Short Latin American History

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Category: Colonization
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Do all Latin American nations share a single historical narrative?

In short, the answer to this question is “yes, but…” or “kind of,” and since each of those responses need explanation, this is my best interpretation. Latin America is comprised of many nations, each rich in history and culture, that come together in their diversity (Chasteen 3). This diversity is key to the history of Latin America.That being said, the similarities within that diversity is profound. There are certain aspects of Latin American history that collide with each other in such a way that a single historical narrative seems possible to write. Each nation has its own “personal” history, but then all the countries together also have a “collaborative history.” I like to think of it in a very broad and general way of them almost having a collective consciousness. The culture that runs through the countries have all been similarly affected by conquest and colonization. Spain and Portugal were the big players in conquest of Latin American land (no state or country border mattered–the more land the better!) and so naturally, there would be that common thread (Chasteen 4). But when you get into specifics, the idea of a “single narrative” gets blurred. While technically, yes, all of the history of Latin America happened through a period of linear time, many of the events that occurred intertwine, creating a more complex timeline. The basic progression of the nations are similar, ie conquest and colonization, independence, and power struggles, and happened roughly around the same time which can produce a single narrative; however, the diversity in each cannot. (Chasteen 4)

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An example of how this comparative and contrasting description can be found in how the the textbook speaks of “deep roots in indigenous culture” (Chasteen 2), which speaks for both the collective Latin America and the individual nations that create it. That is to say that indigenous culture of Brazil is still different than indigenous culture of Mexico. The thing that is being respected may be different, but the level of respect is the same. Or, how the nations were eventually conquered and colonized, but the specifics of the way each nation was conquered and colonized was different.

Halfway through the 1500s, as the Spanish and Portuguese began to inflict their own social nuances on the indigenous people and the African slaves, a paradigm shift occurred. It’s no longer just the history of the indigenous people that create the history of Latin America; it’s Spain and Portugal and Africa and all of their histories as well (Chasteen 9). Both liberal and nationalist entities became involved, creating a clash of politics and administration across time (Chasteen 10). In history we can see everything from rigid dictatorship of Cuba and Haiti to more “democratic” nations such as Costa Rica. All of these nations “started” the same, but each has had its own transition into something more.

Overall, there is commonality–Iberian history and the process of conquest and colonization, for example (Chasteen 4-5, 37). However the history of Latin America wasn’t static. Each nation had to undergo both revolution and evolution. It’s the specifics of the transformation of the nations that create the individualized narrative, which can’t be boiled down to a single story.

How did the conquest of Brazil differ from the conquest of Spanish America?

In 1500, just a few years after Columbus journeyed to America, Portuguese expeditioners led by Pedro Alvares Cabral arrived in Brazil.However, they didn’t immediately takeover this new land. The big intention for the trip was to build their stock with commodities such as silk, porcelain, and spices; and Brazil didn’t offer this in the ways South Asia did. (Chasteen 29). While a second motivation of evangelizing and saving the souls of unreached people was also there, the desire to build wealth mostly outshadowed. The one “potential profit” thing Brazil did have to offer was a red dye made from “brazilwood.” (Chasteen 30)

The Tupi people were one of the groups indigenous to Brazil. As the Portuguese began to come in, the Tupi were at first mostly left to themselves. A few of the Tupi would trade gathered brazilwood for axes and such; and overall, the blending races of the semi-sedentary (Tupi) with the sedentary (Portuguese) started smoothly. This all changed, however, when the land itself overturned brazilwood as the desired commodity. (Chasteen 31)

The Portuguese settlers wanted to clear the land for sugarcane plants, and decided they could just attack and enslave the indigenous people to help them accomplish this. The king of Portugal himself didn’t necessarily support this method, and even set up a royal governor and capital city in brazil as an attempt of more civilized colonization (Chasteen 32). Nonetheless more bloody battles ensued all across Brazil. More and more indigenous people were wiped out, by murder or exposure to European disease, until only remnants of them stayed. Portugal had “successfully” taken over, and with their sugarcane spreading, they brought in African slaves to take the place of the indigenous people. (Chasteen 34)

The conquest of Spanish America was more abrupt. Mexico and Peru were already “on the radar” and so the Spanish essentially immediately viewed the land as something to conquer (Chasteen 38). Similar to the relationship between the Tupi and the Portuguese, Spaniards had a relationship with the indigenous Arawak people. This soon turned into slavery, just as it had happened in Brazil. A difference, however, was just the general attitude. Cortes knew what he wanted and brazenly set out to conquer. Again, between introduction of new diseases and straight up murder, the indigenous people were left dwindling, and the Aztec Empire fell (Chasteen 40). Pizarro, the equivalent of Cortes but to Peru, forged through the same way, conquering the indigenous Peruvians with violence. It was all very systematic and militarized. The Spaniards charged full force into the conquest, whereas in Brazil, it was a slower burn. As word of Aztec and Inca riches and treasures spread, more Spaniards came and began to colonize. (Chasteen 42)

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Another difference between the conquest of Brazil and Spanish America, was that some of the indigenous people of Mexico and Peru survived. Of course, Spaniards still invaded the people (marrying into noble families etc.) but at least there was still some lineage of the indigenous people, as seen through the preserving of the Nahuatl language (Chasteen 44). Even so, as more marriages and births occurred, the colonization of Mexico and Peru was essentially a joining of the indigenous with the conquerors.

In summary, the conquering of Spanish America was an all out attack at first, but instead of wiping out the indigenous people, Spaniards worked them into the new growth. In contrast, the conquering of Brazil was slow at first, and then the attack occurred. That is, some Portuguese tried to “colonize” with the Tupi. Or rather, they worked together with the trade of brazilwood. In basic terms, it was a “let’s try to get along with them” first and then when that wasn’t “enough,” it turned more into “let’s destroy them.” However for Spanish America, it was a “let’s destroy/take over/conquer these people” first, and then “let’s get along with those remaining.” 

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Short Latin American History. (2021, Oct 20). Retrieved from