’s award-winning book The Enlightenment on Trial: Ordinary Litigants and Colonialism in the Spanish Empire,
published by Oxford University Press in 2017, makes a powerful yet seemingly simple claim: during the eighteenth century, illiterate ordinary litigants in colonial Spanish America created enlightened ideas and practices by suing their social superiors in higher numbers and with novel claims. By focusing on civil suits undertaken by women, indigenous groups, and the enslaved, Premo demonstrates a gradual shift from a justice-oriented system—focused on extralegal outcomes and casuistic jurisprudence—to a Enlightened law-oriented system—where ordinary litigants based their claims on natural rights, merit, and freedom. Such a transformation expanded through varied and diverse geographies; from metropolitan cities such as Mexico City and Lima, to rural indigenous regions of Oaxaca, and smaller, ethnically diverse, provincial cities such as Trujillo in Peru. As listeners will hear, The Enlightenment on Trial
not only challenges traditional histories that have placed the origin of the Enlightenment solely in Western Europe, and in the minds of a few and select group of European men, but it also asks us to situate Latin America in a global conversation— one in which the ideas of ordinary citizens are the matter of intellectual history, and where our commonalities as humans are more important than our differences. This last point, as professor Premo reminds us at the end of the conversation, is an important lesson for our present, a moment in which arguments about radical alterity are used as a basis for exclusion. Instead, for Premo, it is important to highlight the histories that we share, the stories in which we all partake, and that we all need to recover from historical erasure.
Lisette Varon-Carvajal is a graduate student in history at Rutger's University.