Publication Date

March 1, 1999

There was a palpable feeling of excitement at the biannual Ecuadorian History Congress in Quito, November 23–27, 1998, and it wasn't only because of warnings that Pichincha, the massive volcano towering over the city to the west, was threatening to erupt. Ecuador and Peru had signed a peace treaty just four weeks earlier, ending a 57-year border dispute that regularly broke out into bloody jungle warfare. In 1941, Peru had seized a vast and largely uninhabited area of Ecuador's Amazon territory; for the next half-century Ecuador nursed hopes of recovering the land and continued to depict the old border on official maps. The peace treaty reflected political considerations by the leaders of both countries, as well as the incentive of three billion dollars in international aid offered to sweeten the deal. But Ecuador's new generation of revisionist historians also played a big, public role in explaining to their compatriots, who were raised on a steady diet of revanchism, that they had merely lost territory of which the nation had never taken advantage. Now Ecuador is preparing to rewrite its textbooks and redraw its map.

In this agitated context the international history conference at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar drew two television networks, the national radio, cabinet members, the Peruvian ambassador, the representative of UNESCO, and soldiers in bulletproof vests, along with the entire Ecuadorian historical profession, several hundred high school teachers, and scholars from California to Chile. We awoke on the first day to a scathing editorial in the leading newspaper, El Comercio, denouncing the “New History”—that post-1960s emphasis on marginalized groups and the replacement of a few great men by collective actors in the narrative of the past. Ecuador’s New Historians organized and dominated the conference; their recent 15-volume Nueva Historia del Ecuador (Quito: Corporación Editora Nacional, 1988–95) included a controversial section on the border question. The author of the newspaper editorial, Jorge Salvador Lara, gray eminence and director of the Ecuadorian Historical Academy, demanded that historians be more patriotic and less critical, rejecting “foreign theses that erode our national identity precisely in order to weaken our natural resistance, break down our defenses and turn us into conformist sheep . . . ready for subjection.” Salvador Lara would be on the stage at the inaugural symposium that evening. The battle lines were drawn.

"This conference, by design, has no authorities, no president; it was not organized as a space for the exercise of power," began Enrique Ayala Mora, the rector of the Universidad Andina and Ecuador's leading practitioner of the new history. With that the floor was open for anyone to make suggestions regarding the organization of the conference, a remarkably democratic arrangement that brought immediate results. One proposal led to the formation of a working group to take the fruits of research presented at the panels and turn them into lobbying materials to influence the government's educational reform plan. Another participant recommended that teachers coming from the same high school organize themselves to attend as many different panels as possible, to take advantage of this rare concentration of scholarship.

Fittingly, the conference theme focused on how the teaching of history had affected peace and social integration in Ecuador and beyond. The standing-room-only panels ranged from the precolonial period to the present, focusing on borders and identity, racialized and gendered spaces, free and unfree labor, and the like. One paper considered the reconstruction of ethnic and gendered identity as a strategy for maintaining access to natural resources. Another was titled "Contractualism and Penitentialism: Moral Sermons for the Regulation of the Internal Order." Corridors were boisterous with encounters between historians from countries with as different academic cultures as Chile and Cuba, and the tumult was not restricted to the period between the sessions: instead of slinking in a few minutes late and sitting quietly in the back row, latecomers often strode confidently before the speaking panelist, calling out "¡Buenas tardes, todos!" and continuing their conversations during the presentations.

But the conference was dominated by the issue of whether the old-fashioned approach to history had contributed to militarism, and whether historians could contribute to the peace process. Historians in both countries have their work cut out for them, since existing school textbooks have contributed to a nationalism that leads even Peruvians to reject the peace accord as a sellout. (Many are angry that Ecuador retains access rights to the Amazon River through Peruvian territory.) The distinguished Peruvian historian Félix de Negri made a stir when he asserted that the longtime rivals, Ecuadorians and Peruvians, were not just "brothers" but "twins," who should seek historical truth together, even if the search is painful at the beginning. In too many countries, de Negri said, history textbooks are "horrifying—the more patriotic they are, the better they are received. Invariably we accuse the other of having stolen territory from us. . . . Unfortunately, history has been written in numerous countries with the criterion of the lawyer preparing his case—whatever doesn't fit is ignored." Fellow Peruvian Alicia Polvarini spoke against the dangers of basing history on heroes and myths, depriving the vast majority of the population of any role in the development of the nation and reinforcing the interests of the most powerful in society.

The evening inaugural session brought Rector Ayala and Jorge Salvador Lara together on the same dais—something of an Oedipal scene since Ayala was Salvador Lara's best student 25 years ago. While Ayala read his remarks, the older man leaned forward, listening intently, thick white hair streaking back, brow deeply furrowed, fist clenched on the table before him. "Today, for perhaps the first time in Ecuador, historians are aware of their relevance," Ayala announced. "Traditional, ideological visions of the past are not enough. The New History, incorporating the scholarly work of the past 25 years, is indispensable to the progress of society, and must make its way from the universities to the schoolteaching level." He touched on a perennial complaint when he declared that "the time has come for our leaders to recognize that the practice of history will never be financially profitable, that as an essential activity it must be supported with subsidies." Ayala derided the "pitiable" state of Ecuador's underfunded archives, "which must not be allowed to decline further, to the point where they become nothing more than the wastebaskets of the nation."

When Salvador Lara's turn came, he proceeded to speak beautifully, without notes. He was gracious in his thanks to the organizers of the conference, and addressed "all the young people here" (historians in their 50s and 60s) in his capacity as "the oldest of the young ones". In the academy we are all too often called upon to give posthumous recognition to historians who died at the age of 80, 85, 90, 96. Not in all cases, but why do historians so often live so long? Because what motivates them to commit their lives to this study is a permanent, abiding curiosity—and curiosity is the main attribute of youth." There was none of the venom of his editorial in the speech. Although admonishing briefly against the practice of "fashionable history—miniskirts today, maxiskirts tomorrow," Salvador Lara contented himself with a little ridicule and moved on to cite the greatest of the "great men," South American revolutionary Simón Bolívar. "We must study history to liberate ourselves," Salvador Lara boomed into the microphone to a rapt audience. "And we must teach it in order to sow in the souls of our students the unshakable desire to dedicate their minds to the achievement of liberty, of justice, of lasting peace." The debate over the new history may continue, but these were sentiments everyone present could applaud.

The conference adjourned with the signing of a manifesto arguing that history should not be rewritten for political purposes. This was especially significant since some had been calling precisely for a rewriting of the history of the conflict with Peru in light of the peace accord. Rather, the historians gathered in Quito declared that to write history is constantly to innovate and make new discoveries, independently of political pressures. They also called for greater access to government documents and more interchange between academic (university-level) historians and schoolteachers and textbook writers, who provide most of the nation with its understanding of the past.

The daily newspaper and television coverage, the interaction with government officials, and the animated conversations that spilled out into the hallways and onto the street outside made clear that in a country where history is changing in the present moment, where passion is not excluded from the academy and the academy is not excluded from urgent, ongoing social conflicts, historians can indeed feel confident of their relevance.

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