Faculty Spotlight: Luis Herrán Ávila

April 29, 2022

Faculty Spotlight:  Luis Herrán Ávila

Luis Herrán Ávilais a historian of the Cold War in Latin America, with an emphasis on conservative, anticommunist, and extreme right movements. After researching the comparative history of anticommunism in Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia, his current book project seeks to unveil the national and Latin American dimensions of right-wing activism in Cold War Mexico.  We sat down for a conversation with Luis to discuss some of his interests, passions and research. 

What motivates and inspires you in your current research field?

LHA: Thank you for the question. I research and teach Latin American history and there are many things that motivate me in this field. One is the fact that because I work in the United States, I realize the importance of shedding light on how our histories are so entangled. Over and over, students tell me how little they knew about Latin America before taking my classes and how they're able to relate to a lot of the issues, the themes, the conflicts, and the recurring questions that Latin Americans and Latinos in the US have faced throughout history.   While many of the students that have these reactions are Latino or Hispanic, this is the case also for those students that do not have roots in Latin America. I am also motivated by the opportunities I have at UNM to teach the Latino or Hispanic students whose interests in the region sometimes come from very personal places. It’s very fulfilling to be able to participate in the process of these students getting to know themselves better and getting to know their family histories in greater depth. New Mexico is an intersection of cultures and histories colored with both good and bad, so it helps in that regard

Tell us about a current Latin American History project that you are working on.

LHA: My research interests revolve around the history of Latin America during the Cold War. Generally speaking, I research right-wing movements in Latin America and the different ways in which these groups shaped the history of the Cold War in the region, as well as their role in the present. My current book project is focused on Cold War Mexico, from the 1950s to the 1970s. What I am trying to show is that Mexico was an important site of right-wing politics and right-wing mobilization in Latin America and a global hub of conservative ideas. Mexico is commonly seen as the birthplace of the left and of Latin American Revolution.  The Mexican Revolution of 1910 is a very important moment in the history of the 20th century, but I want to explore the other side: what happened with the folks that were against the revolution, who throughout the 20th century have experienced a very complicated, if not conflictive, relationship with that history? What about those groups whose ideal of modernity or social change clashed with the global revolutionary impulses of the 1960s?  The other aspect that I try to cultivate is how Mexico participates in the Cold War. We tend to think about the Cold War as a confrontation between the Soviet Bloc and the Western capitalist world. This leaves much to be explored about how other countries, whether in Latin America or other parts of the globe, played an important role in shaping this period. So I'm trying to show the importance of right-wing ideologies and projects of conservative groups, individuals, and social actors both in history and in the present, and how they continue to be relevant. Mexico is a place that doesn't usually appear on the radar of conservative politics, because we tend to think more of military dictatorships in South America or the current wave of right-wing politics in places like Brazil. So for me, it's a way of trying to understand my country a little bit better, to say not just that it's an important country, but also to try to connect Mexican and Latin American history with US American and European history by exploring how right-wing ideas like fascism, and Neo-fascism, for instance, have influenced what was happening in Latin America then and now .

Do you have any advice that you would like to share with newer scholars who are pursuing similar styles of research to your own?

LHA: The first thing to keep in mind if you're going to be doing research in Latin America is to always be prepared to be surprised and challenged by any preconceptions that you might have about the region. For instance, by studying a country like Mexico, it is easy to extrapolate knowledge about Mexico and then apply it to other parts of Latin America.  This creates problems in building knowledge about a region that is so diverse, so rich and so complex and so connected by its shared history and certain cultural traits. It’s important to be ready to be challenged and surprised and to do our best to navigate that tension between the unity and diversity of Latin America. For folks who do archival research of any kind, from any discipline, I would recommend letting the sources speak to you. Researchers tend to go into an archive, analyze a document, or speak to people with all sorts of preconceptions because our projects always have specific goals and reflect our biases. From my experience, the documents that you find and the people that you speak to will change how you see your project.  Therefore, be prepared to radically change how you think about your project according to what your sources are telling you. And lastly, I think it's important for anyone doing research in Latin America to avoid exoticizing the region.  We are in the end, part of a wider world, and have been for centuries. Our problems, challenges, and conflicts are particular and shaped by our history, but also very similar and very often interconnected to what transpired in other places in the world. I think it's important to try to do research and tell stories that have universal or global traction. And, I think that can also be a challenge for Latin Americanists because we always want to show the uniqueness of Latin America. but we also want our historical experiences to resonate with other places around the world. And as I suggested earlier, this is also part of the challenge of teaching about Latin America, whether in the US or elsewhere.