What does it mean to live in an empire?

Discussion Question(s)

The reading for this week was a grab bag of different perspectives on life under colonial rule, or “living in an empire.” They talked about the city and the countryside, religious life and secular life, popular culture, education, and intellectual development, and so on. Which of these sections struck you as being most interesting? Which struck you as being most important for the study of colonial (and perhaps modern!) Latin America? Why?

Lecture 10

What does it mean to live in an empire?

No, that’s probably not what you were thinking. Instead, were you thinking something like this?

Maybe. Star Wars, for people who might not know (I don’t know what college students are into these days), looks like a simple tale of good against evil. The evil empire fighting against a scrappy band of rebels intent on overthrowing their evil masters. In a sense, this might be the way that you see colonial Latin America, too– the evil Spanish against the good indigenous people of the Americas. I wouldn’t blame you, either– after weeks of learning about the conquest, encomiendas, the mita system (under the Spanish) and the doings of the Catholic church (especially during the conquest), it would be easy to think of the Spanish empire (or the Spanish) as evil. In fact, I don’t think I am going to try and convince you otherwise.

However, it might be worth remembering that we are looking at this history right now, in 2015– not in the period itself. Therefore, whereas today you might think of the Spanish as evil, as time passed during the colonial era in Latin America, for the poor, the castas, and yes the indigenous folks, the Spanish and the Spanish colonial system was simply a way of life. It was something that they lived with, adjusted to, and yes, even sometimes rebelled against (locally, of course, not on a large scale. That happens later).

Therefore, to stretch the Star Wars metaphor even further (yikes), I would say that even though most of you might think of Spanish colonialism like this–

— it is more likely that it was much more like this:

In other words, we can all agree that in hindsight that colonial Latin America was oppressive, but for most people, instead of plotting rebellion in their basements or back rooms, most people just tried to find a way to survive in the middle of it all, and make the best life they could for themselves despite the horrible conditions. So we can think about how nice and pure life would have been without the invasion of the Spanish, but since that was a luxury that the poor, the castas, and the indigenous people living in colonial Latin America did not have, we might instead think about the ways in which colonial society forced adjustments upon how various groups of people lived, as the colonial empire itself expanded and became more and more complex.

Spain asserted its control through urban planning. Cities were laid out in grids, centered on the most important government buildings, church buildings, and a central plaza. Thus, in a sense, every step of a city-dweller was directed by colonial authority. In these central plazas, the Crown would display its wealth and power through public spectacles such as bullfights and executions. Courts and churches, mostly located in urban centers, were also more available to people living in cities. With various trades and types of entertainment available to most, the urban experience was varied and rich.

Away from the cities, the colonial authorities didn’t have as much power. In the countrysides of Latin America, there wasn’t really much of a colonial presence, which meant that the wealthy landowners (hacendados) tended to call the shots. To be sure, even in those moments where the colonial authorities tried to exert their authority, they were often ignored, in a very different example of “obedezco pero no cumplo.” Slaves, Indians, poor workers- they all structured their lives around the wealthy land owners who were basically “bosses” themselves, though on a more local level. Significantly, literacy was much lower. There might be a small church, but not an awe-inspiring cathedral or Inquisition office. For the many who lived and died in the country, especially the laborers on farms and plantations, their lives revolved around their work, and their local church.

Yes, of course there is irony in the fact that indigenous and other oppressed people centered their lives on Christianity, especially because it was only a few short generations before that the church was symbolic of some of the most brutal abuses and oppression of native peoples. However, it is important to recognize that there was a significant change, not just among the indigenous people and castas, but also within the church itself– at least in the Spanish colonies. Indeed, while the policies of the church changed sporadically throughout the colonial period, at the ground level, there were many priest who sympathized with the plight of their members, and fought fiercely on their behalf. One such priest is said to have led the first rebellion of peasants and natives that led to Mexican independence (Father Hidalgo and his “grito,” which we will get to later in this course).

This transformation in the attitudes of priests towards the people they “watched over” was something that happened gradually, but that change spoke to the various attitudes that people of all classes had towards the colonial government as well as the church itself. To be sure, after reading the chapter for this week, you might also find yourself a bit confused as to what to think: on the one hand, you might be frustrated at the Catholic Church’s many crimes, while on the other hand, you might feel some gratitude for the ways it sometimes softened the harshness of colonial rule, especially when it came to protecting the indigenous peoples against the worst abuses of landholders. This chapter, with its depiction of the way church festivals provided entertainment and a respite from the harsh daily life of the colonies, really brings home that difference, and shows us that perhaps we cannot constantly think of the relationship between the church and the people of colonial Latin America as a simple one of dominance and victimization . As cynical as the Church’s profiting from funerals seems, for example, one cannot deny the comfort provided by them. And as horrified as we might be at the forced conversions and the authoritarianism of the Church and the censorship of the Inquisition, we might also allow various types of people in colonial Latin America to feel grateful for the color and drama and comfort provided by those festivals.

Still, just because the church did some good things in colonial Latin America, that didn’t mean that they were a progressive force for good. Within the church itself, there were also several problems– or at least things that we would call problems. In the 1600s through the 1800s, there were basically two important periods in European history: the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. And while both of these periods brought with them different ways of thinking about the world, different ways of expressing oneself, or even new and exciting ways to look at religion, science, or the role of women (though I would argue that there was no renaissance or enlightenment for women– anywhere in the world), none of this means that the church went along with it willingly. This is particularly true when it comes to intellectual development, particularly in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas.

Your reading for this week states, “despite the problems of isolation, censorship, and limited audience, Spanish America produced a number of significant intellectuals, although few of the first order” (p.271). Ultimately, “the work of colonial intellectuals was necessarily derivative, imitating European style and theme” (p. 271). To be sure, there were a number of attempts by people who sought t carve out their own intellectual niche in the world, but few were able to reach those heights. One such person was Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun in the Baroque period in Mexico (1651-95). Her poetry, plays, and writing were all inspiring, and spoke directly to issues around the role of women in the church, in society, and politics. I would suggest that you check out the brief writing about her in our text (p. 272-274). Her life is one of courage, but in the following video, I would also like you to pay attention to the ways in which the church sought to undermine her. After checking out the video, I’d like you to think about intellectual life– or colonial life under Empire– and exactly how the lives of women were valued, morally, politically, and in the case of the following movie, intellectually.

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