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.
I work this way because I believe that history has the potential to provide living experiments about the prospects for policies and projects of all sorts. Few if any impact reports or predictions based on the study of current behaviors can match this. Despite the urgent civilizational problems posed by environmental and social crises brewing all over the planet, this potential is largely being wasted, putting the practice and teaching of history at risk of being seen as increasingly irrelevant. These are the concerns that drive my research and my pedagogical approach.
Current and future projects
Currently, I am working on a project tentatively entitled Off the Grid: Colonial Cities in the Early Modern Spanish Atlantic. This book project aims to explain the connection among urban morphology, the urban production, consumption and disposal of organic matter -- particularly horticultural plants, food animals, and human excreta and animal manures -- and social dynamics. It will use the Spanish Early Modern Altlantic because of the unique possibilities offered by the partial temporal overlap between the process of Christian occupation of formerly Muslim urban spaces in Iberia and the foundation on new urban settlements in the New World. The project is anchored in several cities as they emerged or were transformed during colonization processes between the late fifteenth and late sixteenth century. For the moment, these cities are Seville, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the City of Mexico, and Buenos Aires and Córdoba, in the Río de la Plata.
My first book, Dreaming of Dry Land: Environmental Transformation in Colonial Mexico City, is in production at Stanford University Press, due out in 2014. It 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).
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.
To the traditional skills taught to budding historians, I add two others. First, I encourage students to denaturalize their surroundings by formulating questions conducive to uncovering the logic behind human choices that shaped the material realities framing our everyday lives. These material realities can range from industrialized food provision to indoor plumbing and sewage layouts, from urban layouts of straight streets lined with male trees to schools that separate the space and content of learning from work in bakeries, animal pens, kitchen gardens and so on. Second, I instill the kind of literacy necessary to answer these questions fully – the ability to “read” landscapes and structures historically. I do this because I believe these skills are essential to distinguishing between viable and unviable solutions to current sustainability problems.
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 social metabolism involved in historical processes. If the past is a foreign place, to Iberoamerican colonial world can be even more so. To make it more accessible and audible, so to speak, I have developed, with Ireri Chávez-Bárcenas, PhD candidate in Musicology, 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. Anyone with a Princeton logon can use it and comment: http://blogs.princeton.edu/colonialsounds/. 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 which we extend an invitation.
Although my current courses are anchored in the colonial period, I also teach the history of Modern Mexico from 1810 on (in order to trace how these processes played out after the demise of Spanish rule in Iberoamerica) and am developing courses for both undergraduate and graduate students to deploy the methods I use in my research onto a pedagogically accessible platform with the participation of members of the Sustainability and Engineering communities on campus. The goal is to use the historical evolution of the Princeton campus and the town as a familiar microcosm in which to develop the habit of asking and explaining why our tangible surroundings and realities are the way they are.
"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)
Dreaming of Dry Land: Environmental Transformation in Colonial Mexico City (forthcoming 2014, Stanford University Press).