space it granted the lower classes, posed a profound challenge to the concepts of hierarchy and respectability that had existed until then. This challenge paved the way for vast sectors to embrace a middle-class identity and to distinguish themselves from the pueblo peronista, as well as to assert their right to a central role within their country. In this context, the middle-class identity in Argentina assumed some characteristics unique to the region, weaving together narratives of nationhood that placed the middle class, the supposed descendants of European immigrants (the implication being “white”), in a place of preeminence as the champions of “civilization,” and therein, as enemies of Peronism and the cabecitas negras, or the “little black heads,” that supported him.
Both Ecuador and Bolivia have gained a reputation for powerful social movements that have repeatedly challenged entrenched political and economic interests that have controlled the countries since their independence from Spain almost two hundred years ago. A wealthy and powerful minority of European descendant landowners ruled the countries to the exclusion of the majority population of impoverished Indigenous farm workers. Repeated well-organized challenges to exclusionary rule in the late 20th century shifted policies and opened political spaces for previously marginalized people. Social movement organizations also altered their language to meet new realities, including incorporating identities as ethnic groups and Indigenous nationalities to advance their agenda. Their efforts contributed to a significant leftward shift in political discourse that led to the election of presidents Evo Morales and Rafael Correa.