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How Bauer fell in love with Latin American history

January, 2001
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us
Enterprise staff writer

History Professor Arnold J. Bauer, 70, almost lived quite a different kind of life.

Bauer was born in Kansas and at age 19 went off to defend democracy in the U.S. Air Force. He was stationed in Morocco for two years and it was there that he got a chance to travel to Spain. From there he went off to Mexico City for two years (1954-56) to study economics.

If he hadn't joined the Air Force, he might be a farmer today in Kansas.

"I went to Mexico not knowing any Spanish at all, not even hello," he said. "It did take me a bit of work to learn Spanish."

But then he devoted himself more seriously to making a living. He spent five years living in San Francisco, in an apartment on Nob Hill, and made money as a businessman.

"I became something of a successful businessman but I also continued my interest in Latin American politics and was particularly interested in the Cuban Revolution, which had occurred in 1959. I was serving American capitalism by day and handing out pamphlets for Fair Play for Cuba at night."

In 1960, his best friend in Mexico married Fidel Castro's sister.

Finally, he couldn't take it any more. He quit his lucrative job over the protests of his boss and took a six-month trip by land to South America at age 31.

"The most difficult thing in life is to find a way of making a living at something you can bear doing," said Bauer. " I tell my students that all the time."

Bauer also has never liked rejection. After his trip to South America he realized that he wanted to devote his life to the study of the area, and applied to graduate school at UC Berkeley. He was rejected.

"I went to see the dean," he said. "I told him: I reject your rejection." And Cal let him in.

He got his Ph.D. in Latin American history in 1969 when there were all sorts of jobs available at universities. In 1970 he came to UC Davis and has taught there ever since.

What's the magic about Latin America?

"Latin America in the 1960s was a really interesting place…radical politics…that was an enormous draw. At the same time, American institutes supported study in Latin America very lavishly so one could get research trips to go there. I was drawn to social economic history…it was a place that attracted lots of people.

"If you're a Latin Americanist you have to be an anti-Imperialist," he said. "It's difficult not to be outraged at American policies toward that part of the world, at least for me."

He has continued to travel to Mexico and Chile over the years and made lasting friends.

In January he will return to Santiago, Chile, to run the UC Education Abroad study center. Sixty UC students will study there.

He recently published a book that takes a look at the influence of colonialism on Latin America: "Goods, Power, History: Latin America's Material Culture" (Cambridge Press). His book explains why, over a 500-year period, people in Latin America consume the things they do.

"I ask my students to try to think about why people did the things they did in the past so that they will think about why they do the things they do today," he said. "That will lead them to understand that people have not always thought about things they way we do today and they will not in the future.

"Consumption establishes and maintains identity…and we consume in order to follow rituals like the celebration of birthdays and holidays…but the book is not anti-consumption," he insists. "However, we should not impose our model of consumption on the rest of the world, it is not sustainable, and that's what we try to do and that's very misguided."

You can reach Bauer at ajbauer@ucdavis.edu.

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