Roundtable: The History of Childhood & Youth: Juandrea Bates

juandrea-bates-photo.jpgIf you missed previous posts in our new roundtable series on the history of childhood and youth, click here. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for the next few weeks, stop by to read about challenges and realities of researching and teaching childhood and youth across vast early America.

Juandrea M. Bates, Assistant Professor of History and Legal Studies at Winona State University, joins us to discuss her research on Latin American social and legal history with an emphasis on youth, gender, and social movements. Dr. Bates received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Texas at Austin. She is particularly interested in the intersections of inequality, the law, family and childhood in modern Argentina. Both her scholarship and her classes reflect her deep fascination regarding how regular people mobilize and shape the world around them and how marginalized groups struggle to cope with and overcome adversity. Her work has been funded by the University of Texas at Austin, the Mellon Foundation, The Council for Library Information Research and The Department of Education. Right now she is hard at work revising her manuscript, Raising Argentina: Family, Childhood and Popular Participation in Civil Justice in Buenos Aires 1871-1930.

JUNTO: Why children? Why focus on youth in your research? What does this field offer to historiography?

JUANDREA BATES: As a historian, I am interested in how marginalized people experienced their world, made sense of their place within it and advocated to improve their position. Exploring these questions through the experiences of children and youth appealed to me for a number of reasons. First, during conversations regarding childrearing, people often spoke openly about otherwise hidden aspects of how social identity and difference were marked and replicated. Exploring the plans parents made for their offspring and the programs legislators and social reformers developed regarding the education, health and protection of country’s young, brings the unspoken assumptions about class, ethnicity and national development into focus. Second, young people provide a unique way to complicate the conversations of exploitation, accommodation and resistance that often dominate scholarship about subaltern groups. Poor youths often endured abuse from a variety of figures, both within and outside of their natal families. In framing a study around young people, exploitation within poor communities becomes increasingly striking. Cross-class alliances also become clear. Social reformers often viewed themselves as advocates for otherwise powerless young people. Yet, at least in nineteenth-century Argentina, youths were not as helpless as reformers believed them to be. Instead, young people capitalized on their age, emphasizing middle-class rhetoric about the vulnerability of youth, as they skillfully sought out the assistance of welfare agencies, and maneuvered between the different branches of the state. When historians train their sights on children and youth, the development of the welfare state in Argentina begins to look very different. Far from a top-down project imposed on a monolithic working-class, reformers often worked at the request of young people, as allies in lawsuits against parents in court or advocates in confrontations with the police. Thus, the history of childhood and youth offers new ways to understand how social difference was created and it makes sheds light on the novel ways that people advocated against exploitation and exclusion.

JUNTO: As you explain above, children are often enmeshed in the larger histories of families and familial experience as well as to gender history. Do you think it is important to separate childhood/youth from family history and/or gender history or are they offshoots of these well-defined disciplines?

BATES: It is undeniable that the history of childhood and youth has long benefitted from its longstanding association with the well-defined disciplines of gender and family history. In Latin America, much of the early work about young people was done by historians interested in household composition, birth rates and infant mortality. Likewise, the first monographs to include “children” “childhood” or “youth” in the titles were written by scholars trained to study gender. Perhaps most important, gender scholarship provided an imperative to tease out the connections between the personal and intimate dynamics of the household with large political projects.

Recognizing these debts, I do view the history of childhood and youth as separate from family and gender history. Of course, young people were central to household dynamics. Yet, this was only one of the very many roles young people played in the past. Many were also laborers, producers, venders, consumers and critical parts of the urban economies. While some shared their earnings with blood relatives, a large number grew up outside their natal household. They moved across vast geographic spans, across boundaries of nation and empire. As they did so, they became agents of cultural transmission and links in diasporic communities. They were litigants, initiating their own claims and defending themselves against the allegations of others. Young people developed political consciousness in the streets and in the classroom, and they did not fail in fomenting age-based social movements. My work tries to pay careful attention to the multifaceted identities young people developed outside their household, and I hope to see this type of work continue in the years to come.

JUNTO: How do you incorporate the history of childhood and youth into larger fields of inquiry like political history, social history, and economic history? Why is it important to do so?

I would love to claim that I have a particularly brilliant method for integrating the experience of children and youth into larger fields of political, social and economic history. But, the truth is, the young people in my sources point out the connections as often as I see them myself. For example, civil court records are full of petitions filed by young people whose conflicts with their parents stemmed directly from disagreement over minors’ wages. In these petitions, young people took pains to explain the differences between the industrial work they performed for an hourly or daily wage and the contract labor they used to do at home. Thus, I could not ignore the importance of young people in Argentina’s growing manufacturing centers, nor could I miss the links between industrialization and generational authority. Likewise, processes of migration, inequality and disputes over citizenship in Argentine come into clear focus when European born youths appeared before the court officials detailing their family’s experiences of migration and pointing out the challenges faced by foreign-born residents as they attempted to pass inheritance and property from one generation to the next. Moreover, even when young people are silent, adults speak clearly. Even a cursory glance at institutional records, public health programs, criminologists’ studies and legislative debates reveals that adults connected conversations about the nation’s youth to larger anxieties about race, national development and modernization.

It is imperative that historians of childhood and youth integrate their findings into larger fields of history. To not do so, risks silencing the very historical actors whose lives we are attempting to reproduce. Young people have never lived in worlds disconnected from larger economic, political and social forces. Categories of childhood were always deeply entangled with those of power, production, race and nationhood. To disentangle these histories would strip the inquiries into the history and childhood and youth of much of their nuance. Perhaps even more importantly, it would deprive conversations about colonization, cultural transformation, nation building, economic development and racial and class inequalities of the key insights that only a focus on the young can provide.

JUNTO: What are some of the most influential scholars and/or works to your own research and why?

BATES: In my first years of graduate school, I read Ann Twinam’s Public Lives, Private Secrets, Bianca Premo’s Children of the Father King, Nara Milanich’s Children of Fate and Ann Blum’s Domestic Economies. At an early time in my career, those books revealed the expansive contributions that studies of childhood and youth could have on our understandings of power, empire building and inequality. Now they sit, dog-eared, next to my desk as a reminder of the work I’d like to produce. Public Lives, Private Secrets introduced me to life course analysis and showed me the power of emic analysis. By understanding of the internal logic of legitimacy suits, Ann Twinam was able to tease out the connections between the most intimate aspects of people’s lives and their overlapping and often contradictory identities. Bianca Premo’s work is also essential for anyone interested in methodological approaches to legal history, the Spanish empire or the history of childhood. Children of the Father King’s discussion of minority in colonial Peru reveals that age was only one of many factors in determining legal and social categories of minority and childhood. Moreover, the work lucidly traced out the shifting connections between the politics of childhood within households and the relationships between monarch and his subjects at an imperial level. After reading it, I was never even tempted to think of the history of childhood as separate from questions of power and politics. Finally, Nara Milanich’s Children of Fate and Ann Blum’s Domestic Economies provided models for thinking about natal rights, processes of social reproduction and the production of class hierarchies. Their works encouraged me to consider “childhood” as a privileged status, one often reserved for the legitimate offspring of the middle class and elite. From these works, I learned not only to look for the social, cultural and legal construction of childhood, but also to pay attention to the treatment of young people who were deprived of such a status.

My work explores how young people shaped legal culture. As such, I am fascinated by how otherwise marginalized groups engaged with the law. Here, I have found inspiration from a number of legal historians. Again, Bianca Premo comes to mind. Although her second book, The Enlightenment on Trial does not focus extensively on youth, she demonstrates the influence that indigenous people and women had on legal culture within the Spanish empire. Likewise, Kimberly Welch’s Black Litigants in the Antebellum South explores how free and enslaved African Americans used lower courts in Louisiana and Mississippi. Both scholars demonstrate the power regular people had to shape legal culture. In their insights and methods, have provided me the tools to undercover the way that young people did the same.

JUNTO: The works you point to above are definitely “must reads” for historians of childhood and youth. I think we all have a well worn copy of Premo’s Children of the Father King. What do you think is in store for the future of the history of childhood and youth? What areas of research are you most excited about?

BATES: There are so many excellent studies coming out in this field. I am particularly excited for new work that complicates categories of childhood as well as scholarship that explores how young people mobilized and remade the politics of childhood to foment larger political struggles. Julia Ogden’s upcoming article in the Law and History Review fits within this first vein. Exploring age of consent legislation in nineteenth century Argentina, Ogden reveals gendered differences constructions of childhood. Evolving penal codes criminalized sex with girls under the age of fourteen, insisting that as minors they could not consent. Yet, the same courts refused to recognize the rape of boys of the same age. Thus, age of consent legislation was determined as much by gender as by age. My own work considers similar processes. My monograph, Raising Argentina uses legislation, civil law and pension records to explore the experiences of poor, illegitimate and immigrant youth who were denied legal protection as children in nineteenth century Argentina.

I am also interested in work that considers how young people understood the cultural politics of childhood and how they used it to advocate for change. In the literature on Latin America – and to some degree the broader field of history and childhood – historians have long highlighted the importance that elites placed on the young people as the keys to national development and social uplift. More recently, a number of scholars have begun to explore how young people understood this role and mobilized it to galvanize national political movements. For example, Claudia Rueda’s soon to be published Students of Revolution: Youth Protest in Somoza-era Nicaragua, 1937-1979 demonstrates that rhetoric surrounding youth and age were central to the way that students organized their campaign against Nicaragua’s Somoza dictatorship. Likewise, Heather Vrana’s book This City Belongs to You: A History of Student Activism in Guatemala, 1944-1996 places young people at the center of the struggles of Latin American cold war. As the field continues to develop, I look forward to studies that explore whether young people deployed these types of age conscious strategies in other settings, such as in labor movements or judicial proceedings.


Thank you to Dr. Bates for joining us today to discuss her own work and perspectives on the history of childhood and youth in Latin America.

Tune in on Friday for an interview with Dr. Jamalin Harp, lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

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