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One Highway, Many Americas

Posted On February 28, 2019 | 10:57 am | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Rosa Ficek talks road trips, violence, and 20th-century modernization

Rosa Ficek, associate researcher at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey, is a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies. Her recent research report, “The Pan-American Highway: Mobility and Encounter in Landscapes of Difference,” investigated how a transcontinental highway project operated on entangled ideas of conquest and progress.

Q&A with Rosa Ficek

What was the Pan-American Highway, and how did it define the Americas?

The Pan-American Highway was this idea to connect all the countries in Latin America and the US, and later Canada, to each other. In the early 20th century, the politics of deciding a route were worked out in international forums and meetings of engineers and planners.

Even before construction began, South Americans took the lead in taking long-distance road trips, and then in the 1930s and more in the 1940s, US Americans started doing this. I’m looking at how the people on these road trips engage with ideas of hemispheric togetherness. How do they sort out, through their travels, what Pan-America means?

In my research report I talked about two journeys on the highway: the 1928 Stoessel Expedition from Buenos Aires to New York, led by two Argentinian brothers, and the travels of US photographer Herbert C. Lanks in the 1930s and ’40s. The Stoessel brothers emphasize cities and urban life in the film and book they produced about their travels. They don’t talk about indigenous people much except to represent them as a way of life that is dying out as Latin America undergoes modernization. The brothers establish themselves as equals of the other urban Latin Americans they run into, as well as of US Americans.

In contrast, Lanks, the US American photographer traveling ten years later, establishes a distance between himself (and by extension his American readers) and all Latin Americans in a way the Argentinians don’t. He’s not interested in photographing modern Latin Americans or urban life. Instead, he emphasizes the spectacular scenery visible to the motorist, with women washing clothes in rivers or people carrying heavy loads with donkeys. Lanks’s photographs and descriptions portray the landscape as an object of consumption and pleasure, with indigenous people as part of the scenery.

In both cases, the experience of traveling through the landscape reinforces a sense of whiteness, which is defined in contrast to both the natural scenery and the people travelers encounter, especially indigenous and mixed-race people.


How do roads reveal the violence of modernization?

Modern roads are difficult to disentangle from ideas of progress and development. There are very strong expectations attached to roads and highways. Throughout the 20th century, the expansion of road networks outside of cities was accompanied by the idea that they would help the people living in rural places become modern citizens. My goal is to show the underlying violence of these projects, and how in Latin America, this underlying violence takes on colonial patterns. As people are traveling, north or south, they reproduce patterns of power based on white superiority and indigenous inferiority.

For instance, the Stoessel brothers refer to road trips as “raids.” In the 19th century, Argentina led military campaigns—raids—into spaces of indigenous sovereignty. The idea that indigenous land and resources are available to white South Americans for their benefit carries over to the Stoessels’ interactions with people they meet while traveling. They describe having a vehicle malfunction while driving through the Peruvian Andes. They find an indigenous man and try to communicate with him, but when that doesn’t work, they threaten him with a gun. He gets two llamas, which he uses to pull the car four days to the nearest town. For the brothers, it was humiliating to have this wonderful technological object pulled by two llamas and to be saved by this indigenous man.

Similarly, Lanks traveled in the context of the Good Neighbor policy, which was about creating a sense of hemispheric togetherness in the Americas under US control. His descriptions of highway travel support this political project. Also I think driving in the US tradition is very saturated in the frontier myth: “we’ve completed Manifest Destiny, we’ve conquered the continent east to west, and now we can turn south.”


After the 1940s, how do people think about the highway and the idea of Pan-America?

The idea of Pan-America continued to be contested. For example, in the 1950s, Jack Kerouac and Che Guevara drove around and wrote about the Americas in very different ways—another manifestation of these very diverse Pan-Americanisms.

Today people are still traveling the Pan-American Highway, north to south and south to north. When we think about Central American migrants coming north, people who are displaced from their home countries in large part because of US foreign policy interventions, they’re tracing the route of the Pan-American Highway, but for very different purposes. And in that sense, even though the highway is just one thing, it’s actually many different highways—many different projects of connection held together by a single infrastructure.


Julia Ostmann is Postgraduate Writing and Reporting Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, Postgraduate Digital Media Fellow.