When Ph.D. candidate Rich Lizardo was a child growing up in Los Angeles, visits to his grandfather’s house were also a chance to peruse an old encyclopedia collection on the history of the Dominican Republic. “I was fascinated by all this information about the country’s past, memorizing things like the list of its presidents and provinces,” he says. For Lizardo, learning how to read the Spanish text about the nation his parents hailed from sparked his interest in history that continues today.
As an undergraduate history major, he ended up taking a course on early modern Spain. “What was great about it was that I was able to access the primary sources, knowing Spanish. That helped me to then home in on a senior thesis that was related to early modern Spain and the issue of poverty, and I’ve been pursuing that avenue of history ever since,” he says.
Lizardo’s dissertation traces the evolution in the ideas, institutions, and images of poverty in Spain from about 1500 and 1800. In the dissertation, he makes two key arguments: the first being that the lens of poverty, offers a clear vision of the intellectual, political, religious, and institutional developments of the era and, second, that focusing on the Spanish world offers a view into poverty in early modern Europe more broadly.
“A lot of these questions still permeate modern society, whether it’s the balance between church and state power, the role of individual institutions on the ground, or the idea of assistance or charity,” he says. “You have a lot of the same kind of debates and intellectual framings starting in the early modern period.”
One thing Lizardo has found exciting about his work is discovering how frequently these intellectual treatises on poverty were put into practice during this period in Spain. “People did really try to implement some of these ideas, people who weren't themselves intellectuals but were trying to help other people who were less well off,” he says.
Lizardo sees the early modern period as one of transition. “It’s different enough where you can see it on its own terms, but it's close enough where you can see the beginnings of things that would come to dominate in society today and with poverty in particular,” he says.
He points to how this past year in his home state of California the government is setting up Community, Assistance, Recovery, and Empowerment (CARE) courts, which are essentially drug rehabilitation courts intended to stem the tide of homelessness, but they have conditions built into the type of aid they are providing to the unhoused. Lizardo also notes the debates about the debt ceiling with discussions over work requirements.
“Many of these questions from the 1500s still permeate modern society, asking how we best provide for the marginalized and the poor and what we should expect from them as a society and on an individual basis,” he says. “The modern debates aren’t exactly shaping my approach to history, but how we think about these questions is definitely on my mind, given that a lot of these questions and approaches haven’t changed in 500 years.”