Curbelo, Néstor. The History of the Mormons in Argentina. Translated by Erin Jennings. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books.
Undeniably, one of the most underrepresented areas of Mormon historiography is the study of the International Church. Trapped in a historiography that is almost universally dominated by nineteenth century Americanists, Mormonism’s international history often goes unnoticed and unevaluated. While several reasons—some of which are beyond the control of Mormon historians—account for this underrepresentation, the fact nevertheless remains that Mormon history largely remains a branch of American history in spite of Mormonism’s growing international presence.
Accordingly, Néstor Curbelo’s History of the Mormons in Argentina is an important step toward filling a large hole in the historiography of Mormonism. To go along with his history of the Church in Argentina, Curbelo has likewise written histories of Mormonism in Uruguay, Paraguay, and Boliva. Although Curbelo is a native of Uruguay, he has lived most of his adult life in Argentina, where he has worked as the director of the Church’s Institute in Buenos Aires.
As with all histories, Curbelo’s book has both strengths that make it well worth the time to read, and weaknesses that prevent it from becoming a more significant contribution to the historiography. Perhaps the book’s most important contribution is its wealth of primary information coming from interviews and oral histories. While some portions of the book are filled with random dates and information, the majority of the book is a rather personal look at the beginnings of the Church in Argentina, with glimpses into the personal lives of the earliest members. In preparing the book, Curbelo interviewed a number of the earliest members of the Church in Argentina as well as the descendants of those who had died. By conducting these interviews and recording these stories alone, Curbelo has made an important contribution to Mormon history, and has helped to preserve a history which otherwise might be lost. It is sincerely hoped that Curbelo will, at some point, deposit his notes of these interviews in an archive where they can be accessed and combed for further information regarding the beginnings of Argentine Mormonism.
Additionally, while the title of the book suggests that it would be entirely provincial, Curbelo acknowledges not only the American origins of the Church, but also the Church’s Latin American origins. The first two chapters describe Parley P. Pratt’s mission to Chile, and the origins of the Church in Mexico as important preludes to the introduction of Mormonism to Argentina. While both chapters are rushed and could undoubtedly be expanded and improved, they help to contextualize the remainder of the book and perhaps set a precedent which Americanist Mormon historians would be wise to follow.
While Curbelo recognized the importance of contextualizing the beginnings of Argentine Mormonism within the growth of the Church in other Latin American countries, he did not, unfortunately, contextualize the growth of the Church within the context of Argentine history. Absent from the book are references to the political chaos which enveloped Argentina during these years. His chapter on the growth of the Church during the 1970s and 1980s omitted any reference to the Argentine “Dirty War,” during which, by some estimates, 30,000 Argentines “disappeared” due to government purges. While this remains an uncomfortable subject for most Argentines, it nevertheless profoundly affected their lives during that period and would have made an important addition to the book. One section of the book does refer to an interesting interchange between David O. McKay and Argentine President Juan Perón, but it fails to adequately acquaint the reader with the politics and ideas which Perón adhered to. Hence, some readers were undoubtedly left to their vague recollections of a supporting character in the movie Evita.
In terms of writing, the book does not always flow, making the book seem a little longer than its 230 pages, but much of this problem may be the result of translation rather than poor writing. This is not to say that the book is poorly translated, but rather to remind the readers of the difficulties of language translation. All things considered, Erin Jennings has done a remarkable job in translating Curbelo’s book into English, a process which anyone will agree is by no means easy.
Overall, the book is an important step forward in the study of international Mormonism. It is to be hoped that in the future, a historian with an adequate understanding of both Mormon and Argentine history will be able to build upon Curbelo’s book and render an even more nuanced history of Mormonism in Argentina. Indeed it is to be hoped that further books will begin to fill in the story of the International Church.