Jean Franco, a pioneering literary scholar who did much to shape Latin American studies in the late 1960s and '70s, examining the region's literature through feminist and political perspectives, died Dec. 15 at her home in New York. She was 98.
Her son, Alexis Parke, confirmed the death.
Latin American studies was just emerging when Franco began her academic career in the mid-1960s, and much of it was focused on economics, sociology and political science. But it was also the moment when a new generation of writers was appearing across the region, including Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes.
Through a series of wide-ranging studies, including her landmark book "The Modern Culture of Latin America: Society and the Artist" (1967), Franco argued that the region's literature deserved its own sustained focus, a radical idea at a time when most Spanish-language scholarship was still focused on the likes of Miguel de Cervantes and Federico Garcia Lorca.
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Franco, who taught in England and later at Stanford and Columbia, did more than just highlight new writers. A follower of British Marxist scholars such as Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, she insisted that the study of literature had to take into account the cultural and political context in which it was created – a sharp contrast to the conventional, close-reading method in which she was trained.
She was likewise a pioneer in applying feminist perspectives to what had been a male-dominated field. In books such as "Plotting Women. Gender and Representation in Mexico" (1989), she reshaped the understanding of women in Latin American politics and culture, showing how they had often resisted traditional gender roles.
And she was an early advocate for what came to be known as cultural studies, which treats all forms of culture – highbrow, popular, mass media – as interrelated and equally worthy of study. In the early 1980s she founded Tabloid, a twice-yearly journal that featured deeply considered analyses of cultural phenomena such as Jazzercise and talk radio.
"Few critics share Franco's capacity to conceptualize and define the big picture without losing sight of the fact that this picture is known through its details: a text, a song, an advertisement, graffiti, a Puerto Rican funeral," wrote Mary Louise Pratt and Kathleen M. Newman in their introduction to "Critical Passions: Selected Essays" (1999), a collection of Franco's writing.
It was a type of scholarship Franco came by from personal experience. Before she entered graduate school, she lived a bohemian life in Guatemala City and Mexico City. Married to a Guatemalan painter, she fell into a circle of artists, writers and activists, and she saw firsthand the way art and politics swirled together.
After a CIA-backed coup overthrew Guatemala's left-wing government in 1954, many of her friends were arrested, and several were killed for their beliefs. She came to see that art was a vital point of resistance to oppression, and that analyzing literature through its political context was not just a methodological choice but an ethical imperative.
In her last book, "Cruel Modernity" (2013), about the political use of cruelty by Latin American authoritarian governments, she wrote that her time in Guatemala was "an experience that was to leave a trace in everything I have written."
Jean Swindells was born on March 31, 1924, in Dukinfield, a town east of Manchester, England. Her father, William Swindells, was a baker, and her mother, Ella (Newton) Swindells, was a homemaker.
Along with her son, she is survived by a sister, Pauline Swindells.
Franco studied art history at Manchester University, receiving a bachelor's degree in 1944 and a master's in 1946. Upon graduating, she received a travel grant to research art across Europe. She eventually settled in Florence, Italy, where she met a Guatemalan artist, Juan Antonio Franco. They married and moved to Guatemala City.
Juan Franco was close to the country's left-leaning president, Jacobo Arbenz, which made him a target after the coup. The Francos fled to Mexico City, where she worked as a typist, teacher and actor.
The Francos later divorced, and after a brief sojourn in Jamaica, she and her son returned to England. She began taking night classes in Spanish-language literature, but found that almost no British academics were interested in Latin America.
In 1960 she received a bachelor's degree, and later a doctorate, in Spanish literature, both from the University of London.
She held a series of teaching jobs in London, and in 1972 she moved to Stanford.
Stanford and the nearby University of California, Berkeley, were at the forefront of Latin American studies, and she became a leading figure in the discipline.
She created a joint study center between the schools and influenced scores of graduate students.