Patients' ward at the Hospital San Juan de Dios ca. 1920s

Patients' ward at the Hospital San Juan de Dios ca. 1920s

The Idea of Disability and the Making of Modern Central America

On street corners in many Central American cities, people with disabilities sell lottery tickets and beg for change. Among them are survivors of the civil wars, people born with blindness, and others injured by manual labor. But their visibility in daily life has not corresponded to visibility in the scholarly literature. Despite their importance to the construction of citizenship, labor, and race regimes across the twentieth century, people with disabilities have scarcely appeared as historical actors worthy of study in themselves. In The Idea of Disability and the Making of Modern Central America, I track how understandings of disability and people with disabilities changed over time. I start from a broad understanding of “disability”—physical, mental, and emotional conditions that affect an individual’s ability to navigate the world in which they live—and examine medical frameworks and treatments, national and international policy, advocacy organizations, and cultural representations. My broad claim is that these changes can reveal how a range of Central Americans understood the body as a site for modernization. I focus on Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador because of their shared history of dictatorship, neocolonialism, and revolution, and divergent histories of civil war and post-war reconciliation.

The Idea of Disability proposes to fill in an important part of the story of the Americas, one that is adjacent to, but largely neglected within, the analytical frames of histories of medicine, labor, and human rights. I offer three innovations. First, I historicize disability. The archive of disability in Central America in the 19th century is rich—including medical reference books, memoirs, newspaper articles and advertisements, asylum records, and medical congress proceedings. Yet Disability Studies lacks historical depth. This owes not to paucity of sources, but rather to how the archival logics of institutions and diagnoses often replicate the poor treatment of people with disabilities that the field itself critiques. Following from this observation, I explore new ways of creating archives of disability. This is my second innovation. Oral history, hailed as a manner of including those excluded from dominant histories, has overlooked individuals with disabilities. In the more contemporary chapters of this project, I explore other methods for self-narration like illustration, movement, journaling, and sign language. My third innovation consists in rethinking human rights as a framework for combatting the structural abandonment and social exclusion of people with disabilities. My research confirms how human rights have also provided an alibi for intervention and developmentalism alongside meaningful gains.

The modern charge of this word able—hábil—comes from the word’s Latin origin, habilis. Habilis can mean “fit, proper for,” but also “most convenient for managing, treating.” The construction of an able populace, then, required subjects who could be easily managed, or in the case of the infirm, conveniently treated. Of course, the determination of what is outside of management, treatment, fitness, or propriety requires specialists and technicians who can measure and evaluate. In the struggle for modernity and nation building, physicians fought on the frontlines. Infirmity and disability intersected ideologies of race, rurality, and labor in elites’ efforts to craft alternative modernities in late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century Central America. 

In this book, I consider how nation-building relied upon normative claims to ability, movement, and embodiment that figured disability and race. The state’s efforts to comprehend and rehabilitate disabled or “infirm” individuals, Afro-Caribbean and African American migrant laborers, and itinerant performers reveal how Central American conceptualizations of political community and modernity demanded a certain type of production and reproduction from individuals and the populace.