Week 5: On “The Slaughterhouse”

The first thing I noticed about this fiction is the use of sarcasm and irony. Echeverría used this powerful literary weapon to fire his condemnation and disdain towards the Federalists. First of all, the federalists surrendered their freedom to the church and the government, and the readiness to bow to commands. Mocking their beliefs, the author wrote that “since the Church…holds material power over the consciences and stomachs that do not … belong to the individual, then nothing more is fair or rational than for it to forbid what is evil.” He believes that this kind of submission degrades a human being to a machine that has to ask for permission before every action.
To me, it is one thing to be religious and have faith, and it is another to renounce your own judgement and will. The story reminds me of the miserable life of people in Geneva under Calvin’s rule. It is amazing how malleable people’s mind can be, and I understand how difficult it was for the lower class people in Buenos Aires to be liberal beings, because they didn’t have the material basis or education and enlightenment to physically or spiritually stand against the Restorer. Life of submission might be the easiest.
Another prominent feature of the fiction is recurrent similes comparing the barbarian mob with animals. Not only did the scene of grotesque bedlam in the slaughterhouse lack any trace of civilization, but the particular actions of people resembled those of beasts. Boys surrounded and harassed a woman “the way dos will badger a bull”. Followers of Matasiete rushed at the young Unitarian “like rapacious caranchos alighting on the bones of a tiger-ravaged ox.” And in the following comment Echeverría used both sarcasm and simile: “What noble souls, what courage, that of the Federalists! Always in gangs and swooping down on their defenseless victims like vultures!”
What also appalls me is how unsympathetic and even lighthearted the people were about violence and savagery. When the escaped animal was proved to indeed be a bull instead of a steer, all it invoked was “uproarious laughter and loud chatter”—the tragedy of the decapitated boy was trivial. Also, realizing that the young Unitarian was bleeding to death, the judge said “all we wanted was to have a bit of fun with him”. Yes that’s his word—“fun”.
It is a significant and thorny issue for a country to deal with people of different ideologies and beliefs. Brutality is the most frequent resort but is undoubtedly the worst one. However I cannot think of another solution for the conflict between barbarianism and civilization; perhaps blood has to be the price for progress and revolutionary success. But the problem is further complicated and worsened when people begin to associate a certain ideology with race, forming a stereotype which in some cases might hold true but others not. Since then hatred can be easily aroused and indiscriminate. You can see someone as enemy just by their color, their look, or their clothes. Such an association overshadows the attempt to build a liberal, egalitarian republic.

Week 4: On Dawson’s Introduction & Chapter 1


In the introduction, Dawson is justifying his approach to Latin American histories he adopted in this book by pointing out several problems in historical studies. Through these insightful discussions one can understand why a collection of fragmentary stories is probably the best way for readers to understand Latin America.

In short, the aim is to avoid simplification and generalization, which is a common tendency and sometimes an unavoidable nature of history studies. One has to realize the complexity of history. For one thing, geographic area does not necessarily put the habitants in the same category, as is shown in the opening example of two distinct communities in Mexico city, Polanco and Ecatepec. In a same place people from different past coexist, resulting in different customs, beliefs, occupations, etc. For another, people’s attitudes and opinions differ from class to class, or race to race, or religion to religion. In an epoch of freedom there are people unfree, and in a time of development and prosperity there are people suffering from impoverishment and exploitation. Moreover, within a mass force or influence there are always agencies that can be critical and determinant.

Two more things to beware of: the writing and interpretation of history. Since no history can be exhaustive, it’s inevitable that some facts, some people, and some voices are silenced. In this sense one can say that no history is truly objective. It’s always influenced by the people writing it. The interpretation is even more personal. Although there is always a mainstream or even authoritative interpretation, one is free to choose their own way. Therefore it would be wrong if the writer attempted to force form a certain understanding.

While Dawson’s analysis is focused on Latin America, what he points out is ale true for history everywhere in the world, and is also useful for us to comprehend the present.



In the first chapter Dawson’s ideas in the introduction are manifest. Just look at the discrepancy on the idea of freedom and independence, which is essentially a demonstration of discrepant demands. The criollo elites, the merchants, the slaves, the slave owners, the church, the indigenous people. They all demanded different freedom, rights, and privileges. Furthermore more the demands differed from region to region. Such a discrepancy is also why it’s hard to fulfill Bolívar’s dream even to this day.

This also leads me to wonder: had Napoleon not appeared, would the independence have come so soon? How the societies in Latin American would evolve without the Spanish crown being replaced by Napoleon’s brother on Iberian Peninsula? I would assume a long-lasting of conflicts and rebells, but nothing as drastic as independence in a short term.

Week3: On casta paintings and the lieutenant nun


To me the most interesting thing about casta paintings is the variety of perspectives and responses of the viewers. As the text suggests, casta paintings were intended to convey a positive and prosperous image of racial mixture, so as to make a difference in a period when the creoles were discriminated against and the Spanish-born were privileged in the colonial lands. I’m not sure how successful this attempt was; some people were worried about the image being negative. Meanwhile, the paintings also managed to satiate Spanish people’s appetite for exotica and natural history. How will the baby look like if the father is Spanish and mother Indian? And if the mother is Spanish and father Indian? What do they wear? What do they do? What special plants and animals are there in Latin Americas? In this sense the meaning of the paintings is less complicated and nothing political.


When it comes to the recognition of a mixed race, the questions are more sensitive. Did the children, say, Mexican-born, of Spanish parents consider themselves Mexicans or Spaniards? Though pure-blooded, what was the influence of indigenous culture and colonial culture on them? And, as for the children of mixed races, how did they see themselves? Offspring of conquerers and victims? What did that suggest? To some extent the cultural blending process of colonization is similar to that of immigration today, but the colonial nature certainly played a role. With external force such as Spanish rule, Latin American people regardless of ancestry might be able to unite better and to be at peace with a shared identity.



When reading the introduction, I thought the woman should have had clear goals and careful planning to take on a grand adventure, but the fact was quite the contrary. It surprised me how volatile and aimless she was and her whereabouts, especially while in Spain, was mainly a result of chance and precariousness. She could stay comfortably at one place for two years and suddenly opt to end that life just because it suited her.


I also noticed a lack of emotions in the narration of the memoir. The memoir is about what she did but not how she felt. Is it just her writing style or is she cold-hearted? Sometimes one could guess how she felt, as in “when I heard the anguish in my father’s voice, I backed off slowly and slipped away to my room.” But often times her emotion remains a mystery. What did she thinking of killing the Indians? How did she feel after killing her brother other than “I was stunned”?


Despite the absence of inner description, one can make out some of her prominent characteristics. Looking No wonder she was cantankerous and bellicose, and valorous if we want an approving word. She seemed always ready for a fight. We could also say she was unscrupulous for pilfering.

Week 2: On Columbus and Guaman Poma

Columbus’ journal and Guaman Poma’s chronicle are narratives of two separate historical events, yet they are essentially the same. Whether it’s Columbus exploring around Cuba, or the Spaniards taking over Peru, we see the encounter of two worlds, the invasion of a more civilized, more technologically and economically advanced, capitalistic world to a primitive and resources-abundant world.

The invasion seems natural to me. The westerners’ avarice for gold and the will to subject and evangelize the Indies do not infuriate me, nor do the Indies’ gullibility and doomed fate grieve me. They once did, but now cease to provoke much emotion. Such encounter and invasion are endlessly repeated in history and even nowadays, only in slightly altered forms.

The readings easily made me think of my country’s history, the period when the dynastic China was decaying and the capitalist world blighted China. Particularly, I relate the meeting between Atagualpa and the Spaniards to the meeting of Emperor Qianlong of Qing Dynasty with the British ambassador. Qianlong mandated that the British ambassador kowtow to him and refused the proposition of making a treaty for commerce, believing he was the one and only majestic ruler of the world and that China abounded in everything. Although Qianlong did not share Atagualpa’s fate of imprisonment and seeing his people decimated, China’s later sufferings was not better than that of many Latin American countries. As a Chinese I used to wish for a “better” history for my country. If only the emperors were more open-minded and less complacent… but there is no “if” in history.

As for today, invasions take on a more civilized and courteous facade. In China there are incidences of exploiting ethnic minority’s residential area, mainly for tourism. Urban people and businessmen want to make money from the picturesque nature and fascinating cultural atmosphere, and for the locals’ sake, they claim, to boost the economy in those usually poor areas. Unlike colonizing, there’s no massacre or enslaving, but the local people’s lives and living environment also change dramatically. Modern technology, customs, and beliefs seep in, but who can guarantee that it’s for the better?

Another thing I found interesting from Columbus’ journal is the division within the explorers. For instance, the captain of one caravel sailed away without Columbus’ permission, driven by greed for gold. Although a common pursuit unites people, desires make people selfish ultimately.

This is Miles!

Hi everyone! This is Miles Zhang, a third-year exchange student from Beijing, China. I’m really excited being in UBC and starting this wonderful exploration into Latin American histories and cultures. I’ve been learning Spanish and practicing latin daces for two years (motives not related though). I’m thinking of traveling to Latin America some time next year. However, as an engineering student, such a course heavy in history can be quite challenging. I’m sure I’ll gain a lot!