Publication Date

May 1, 1995

After countless hours of labor, I have concluded that it appears almost foolhardy to try to cram all of Latin America into a world history course. The term Latin America is itself a misnomer: the area extending south from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego derives only a portion of its culture from the Iberian nations. And while many people speak either Spanish or, in Brazil, Portuguese, large numbers still use a variety of Indian languages, including Quechua, Aymara, or Nahuatl. In short, the nations of Latin America may occupy the same continent, but significant racial and cultural differences distinguish them. Talking about Latin America is about as accurate as talking about Europe which, although smaller in size and population, continues to be considered more diverse than other regions of the world. Thus, rather than utilizing geopolitical terms, teachers might divide Latin America into four racial blocs: the largely Indian nations of Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay, and Ecuador; the mestizo countries, like Mexico, Chile, El Salvador, and Colombia; states with large black or mulatto components, such as Brazil and some Caribbean islands; and the predominately white societies of Uruguay and Argentina. This way, instructors could acknowledge Latin America's diverse population while still integrating it into world history courses.

Conquest and Settlement

What makes Latin America unique is that the European nations not only integrated it economically, but legally incorporated it into their royal patrimonies. To understand this process, particularly the role of the state and the individual explorers, teachers should study the Spanish Reconquista as well as the Pre-Colombian Indians. Various authors give some insight into the three most populous Indian cultures—the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas—as well as those of Brazil, which were neither as large nor perhaps as culturally advanced as those of Mexico and the Pacific side of South America.1 Since the European presence—race, language, religion, and culture—is more deeply imprinted in the Western Hemisphere, Latin America shares more in common with the United States than with Asia or Africa where colonists arrived later and where the impact does seem not as permanent. Spain and Portugal, after all, controlled portions of North and all of Central and South America for approximately 300 years.

Students might benefit from reading some of the European accounts of the conquest and settlement of Mexico, Peru, or other parts of what became Spain and Portugal's empires. Although the explorers that came to these areas may have caused great destruction, the experiences of these audacious conquistadores certainly constitute one of the great human adventures. Students, for example, could compare the exultant letters of Cortes or Bernal Diaz, describing their exploits, with the experiences of those who settled the United States, Canada, and Africa or Asia. Teachers can also use recent scholarship that documents the less than enthusiastic Indian response toward those Europeans who seized their lands and who, in some cases, literally eradicated their culture.

The conquest of the Western Hemisphere changed both Latin America and Europe. In exchange for the potato, tomato, corn, as well as precious metals, Latin America received European religion, technology, languages, and culture. Perhaps the most important initial European contribution was disease: not merely smallpox and tuberculosis, which also annihilated the Europeans, but also the presumably more benign ailments of influenza, measles, mumps, and chicken pox. Without any natural immunities and often abused or ill fed, the Amerindian population perished by the millions. Teachers might compare the devastating demographic impact of the smallpox pandemic, which annihilated up to 90 percent of the Amerindian population, with the effect of European exploration on Africa or Asia. Disease traveled both ways across the Atlantic: just as malaria devastated European settlers in Africa, the Americas retaliated by giving their unwelcome guests syphilis.

Some Europeans migrated to Spanish and Portuguese America, as they did to England's American colonies, but not in sufficient numbers to compensate for the loss of native life. How the Europeans coped with labor shortages is yet another interesting topic. Early in the 16th century, Spanish colonists created first the repartamiento and then the encomienda, institutions that recruited and allocated Indian labor to till the fields and work the mines.2 When the local population succumbed either to disease or abuse, Europeans first supplemented and then replaced the Indians with other Indians or with slaves from Africa. Again, this process seems to have occurred on a larger scale in Latin America than in British America, or the rest of the world. Slavery, moreover, permeated all of Latin America, although later the slaves tended to be concentrated more heavily in areas that produced valuable agricultural products or minerals where their labor was most needed. In some countries, such as Chile, the black population slowly disappeared through the process of miscegenation; in others, like Brazil, which did not abolish slavery until the end of the 19th century, blacks constituted a significant portion of the population. Teachers could compare the Latin American slave trade with the transfer of blacks across the North Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, as well as their movement within Africa. Additionally, there are various examples of indentured servitude. For example, many of the Spanish came to the Americas as indentured laborers, which can be contrasted with the experience of contract labor in the United States or the British Empire.

Christianity, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, remains one of the most enduring of the European legacies to Latin America, as it is to the United States. While the Church transferred pernicious institutions like the Inquisition to the Americas, it also provided most of the culture that existed in the colonies. Religious communities, moreover, operated orphanages, hospitals, foundling homes, schools, and universities. Religious holidays became social occasions. The Latin American Church cultivated its pocketbook as well as ministering to the soul. Over the decades, the Church accumulated land that it sometimes organized into haciendas. It also received tithes and donations, which it lent out to those in need of capital. While clearly tied to the elites, it was the Church, as an arm of the Spanish state, that afforded the Indians the little protection they received. Bartolome de las Casas and others defended Indian rights in the Spanish court; the regular orders, the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Jesuits, charged with converting the Indians, tried to protect their charges from the rapacious European settlers.

Although lacking the current allure of social history, economic topics present the classroom instructor with a particularly useful area for exposition. Latin America provided more resources to Europe, and for a longer period of time, than Asia, Africa, or what became the United States. Peruvian and Mexican gold and particularly silver funded Spain for decades. While not as lucrative, cultivating the land provided its owner with some wealth and more prestige. The new colonial masters created agricultural units—called, depending on the region, haciendas, fundos, estancias, fazendas—that produced commercially important crops like sugar or pastoral products, such as meat, hides, and tallow; other units raised horses and mules for commercial use. Happily, teachers can easily obtain information not merely on the evolution of the hacienda economy, but also on specific estates, some of which were enormous, almost self-sufficient economic entities. The development of a plantation system can be contrasted with a similar process in the United States, Africa, or Asia, which also raised raw materials for export. In addition, there were smaller farms, the ranchos, as well as self-sufficient Indian communities, which evolved into an important component of the colonial economy. These agricultural units generally began to satisfy the needs of nearby urban administrative or mining centers and slowly started to export their produce to other portions of the empire and, eventually, to Spain or Portugal. Finally, local industries and artisanal workshops manufactured consumer goods, like textiles or shoes, and prepared foods for local markets as well as for other colonies. The traffic in the produce of the mines, haciendas, and factories spawned a network of commercial houses that acted as intermediaries both within the Americas and between the colonies and Europe. More than the English or the Portuguese, the Spanish developed cities which, as the economy grew, became a source of employment for administrators and service industries. Teachers certainly could compare the Latin American process of urbanization to the growth of cities in Asia, Africa, and the United States.

Thanks to the expansion of the economy, the establishment of imperial government bodies, the introduction of the military, and the presence of the Church, colonial Latin America developed a complicated social structure. Two forces shaped the colonial society: traditional European values, which tended to favor the nobility, the military, and the clergy over commerce and, of course, the peasants; and a new component: race. Certainly Latin America's racial mix was more varied than that of Europe, British America, Africa, or Asia. From the intermingling of the Amerindian, the European, and later the black and Asian, came the fruits of miscegenation—the mestizo, mulatto, zambo, and chino. If race played an important part in determining status—many felt the need to prove their limpieza de sangre (that their blood was untainted by inferior people)—wealth and education could also affect one’s social standing. Teachers could compare how Latin America’s racial minorities absorbed European values to advance socially and economically with the same process of acculturation in Africa and Asia.

Invariably, teachers should dedicate some material to studying the political development of the Iberian colonies. It might prove more useful to concentrate on the larger nations, Mexico, Peru, or Brazil, about which much has been written, rather than try to include every part of the empire.3 While this selection process excludes the smaller countries, it provides one of the few ways to cover the material in an efficient manner. Teachers can supplement political history with material on blacks or Asians in the workforce, compare Latin American religious dissidents to those in the United States, and contrast the somewhat privileged legal and economic status of colonial Latin American women with their sisters across the oceans.4


After the United States, the nations of Latin America became some of the first former colonial possessions to become free. After centuries of putative imperial domination, Luso-Hispanic Americans developed a sense of identity that distinguished, and later alienated, them from their European rulers. Spain's 18th-century attempts to reassert its control over its dominions antagonized the local elites which, over the decades, had wielded substantial economic, political, and social power. The American upper class and masses objected, sometimes violently, to the Spanish crown's policies. Like the United States, Latin America initially sought not so much independence but more local autonomy. The Napoleonic Wars, however, so diminished the Iberian nations' strength that Latin America's elites could displace their colonial masters. Depending on the area, however, this process of emancipation occurred over decades before the rebels drove Spanish forces from the mainland.

The independence process was complex and varied from country to country. Some nations fought for it; others had independence thrust upon them. Because Madrid often utilized locally recruited militias, the wars for independence became more civil struggles than movements for national liberation. This became particularly true as Latin American elites battled the masses who attempted to use the political unrest to obtain redress for their social and economic problems. A few nations, like Brazil, achieved independence in a relatively bloodless process and long after many other nations had won their freedom. Many of the Caribbean islands remained colonial possessions. Certainly students could profit from comparing the Latin American struggle for freedom, which, like that of the United States, required prolonged fighting, with that of Asia and Africa.

Given this chaotic political process, independence may have brought freedom but it did not confer stability. The oligarchy continued to wage a war on the masses and to fight each other. For many years the ever-exotic Brazil remained the continent's only monarchy. Ideological conflicts roiled the hemisphere, and while they sometimes shared general themes—arguments over the type of government, federalism versus centralism, the status of the Church, guarantees of individual rights—each nation's search for a solution appeared unique. Some countries, like Chile, established authoritarian governments that slowly, and sometimes in response to violent protest from below, evolved into more liberal states. A few countries never, in fact, became polities. Under the sometimes benign influence of what are called caudillos, areas such as Bolivia and Paraguay fluttered between chaos and authoritarianism.

The 20th Century

Eventually change came to Latin America as it did to Europe and the United States: Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay voluntarily empowered their citizens, enfranchising first all men and then, by the mid-20th century, women. In some countries, foreign intervention or constant civil unrest aborted or slowed the political process. These countries appeared stuck in some political limbo, but eventually even they changed. Latin American nations, unlike those in Africa, Europe, or Asia, rarely became one-party states, nor have they, with the exception of Cuba, embraced the ideas of either political extreme. Brazil's Estado Novo or Chile’s Socialist Republic (which, in fact, was neither) might have briefly espoused totalitarian ideals, but it was nationalism that emerged as the predominant ideology. Given the number of the countries involved, a teacher would be best advised to concentrate on the hemisphere’s largest nations—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico, about which a great deal has been written —rather than to attempt some continental analysis on political development.5

The history of Latin America, like that of other areas, becomes a process of modifying traditional institutions. The abolition of slavery, for example, constitutes an important topic that a teacher can usefully compare with similar processes in the United States, Africa, and Asia.6 Ending slavery did not undo the damage done to the black community since the freed slaves remained subordinated to the dominant white oligarchy in places like Brazil as well as in the United States. Teachers can compare how Latin American nations dealt with this issue as well as that of race.

The unequal landholding system continued to plague Latin America just as it did other areas of the world. Agrarian reform sought to wrest control from the landholding minority and give it to the peons, who tilled the soil and whose conditions approximated that of serfs. In some countries, such as Mexico, people had to fight to bring justice to the countryside. Others accomplished similar changes peacefully. The secularization of society, which eventually led to the separation of Church and state—sometimes preceded by the despoiling of the clergy—offers yet another subject for historical comparisons with nations where state support for religion seemed minimal. Diplomatic relations among independent states, their former colonial masters, and the rest of the world offers another fruitful area for exploration. Latin American nations, for example, often had difficulty winning the diplomatic recognition of Spain, a problem that did not bedevil the United States or many of the former Asian or African colonies, and that complicated their development. Latin America, moreover, had to deal with another colonial legacy: uncertain boundaries. For decades, frontier disputes, which occasionally blossomed into war, bedeviled the continent.

Finally, teachers might compare the experience of Latin America's women or minority or ethnic groups with those of the United States, Asia, and Africa. The struggle of Latin American women to become enfranchised as well as to regain many of the economic rights they possessed in the colonial period can be placed alongside the experience of women on other continents. Countless immigrants—Arabs, Germans, Italians, Chinese, Jews, and Japanese—poured into Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Peru. Relating their stories would allow teachers to address the issues of assimilation, a topic which could be enhanced by including the experience of the black and the Amerindian.7

Comparing the process of Latin America's modern economic development is a valuable adjunct to studying Latin American political evolution. Latin America's economies tended to adjust rapidly in response to world market conditions. Teachers can describe this process in a variety of ways. Some might attempt to trace economic change on a country-by-country basis. A better alternative is to emphasize specific economic examples rather than nations. For instance, students can learn about tropical economies by studying the production of sugar, coffee, or bananas in Brazil, Ecuador, Central America, or Peru. Some Latin American nations, such as Argentina, developed pastoral economies, exporting meat or cereals. As in the colonial period, the exploitation of mineral resources—the mining of copper, nitrates, silver, or guano in Chile, Mexico, and Peru, or the exploitation of oil in Mexico and Venezuela—proved more lucrative than tilling the ground above them.8

Relying on mines and fields tended to create monocultures that left Latin American producers, as it did their American, Asian, and African counterparts, at the mercy of the vagaries of world market demand. Industrialization occurred in Latin America, but not without difficulty. Latin American nations, like other nations, depended upon the customs house as their main source of income. Instituting protectionist laws, while helping nascent industries, deprived the new nations of needed revenues. By the late 19th century, however, countries like Chile, Argentina, and Mexico, began to build tariff walls to shelter local manufacturers. These industries provided an alternative source of employment to agriculture or mining, completing the process of economic development.

The Great Depression constituted a watershed in Latin America as it did in the United States. Various countries accepted the notion that the state should foster economic development and eventually, depending upon the situation, ownnership of or, at a minimum, control over subsoil resources. As in the rest of the world, government-sponsored import substitution became the vehicle in the drive for self-sufficiency and industrialization.9

The growth of population and economic development accelerated the process of urbanization and stimulated the formation of unions. The development of an industrial and entrepreneurial class altered Latin America's social system. Locally trained intellectuals staffed government bureaucracies, such as Chile's CORFO, where they helped shape economic policy. Again, comparing these institutions with others, such as the TVA, can illustrate the role of the state in fomenting economic development. Post–World War II immigration, first from Europe and then Asia, increased the continent's ethnic and racial diversity.

At the end of this brief essay, we return to the starting point: how can one teach about more than 20 diverse nations, let alone compare them to Asia, Africa, Europe, or the United States? As this essay indicates, there are many topics that can easily be included in a world history course. Teachers should take care to emphasize general trends rather than become involved in a specific nation's history. Certainly Latin America's rich past and diverse population provide instructors and students with ample material for comparison with other areas of the world.

— is professor of Latin American history at California State University at Long Beach. A contributor to the Handbook of Latin American Studies, he has recently published a book on U.S.-Chilean diplomatic relations and has in press a general history of Chile as well as a series of articles for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Latin American History.


1. Frances Berdan, The Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial Society (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1982) and John Hemming, Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1978).

2. See Lesley Simpson’s The Encomienda. Forced Native Labor in the Spanish Colonies, 1492–1550 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1929) and The Encomienda in New Spain (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1950).

3. General histories for the principal areas are Jaime Rodriguez and Colin Maclachlan, The Forging of the Cosmic Race: A Reinterpretation of Colonial Mexico (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1990) or Dauril Alden, Royal Government in Colonial Brazil (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1968).

4. Selected topics on colonial life should include a discussion on the status of various sectors. Leslie Rout, Jr., The African Experience in Spanish America, 1502 to the Present Day (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1976) discusses the status of blacks. Asuncion Lavrin’s Latin American Women: Historical Perspectives (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978) and her edited work, Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press,1992), and Patricia Seed, To Love, Honor, and Obey in Colonial Mexico: Conflict over Marriage Choice, 1574–1821 (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1988), examine women’s roles. S. Liebman, New World Jewry (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1982) traces the plight of the Jews

5. For the various countries, see David Rock, Argentina, 1516–1987 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987); Ronald M. Schneider, "Order and Progress." A Political History of Brazil (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991); Arthur Whitaker, The United States and the Southern Cone: Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1976); Simon Collier and William Sater, The History of Chile (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, forthcoming); Frederick Pike, The United States and the Andean Republics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1977); and Michael Meyers and William Sherman, The Course of Mexican History (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983).

6. David Murray, Odious Commerce. Britain, Spain and the Abolition of the Cuban Slave Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980) and John Lombardi, The Decline and Abolition of Negro Slavery in Venezuela (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971). Predictably, the issue of slavery became more important in Brazil, which had imported more slaves and had the largest black population of any Latin American country. See L. Bethell, The Abolition of the Brazilian Slave Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1970) and Robert Conrad, The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1972).

7. Examples are Julie Hahner, Emancipating the Female Sex: The Struggle for Women's Rights in Brazil, 1850–1940 (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1990); Marifan Carlson, Feminismo! The Woman's Movement in Argentina from its Beginnings to Eva Peron (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988); and Shirlene Soto, Emergence of the Modern Mexican Woman: Her Participation in Revolution and Struggle for Equality, 1910–1940 (Denver: Arden Press, 1990). For an overview, see Sandra McGee Deutch, “Gender and Sociopolitical Change in Twentieth Century Latin America,” Hispanic American Historical Review 71 (2): 259–306 (1991). For various ethnic and religious groups, see Frederick Luebke, Germans in the New World (Champaign: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1990); Ronald Newton, German Buenos Aires (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1977); Judith L. Elkin and G. Merkx, The Jewish Presence in Latin America (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1987); and Tim Holloway, Immigration on the Land (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1980). There are also materials on the immigration of Italians, Japanese, and even the Welsh.

8. For a discussion of Latin America’s mining and agrarian endeavors, see, for Chile, Thomas O’Brien, The Nitrate Industry and Chile's Critical Transition (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1982). For coffee, see Mauricio Font, Coffee, Contention, and Change in the Making of Modern Brazil (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990); Peter Eisenberg, The Sugar Industry in Pernambunco (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1974); and M. Palacios, Coffee in Colombia, 1870–1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980). For agriculture and pastoral issues, see James Scobie, Revolution on the Pampa: A Social History of Argentine Wheat, 1860–1910 (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1964) and Peter H. Smith, Politics and Beef in Argentina: Patterns of Conflict and Change (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1969).

9. A good bibliography for economic topics is that of R. Conde and S. Stein, Latin America. A Guide to Economic History, 1830–1930 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977). For an overview, see Roberto Cortes Conde, The First Stages of Modernization in Spanish America (New York: Harper and Row, 1974) and Celso Furtado, Economic Development of Latin America (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1977). For Argentina, see Carlos Diaz Alejandro, Essays on the Economic History of the Argentine Republic (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1970); G. Di Tella and R. Dornbusch, The Political Economy of Argentina, 1946–1983 (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1989); and Jonathan Brown, A Socio-economic History of Argentina, 1776–1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979). For Brazil, see Thomas W. Merrick and Douglas H. Graham, Population and Economic Development in Brazil: 1800 to the Present (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1979) and Werner Baer, The Brazilian Economy: Growth and Development (New York: Praeger, 1983). For Mexico, see Clark Reynolds, The MexicanEconomy: Twentieth-Century Structure and Growth (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1970) and Steven Haber, Industry and Underdevelopment: The Industrialization of Mexico (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1989). For Chile, see Markos Mamalakis, The Growth and Structure of the Chilean Economy (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1976). For some of the Andean nations, see Paul Gootenberg, Between Silver and Guano (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1991); Rosemary Thorp and Geoffrey Bertram, Peru 1890–1977: Growth and Policy in an Open Economy (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1978); and Linda Rodriguez, The Search for Public Policy: Regional Politics and Government Finances in Ecuador, 1830–1940 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1985). On oil, see John Wirth, Latin American Oil Companies and the Politics of Energy (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1985) and Jonathan Brown, Oil and Revolution in Mexico (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1993).

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