I felt the description in this weeks lecture of 19th century post independence Latin America as [“Independent nations prolonging the colonial project”] to be interesting and apt. Bolivar and his contemporaries instigated a self serving independence in Latin America. It served a specific group of people. largely the ruling elite. Thus it was a very incomplete independence and the holes became obvious as the presence of colonial powers lessened.
At this point what we now know as “Latin America” entered an identity crisis. We see this in the large political masses that broke into smaller independent countries. It was up to those who remained to determine a new cultural, economic and political landscape.
There was an undeniable power vacuum left in Latin America post independence. Figureheads of the independence movement were never necessarily going to be accepted without question. Without even considering the power struggles among the political elite, the masses were finally getting a chance to assert visions and ambitions for their countries. Even those of Spanish descent who had been born into Latin America had never had freedom from colonial rule. It was only natural that the race for domination of the political landscape would intensify as colonial rule retreated.
It is typical to the nature of man that the pursuit of power is almost always accompanied by conflict and in this case bloody war. Latin America had to discern which colonial structures were to be dismantled and which parts of history were to be preserved. Political units that had been held together by the glue of imperialism naturally disintegrated and thus new countries were born. Out of these new countries came all new economic and cultural systems that to this day are distinct and unique to each area her people and her history. The hierarchical nature of colonial society remained. As it was an elite class who pushed for independence this is a natural sequence of events. Unfortunately this resulted in an arguably even more cruel oppression of the least privileged classes. The numerous campaigns against indigenous peoples that dot Latin American history are a black mark on our heritage that cannot ever be erased.
Despite political turbulence and extreme violence within countries, across borders and even from North America. Latin America has emerged vibrant and extraordinarily varied. The first week of class I chose in our discussion to associate Latin America with resilience. I feel that though the scars of not only colonialism, but internal destruction are widely felt they do not define the character of Latin America.
Sometimes I’m taken aback by the lack of self awareness shown by those at the top of social and political hierarchy. If any group is going to be a group of oppressors it is this demographic. However oppressors practically never understand that their direct actions subjugate people. Perhaps since the less privileged class are frequently not perceived as fully human.
The only time oppressors feel sympathy for the oppressed is when they begin to feel infringed upon themselves. This is painfully true in Bolivar’s “Letter from Jamaica”. While he demonstrates an understanding of the autonomy that many of us believe is owed to all human beings, he cannot fathom that anyone aside himself suffers. He considers himself to be deserving of rights by virtue of his humanity yet he can’t recognize the humanity of those over who he has dominion.
Entitlement rears its head again in the writing of Bolivar. He is used to being included in a political and social hierarchy. It is his natural condition to have his opinions carry weight. it also speaks to his expectation of the land he is inhabiting. He takes issue with such a vibrant, fruitful land remaining “passive”. This speaks first to his expectation of un-colonized land to be rudimentary and primitive. He sees the colonized lands as mold-able to his vision and sees it as a great injustice that he is not being given the power to change the landscape.
What Bolivar did not recognize is that he was a visitor in a land of people who possessed the same level of humanity as himself. It would have made much more logical sense to try to integrate into the existing power structures of the indigenous population. Instead he is attempting to overrule the existing dynamics and hijack the orders being given to him for his own purposes. Bolivar supposes he understands the climate and potential of his surroundings better than Spanish politicians considering he can give first hand accounts. Ironically he does not assume that the native inhabitants might have a better understanding of their home than he does.
Slavery is a condition abhorrent to the human condition. In possibly the most provocative section of his letter Bolivar describes himself and fellow colonialists-many of whom were slaveholders- as “lower than slaves”. He is able to do this because by grace of their diminished humanity, the enslaved non-Spanish population-in Bolivars eyes-can naturally and comfortably settle into the condition of slavery. Therefore, when he understands his own lack of power to be infringing on his inherent rights, he can quickly assume the position of the gravely oppressed.
I was drawn to the series of Casta Paintings largely due to my own initial reaction to seeing them. I realized that I found them strange. I am so used to seeing only white faces in European art, which obviously during a time of intense colonization was not representative of the makeup of the ever expanding European world. The erasure of racial diversity is so prevalent that their presence in our historical artifacts in startling.
To those who lived during the time of Casta paintings would have been more than surprising, they would have been upsetting. The colonizers worldview was motivated by a persistent goal of conversion and assimilation. There wasn’t any leniency in the us and them mentality. The possibility that new peoples could refine or teach the Spanish colonizers was not compatible with the pervasive sense of superiority that is imperative in order to justify imperialism.
The disdain for non-European, indigenous, black and multiracial peoples was so deeply ingrained that Spaniards feared that children who had been born simply in proximity to those not of Spanish descent might be somehow be tainted. This was seen as a dangerous idea in a culture that above many other issues valued “purity”. People are scared of what they don’t understand and the Spanish colonizers were so cloistered that they just could not comprehend an interracial society that not only functioned but flourished. To them it seemed like a recipe for corruption of a society that they viewed as superior to any other that could exist anywhere else in the world.
The only way Spanish colonizers could concede to having their pure Spanish society tarnished by “inferior” races was by perceiving foreigners as only existing in service positions. This speaks to the way colonizers understood the societies they came across on their “adventures” as resources that could be used and exploited. Regardless of who had built the empire the Spanish colonizers laid claim to all the people, places and cultures they encountered.
I also see Casta paintings becoming a form of colonizer propaganda. By painting pictures of “exotic” peoples surrounded only by beautiful fauna, flora, smiles and sunshine imperialists could mask the pain they caused and portray a very rosy version of conquest. This could become more important especially as more authors and activists began to raise concerns surrounding the ethics of the colonialists activities.
Art speaks to the political and social climate in which the artist, subjects, and audience. The layers in these paintings fascinates me and I’d love to spend more time observing and studying them on my own time.
Christopher Columbus has long been celebrated as a hero, a brave adventurer, many cartoon exists showing him and his men who bear gifts to the indigenous peoples of the lands he “discovered”. Children’s books tell stories of friendship and growth. All the pictures show smiles and vibrancy. As society becomes more culturally sensitive it delves deeper into its own sanitized history and begins to make reparations. Now for many Columbus is a figure who inspires disdain and even anger, especially for indigenous peoples living in modern day Latin America who have found themselves whitewashed out of our history books.
It is not difficult to perceive Columbus as a malicious villain when we read from his very own journal the disregard he had for the people he encountered and his motivation to continue on to greater civilization and treasure. His tone is dismissive and callous. It is easy to read Columbus as a tyrant driven by greed. However to do so is not representative of his life or intentions, regardless of the result.
Columbus did not set out to pillage, steal or injure. His mission was never an invasion, there was no war to be fought. He was seeking new trade routes, opportunity for his country, gratitude from the monarchy and perhaps even adventure. He was not only aware of his genuine whereabouts in the “indies”. He never could have understood the repercussions of his presence in new lands. Even if he changed the lives of “Indians” it was understood that the European way of life was that ordained by God. Columbus was also driven by an unquenchable religious fervor.
Religion drives colonization, without the threat of thousands of souls wallowing in damnation there is much less motivation to revolutionize the lives and societies of strangers. In the case of the heathen any action can be deemed acceptable no matter how extreme. All through history examples of such extreme cases can be seen from imprisonment, to cultural genocide of indigenous communities worldwide to violent executions by hanging and burning. Such cruelty have been undertaken not simply as barbaric tortures but under the assumption that there is no limit to what can be done on the path of salvation. Columbus would have labored under the same delusion, a delusion that today we know more generally as the white Jesus complex.
Columbus was under no circumstances a hero. He brought illness and destruction of entire civilizations with him. His accomplishment while interesting aren’t always the most palatable to celebrate, however he can equally not be generalized as a ruthless conqueror.
I began by watching the video entitled “The meeting of two world Aztec edition” because often I find the story of Latin American is told only from the point at which Spaniards arrived. I appreciated the portrayal of the discoveries of Columbus through an indigenous lens. The review on the interactions of Columbus and Montezuma II stressed the drastically different moral, cultural and practical beliefs held by each party. When studying colonization it is paramount to remember how deeply the conquistadors misunderstood the land and people they were overtaking. Perhaps more importantly the video points out how disinterested colonizers were in understanding. They considered themselves entitled to any of the gifts given, they took generosity on the part of the indigenous people to be worship. Anything that was not given could be readily taken. This included people who quickly became a commodity.
It is worth taking time to consider the complexity of Latin American indigenous society when taking into account those who came to “civilize” it. The Aztec empire was a pinnacle of cleanliness and technology, the aqueducts in the city being a single example. Remembering the sophistication of ancient Latin American guards from the perception of indigenous Latin American society as a rudimentary settlement punctuated by occasional violence. This perception however untrue is how colonizers understood new territory and how the colonial world has continued to understand Latin America. The countries and cultures described as Latin American are frequently stereotyped as violent, misogynistic and otherwise problematic societies. In the United States in particular all those who leave Latin American countries are often seen as having “escaped” into a better life. Colonialism has deep and lasting consequences.
The second video I watched entitled the “Meeting of Two Worlds III” I saw as a sequel to the video I’ve just previously discussed. It points out from the beginning that Columbus was out to find and take gold and spices. In his writings Columbus does not spare thought for those he might come across. It was assumed that anything found was for the taking by divine and royal right. One of the most poignant symbols of domination comes in the form of renaming islands. Decisive actions such as this one were part of the reworking of a vibrant, thriving territory in order to fit the assumed design of a God who to the Indigenous people did not exist. Columbus was able to declare possession of the Islands as the natives watched on, which speaks to the person hood or lack thereof which he attributed to these peoples. Colonizers described Indigenous people as simple and pleasing, as you might an animal. They could not conceive that a people so below their own stature and intelligence could lay any claim to their land. It cannot be forgotten that the conquistador mindset was always geared towards superiority and control.