Neither Tony Cella nor Anne Daniels set out to select “ripped from the headlines” dissertation topics capitalizing on current events or popular culture. Yet their shared interest in Latin America, and their extensive travels in that region, led these graduating University of Virginia Ph.D. students to dive into historical and contemporary issues in Mexico and Brazil that resonate well beyond the borders of those countries.
Defending his dissertation next month and graduating with a Ph.D. in Spanish in August, Cella devoted his dissertation to making sense of the ongoing drug war in Mexico through the cultural filters of contemporary novels and blogs reporting on the conflict’s violent ripple effects. Mexico’s narcotraficantes are frequently characterized now as among the world’s most powerful drug traffickers, and Cella used contemporary literature to help understand the country’s culture of corruption, the violence directed toward journalists and the negative consequences of the government’s militarized attempts to curtail the cartels’ areas of influence.
Graduating this weekend with a Ph.D. in history, Daniels examined the development of youth culture as a political force in Brazil during the 20th century. This summer’s World Cup soccer tournament, as well as the preparations for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, are drawing the world’s attention to Brazil. And last year’s protests by college students in São Paolo and other Brazilian cities following the raising of bus fares allowed Daniels to trace the historical trajectory from the 20th-century protests she researched to the ongoing political mobilization of contemporary youth.
“They are both dealing with two nations and topics that are very much present and foremost in the imagination of U.S. Americans because of their importance and proximity,” said associate professor Hector Amaya, the recently appointed chair of U.Va.’s media studies department.
Cella and Daniels both received Public Humanities Fellowships in South Atlantic Studies as part of a program organized by the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and hosted at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, with Virginia Tech as an additional co-sponsor. The fellowships are designed for graduate students writing theses and dissertations within the broadly defined field of South Atlantic studies – the history, literature, politics and cultures of the South Atlantic region, which encompasses the southeastern United States, American possessions in the Caribbean and populations, territories and water systems with links to this region, including the Atlantic coasts of Africa and Latin America and the islands of the Caribbean.
Amaya, who coordinates the fellowship program, said Daniels’ and Cella’s dissertation topics highlight the advantages of an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the contemporary world.
Daniels’ and Cella’s academic interests grew from desires to explore Latin America that sprouted long before their arrivals at U.Va.
It Started With a Book
Growing up in Bloomsburg, Texas, a small town on the border near Louisiana and Arkansas, Daniels yearned to travel. She spent a semester studying in Cuba during her undergraduate years at Lewis & Clark College, and she spent a summer in an intensive Portuguese language program at the University of Texas before completing a master’s in Latin American studies there. The novels of Brazilian author Patricia Galvao had captivated her as an undergraduate, particularly “Industrial Park,” which depicted the lives of teenage girls enrolled in a teachers college in São Paulo and the intersections of different social classes.
She completed a master’s thesis at the University of Texas on the evolution of teachers’ colleges in Brazil following a month-long trip to Brazil that allowed her to interview retired teachers in the small, southern town of Santa Cruz do Sul, near the Uruguay border.
“There was just something about Brazil that seemed more familiar, in a way, than other places in Latin America that I visited,” Daniels said. “When I was first becoming interested in Brazil, I think the only hint I had of it becoming a timely subject is that it’s such a large country, that simply not enough historians had studied it. It was underrepresented in the academic field of history.”
A Fulbright Hays Fellowship allowed Daniels to spend all of 2012 in Brazil, where she researched the history of Brazilian youth. There have been numerous in-depth studies of how young people rose to cultural and economic prominence in the United States and Western Europe, but Daniels was tapping into uncharted territory. Little research on Latin American youth has been done by U.S. academics; Daniels was able to trace the efforts of Brazilian college students and young workers in the 1970s to challenge the country’s military dictatorship and return their country to democracy.
“She’s at the front edge of an emerging scholarship on young people and their role – cultural, material, economic and political – in Latin America,” said U.Va. history professor Brian Owensby, Daniels’ adviser. “Young people are at the center of current protests, and these protests are in many ways a sort of continuation of the history that she’s built, as the story of the way in which young people have become involved in Brazilian society.”
Daniels had to be creative in her research, because archival records were not plentiful in Brazil. The late 1960s and 1970s were a period of brutal repression under the military dictatorship, Daniels said, and many student papers operated under extreme censorship. Daniels sifted through “letters to the editor” sections of popular magazines and other publications maintained in an archive at the University of Campinas, piecing together the first tentative steps of students’ protests and alliances with public and industrial workers.
“It was in the early 1970s that youth started to push back against the military dictatorship, especially high school and college students who argued that the dictatorship was threatening their future and their job prospects. They grew into a greater and greater force over the course of the 1970s, and they became openly pro-democracy, which very few other groups had to do at the time.”
Democracy was restored in 1985, but Daniels sees historic parallels to the simmering tensions in Brazil today.
“The increase in bus fares in San Paolo and other cities last year became a moment where youth were able to speak to a larger number of grievances that they had against corruption, ineffective democracy and the continued economic inequality in the country,” said Daniels, who is interviewing for university teaching positions. “So many of the people who protested last June and July were middle-class students who probably were not that badly affected by the increase in bus fares. But they were expressing themselves not so differently than their predecessors had during the military dictatorship, in terms of being willing to make alliances with poor people who had their own grievances. They weren’t struggling for democracy anymore, but they were protesting for more effective democracy that spoke more to people’s needs.”
Troops on the Beach
Born in Fernandina Beach, Florida, Cella moved with his family just north of the Florida-Georgia border when he was 4 and grew up bilingual in an area with a significant Mexican migrant population. As a high school student, he was already volunteering as a translator for attorneys working with Spanish-speaking clients, and he continued to work as a legal interpreter with the State Bar of Georgia – where his mother worked – during the summers of his undergraduate years at the College of Charleston.
He majored in Spanish there, and he went on to complete a master’s in Spanish at Middlebury College in 2007. He had completed several exchange programs in Spain, in Seville and Madrid, but when he needed three more credit hours to complete his master’s, he enrolled in a Middlebury course offered in Guadalajara, Mexico. The director of the Middlebury program there was Daniel Chávez, now an assistant Spanish professor at U.Va. and Cella’s dissertation adviser.
As he began considering possibilities for Ph.D. programs, Cella was initially interested in studying the canon of Mexican literature, researching the mid-20th century works of renowned authors such as Juan Rulfo and Elena Poniatowska. But when he returned to Mexico to vacation, the sight of Mexican troops patrolling the beaches, 30 at a time, looking for drug smugglers piqued his interest.
Then, when he returned to work as a translator for a public defender in Tifton, Georgia as he applied to Ph.D. programs, he ended up working a lot of drug cases.
Tifton served as a major corridor for illegal drugs flowing south to Miami and north to Atlanta, Cella said, and long before “Breaking Bad” viewers were introduced to high school chemistry teacher Walter White’s fictional evolution into a meth kingpin, he found himself working cases involving major meth dealers with ties to Mexican drug cartels.
“There was a kind of continuity to what I saw,” said Cella, who is moving to Phoenix after graduation to pursue teaching and post-doctoral opportunities out West. “Then I came to U.Va., and one of my first classes here with Professor Chávez was a course on contemporary Mexican novels. That’s when I discovered this emerging genre of novels about drug trafficking, and everything I began studying is happening right now. When I started my research, 30,000 people had died in Mexico during the drug war.
“I’ve had to revise that number up to almost 150,000, depending on the sources, and these novels chronologically describe the changes that Mexico has experienced since 2006.”
The Mexican authors whose works Cella analyzed speak to the spectrum of perspectives being expressed in “narco-literature.” The novels of Elmer Mendoza, for example, offer a non-judgmental perspective depicting how Mexican youth are lured into the drug trade due to a lack of other job opportunities in their home states. Author Paco Ignacio Taibo, on the other hand, takes a more critical stance, denouncing government corruption, while Luis Humberto Crosthwaite revolves his stories around the plight of Mexican journalists censoring themselves as they attempt to chronicle the drug war while facing threats from both cartels and the government.
“Drug trafficking is depicted from a number of perspectives, and you’re not consoled by the end of any of these novels. There’s not a happy ending.”
Chávez, Cella’s adviser, said it’s an incredibly timely topic, one that will lend itself easily to a full-length book treatment.
“What Tony is doing is very important, because instead of just looking at only the violent aspects and the tragedies of the drug war in Mexico, he’s trying to make sense of what’s seeped into the culture about this,” Chávez said.
Cella’s research may prove useful for scholars in media studies and other disciplines beyond Latin American studies, and he intends to continue researching popular music, television and new media.
“There are more enigmas and questions to be answered,” he said.