Week 3 – Spanish Identity Crisis

I hadn’t thought of the colonial experience as a Spanish (or European) crisis of identity before. I had pictured the colonizers as eagerly consuming all the land they were able to, and exploiting those resources and people who lived there. It is fascinating to me that the same year that Columbus’ ships arrived in the Americas was also the year that Spain overturned 800 years of Muslim rule, and seemed to undertake an aggressive agenda to render the nation ethnically and religiously “pure.” The Spanish seemed to want most, during this time, to create a homogenous Spain. But what to do with the new lands that were now under Spanish control (or soon would be), and the diversity that existed there?

In addition to a colonial population, this was also the time of the African diaspora, and millions of Africans were brought to the Americas, in part to replace the quickly dying indigenous peoples who had no resistance to the new diseases that had arrived on their shores. The Spanish monarchy was desperate for a way to classify and comprehend the population, and as a way of achieving this, Casta Paintings emerged. The meticulous organizing of ethnic mixtures into hierarchical images was intended to not only clarify these racial distinctions for the Spanish elites, but also to ensure that every person was aware of their ethnic classification and could behave accordingly. Most often, the depictions were of an idealized role for each racial category, and this makes me think that the intent may not have been solely oppression. The Spanish elites may have believed they were helping the poor mixed-up peoples of the new world to organize themselves and regain their identity. From our modern perspective, we can clearly see the oppression and prejudice in these images, and they are hard to look at.

I really enjoyed the readings about Catalina De Erauso, a woman who ran away from her convent and lived as a man for most of her life. Though I don’t view her as a heroic figure–she easily committed murder and other less-than-noble acts–I liked reading a real account of someone subverting the strict gender rules that were enforced at that time. Interestingly, the translator notes that she should not be considered a victim, but that in her redefining as a man, she reaped all the rewards that came with the transformation. And it seems, at least from this excerpt, that she enjoyed life as a man and conquistador, much more than she would have as a woman and nun.


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3 Responses to Week 3 – Spanish Identity Crisis

  1. Elena Munk

    I thought that the point you raised about the Spanish elites thinking “they were helping the poor mixed-up peoples of the new world” very interesting. It certainly fits in with other attitudes towards colonization that the Spanish had- ie. a guiding hand or teaching the people to be “civilized”. Most did not view themselves as destructive, but instead as helpful, I suppose the mindset of those who only sought personal riches/gains is a bit different though.

  2. I enjoyed reading about Catalina as well. I admire her for breaking the socially accepted rules and establishing new standards when it comes to defining gender. However I find her account of the story to be terrifying at times. It feels like she enjoys fighting -whether the Native Americans or her own people. Just like you, I agree that she should not be seen as a hero, for she is as much to blame as Christopher Columbus.

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