By Sara Patterson
By examining previously untapped sources, Larissa Brewer-García has discovered fresh insights about the lives and culture of enslaved and free Black men and women in 17th-century Latin America. For the rigorous scholarship in her first book Beyond Babel: Translations of Blackness in Colonial Peru and New Granada, she will receive the 2021 Friederich Katz Prize in Latin American and Caribbean History from the American Historical Association on Jan. 6 in New Orleans.
Brewer-García focused her research on expanding the study of primary texts about Africans and their descendants in colonial Latin America through the 17th-century writings of Black intermediaries such as Angolan-born Andrés Sacabuche, an enslaved interpreter who helped the Jesuit order evangelize new arrivals from west central Africa, and Ursula de Jesús, a once enslaved Black religious servant who narrated her spiritual visions of souls in purgatory within a convent. Their portrayals of Blackness often signify linguistic expertise, physical beauty, and spiritual integrity.
“Her research has shown that slaves could take advantage of opportunities in their roles as Christians,” said Dain Borges, associate professor in the Department of History in the Social Sciences Division at the University of Chicago. “Slaves could do and say things that historians haven’t recognized before. Larissa’s work will have an impact on historians who work on religion and conversion as well as literary scholars and art historians.”
Beyond her research into 17th-century Black slavery in Latin America, Brewer-García’s scholarship is connected to the political goal of contesting the differently structured racial inequalities across the Americas today. “In literary studies, there has been a common, incorrect notion that Black men and women did not get access to reading and writing until the 19th century,” said Brewer-García, assistant professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at UChicago. “This work recognizes their contributions to contemporary cultures and addresses issues of importance to humanism and racism in the colonial period.”
In collaborating with other Humanities Division scholars, such as Agnes Lugo-Ortiz, Christopher Taylor, and Robert Kendrick, Brewer-García has discovered new resources to explore and use in her work. She credits UChicago with being a rich environment for the interdisciplinary conversations that give her projects more depth.
In turn, her colleagues laud her groundbreaking route to alternative sources. “Larissa has totally re-evaluated the social, intellectual, and spiritual lives of enslaved and free Black people,” said Miguel Martínez, associate professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at UChicago. “Her scholarship is incredibly rigorous, original, and engaging in all the different disciplines she researches and interprets.”
Now that Brewer-García has discovered new paths in 17th century Latin America, her current project looks what secular and spiritual expectations changed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. She is focusing on a genre of local biographies about spiritual individuals from colonial Spanish America. Her scholarship examines how differently Indigenous, Black, and Spanish people were described as saintly and how religion affected what race meant at that time.
“What kind of heroic values are important to those documenting these lives?” Brewer-García said. Her probing questions start her search into discovering unusual sources that shed light on unexamined histories.