of Latin American History and the College;

Director, Center for Latin American Studies

PhD 1999 Harvard University

Social Science Research Building, room 511 – Office

(773) 834-4608 - Office telephone
(773) 702-7550 - Fax

Field Specialties

Brazil, Latin America, comparative legal studies, urban studies, poverty and inequality, race


I am a historian of Brazil and Latin America, especially interested in cities, citizenship, law, migration, race, and social inequality. My first book, A Poverty of Rights (Stanford, 2008), examined how weak citizenship rights and residential informality came to define urban poverty, popular social struggles, and the political dynamics of inequality in modern Brazil. It received book awards from the Social Science History Association, the Urban History Association, the Conference on Latin American History, and the Brazilian Studies Association.

A volume I coedited with Bryan McCann and Javier Auyero, Cities from Scratch (Duke University Press, 2014), explores the many ways in which poverty and informality have shaped the Latin American urban experience. My essay for the volume, "A Century in the Present Tense," argues that the historical dynamics of Brazilian urban poverty have been obscured by a marked tendency to see informal cities as symptoms of current crises rather than historically dynamic phenomena in their own right. In various other essays and ongoing research, I have focused on the historical dynamics of Brazilian racial inequalities, criminal law, Brazil’s twentieth-century great migrations, and the relationship between the urban poor and Brazil’s political left.

In my current project, Understanding Inequality in Post-Abolition Brazil, I ask when—and if—social inequality came to be defined as Brazil’s central sociopolitical problem. Drastic inequalities have always defined Brazilian society, and the struggle against inequality has long shaped the political left. But in Brazil’s late nineteenth century, issues of hunger, disease, landlessness, and freedom often loomed larger for the very poor than inequality per se, and the combination of weak public institutions and private monopolization of power and resources rendered access to vertical social networks vital. In such a context, inequality was often the root cause of social misery, but access to one’s unequals was often the only way to survive it. This tension endured throughout the twentieth century, becoming a defining feature of Brazilian modernity. In tracing inequality’s confounding history, this project illuminates the sinuous logic of poor people’s political mobilization in Brazil, often revealing significant agency in actions once regarded as symptoms of false consciousness or ignorant dependence. Yet Understanding Inequality also indicates some of the paradoxical ways in which struggles for survival and social mobility have historically reinforced rather than disrupted larger inequalities.

My teaching focuses both on my core research interests and on the larger histories of Brazil, Latin America, and social inequality. Before coming to Chicago, I taught at Amherst College and Northwestern University.


"Introduction" and "A Century in the Present Tense: Crisis, Politics and the Intellectual History of Brazil’s Informal Cities." In Cities from Scratch: Poverty and Informality in Urban Latin America, edited by Brodwyn Fischer, Bryan McCann, and Javier Auyero. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

A Poverty of Rights: Citizenship and Inequality in Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008 (paperback, 2011).


"Latin American Urban History." In Oxford Bibliographies Online, forthcoming.

"The Red Menace Reconsidered: A Forgotten History of Communist Mobilization in Rio's Favelas, 1946–1956." Hispanic American Historical Review 94, no. 1 (2014): 1–33.

"Democracy, Thuggery, and the Grassroots: Antoine Magarinos Torres and the União de Trabalhadores Favelados, 1954–1962." Nuevo Mundo–Mundos Nuevos, Colloquium: "Repensando los populismos en América Latina," February 2013.

"Partindo a cidade maravilhosa" (Dividing the Marvelous City). In Quase cidadão: histórias e antropologias da pós-emancipação no Brasil, edited by Flávio dos Santos Gomes and Olívia Maria Gomes da Cunha, 419–450. Rio de Janeiro: Editora da Fundação Getúlio Vargas, 2007.

"Direitos por lei, ou leis por direito?" (Rights by Law or Laws by Right?). In Direitos e justiças–histórias plurais, edited by Silvia Lara and Joseli Mendonça, 417–456. São Paulo: UNICAMP Press, 2006.

"Slandering Citizens: Insults, Class and Social Legitimacy in Rio de Janeiro's Criminal Courts." In Honor, Status and the Law in Modern Latin America, edited by Sueann Caulfield, Lara Putnam, and Sarah Chambers, 176–200. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

"Quase Pretos de Tão Pobres? Race, Class, and Criminal Justice in Rio de Janeiro." Latin American Research Review 39, no. 1 (February 2004): 31–59.


Coedits Cities from Scratch: Poverty and Informality in Urban Latin America (Duke, 2014) with Javier Auyero and Bryan McCann

2014 Fischer.jpg

Selected to win the 2014 James Alexander Robertson Prize from the Conference on Latin American History: "The Red Menace Reconsidered: A Forgotten History of Communist Mobilization in Rio's Favelas, 1946–1956." Hispanic American Historical Review 94, no. 1 (2014).

Discusses Urban Poverty in Latin America [video, 3 minutes]