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The members of the Latin American Center Zurich approach the region as a global laboratory of the modern and contemporary, reviving a long-standing tradition of interdisciplinary exchange and cross-fertilization between the sciences, the humanities and social research. Following on the heels of Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin, the naturalist, archaeologist and linguist Johann Jakob von Tschudi, who studied at the University of Zurich between 1836 and 1838, travelled through Peru and Chile between 1838 and 1842, and published ground-breaking studies on Peruvian fauna as well as on Andean antiquities and on the Quechua language, also translating into German the drama Ollanta. The project of an integral ‘earth-science’ envisaged by Tschudi and other nineteenth-century scientific and artistic travellers to the New World becomes newly relevant today under the sign of global warming, transcontinental migration and digitalized flows of images, words and symbols. Latin America has once again turned into a frontline and a forerunner, both with regard to the limits of resource extraction and to novel strategies of participation, empowerment and the conceptualization of human and non-human rights. The Latin American Center Zurich aims to foster interdisciplinary approaches and synergy effects, both across faculties and fields of research at the University and neighboring research institutions and vis-à-vis our partner institutions in Latin America and worldwide. These exchanges are structured around four thematic strands or clusters of ideas:
The colonial experience not only implied movements of goods but also the clash and mutual transformation of different cosmologies, linguistic and semiotic systems, technologies and skills. A new knowledge economy emerged on both sides of the Atlantic, of which the Americas were often a laboratory or field of experimentation. Today, Latin America provides not just a rich field of study of the linguistic varieties produced through historical experiences of dislocation or the emergence of hybrid visual, literary or musical forms that draw on Amerindian and African as well as European elements. Moreover, it is also a center of critical and theoretical production on questions of transcultural aesthetics, code switching, labor mobility and other social and cultural patterns of globalization, which the Center aims to investigate.
From the Arctic ice fields to the Amazon basin, and from the Andean glaciers to the mineral deserts of Chile and Northern Mexico, Latin America is home to a variety of fragile environments exposed to an ever intensifying global demand for primary resources. Questions of sustainable development and of the rights of indigenous communities as well as of non-human entities and agents such as Pachamama, or ‘Mother Earth’, have been the subject of socio-economic as well as juridical and political agendas in Latin America well before they entered the focus of academia in many parts of Europe. Through their pioneering research programs in climate change adaptation and urban energy management, as well as on the social and political effects of resource extractivism or the local knowledges of responding to natural disasters, the members of the Center represent an exceptionally rich and varied sample of case studies and approaches that are being fostered through mutual exchanges and cross-fertilizations.
As the first region to be systematically exposed to colonial extractivism, Latin America has been caught in the tension between utopian projections of abundance, freedom and justice, on the one hand, and historical experiences of economic and ecological depredation and of political violence, on the other. Founded on a radically uneven distribution of wealth and access to education, medical care, and basic services such as water and electricity supplies, the modern politics of Latin America have been dominated by struggles over the extent and implications of citizenship as well as its cross-implication with sustainable development agendas. Yet Latin America has also been a hotbed of participatory and democratizing initiatives, from Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of alphabetization as civic emancipation to Augusto Boal’s ‘theater of the oppressed’ to current experiments in ‘plurinational’ statehood in Bolivia or the introduction of constitutional rights to the free choice of gender in Argentina. Across disciplinary boundaries, the Center probes these ideas and concepts in comparison with those forged in other geographical contexts, including Switzerland itself.
Latin America is home to some of the world’s largest cities, many of which face not only serious ecological and public health challenges but also degrees of infrastructural complexity and social conflictivity far surpassing those encountered anywhere in Europe. At the same time, the Latin American cities have a rich and varied architectural, literary, and musical history as centers of cultural and intellectual production, including some of the most radical experiments in modernist architecture such as the Brazilian capital Brasília or the university campuses of Mexico City, São Paulo or Río Piedras, Puerto Rico. How, we ask, have Latin America’s city-worlds been experienced historically, what landscapes of ideas have they given rise to, and how can they meet the challenges facing them today?