Aesthetic and Design of Latin American Technology

History of technology is a relatively young field in Latin America and thus the engagement with Latin American technological aesthetics and design has received scant scholarly attention. Scholarship on the history of technology in Latin America has largely focused on the embrace or rejection and/or appropriation and domestication of imported and native technologies through a textual reading of sources, leaving aesthetic rendering of these processes outside historical inquiry. This working group, in preparation of an edited volume, begins to correct this by bringing together perspectives examining the tensions between technology, design and aesthetics by analyzing state modernization projects for the urban and rural environments and individual users who reimagined or reconfigured the aesthetics of technological devices as these were domesticated in their context of use.  By combining these two scales, the scholars in the working group will not only contribute to current discussions on the concept of sociotechnical imaginaries but also (1) explore how they informed and are informed by the politics of design and aesthetics (2) underline the way these imaginaries are not only textual but visual and aural, (3) and, how users altered and reinvented the aesthetics/design of technological devices to meet their cultural and personal values, needs and desires.

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Upcoming Meetings

  • Thursday, May 9, 2024 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm EDT

    No events scheduled. 
    Workshop participants--see you at Stanford University for the face-to-face workshop. 

Past Meetings

  • April 11, 2024

    Marco Cabrera Geserick, Northern Arizona University
    Superior Technology, Superior Souls: Science-Fiction and Anti-Imperialism in La Caída del Águila (1920)
    In a parallel universe, during the early twentieth century, a group of international conspirators led by a Costa Rican engineer, use their genius to build a devastating technology that changes the world. With the help of wingless flying machines that release a rain of rockets that can track moving targets, and explosives that leave nothing behind except a poisonous cloud, their weapons destroy two thousand U.S. Navy boats in a matter of minutes, forcing the Union to officially abolish itself, and all European powers to declare the independence of their colonies around the world. This chapter explores the work of Costa Rican writer and professor Carlos Gagini (1865-1925), who imagines a world in which Latin American technology prevails over Imperialism. It analyzes Gagini’s novel in the tradition of both Latin American technological advances, and science fiction works; for to build the future, it first needs to be imagined.
    David Pretel, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid 
    Machines, Peons and Agaves: The Visual Representation of the Henequen Industry.
    This essay rethinks the technological history of the henequen industry by studying historical visual records –primarily photos and technical drawings. Its aim is to explore how visual documentation enhances our historical understanding of henequen production during the export boom that occurred between the 1880s and World War I. It shows that scraping machines and railways were the main symbols of the commodification of nature and people in this Mexican region, embodying the processes of capitalist expansion. Perhaps most significantly, it focuses on selected images of the henequen industry to unveil the coexistence of capital-intensive modern machinery and manual technologies intensive in coercive labour, all tied to the environmental conditions of cultivation and processing. In this regard, it highlights the tension between, on the one hand, the numerous historical studies (and today’s memory) that emphasize the wealth brought by the invention of scraping machines and the rapid expansion of the railway, and, on the other hand, the persistence of traditional and manual techniques of smaller scale, and often transient, employed by Maya, Yaqui, and Korean laborers.

  • March 14, 2024

    Vanessa Freije, University of Washington, "A Cornucopia of Technology": Representations of Mexico's First Satellite Launch"
    Abstract: In 1985, Mexico launched its first satellites into outer space, making possible the provision of myriad new services. The Secretariat of Communications and Transportation, responsible for the management and operation of the communications satellites, rolled out an extensive public relations campaign to publicize the nation’s new advancement in technology. Analyzing maps, pamphlets, and the collectible items used to publicize and commemorate the launch, this paper examines the aesthetics of satellites in Mexico.
    Julie Gibbings, University of Edinburgh
    "Viewing Genocide's Aftermaths from Above: Aerial Photography and the Rio Chixoy Dam in Guatemala"
    In February 1982, a Guatemalan military commander ordered 72 Maya Achi men and women from the village of Rio Negro, located along the Chixoy river, to report to a neighbouring village, Xococ. Accusing the villagers of Rio Negro of affiliation with Guatemala's armed insurgency for their peaceful resistance to a proposed hydro-electric dam, the military and paramilitary unleashed unthinkable violence on the men and women of Río Negro. Only one person escaped the massacre. The massacre in Xococ was the first in a series of brutal slaughters involving torture and rape that left over 400 dead or approximately half of the population of Río Negro. Survivors fled into the treacherous mountains and canyons above the Chixoy river valley. Within a year, the valley flooded with water effectively erasing any structures that remained at Rio Negro.
    World Bank development officers, who partially funded the Chixoy hydro-electric dam, argued that the dam would provide cheap and reliable electricity for all Guatemalan citizens. The horrific violence that marked these events also revealed that the military saw the dam as a matter of life and death. The violence began, however, long before the waters flooded the valley in 1983 and even before a helicopter full of Guatemala state officials landed in Río Negro in 1976 to announce the village's demise. It began, this chapter argues, with a series of aerial photographs in 1972 that marked the areas to be flooded, including the planned displacement of 3400 Maya Achí inhabitants from the Chixoy river valley. In 1985, the National Geography Institute once again undertook aerial photography illustrating the completed dam and flooded valley. As the views from above marked by distant observation and dehumanized landscapes ready for intervention, the Chixoy dam aerial photography pushes the boundaries of when and where genocidal violence began. Drawing on oral testimonies from survivors and a critical reading of the aerial photography, I examine how aerial photographs also evidence, in unintended ways, the aftermaths of genocide.

  • February 8, 2024

    Mikael Wolfe, Stanford University, "Visual and Aural Aesthetics of the 1970 Ten million-ton Sugar Harvest in Cuba”*

    • Summary. This presentation explores some of the visual and aural aesthetics of Cuba’s mass mobilization for the 10 million-ton sugar harvest of 1970. In November 1963, just over a month after Hurricane Flora struck eastern Cuba and caused unprecedented devastation to the eastern half of the archipelago, Fidel Castro announced that the country would produce at least 10 million tons of sugar in 1970. This would surpass the previous record of 7.2 million tons set in 1952 and be far above the highest yield since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. In addition to massive investments in agricultural machinery, irrigation, fertilizers, and transportation, the Cuban government also produced billboards, posters, print advertisements, and television broadcasts, to mobilize the population to achieve the ambitious goal, which fell short at a still record 8.5 million tons. There was even a popular musical band called “Los van van” based on the government slogan “Los 10 millones van” (the 10 million tons move forward), a band which virtually all Cubans to this day know about. How these visual and aural aesthetic dimensions of the 1970 sugar harvest influenced this mass mobilization is the focus of the presentation.

    *Presented at a different time, 3:30PM-5:00PM 

  • January 11, 2024

    Francisco Tijerina, Ph.D. candidate, Washington University in St. Louis, “From the Cosmopolitan to the Planetary: Ecological Aesthetics in Contemporary Mexican Haikus"
    Francisco Tijerina is a PhD Candidate (ABD) in Hispanic Studies with a certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He earned a B.A. in Communication and Digital Media with a certificate in Journalism and an M.A. in Humanistic Studies with a specialization in Literature and Discourse at Tec de Monterrey. His research and academic interests include literary artifacts produced by women in contemporary Mexico and Latin America, neo-extractivism, ecocriticism, ecofeminism, animal studies, and literatures produced from the diasporas.

  • December 14, 2023

    Postponed until January, 2024. 

  • May 11, 2023

    Presenter 1: Dafne Cruz Porchini, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), “The artist Fermín Revueltas and the Visual Imaginaries of Technology in Mexico: the mural Allegory of Productivity (1934)”

    • Summary: This essay will discuss the visual imaginaries of technology, developed by Fermín Revueltas (1901–35) in one of his last works, 1934 fresco mural Allegory of Productivity, commissioned by the Banco Nacional Hipotecario y de Obras Públicas de México (formerly Banobras). This commission presented the uneven developments between the emergent transformation of urban Mexico. Revueltas--who had participated very actively in the estridentista movement--not only transferred the aesthetic and visual program of modernity into the mural, but he also wanted to include content aimed at fostering a better exploitation of natural resources. The main "character" in this fresco is an engine or dynamo, an artifact also linked to labor. Similarly, the landscape appears populated by electrical cables, towers and chimneys. Revueltas had taken photographs of the industrial and rural environment of Mexico from where he surely took several models that, eventually, inspired some mural sections. In analyzing this large-format work in detail, I provide evidence on how Revueltas evokes a technological and industrial utopia in total correspondence with Mexico's post-revolutionary nationalist project at the time. The essay structure is the following: a) The artist and the mural in the context of postrevolutionary Mexico; b) The machinery aesthetics. A depiction; c) The possible visual models.

    Presenter 2: Leida Fernández Prieto, Institute of History, National Spanish Research Council (CSIC), "Trompe l'oeil of the Nation: Visual Aesthetics, Agriculture, and Slavery in Cuba"

    • Summary: This chapter analyzes the aesthetics of slavery produced by colonial science sites through the Havana Botanical Garden. In other words, it seeks to answer how colonial science contributed to the narrative of whitening through a design of modernity, civilization and urban progress of the city, whose influence continues to this day where there are no architectural elements or monuments that rescue the enslaved within the collective memory of the city. By doing this, I argue that the colonial institution silenced the existence of slavery, including an informal cemetery for the enslaved, based on a design of modernity and leisure for the city that responded to the influence of the beautiful according to the ideal of French aesthetics, which crossed the borders of the Spanish empire. Traditionally, colonial science has been analyzed as uncontaminated by slavery within the historiography of Cuba. Also the aesthetics of slavery has paid more attention to the landscape and sugar factories since ecocriticism. In recent times, we have found new approaches that rescue the voices of the enslaved within the modernity of the city, where my work is inscribed from the intersection of the history of science, aesthetics, and slavery.​

  • April 13, 2023

    Presenter 1: Vanessa Freije, University of Washington, "Imaginaries of Satellite Technology in Hidalgo, Mexico”

    • Summary. In 1985, Mexico became the ninth country in the world to put a satellite into orbit. Launched nearly three decades after the so-called global space race began, government officials heralded a new era of “information sovereignty.” Not only would the country presumably be freed from imperialist control over communications, some described the satellite system as “rescuing [rural people] from marginality” by connecting far-flung communities seemingly overnight.[1] The rapid development of communications technology over the previous decades had raised pressing questions about the role that information should play in society: In whose hands was information safe? What did it mean to democratize information and whom did it benefit? These were questions that were debated in elite Mexican newspapers, academic circles, and halls of power. But the meanings and consequences of these new technologies were also acutely experienced and contested locally.
    • In this paper, I will examine how local imaginaries of technology, modernization, and communication were shaped by the space satellite. Nearly two decades prior to Mexico’s satellite launch, the first satellite earth station was installed in Tulancingo, Hidalgo, just north of the Federal District. This station formed part of a broader government effort to increase the country’s broadcasting potential for the 1968 summer Olympics. The earth station would enable the Olympic Games, hosted by Mexico, to be broadcast live around the world for the first time.

    Presenter 2: Mikael Wolfe, Stanford University, "Visual and Aural Aesthetics of the 1970 Ten million-ton Sugar Harvest in Cuba

    • Summary. This presentation explores some of the visual and aural aesthetics of Cuba’s mass mobilization for the 10 million-ton sugar harvest of 1970. In November 1963, just over a month after Hurricane Flora struck eastern Cuba and caused unprecedented devastation to the eastern half of the archipelago, Fidel Castro announced that the country would produce at least 10 million tons of sugar in 1970. This would surpass the previous record of 7.2 million tons set in 1952 and be far above the highest yield since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. In addition to massive investments in agricultural machinery, irrigation, fertilizers, and transportation, the Cuban government also produced billboards, posters, print advertisements, and television broadcasts, to mobilize the population to achieve the ambitious goal, which fell short at a still record 8.5 million tons. There was even a popular musical band called “Los van van” based on the government slogan “Los 10 millones van” (the 10 million tons move forward), a band which virtually all Cubans to this day know about. How these visual and aural aesthetic dimensions of the 1970 sugar harvest influenced this mass mobilization is the focus of the presentation.

    [1] “SCT: el Morelos I rescatará de la marginación a los mexicanos,” El Universal, December 8, 1986.


  • March 9, 2023

    Presenter 1: Mónica Salas Landa, Lafayette College, “A Postcard View of Progress:” Pemex’s Visual Propaganda and the Aesthetics of Mexico’s Technological Nationalism, 1950”

    • Summary. The 1938 Mexican oil expropriation has been the subject of substantial study among scholars of post-revolutionary Mexico. In addition to the legal and labor conflicts that prompted it, academics have begun to pay more attention to the propagandistic efforts that the Cardenista state, through the Department of Press and Publicity (DAPP), carried out to increase the authority of the government and build support for its proposed economic nationalism. According to these studies, there were two different discourses that animated this nationalist oil propaganda: one "radical and anti-imperialist" (emphasizing the nation’s need to break with economic subjugation and exploitation) and the other "traditional and patriotic" (emphasizing the nation’s integrity and sovereignty). While these studies have enriched the literature on oil nationalism, the state's invocation of technology has nevertheless received little attention, even though the visual materials produced by the DAPP demonstrate that the revolutionary regime made a concerted effort to transform oil infrastructures into icons and actors in the nationalist spectacle that would frame the expropriation of the oil industry and its subsequent expansion by the state oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX).
    • This chapter analyzes how, after the disappearance of the DAPP and the Cardenista project, the postrevolutionary regime continued to invest materially and ideologically in oil infrastructure developments and, in doing so, fabricated a distinctive "technological nationalism." To determine how this process developed and how it acquired affective purchase by midcentury, my analysis focuses on PEMEX's corporate advertising and propaganda. Through consumer ads, pro-government articles, and touristic brochures, PEMEX sought to reinforce the notion that drilling rigs, storage tanks, and refineries were visible symbols and conduits of revolutionary achievements: emblems of national progress, modernity, and development. By exposing the representational strategies of PEMEX's publicity campaign I will demonstrate how the technological nationalism that PEMEX fueled through it, prompted Mexicans not only to be consumers and spectators of an industrial-driven modernity but also to overlook its human, environmental, and political costs.

    Presenter 2: Lucas Erichsen, Instituto Nacional da Mata Atlântica - Brasil. Places for a first and last look: slaughterhouses, aesthetics, and technology in 19th Brazil.

    • Summary: Eating animal meat is an act inseparable from human history, topologically dispersed, immersed in different historicity, and by a multitude of things: evolutionary, biological, gustatory, cultural, technological, aesthetic, economic, ecological, ethical, and perceptual elements. It was throughout the 19th century that public slaughterhouses emerged, places built by the State where killing animals for human consumption was regulated and conducted. Public slaughterhouses were also environments of constant interaction with the biophysical world and spaces constituted by the insertion and development of technologies, techniques, and gradual recognition of aesthetic elements that combined, aligned with the production and distribution of meat in Rio de Janeiro. 
    • My essay explores three public slaughterhouses in Rio de Janeiro between 1854 and 1882. It was during this period that Rio de Janeiro underwent intense transformations and where we can find three public slaughterhouses in operation. Analyzing this junction illuminates how the State, conceptions of modernity, technology, and aesthetics played a significant role in the history of one of the activities most rooted in Brazilian culture and still neglected in Brazilian historiography, in the history of technology and the history of Brazil."  

  • February 9, 2023

    Pete Soland, “A Bird’s Eye View of Latin America: Aviation Technology and High Modernism in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru”

    • Summary: The innovation of aerodyne flight at the end of the nineteenth century sparked popular enthusiasm worldwide, and inspired modernity-obsessed nation builders across Latin America to reimagine their countries, quite literally from the top-down. Aeronautics technology provided wealthy playboys, revolutionary fighters, artists, intellectuals, and even city-planning bureaucrats an empowering vantagepoint from which to re-order their world. Aviation not only promised a speedier means of traversing terrain where it was difficult to build roads and railways, but also, as James Scott noted, the view from the cockpit “flattened the topography as it were a canvas” and “encouraged new aspirations to ‘synoptic’ vision, rational control, planning, and social order.” Political leaders, in particular, viewed airplanes as tools for achieving national unity by overcoming geographic obstacles like the Amazon frontier, the Andes mountains, and the ruggedly diverse landscapes of Mexico. The technology’s war-time applications also earned it admirers among military circles, during a time when armies frequently wielded significant influence in the national affairs of their respective countries. 
    • In this essay I examine how the development of aviation in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru contributed to the aesthetics of so-called high modernism throughout Latin America during the first half of the twentieth century. The proliferation of airplanes across Latin American skies made a bird’s-eye view of the region possible, which proved crucial to national modernization efforts that relied on the visual simplification of both land and people. I argue that the aviation aesthetic tended towards a homogenizing effect that typically rewarded the authoritarian impulses of state-builders, regardless of political ideology.


  • January 12, 2023

    Presenter 1: Francisco G. Tijerina Martínez, Washington University in St. Louis, "From the Cosmopolitan to the Planetary: Ecological Aesthetics in Contemporary Mexican Haikus"

    • Summary: In the context of the intersection between our current climate crisis and late capitalism, I explore the cultural significance of minimalist poetry, specifically haikus, in the Mexican context of the last century. Drawing from Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s Otro día… (poemas sintéticos), a contemporary response to José Juan Tablada’s Un día… (poemas sintéticos), I seek out how ongoing aesthetic practices use digital tools, such as search engines and the images sent on the Voyager in the 70s, as a methodology to critique the trinomial globalization-capitalism-anthropocentrism. By analyzing both texts side by side, I aim to shed light on the social anxieties that inspired the publication of each book. On the one hand, we have José Juan Tablada as a key actor of cosmopolitanism who imported the haiku as a software update that reinvented poetry written in Spanish. While he was an already well-known member of the Mexican intelligentsia due to his participation in the Modernismo movement, this contribution helped consolidate him as a prominent figure of the Mexican avant-garde. On the other hand, we have Verónica Gerber Bicecci and her rewriting of Tablada’s text as a response not only to the myths of globalization and progress, but to the centrality of men and humans as the structural axis of our daily practices. By resignifying Tablada’s effort, which was linked to the goals of Latin American avant-garde movements and intellectuals, Gerber Bicecci manages to point not to a global perspective but to a planetary approach on literature and its cultural referents. The stress she puts onto these categories is, as Susan Stanford Friedman states, a work that encompasses “multitudes on a global grid of relational networks”, including those who have been obscured by the binary dichotomies like human/non-human and men/women.

    Presenter 2: Yohad Zacarias, University of Texas. Austin, "Aesthetics of lighting: Electrical substations and the extension of technology in Santiago de Chile. 1900-1940"

    • Summary: This presentation will explore the technological and urban consequences of the insertion of the first lighting and electrical substations in Santiago de Chile between 1900 and 1940. Based on the photography from the Electric Company historic Archive, newspapers, engineer's documents (Instituto de Ingenieros de Chile), and municipal and business sources (Actas de la Municipalidad de Santiago), the presentation will expose how the construction and development of the first lighting and electrical substations presented a series of material and aesthetic inequalities in the city. First, I will explore how the electrical substations –that fed the urban center– were installed in the periphery, where people only had gas or kerosene, evidencing a technological coexistence for the users. This technical expansion also led to an increase in the urban radius in previously considered peripheral and the beginning of the first techno-electrical experiences by the inhabitants of Santiago in public spaces. Depending on the location of their places of residence and how far –or not– from the center they were in, they experienced electricity in lighting and electrical substations in different ways. Finally, electrical supply networks, such as substations, exemplify that the inhabitants of sectors far from the urban radius did not have access to this electricity but did cohabit with electrical elements. Second, I will mention how, in the urban center, the electrification of public buildings and the installation of lighting with a modern decorative aesthetic purpose were chosen. In this first part, European and North American electrical transfers are evidenced in the urban space, showing a model of European extension but with North American touches in its materiality in the city. To conclude, my project's significance is evidence of the conformation of urban spaces with the extension of technology and its aesthetics in Santiago. Beyond the notions of progress and modernization associated with the insertion of electricity in cities, the article seeks to exemplify the specificities -and inequalities- of the urban ramification of this energy in Santiago and thus compare it with other Latin American capitals.


Group Conveners

  • Dmontano's picture

    Diana J. Montaño

    Diana J. Montaño is Assistant Professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Her teaching and research interests broadly include the construction of modern Latin American societies with a focus on technology and its relationship to nationalism, everyday life, and domesticity. Her first book Electrifying Mexico looks at how "electrifying agents" (businessmen, salespersons, inventors, doctors, housewives, maids, and domestic advisors) used electricity, both symbolically and physically, in the construction of a modern nation. Taking a user-based perspective, Dr. Montaño reconstructs how electricity was lived, consumed, rejected, and shaped in everyday life ( For her articles on the intersection of humor and class in streetcar accidents see History of Technology ( -) and  Technology's Stories ( For her HAHR article on power theft in turn-of-the-century Mexico see


  • mikaelw's picture

    Mikael Wolfe

    Mikael Wolfe is Associate Professor of History at Stanford University focusing on the intersection of social, political, environmental, and technological change in modern Latin America. In his scholarship and teaching, he employs interdisciplinary historical methods to explore questions of water control, agrarian reform, and the effects of climate and weather on the process of social revolution in Mexico and Cuba. He is the author of Watering the Revolution: An Environmental and Technological History of Agrarian Reform in Mexico (Duke, 2017) and numerous articles and book chapters on Mexico and Cuba, including in Journal of the Southwest, Mexican Studies, Hispanic American Historical Review, and Environmental History, as well as op-eds and feature articles in The Washington Post, The Orlando Sentinel, North American Congress on Latin America, and Jacobin. His second book project is titled Rebellious Climates: How Weather and Geography Shaped the Cuban Revolution, 1955-1971.


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