Brodie Fischer on Creating New Narratives: Urban Poverty in Latin America

Greg Borzo
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   Latin America is a region of the world that has been deeply shaped by outsiders’ ignorance of it. The forces of conquest, colonialism, slavery, inequality, migration and urbanization have formed social, political and economic orders that cannot be well understood if we try to fit them into standard European or American historical narratives.

So says Brodwyn Fischer, a newly hired University of Chicago history professor who aims to understand Brazilian history on its own terms, and believes that doing so can help re-examine simplistic understandings of wider global issues. She specializes in the histories of law, cities, migration and social inequality in Brazil and throughout Latin America.

“Professor Fischer’s appointment makes our Latin American history program the best in the country,” says Bruce Cumings, History Department chair. “This isn’t just my view, but the view of several top historians whom we asked to evaluate Professor Fischer's work.”

With a PhD from Harvard, Fischer taught for twelve years at Northwestern University. During that time, her husband, Emilio Kouri, currently the director of the University of Chicago's Katz Center for Mexican Studies, taught at the University of Chicago. “We were both being recruited by the University of California at Berkeley,” Fischer says. “That’s when the University of Chicago saw an opportunity to expand its commitment to Brazilian studies and bring a Brazilian and Latin American perspective into ongoing campus initiatives concerning urban studies, poverty and public policy.”

The fields of Latin American and Brazilian studies are changing rapidly, Fischer says, in part because the region has been out of the United States’ strategic spotlight for more than a decade, given the end of the Cold War and the current international focus on the Middle East. “As a result, rather than studying Latin America in the context of perceived crises – Will the region go ‘communist?’ Will its cities explode in violence? What’s the latest emergency? – historians are now studying Latin America in its own right, as a place that generates ideas, art, literature and significant opportunities for the rest of the world.”

Focus on researching, writing, teaching

Having the time and freedom to pursue her research, which necessitates two-to-four trips to Brazil a year, is one thing that attracted Fischer to Chicago. “The structure of the academic year and the University’s leave policies make it easy for me to visit Brazilian archives and collaborate with Brazilian colleagues,” she says. “In addition, the relatively light bureaucracy here, compared with other universities, and the open lines of communication with the dean and committee heads will make it possible for me to focus on my work and students. Combined with Chicago’s deep commitment to intellectual challenge and engagement, those factors really made a difference.”

Fischer wrote the award-winning A Poverty of Rights, a history of law and citizenship in Rio de Janeiro during the period that established Brazil’s modern legal order. She is a co-editor of the forthcoming Cities from Scratch: Poverty and Informality in Urban Latin America, which features two of her essays.  Fischer is now working on two more books: Understanding Inequality in Post-Abolition Brazil: Recife and Rio, 1870-1970, which explores changing social and political functions of inequality in one of world’s most inequitable countries; and Great Migrations: Emancipation and Urbanization in Brazil, 1888-1970, which explores the causes and consequences of population movements that transformed Brazil from a rural to an urban nation in the century after slavery.

One of Fischer’s main goals is to help organize international exchanges, cultural events, visits by leading scholars and diplomats, and artist-in-residence programs at the University of Chicago’s Center for Latin American Studies. Another goal is to help forge relations and collaborations with Brazilian institutions, including the University of Sao Paulo, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and Getúlio Vargas Foundation.

“Brazilians understand Brazil best and are breaking new ground in numerous fields outside of Brazilian studies,” she says. “The best universities of the twenty-first century will be the ones that find ways to collaborate meaningfully with partner institutions around the globe. As South America’s biggest country and one of the world’s largest economies and most dynamic cultural producers, Brazil should be key to that project.”

While at Northwestern, Fischer spearheaded the History Department’s decision to accept students in Latin American history and launched an interdisciplinary graduate program in Latin American studies. “I welcome the chance to apply these and other experiences to Chicago’s dynamic Latin American studies programs,” she says.

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