Nara B. Milanich

Nara B. Milanich

Research Interest


Nara Milanich, Professor of History, joined the faculty of Barnard in 2004. Her scholarly interests include modern Latin America, Chile, and the comparative histories of family, gender, childhood, reproduction, law, and social inequality.

Professor Milanich teaches courses ranging from the Modern Latin American History survey to a comparative seminar on the "Global Politics of Reproduction." She works closely with PhD students in Latin American History at Columbia.  Professor Milanich has also taught in and directed the Masters in Latin American Studies (MARSLAC) based in the Institute for Latin American Studies.

Her research and scholarship have been supported by the Fulbright Commission for Educational Exchange, the Social Science Research Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Unesco, and the American Council of Learned Societies. 

Professor Milanich writes and publishes in both Spanish and English.

Current Research

I am working on a book project entitled The Birth of Uncertainty: A Global History of the Paternity Test, under contract with Harvard University Press.

For millennia, the principle pater semper incertus est (“the father is always uncertain”) seemed an immutable law of nature. But in the 1920s, new advances in the science of heredity appeared poised to overthrow that assumption. This is the first book to explore the development of tests of biological parentage over the course of the twentieth century and their consequences for men, women, and children, states and societies.

Adopting a cross-cultural, comparative perspective ranging across Latin America, North America, and Europe, my research shows that even as parentage testing has purported to reveal essential biological truths, its social uses, public regulation, and cultural meanings have varied widely over time and across global societies. Paternity testing was first heralded as a tool for identifying errant fathers and adulterous wives but was soon incorporated into welfare policies and immigration proceedings, where it assessed not only kinship but also citizenship. Thus, a technology to ascertain the tie of parent and child has also served, from its inception, to draw the boundaries of race and nation. Today, DNA testing can establish genealogical descent with virtual certainty. But while science destabilized older social and legal constructions of paternity, it never fully displaced them. The result is that, in the age of modern biomedicine, definitions of kinship, identity, and belonging are as “uncertain” as ever.

Ultimately, this history speaks to the broad question of how people in modern societies understand identity and family, particularly in light of scientific ways of knowing. It reveals that these are questions with which individuals, families, courts, states, and societies have grappled longer than we might imagine.

Academic Focus: Latin American history; comparative history of family and kinship; childhood; gender and reproduction; law; social inequality


Undergraduate Seminars:

  • Inequalities: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Latin American History and Society
  • Origin Stories: Race, Genealogy and Citizenship in the Modern World
  • Global Politics of Reproduction: Culture, History, Politics
  • Perspectives on Power in Modern Latin American History

Undergraduate Lectures:

  • Reproducing Inequalities: Families in Latin American History and Society
  • Women and Gender in Latin American History
  • Modern Latin America

Graduate Seminars:

  • Law and Legalities in Latin America
  • Populations and Bodies in Latin American History
  • Historiography Seminar for First-Year Students

Awards & Honors: 

Recent Awards and Fellowships

  • Columbia University, Heyman Center Society of Fellows, 2015-16
  • ACLS Burkhardt Fellowship, 2014-15
  • Grace Abbott Book Award from the Society for the History of Children and Youth (2009) for Children of Fate.

Professional Affiliations: 

Professor Milanich serves on the Editorial Board of the Hispanic American Historical Review and Historia (Pontificia Univ. Católica de Chile). She is a founding member of REHIAL, Red de Estudios de Historia de las Infancias en América Latina. 

She is cofounder with Prof. Alyshia Gálvez of the Dream Act Faculty Alliance, a network of NYC-area faculty that supports undocumented students. She volunteers with CARA Pro Bono Project, which provides access to legal counsel for women & children refugees and has served as an expert witness and interpreter in political asylum cases. 



The Chile Reader: History, Culture, Politics (co-edited with Elizabeth Quay Hutchison, Thomas Miller Klubock, and Peter Winn) (Duke University Press, 2013)

Children of Fate: Childhood, Class, and the State in Chile, 1850-1930(Duke University Press, 2009)

Spanish edition in progress: Los hijos del azar. Infancia, clase y estado en Chile. 1850-1930. Translated by Ana María Velasco. Forthcoming, 2018.

Selected Recent Articles/Book Chapters

“Stratified Maternity in the Barrio: Mothers and Children in Argentine Social Programs," with Valeria Llobet, forthcoming in Feminism and the Politics of Childhood: Friends or Foes?, edited by Rachel Rosen and Katherine Twamley, forthcoming, 2017. 

“Certain Mothers, Uncertain Fathers: Assisted Reproductive Technologies in Historical Perspective,” for Bodies and Borders: Negotiating Motherhood in the 21st Century, Yasmine Ergas, Jane Jenson, and Sonya Michel, eds, forthcoming with Columbia University Press, 2017.

“The Politics of Family Law in Twentieth-Century Chile and Latin America, ”Law and History Review 33:4, November 2015, 767-802.

“Latin American Childhoods and the Concept of Modernity,” Routledge History of Children in the Western World, Paula Fass, ed., Routledge, 2012.

 “Women, Children, and Domestic Labor in Nineteenth-Century Chile,”Hispanic American Historical Review 91:1, February 2011, 29-62.

“Degrees of Bondage: Children’s Tutelary Servitude in Modern Latin America,” in Child Slaves in the Modern World, vol 2, Joseph Miller, Gwyn Campbell, and Sue Miers, eds. Ohio State University Press, 2011.

“Family Matters: The Historiography of Latin American Families,” in Oxford Handbook of Latin American History, José Moya, ed., Oxford  University Press, 2010, 382-406.

“Women, Gender, and Family in Latin America, 1800-2000,” in A Companion to Latin American History, Thomas Holloway, ed., Blackwell, 2008, 461-479.

“Whither Family History? A Road Map from Latin America,” American Historical Review 112:2, April 2007, 439-458.

Other Writing

Nations have separated children from parents before. It never ends well. The Washington Post. 3/17/17.

These are the people Donald Trump wants to keep out of the United States. The Washington Post. 9/26/16.

Blood Will Sell. The paternity testing industry is big business, but what it markets is a pernicious sense of doubt. 6/18/16.