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Rieveschl Winner Ann Twinam Earns New Respect for Work
on Old Question of Honor

Date: May 14, 2002
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Dottie Stover
Archive: Profiles

Bomb blasts, earthquakes and daunting secret codes have never been enough to dissuade historian Ann Twinam from her quest to better understand the history of Latin America.

Ann Twinam

The potential danger and difficulty are all in a day's research for Twinam. One of her primary interests centers on Colombia, now an often-unstable center for illegal drug lords. Her persistence has had one recent pay-off. She's the 2002 winner of UC's George Rieveschl Jr. Award for Excellence in Scholarly Works.

Twinam grew up in Chicago in the heart of the Midwest, knowing little about Latin America until her second year of college at Northern Illinois University. That's when she took a Latin America history course at the same time as a U.S. constitutional history course.

"One of the things that really blew my mind was how different those histories were," she says. For example, in the early 19th century Latin America countries grafted an Anglo vision of law onto a Hispanic tradition of government. The result was that "Latin America lost a century because of political instability," she said.

Twinam soon decided to change her plans to become an attorney and focused her energy instead on the Southern Hemisphere. She pursued a master's degree and PhD in Latin American history at Yale University with a Woodrow Wilson and a Foreign Area Fellowship.

Her dissertation, which was later published as her first book, focused on the colonial economic and social history of the city of Medellín, located in Antioquia, a region of Colombia whose inhabitants were known for their entrepreneurial activities. In the colonial era, that activity was mining, then coffee during the 19th century, and industrialization and drug distribution in the 20th century. The book, titled Miners, Merchants and Farmers in Colonial Colombia (University of Texas Press, 1982), was also published in Spanish.

"I was one of a first cohort of women to go to graduate school in Latin American studies," Twinam recalls. "Back then there was a fear that women could not do research in those countries. They were thought to be too dangerous for a woman researcher."

The danger was not necessarily an exaggeration. During a dissertation research trip to Medellín, Colombia, Twinam narrowly escaped harm as a bomb went off on the first floor of city hall. "I was in the archives on the second floor. By then I had heard enough bombs go off to know what one sounded like. I went out to a second story patio to see if any people were harmed. I then grabbed my research notes and escaped."

Within the hour, several blasts went off in public buildings in the city. Fortunately, Twinam says, at that time the guerrillas were more interested in scaring people than harming them, so no injuries were involved. On at least one other research trip, she sat trapped in a movie theater in a Medellín skyscraper during an earthquake. The exits quickly became blocked by fleeing movie goers.

When Twinam set about working on her most recent volume,Public Lives, Private Secrets: Gender, Honor, Sexuality and Illegitimacy in Colonial Spanish America (Stanford University Press, 1999), few of her peers thought she could complete her research. The book centers on more than 200 legal cases in which a host of well-to-do men and women sought to have their illegitimate births made "legitimate" through purchase of an expensive court document known as cedula de gracias al sacar. The records she needed were hidden among millions in a Spanish archive with no apparent index.

Ann Twinam

That's what makes historians even more admiring of her resulting book. Twinam managed to crack the centuries-old code used to store the legal documents, which were located in Seville's Archivo de Indias, the central Spanish repository for colonial American documents. "Eventually I was able to break the code and after that I was able to manipulate the archive instead of having it manipulate me," she says. The applications for legitimation included love letters and testimony from lovers, unwed mothers and fathers of bastard children, which provided Twinam with an incredibly rich source of materials to explore issues surrounding courtship, sexuality, gender roles, illegitimacy and the role of the state in the private lives of colonial Latin Americans.

The resulting book is considered even more ground-breaking because of its breadth, detail and comprehensiveness. Twinam details cases from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and shed lights on the private lives of every-day men and women who have been otherwise overlooked by historians.

In addition to the archives in Seville, she took research trips to no fewer than 15 Latin American archives in nine nations -- Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela to find out more about the lives of the unwed mothers, fathers and illegitimates who appeared in the legitimation petitions. Her efforts resulted in an honorable mention in the Conference on Latin American History Bolton Prize competition. The volume also won the 2000 Thomas F. McGann Book Prize, awarded for best book in Latin American studies by the Rocky Mountain Council on Latin American Studies.

It's been more than 30 years since her undergraduate awakening to Latin America, but she still feels drawn by this region and "the intellectual challenge of understanding another world." Twinam, who has won two Fulbrights and 23 other fellowships and grants, still returns to Spain and Latin America regularly. Her fellow historians also recognize her contribution to the field as they recently elected her to serve a two-year term as president of the Conference on Latin American History, the international organization for Latin American historians, beginning in 2003.

As a historian of Latin America, Twinam revels in what she considers the "double challenge" of understanding "both a different time and a different culture."

Her newest research project has her examining thousands of pages of microfilm records, once again from Seville. This time she is exploring the legal process in the Hispanic world that allowed dark-skinned individuals to change their race and purchase whiteness through a royal decree.

Twinam concludes that "Understanding those different ways that the Hispanic and Anglo worlds approach issues such as the law, or birth status, or race not only teaches us about their world and their time, but ultimately can give us significant insights into our own."

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