Cover Page


A Companion to Latin American History

Praise for A Companion to Latin American History

“For many readers, this work will prove helpful in engendering a broader understanding of the layers, complexities, and array of approaches in studies of Latin America. Summing Up: Highly recommended.”


“Blackwell is to be congratulated on offering a comprehensive review drawing together the disparate threads of the history of the many nations which make up the southern half of the American continent…. For the undergraduate student or the general reader seeking a handy overview to the history of the region the present volume provides an excellent introduction.”

Reference Reviews

“This volume is an accessible and welcome contribution to the general field of Latin American Studies. Overall, the volume is excellent with just the right mix of generalization and particularity. This volume is smartly structured, well informed, and written by top scholars in the field.”

The Americas: Quarterly Review of Inter-American Cultural History

“Up-to-the-minute syntheses of scholarly literature on a wide array of topics, clearly and authoritatively presented. An indispensable tool for any student of Latin America’s past and present.”

Reid Andrews, University of Pittsburgh

“This excellent collection reminds readers of the depth and highly developed nature of Latin American Studies in the twenty-first century. Discussions of methods, historiography, and recent trends provide a sophisticated introduction that is useful for students and faculty in many different disciplines.”

Jeffrey Lesser, Emory University

“An impressive team, under able editorship, has put together a detailed, up-to-date and comprehensive volume which conveys a wealth of information and does not ‘talk down’ to the intelligent reader.”

Alan Knight, St Antony’s College


This series provides sophisticated and authoritative overviews of the scholarship that has shaped our current understanding of the past. Defined by theme, period and/or region, each volume comprises between twenty-five and forty concise essays written by individual scholars within their area of specialization. The aim of each contribution is to synthesize the current state of scholarship from a variety of historical perspectives and to provide a statement on where the field is heading. The essays are written in a clear, provocative, and lively manner, designed for an international audience of scholars, students, and general readers.


A Companion to Western Historical Thought

Edited by Lloyd Kramer and Sarah Maza

A Companion to Gender History

Edited by Teresa A. Meade and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks

A Companion to International History 1900–2001

Edited by Gordon Martel

A Companion to the History of the Middle East

Edited by Youssef M. Choueiri

A Companion to Japanese History

Edited by William M. Tsutsui

A Companion to Latin American History

Edited by Thomas Holloway

A Companion to Russian History

Edited by Abbott Gleason

A Companion to World War I

Edited by John Horne


A Companion to Roman Britain

Edited by Malcolm Todd

A Companion to Britain in the Later Middle Ages

Edited by S. H. Rigby

A Companion to Tudor Britain

Edited by Robert Tittler and Norman Jones

A Companion to Stuart Britain

Edited by Barry Coward

A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Britain

Edited by H. T. Dickinson

A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Britain

Edited by Chris Williams

A Companion to Early Twentieth-Century Britain

Edited by Chris Wrigley

A Companion to Contemporary Britain

Edited by Paul Addison and Harriet Jones

A Companion to the Early Middle Ages: Britain and Ireland c.500–c.1100

Edited by Pauline Stafford


A Companion to Europe 1900–1945

Edited by Gordon Martel

A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Europe

Edited by Peter H. Wilson

A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Europe

Edited by Stefan Berger

A Companion to the Worlds of the Renaissance

Edited by Guido Ruggiero

A Companion to the Reformation World

Edited by R. Po-chia Hsia

A Companion to Europe Since 1945

Edited by Klaus Larres

A Companion to the Medieval World

Edited by Carol Lansing and Edward D. English


A Companion to the American Revolution

Edited by Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole

A Companion to 19th-Century America

Edited by William L. Barney

A Companion to the American South

Edited by John B. Boles

A Companion to American Indian History

Edited by Philip J. Deloria and Neal Salisbury

A Companion to American Women’s History

Edited by Nancy A. Hewitt

A Companion to Post-1945 America

Edited by Jean-Christophe Agnew and Roy Rosenzweig

A Companion to the Vietnam War

Edited by Marilyn B. Young and Robert Buzzanco

A Companion to Colonial America

Edited by Daniel Vickers

A Companion to 20th-Century America

Edited by Stephen J. Whitfield

A Companion to the American West

Edited by William Deverell

A Companion to American Foreign Relations

Edited by Robert D. Schulzinger

A Companion to the Civil War and Reconstruction

Edited by Lacy K. Ford

A Companion to American Technology

Edited by Carroll Pursell

A Companion to African-American History

Edited by Alton Hornsby, Jr

A Companion to American Immigration

Edited by Reed Ueda

A Companion to American Cultural History

Edited by Karen Halttunen

A Companion to California History

Edited by William Deverell and David Igler

A Companion to American Military History

Edited by James Bradford

Title Page

Figures, Tables, and Maps




Notes on Contributors

Adrian A. Bantjes is Associate Professor of History at the University of Wyoming and author of As if Jesus Walked on Earth: Cardenismo, Sonora, and the Mexican Revolution (1998) and articles on the political, cultural, and religious history of revolutionary Mexico. He is currently completing a book on revolutionary anti-religious campaigns.

Judy Bieber is Associate Professor of History at the University of New Mexico. Her areas of research specialization include slavery and race relations in the Americas and Brazilian history. She is the author of Power, Patronage and Political Violence: State Building on a Brazilian Frontier, 1822–1889 (1999).

Sarah C. Chambers, University of Minnesota, has written widely on gender, ethnicity, law, and politics during the transition from colonialism to independence. She has published From Subjects to Citizens: Honor, Gender, and Politics in Arequipa, Peru, 1780–1854 (1999) and co-edited Honor, Status and Law in Modern Latin America (2005). Her current research focuses on family and politics in Chile.

Julie A. Charlip is Associate Professor of history at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA. She is the author of Cultivating Coffee: The Farmers of Carazo, Nicaragua, 1880–1930 (2003), and co-author of Latin America: An Interpretive History, 8th edition (2007), with the late E. Bradford Burns.

Tom D. Dillehay is Chair and Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University. He has carried out extensive archeological and anthropological research in Peru, Chile, the United States, and other countries. He also has numerous publications on topics ranging from the peopling of the Americas and the rise of early Andean civilization to the spread of the Inca state.

John Fisher is Professor of Latin American History in the School of Languages, Cultures, and Area Studies at the University of Liverpool. He has published extensively on Spanish imperial policy during the Bourbon period, commercial relations in the Hispanic world, and the processes that led to Peruvian independence from Spain.

Duncan Green is Head of Research at Oxfam, Great Britain. He is the author of several books on Latin America including Silent Revolution: The Rise and Crisis of Market Economics in Latin America (2003), Faces of Latin America, 3rd edition (2006), and Hidden Lives: Voices of Children in Latin America (1998).

Aline Helg is Professor of History at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. She has published the award-winning Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886–1912 (1995) and Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770–1835 (2004), as well as several articles on race relations in the Americas.

Thomas H. Holloway is Professor of History at the University of California at Davis. His works include The Coffee Valorization of 1906 (1975), Immigrants on the Land (1980), and Policing Rio de Janeiro (1993). He has served as President of LASA (2000–1), and Executive Secretary of CLAH (2002–7).

Robert McKee Irwin, Associate Professor of Spanish at University of California at Davis, is author of Mexican Masculinities (2003) and Bandits, Captives, Heroines and Saints: Cultural Icons of Mexico’s Northwest Frontier (forthcoming 2007); and co-editor of Hispanisms and Homosexualities (1998), The Famous 41 (2003), and the forthcoming Diccionario de estudios culturales latinoamericanos.

Franklin W. Knight is Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. Among his publications are Slave Society in Cuba during the Nineteenth Century (1970), The Caribbean: The Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism (1978), and The Slave Societies of the Caribbean (1997). He is currently writing a general history of Cuba.

Hal Langfur teaches the history of Latin America and the Atlantic world at SUNY Buffalo. He is the author of The Forbidden Lands: Colonial Identity, Frontier Violence, and the Persistence of Brazil’s Eastern Indians, 1750–1830 (2006) and editor of the forthcoming Native Brazil: Beyond the Cannibal and the Convert, 1500–1889.

Aldo A. Lauria-Santiago is Associate Professor of Latino/Hispanic Caribbean Studies and History at Rutgers University. He is the author of An Agrarian Republic: Commercial Agriculture and the Politics of Peasant Communities in El Salvador, 1823–1914 (1999) and (with J. Gould) To Rise in Darkness: Revolution, Repression and Memory in El Salvador, 1929–1932 (2007).

Colin M. Lewis is Reader in Latin American Economic History at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Associate Fellow of the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London. He is currently working on a study of British enterprises in the Argentine. His publications include Argentina: A Short History (2003) and (with Christopher Abel) Exclusion and Engagement: Social Policy in Latin America (2002).

David R. Mares is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego, and was previously Professor at El Colegio de Mexico. He has written and consulted widely on interstate conflict, civil–military relations, drug politics, and energy policy. His latest book is Drug Wars and Coffeehouses (2006).

Luis Martínez-Fernández is Professor of History at the University of Central Florida. His books include Protestantism and Political Conflict in the Nineteenth-Century Hispanic Caribbean (2002) and Fighting Slavery in the Caribbean (1998). He is Senior Editor of the Encyclopedia of Cuba: People, History, Culture (2003) and is currently writing a concise history of the Cuban Revolution.

Nara Milanich is Assistant Professor of History at Barnard College. Her lastest book, The Children of Fate: Families, Social Hierarchies and the State, Chile, 1850–1937, is forthcoming. Her work has appeared in the American Historical Review, the Journal of Social History, and Estudios Interdisciplinarios de América Latina.

John Monaghan is Professor and Department Head at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Adjunct Curator at the Field Museum. He has carried out ethnographic and archival research on Highland Maya communities of Guatemala and Mixtec-speaking groups in Southern Mexico, and is editor of the Handbook of Middle American Indians, Ethnology Supplement (2000).

Rachel Sarah O’Toole is Assistant Professor of the Early Modern Atlantic World at the University of California, Irvine with research interests in Andean colonial indigenous communities and the African Atlantic. She has published articles in the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History (Spring 2006) and The Americas (July 2006).

Carla Rahn Phillips, Union Pacific Professor in Comparative Early Modern History at the University of Minnesota, currently works on Spanish seafaring. Pertinent publications include Six Galleons for the King of Spain (1986) and The Treasure of the San José: Death at Sea in the War of the Spanish Succession (2007).

William D. Phillips, Jr., Professor of History and Director of the Center for Early Modern History at the University of Minnesota, has co-authored two prize-winning books with Carla Rahn Phillips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (1992) and Spain’s Golden Fleece (1997), and has edited Testimonies from the Columbus Lawsuits (2000).

Jeffrey Quilter is Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, Peabody Museum, Harvard, and Curator for Intermediate Area Archaeology. His recent research has focused on ceremonial centers in Costa Rica, Moche art and archeology, and excavation of a colonial period town in Peru. His books include Cobble Circles and Standing Stones: Archaeology at the Rivas Site, Costa Rica (2004) and Treasures of the Andes (2005).

Susan Elizabeth Ramírez teaches Latin American History at Texas Christian University. She is the author of To Feed and Be Fed: The Cosmological Bases of Authority and Identity in the Andes (2005), The World Upside Down: Cross-Cultural Contact and Conflict in Sixteenth-Century Peru (1996 and 1998), and Provincial Patriarchs: Land Tenure and the Economics of Power in Colonial Peru (1986).

Mary A. Renda teaches history and chairs the Department of Gender Studies at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA. Her work tracks the imprint of gender and racism in US imperialism. She is the award-winning author of Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of US Imperialism, 1915–1940 (2001).

Jaime E. Rodríguez O. is Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His publications include The Independence of Spanish America (1998) and La revolución política en la época de la independencia: El Reino de Quito, 1808–1822 (2006); and, as editor, The Divine Charter: Constitutionalism and Liberalism in Nineteenth-Century Mexico (2005) and Revolución, independencia y la nuevas naciones de América (2005).

Lise Sedrez is Assistant Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach. Her research interests include urban environmental history, history of science, and modern Brazil. She is working on a book on the Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, and edits the Online Bibliography on Latin American Environmental History .

Patricia Seed, Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, wrote “The Conquest of the Americas” for the Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare, and two prize-winning books, To Love, Honor, and Obey in Colonial Mexico (1988) and American Pentimento (2001), as well as Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World (1995).

Kevin Terraciano is Professor of History and Chair of Latin American Studies at UCLA. He specializes in colonial Latin American history, especially the indigenous cultures and languages of central and southern Mexico. His many writings on colonial Mexico include The Mixtecs of Colonial Oaxaca: Ñudzahui History, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries (2001).

Peter Wade is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester. His publications include Blackness and Race Mixture (1993), Race and Ethnicity in Latin America (1997), Music, Race and Nation: Música Tropical in Colombia (2000), and Race, Nature and Culture: An Anthropological Perspective (2002).

Joel Wolfe teaches Latin American History at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of Working Women, Working Men: São Paulo and the Rise of Brazil’s Industrial Working Class, 1900–1955 (1993) and the forthcoming Autos and Progress: The Brazilian Search for Modernity.

Andrew R. Wyatt is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is currently conducting research on agriculture terracing at the Chan site, an ancient Maya farming village in western Belize, investigating agricultural intensification and the role of farmers in the political economy.


Thomas H. Holloway

This is a compendium of descriptive and interpretive material on the history of Latin America, organized around coherent themes and periods commonly of interest to Latin Americanist scholars and their students, as well as the interested public. The essays are supported by the latest research, assessed and synthesized by trained and experienced specialists, and presented in a sequence organized thematically and chronologically. The standard meta-narrative for the region as a whole is represented here, with considerable illustrative material and case studies ranging widely in time, space, and theme; they are accompanied by more than 1400 bibliographical references and suggestions for further reading, grouped at the end of each thematic essay.

The chronologically organized units in that overarching timeline include the indigenous and Iberian backgrounds, conquest and colonization, the process of independence, the establishment of new nations in the nineteenth century, the varied processes by which the region modernized and developed through the twentieth century. It is also common in surveys of Latin American history to focus specifically on several case studies of major transformation, such as the Revolutions in Mexico and Cuba; to consider the emergence of the United States as a dominant presence in the economic and political affairs of the region; and to focus on other issues better treated thematically than as divisions along the lines of geography and chronology that still dominate historical scholarship and pedagogy.

In keeping with the comparative approach common to historical surveys of such a diverse region of the world, there is no effort here to provide the national narrative of each colonial region or independent nation. Inevitably, the specific experience of some countries looms larger than others. Devoting separate essays to Brazil in the colonial era and again in the nineteenth century is justified on the intellectual grounds that Brazil’s colonial trajectory as well as its functioning constitutional monarchy from independence in 1822 to 1889 merits separate consideration from Spanish America. It is also meant to provide readers whose entry into Latin American history is mainly via the Spanish-language regions with material that deals with the distinctive Brazilian experience on its own terms.


It is not the intent of this volume to provide complete coverage of the history of Latin America. However completeness might be defined, or the degree to which it is attained, it is always the result of a consensus among specialist scholars as well as what the reader might be seeking or expecting. Historians recognize that “completeness” is a chimera, and any assertion that it has been achieved is an illusion. The list of chronological and thematic chapters in this volume is unavoidably idiosyncratic, and in a sense personal. In developing it, I started with the lists of topics around which I have organized my own yearlong undergraduate survey courses on Latin America as those course syllabi have evolved over the past three and a half decades. The list of chapters also reflects some of the directions the study of Latin American history has gone in the recent past. An introductory survey course of thirty years ago would have dealt with the Mexican and Cuban Revolutions, but there would have been no unit on “Central America in Upheaval.” The relevance of that theme for a volume such as this one emerged only in the late 1970s, with the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador, and faded again in the early 1990s. Central America had been there before, of course, but it came into the meta-narrative more as a stage for US expansion in the early twentieth century, with its Banana Empires and occupations by US Marines and the building of the Panama Canal. At this writing, with Central America once again largely absent from the daily concerns of the English-speaking academic world and its students, it becomes imperative to recall the trajectory of that part of the world in the recent past. In a similar vein, the National Security State dictatorships in several larger South American nations date from the 1960s and 1970s, but what were topics of current events then can now be treated with some historical perspective. We now have enough experience with the neoliberal era, following the many changes of the late 1980s and early 1990s, to include it here. A future edition will no doubt be able to deal with the shift to what might be called the neo-Left, a political phenomenon that began to be felt in the early 2000s and continues as I write this in early 2007.

Other topics represented here reflect emerging concerns of scholars, as well as the societies to which they belong and from which their students are drawn. Three decades ago there would not have been much to say in a chapter on the history of women, gender, and the family in Latin America, because there was little academic production that dealt with those themes. The same could be said for environmental history. In a similar way, there is more here on the indigenous and Afro-Latin American experience than would probably have appeared in a similar collection compiled three decades ago.

The reader will also find a variety of ways of approaching the themes treated in these essays. Some tend to be more historiographical, some more narrative and descriptive, and some more interpretive. While I have made no deliberate effort to encourage such methodological diversity, neither have I attempted to push chapter authors into a formulaic mold. The results present the users of the book with a range of ways of dealing with the topics treated, thus enriching the practical value of this collection. There are also occasional instances of apparent chronological and thematic overlap. For example, the background to the Cuban Revolution or the Central

American conflicts of the 1980s must deal with the expansion of US influence in the Caribbean, and a discussion of the Mexican Revolution must consider Mexico’s relationship with its neighbor to the north. But US policies and influences in the first half of the twentieth century also deserve treatment on their own terms.

A word about illustrations and maps: it is time for those working mainly with print sources to accommodate to and recognize the existence of considerable amounts of easily available visual material in digitized form, especially on the World Wide Web. At this writing, one very useful “mother site” or “link farm” that constitutes a portal to many other sites focusing on Latin America and its history is <>. Other entry points into this material include the list of “Useful Links” on the website of the Conference on Latin American History <>, and the site of H-Latam, the online Latin American History discussion forum <>. Through such websites and internet search engines ( and are two in widespread use at the time of this writing), it is possible to find many more maps and illustrative materials than it would be possible to include in this volume. One of the issues users of the internet face is the need to sort wheat from chaff, but the wheat is there, a few mouse clicks away. An immense array of maps, portraits, data, depictions of historical events, and – for the period since the mid-nineteenth century – photographs, is now available for consultation online. Text searches also provide access to many historical documents, many of them in translation, as well as interpretive scholarship.

Regarding the bibliographies attached to each essay: these lists combine both the titles specifically referenced in the text, together with suggestions for further reading on the themes discussed and interpretative statements made in each chapter. Just as coverage in the text cannot claim to be complete, the bibliographies do not claim to be exhaustive. But they will provide the reader with an authoritative and up-to-date entry into the voluminous intellectual resources currently available on many aspects of the history of Latin America.

What’s in a Name?

What constitutes “Latin America” and its “history”? All three of these words merit some consideration, to trace parameters for both the place (Latin America) and the topic (history). It is not the result of some teleological process by which what is today commonly termed Latin America came to be, for which we can identify a starting point and visualize a neat and discrete evolutionary trajectory. And history itself needs to be distinguished from other fields of scholarly inquiry. To begin such a discussion, it is as useful as it is obvious to recall that these and similar descriptive labels are the products of human mental activity, and did not emerge from natural phenomena or processes. The region of the world now commonly referred to as Latin America existed long before the term emerged as the mental construct that it is. And in the recent past the validity of the label has come under fundamental question (Mignolo 2005), despite the fact that it continues in academic and public discourse – and in the title of this volume – as a shorthand label of convenience. In a companion to Latin American history, it is thus appropriate to sketch both the origin and evolution of the label, and what constitutes the history of the region of the world so designated.

Map 1 The Countries of Latin America

Source: Cathryn L. Lombardi, John V. Lombardi, and K. Lynn Stoner, Latin American History: A Teaching Atlas (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983). © 1983. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press.

We can assume that the indigenous peoples who lived in what is now called Latin America in ancient times, whatever cosmological and descriptive notions they developed to locate themselves in time and space, probably did not have a conception of territory and peoples stretching from what we now call Mexico to the southern tip of South America. They located themselves in relation to other culture groups they were aware of and the landforms and bodies of water they were familiar with, as well as in relation to how they explained how they came to be – their “origin myths,” in the condescending terms of Western anthropology. Indeed, the same could be said for other peoples of the ancient world, including those who lived in what is now called Europe, right through to the Age of Discovery roughly in the century from 1420 to 1520, the external manifestation of the European Renaissance. In the imagination of Europe, people and places in the rest of the world only began to exist when they entered the European consciousness. That consciousness then proceeded to categorize and compartmentalize regions, “races,” and cultures in ways convenient for the purposes of European hegemony (Wolf 1982).

One of those compartments has become Latin America, which we need to define more explicitly. Following the informal consensus among most historians, and most of the historiography they have produced, there are several parts of the Western Hemisphere that are not normally included in the rubric Latin America. Most obviously, these are Canada and the United States, despite the fact that a considerable proportion of the population of the former speaks French, a neo-Latin language; and despite the relevance of the latter in discussions of Latin America’s international relations, particularly in the twentieth century. Through the colonial era and up through the taking of about one-third of Mexico by the USA as of 1848, what is now Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California, plus some territory beyond, figured on maps as part of what we now call Latin America. The European-descended populations in those regions spoke primarily Spanish. In the more recent past immigration and cultural assertion by people who trace their origins to former Spanish- or Mexican-held territories makes the US–Mexican border less relevant in distinguishing Anglo America from Latin America (Acuña 1972).

Also not treated here are the three Guianas (French Guiana, technically decolonized by being designated an overseas department of continental France in 1946; Suriname, formerly known as Dutch Guiana; and Guyana, known in the colonial era as British Guiana and before that as Demerara), as well as Belize (formerly British Honduras). Their historical trajectories have more in common with the non-Spanish Caribbean islands than with Latin America, and historically they were never effectively occupied by either Spain or Portugal. Haiti comes into the historical narrative of Latin America especially because of its importance as a sugar-producing colony of Saint-Domingue in the eighteenth century, as well as the resounding message sent to other slave societies by its independence process, following an uprising of the slave majority and Haiti’s establishment of the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States of North America (Trouillot 1995; Fischer 2004). Similarly, Jamaica and all of the Lesser Antilles, from the Virgin Islands just east of Puerto Rico to Trinidad just off the coast of Venezuela, as places eventually colonized by European powers other than Spain and Portugal, do not figure in the conventional definition of Latin America as such. These omissions hint at the usual informal definition of what constitutes Latin America historically: Those areas of the

Western Hemisphere originally claimed (even if not completely or effectively occupied) by Spain and Portugal, and where the dominant national language today is either Spanish or Portuguese.

Geographers, it should be noted, giving priority to contiguous landmasses and bodies of water rather than to historical processes or cultural commonalities, traditionally divide the Americas into two continents and two regions. The continents are North America (from northern Canada to the isthmus of Panama) and South America (from the Panama–Colombia border to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego, an island south of the Strait of Magellan). The subregions are Central America (from Guatemala to Panama) and the Caribbean (the islands from the Bahamas and Cuba in the northwest to Trinidad and Tobago in the southeast). These different approaches to regional divisions and groupings have led to confusion as frequent as it is superficial. For example, Mexico might be placed in North America by geographers (and in the names of such economic and political arrangements as the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA), but it is definitely part of Latin America for historians. And Puerto Rico, an island of the Caribbean, is politically attached to the United States, but is historically and culturally part of Latin America.

These considerations lead to a question central to the label itself: What is “Latin” about Latin America? There are several historical and cultural issues that, in fact, make the term quite problematic. The language of the Iberian groups engaged in conquest and colonization was not Latin, despite the roots of the Spanish and Portuguese languages in the Roman occupation of Iberia in ancient times. While Latin remained the language of the Roman Catholic Church so central to the Iberian colonization project, there is no apparent connection between church Latin and the label “Latin America.” Christopher Columbus himself, mistakenly insisting until his death in 1506 that he had reached the eastern edge of Asia, used the term Indias Occidentales, or the Indias to the West. That term lingers today, after being perpetuated especially – and perhaps ironically – by British colonials, in the West Indies, the conventional English term for the islands of the Caribbean Sea eventually colonized by Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark.

It is commonly known that the more general term “America” derives from the name of Amerigo Vespucci (1451?–1512), another navigator of Italian origin who made several voyages to the Caribbean region and along the coast of northern Brazil from 1497 to 1502. Unlike Columbus, Vespucci concluded that Europeans did not previously know about the lands he visited in the west, and he thus referred to them as the New World. In a 1507 map by German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller, America appears for the first time with that name. While the protocol of European exploration usually gives primacy to the first “discoverer,” there would seem to be some justification for naming the newly known landmass after the navigator who recognized it as separate from Asia (Amerigo Vespucci) rather than for the first European to report its existence, but who subsequently insisted that he had confirmed a new way to reach Asia (Christopher Columbus) (Arciniegas 1990).

In subsequent centuries, Europeans and their colonial descendants applied the term America to the entire Western Hemisphere (which half of the globe is called “Western” and which is called “Eastern” is itself a convention of European origin). That usage continues today in Latin America, where it is commonly taught that there is one continent in the Western Hemisphere: America. The Liberator Simón Bolívarfamously convened a conference in Panama in 1826 to work toward a union of the American republics. He included all nations of the hemisphere in the invitation, and it would not have occurred to him to add “Latin” to the descriptors, because the term had not yet been invented. When in 1890 the United States and its commercial and financial allies around Latin America established the Commercial Bureau of the American Republics, which became the Panamerican Union in 1910 and the Organization of American States in 1948, no terminological distinctions were made by culture or language. In the modern era “America” has of course become the common shorthand name of the nation that developed from the 13 English colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America. This apparent appropriation by one nation of a label that traditionally refers to the entire Western Hemisphere has been a recurring source of puzzlement and occasional resentment among Latin Americans (Arciniegas 1966).

Historically, the first use of the term “Latin America” has been traced only as far back as the 1850s. It did not originate within the region, but again from outside, as part of a movement called “pan-Latinism” that emerged in French intellectual circles, and more particularly in the writings of Michel Chevalier (1806–79). A contemporary of Alexis de Tocqueville who traveled in Mexico and the United States during the late 1830s, Chevalier contrasted the “Latin” peoples of the Americas with the “Anglo-Saxon” peoples (Phelan 1968; Ardao 1980, 1993). From those beginnings, by the time of Napoleon III’s rise to power in 1852 pan-Latinism had developed as a cultural project extending to those nations whose culture supposedly derived from neo-Latin language communities (commonly called Romance languages in English). Starting as a term for historically derived “Latin” culture groups, L’Amerique Latine then became a place on the map. Napoleon III was particularly interested in using the concept to help justify his intrusion into Mexican politics that led to the imposition of Archduke Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico, 1864–7. While France had largely lost out in the global imperial rivalries of the previous two centuries, it still retained considerable prestige in the world of culture, language, and ideas (McGuinness 2003). Being included in the pan-Latin cultural sphere was attractive to some intellectuals of Spanish America, and use of the label “Latin America” began to spread haltingly around the region, where it competed as a term with “Spanish America” (where Spanish is the dominant language), “Ibero-America” (including Brazil but presumably not French-speaking areas), and other subregional terms such as “Andean America” (which stretches geographically from Venezuela to Chile, but which more usually is thought of as including Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia), or the “Southern Cone” (Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay) (Rojas Mix 1991).

Not until the middle of the twentieth century did the label Latin America achieve widespread and largely unquestioned currency in public as well as academic and intellectual discourse, both in the region (Marras 1992) and outside of it. With the establishment of the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA, later adding Caribbean to become ECLAC) under United Nations auspices in 1948, the term became consolidated in policy circles, with political overtones challenging US hegemony but largely devoid of the rivalries of culture, language, and “race” of earlier times (Reid 1978). The 1960s saw the continent-wide Latin American literary “boom” and the near-universal adoption of “Latin American Studies” by English-language universities in the USA, Great Britain, and Canada. This trend began with the establishment of the Conference on Latin American History in 1927 and was consolidated with the organization of the interdisciplinary Latin American Studies Association in 1967. Despite the widespread and largely unproblematic use of the term in the main languages of the Western Hemisphere since that era, regional variations remain: In Brazil América Latina is commonly assumed to refer to what in the United States is called Spanish America, i.e., “Latin America” minus Brazil.

While discussing the spontaneous creation of such collective labels, we need to recognize that the terms “Latino” or “Latina/o” now widespread in the United States have no basis in any specific nation or subregion in Latin America. Like the latter term, from which it is derived linguistically, Latina/o is an invented term of convenience – a neologism built on a neologism (Oboler 1995; Gracia 1999; Dzidzienyo & Oboler 2005; Oboler & González 2005). Whatever their origins, Latino or Latina/o have largely replaced the older “Hispanic” or Hispanic American” within the United States, although that English-derived term, problematic on several counts, lingers in library subject classifications.

But there are other questions that need to be posed, in the age of identity politics and the assertion of alternative ethnicities and nationalisms. By its historical and intellectual origins and the claims of pan-Latinism, the term Latin America privileges those groups who descend from “Latin” peoples: Spain and Portugal (but not, ironically enough, the French-speaking populations of Canada or the Caribbean). By another set of criteria, what is now commonly called Latin America might be subdivided into those regions where the indigenous heritage is strong and native identity has reemerged to claim political space, especially in Mesoamerica and the Andean region; Afro-Latin America, especially the circum-Caribbean region and much of Brazil; and Euro-Latin America, in which relatively massive immigration from 1870 to the Great Depression of the 1930s transformed the demographic and cultural makeup of southern Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina (Rojas Mix 1991). In other words, Latin America as a term ignores or claims dominance over other cultures in the region, which have recently come to reassert their distinctive traditions, including a plethora of languages spoken by tens of millions of indigenous people – none of which have any relationship to Spanish or Portuguese (or Latin) beyond a scattering of loan words. The current condition of peoples of indigenous and African heritage has a historical relationship to conquest, colonialism, subjugation, forced assimilation, exploitation, marginalization, and exclusion. Those are not processes to celebrate and use as the basis for national or regional identity challenging the hegemony of the Anglo-Saxon “race,” as was the thrust of pan-Latinism of yore. But they are the basis for claiming cultural and political space – as well as territory and access to resources – within Latin America, today and into the future (Monaghan and Wyatt; Terraciano; Knight; Helg; and Wade, this volume).


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