Member of the Week: Alejandro Velasco

HeadshotAlejandro Velasco

New York University


Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

As a Venezuelan who studies the modern history of Venezuela I wake up every day asking the same question: why? Why is Venezuela undergoing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the region? Why are solutions so difficult to come by? Why is the political conflict so intractable? Unfortunately, answers have tended to focus on simplistic explanation – oil, socialism, imperialism, etc. My current research tries to go beyond these answers and instead trace the origins of what some have called “pernicious polarization” in Venezuela. In particular, I examine how policies in the 1980s and 1990s meant to democratize the country in fact helped to cement – sometimes literally in the very layout of cities, but also in other realms like administration, bureaucracy, policing, elections, class, race, local identity – social divisions that would become self-perpetuating and, eventually, political weapons. And while the work is focused on Venezuela and its capital Caracas, it makes larger claims about what neoliberalism wrought in those years, and how, beyond economic policies and their impact. It also probes how fields that have long been at odds – history and political science – can productively enter into dialogue, as I believe they have much to offer each other.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I have long been fascinated by street art – murals, tags, graffiti, performance – and what it can tell us about a city. I have also increasingly been drawn to how GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technology can help historians ask new questions about urban life. Both of these interests come together in my course “Art and Politics in the City,” which is a co-sited class between Buenos Aires, where NYU has a small campus, and New York City. We use enhanced video conferencing to meet simultaneously, and students use GIS software to collect and classify geo-tagged images of street art in selected neighborhoods in each place. We also read widely in aesthetic theory, urban studies, and, of course, the history of both cities to ask questions like: what can the art on a city’s walls and streets tell us about its history, politics, and culture? I have run this class for five semesters, and to date students have collected over 4000 data points that each semester they use to generate digital and interactive maps. It’s quite fun!

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

The Latin America in Translation Series from UNC Press and Duke University Press is an invaluable collection, translating seminal texts originally published in Spanish or Portuguese for English speakers and therefore bringing excellent scholarship from Latin America into wider readership. One of the series’ latest contributions is The Invention of the Favela (2019) by Licia do Prado Valladares, who deconstructs how social scientists built archetypes of the favela for research, and how those constructions became the meta-narrative of favela life for residents, policy makers, tourists, and others, with sometimes surprising consequences. I also much appreciated A.K. Sandoval-Strausz’s Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City (2019). Not only is the book and its argument politically urgent, highlighting the contributions of Latinxs for urban revitalization and democratic politics at a moment of anti-Latinx sentiment in the US, it is also deeply researched and engagingly written. I am also excited to read Lina Britto’s Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia’s First Drug Paradise (2020), which traces how Colombia became the biggest exporter of marijuana to the United States and with what consequences. The book’s argument will be explosive, but I am especially eager to learn from the way Britto uses and theorizes oral history, since so much of my own work is built on interviews.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Travel! As an urban historian I never feel more alive – and more engaged with my field – than when I travel to a city I’ve never been to before and get lost in its streets and warrens and everyday life. One thing is to talk or write or read about how cities are spaces at once global and particular, with histories unique to those sites but also threaded together by shared features. Another is to experience the weight of history in Old Jerusalem or the walled city of Cartagena, to hear the muezzin in Istanbul or the din of music in Lapa in Rio de Janeiro, or to walk along the corniche in Beirut or the malecón in Havana, and feel viscerally both what connects and what distinguishes these spaces as cities. Traveling to and within cities is always an opportunity to reconnect with the essence of why we do what we do, especially since so much of our work – archival research, academic writing – happens in solitude.

What’s one thing that you wish more Americans knew or understood about Venezuela?

The same thing I wish people in the United States understood about any country, including their own: complexity is your friend. Often coverage of Venezuela and many other parts of the world is framed in simple good versus bad terms, where the good usually aligns with the interest of political and economic elites in the United States. Reality, however, is often more complicated; root causes of problems often expose contradictions in actions, motives, and consequences. That can create fear of paralysis when facing urgent challenges. But the alternative – resting on simple explanations to find quick solutions – has time and again proven dangerous and even deadly. In Venezuela, avoiding the lure of easy explanations means understanding that the country is undergoing a massive crisis largely of the government’s doing, but many of those who have been hardest hit – especially among urban popular sectors – continue to harbor deep suspicion of an opposition movement they feel has done little to recognize their needs and desires. Finding ways to get the government and the opposition to accept conditions for free and fair elections so that Venezuelans themselves can decide their future should be the baseline of any analysis.

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