The question of what is just is not an ahistorical one—it is answered daily in the spaces of lived experience.
Latin America is as culturally diverse as it is geographically vast. Yet, the nations of Latin America share important historical and institutional characteristics. Perhaps most significantly, countries across the region continue to grapple with the legacies of colonialism—from the classical era of Iberian colonialization to the neocolonial domination enacted through economic penetration in the early twentieth century.
At the approach of the twenty-first century, Latin Americans found themselves constrained by the demands of international lending agencies and awash in the flood of cultural and material products made ever more readily available by multinationals striving to captivate and capitalize on the “emerging markets” opened by neoliberal reform. The continent has also had to contend with the legacies of state violence and dictatorial regimes that sought to strip society of its vibrant forms of popular organizations, preemptively crushing opposition and laying the foundation for the economic restructuring that was to come.
In all of these cases, the protagonists are seeking one thing: justice.
These shared processes of emergence paved the way for a diversity of forms of resistance. In the Chilean Atacama Desert, residents have undertaken a prolonged struggle for their right to groundwater. Family members of bombing victims in Buenos Aires brought a case against the state of Argentina before an international human rights body and are still working through a slow process of attempted resolution. In Colombia, some victims of political violence are turning increasingly to the courts for resolution in the wake of devastating personal tragedy, while others reject the state’s ability to fairly adjudicate their grievances and construct instead a nonstate tribunal to consider the damages they have suffered to both persons and property.
In all of these cases, the protagonists are seeking one thing: justice. But what exactly does “justice” mean for those involved in each of these examples? If achieved, what would justice look like? Invocations of “justice” are generative not only of a sense of a defined goal or a means of resolution, but they also often raise essential questions of what justice can or should look like. How can “justice” be determined or evaluated? How is it best achieved? What norms or procedures can or must govern its enactment? Who has the authority to decide what “justice” is?
The question of what justice is and the nature of its essential character have lain at the core of political philosophy for millennia. In his book A Theory of Justice, John Rawls refers to “the sense of justice” as a moral capacity for good. In particular he sees that a “capacity for a sense of justice . . . would appear to be a condition of human sociability.” As such, debates over the nature of justice often take place in the abstract. Philosophers from Plato to Rawls have treated it as an abstract concept that needs to be translated to and enacted in the real world. As such, philosophical treatments often reduce justice to its manifestation in formal and codified legal systems. But this notion is inherently tied to a modern, liberal idea of the state based on the rule of law and a particular kind of state-subject relationship.
Studying justice ethnographically allows us to move away from abstract concepts and to access close-textured descriptions of the meanings of justice.
In its early days, legal anthropologists and the anthropology of law were key in stepping in to highlight the historically and culturally derived assumptions embedded in this concept of justice, broadening the scope to include non-Western forms of assuring and restoring social harmony. In many cases, the sense of justice as held by those who seek it can only be partly fulfilled through formal systems of law. The multiple and layered components of justice and the interplay between them are often lost when we consider justice only through established, state-directed forms of law and punishment.
Studying justice ethnographically, however, allows us to move away from abstract concepts and to access close-textured descriptions of the meanings of justice and their impact in social life: How does law function within a given society? How are legal truths constructed in the first place?
In this regard, Latin America provides fertile terrain for the exploration of the meanings of justice. An archeology of the concept of justice as it has been understood, undermined, imposed, implemented, and resisted throughout the region exposes what Walter Mignolo, in The Idea of Latin America, has signaled as the inextricable coupling of modernity/coloniality, especially as it pertains to morality and law. In other words “justice” as a theoretical lens reveals how the colonizing process of imposing similar moral and legal precepts was shared across the region, even as it draws attention to the differences produced from their implementation.
A few elements in particular have served as focal points in Latin America’s recent struggles for justice—among them the upsurge in indigenous rights movements and demands for recognition; the efforts of New Left governments to reclaim privatized state-run industries held by (often foreign) corporations; and the broad array of accountability movements following (or, in some cases during ongoing) political violence. The call for justice made by these movements is omnipresent but not univocal. Exploring what activists and institutes consider to be “justice” offers a powerful lens for understanding what is at stake and what is in store for present-day Latin America.
A far cry from Rawls’ ahistorical and aspatial idea of justice, Latin America provides abundant proof that “justice” emerges from the spaces of lived experience. Justice is constructed through the embodied expression of memory, mapped out spatially, and continuously negotiated in dialogic practice. Understanding the dynamic processes that make justice and the concept’s power to generate alternative futures is essential to achieving meaningful resolution to social conflict and to constructing cooperative rather than oppressive forms of law.
This post is adapted from A Sense of Justice: Legal Knowledge and Lived Experience in Latin America edited by Karen Ann Faulk and Sandra Brunnegger, organizers of a 2016 panel at the Latin American Studies Association that interrogates the question of justice and the law in Latin America (Saturday, May 28, 12:45 PM, Madison Square).