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SP5: Latin American Culture and History

High Circular Gallery, an illustration by Erik Desmazières for “The Library of Babel,” by Jorge Luis Borges, 2000 (Creative Commons, Penn State University)

No preciso erigir un laberinto, cuando el universo ya lo es. - Jorge Luis Borges, "Abenjacán el Bojarí, muerto en su laberinto"

This paper is available for the academic year 2019-20.

A specimen paper showing the new format for Tripos 2017 is available from the Examination Papers page.

The countries of Latin America are as rich and varied in their culture and historical development as they are in their geography and in the mix of peoples that inhabit them. In this second-year paper we offer a snapshot of that rich culture and its turbulent histories, giving you an introduction to some of the most salient and exciting facets of Hispanophone Latin American culture. These include some of the earliest Amerindian and European accounts of the region from the time of the Spanish Conquest, the problems surrounding nation building from the early years of independence from Spain, the persistence of racism and other forms of social exclusion, revolution in Haiti and Mexico, and dictatorship in the Southern Cone and Central America. We also explore some of the competing imaginations of urban culture in the twentieth century as these take form in literature and film in profoundly different regional contexts. Finally, we take you through the metafictional labyrinths spun by internationally-renowned authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez and others. You are encouraged to read around the history covered in each topic, although the primary emphasis of the paper is cultural (including literature, cinema, and visual arts). You are expected to read texts comparatively, and you are encouraged to relate them to their historical, social and intellectual context.


Summer reading 

The paper is divided into five topics. Below is a list of reading suitable for preparing each topic over the summer. However, you should consult your supervisor for detailed advice.

Foundations, identity, difference



  • Rosario Castellanos, Balún Canán (1957);
  • Excerpts from Domingo F. Sarmiento,Facundo (1845); Roberto Fernández Retamar, Calibán (1971).

Representing the City

  • Roberto Arlt, El juguete rabioso (1926)
  • Luis Buñuel, Los olvidados (1950 – film)

Labyrinths of Fiction

  • Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones
  • Adolfo Bioy Casares, La invención de Morel (1940)

Charting Revolution 

  • Mariano Azuela, Los de abajo (1915)
  • Juan Rulfo, El Llano en llamas (1953)

Penning the Dictator

  • Luisa Valenzuela, Cambio de armas (1982)
  • Isabel Allende, La casa de los espíritus (1982)
Preparatory reading: 
  • Rolena Adorno, Colonial Latin American Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2011)
  • Roberto González Echevarría, The Voice of the Masters  (1985)
  • Gerald Martin, Journeys Through the Labyrinth (1989)
  • Jean Franco, An Introduction to Spanish American Literature (1995)
  • Roberto González Echevarría, Modern Latin American Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2012)
  • John King, Magical Reels: A History of Cinema in Latin America (London, 2000)
Teaching and learning: 

The paper is taught through a standard course of 20 lectures and 8 supervisions. Students studying for the Long Essay option will have their eight supervisions spread over two terms, with three supervisions on the texts for each term's Long Essay, and a fourth supervision on the plan for the Long Essay.


Assessment for this paper is by 3-hour examination, or by two Long Essays submitted in each of Michaelmas and Lent Terms.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Geoffrey Kantaris - until Sep 2019
Joanna Page (paper co-ordinator) - from Oct 2019 onwards