It’s not hard to imagine that after several generations following the mythical point of origin of Latin America, 1492, that residents of the Americas would begin to feel the itch for independence. I found it interesting to consider how the different social classes approached the idea of breaking free of European rule, and the concept that some stood to lose mainly power and wealth, whereas others stood to lose very basic rights. Those who were most oppressed had a healthy fear of independence because there were some (if limited) protections for them while the crown was in place. But what if the landed elites wrested the power from the Iberian Peninsula? How would the new, independent, state treat those in the lowest positions? The prospect would be frightening. But elites also feared independence because of the uncertainly of their continued power and governance once severed from Europe. Despite these fears, the desire for independence was nearly universal across the Americas.
I enjoyed reading about the various regions approach to independence, and how varied the experiences were. In Haiti, for example, slaves succeeded in overthrowing the colonial presence, and this led to the eventual emancipation in 1793. Compare that to Brazil, where the Portuguese Emperor actually settled after fleeing Napoleon. The emperor’s son then declared Brazil independent and slavery was further entrenched. Both states came to independence from Europe, but carry vastly different histories and struggles. The people who directly feel the consequences of these contrasting roads to independence would understandably form vastly different identities. We can see why a simple description of Latin America is elusive, and reductive.
The accounts of Bolivar, the Great Liberator, were fascinating. He had grand ideas of independence, and was eloquent and persuasive. Though his lifetime achievements certainly were not on the scale of his dreams, he grew to be a figure as important as Columbus in shaping the Americas. We also get the sense that his story is equally mythical. Could we discuss Bolivar more in class, especially the reception of his ideas following his death?
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.