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.

Read 4 comments

  1. I agree. It is unbelievable that living in the same neighbourhood does not mean a same culture is shared. This difference in social class can be so influential that it can determine how one views the world, forming an entirely different lived reality.

  2. Interesting question at the end, I would agree with you that independence probably would not have come so soon. I think that even though they (the people of the spanish colonies) were probably not seen as equals to Spain, they were still loyal to Spain -at least in Bolivar’s letter from Jamaica he seemed to express loyalty to the former king.

  3. Very good point about how geographic location does not necessarily determine culture. Also about how it seems one extreme (such as extreme wealth and power) in a largely populated society cannot exist without its opposite within the same small region. This explains why in such a small space such radically different cultural values can exist.
    I agree that this does make obtaining “freedom” difficult as freedom can be seen from a multitude of perspectives.

  4. That was a really good question that you raised in the end. I think it may have in fact hastened the process of independence but like Bolivar said in his letter, it would’ve been easier to unite the two continents than to reconcile so in that sense I think that independence would’ve still occurred, although perhaps in a bloodier fashion.

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