AN INTRODUCTION TO LATIN AMERICAN SOCIETY:
A BACKGROUND TO ITS FICTION
by Rei Berroa, George Mason University
[Published in Literature of the Americas. Vol I.
Dubuque, IO: Kendall/Hunt, 1986. Pages 62-78.]
[This text was a Course Guide written for the International University Consortium for its series: Telecommunications in Learning]
Units 2/3 through 6 of the Literature of the Americas course concern Spanish-American fiction, works whose authors are natives of Spanish-speaking regions south of the United States. But why is this area called Latin America? Where did these terms: "Latin" and "America" originate?
In 1502, ten years after Columbus's arrival in the New World, the Italian merchant and explorer Amerigo Vespucci published the first maps of the newly discovered hemisphere. Thus, the New World became known throughout Europe as America or "the Land of Americus." Spanish and Portuguese, the languages spoken by most of the first settlers of that ten-year span, derive mainly from Latin--hence the term Latin to refer to the languages spoken there.
The Spanish and Portuguese, however, were not the only nationalities represented in the New World. When Columbus and his Spanish expedition reached the new continent, they called the natives of the area Indios (Indians) because they thought they had arrived in India. They soon detected their geographic error, but today almost all the indigenous peoples of the hemisphere are still called Indians. The arrival of Spanish and Portuguese settlers was followed by the immigration of other European, Asian, and African peoples. The last group was brought to the New World at the request of Father Las Casas, a Spanish missionary, who was distressed at the Indians' plight. He thought the natives were not capable of doing the labor imposed on them by the European colonizers, and believed the native Africans--a physically larger people--could better tolerate the hard physical labor. Although he always maintained a black servant at home, Father Las Casas later regretted his earlier position on black labor, which, he said, was instrumental in promoting black slavery in the colonies.1
Soon after the Spanish and Portuguese arrival, white
children were born on the American continents, as well as children of interracial
unions. Various terms identified the offspring: criollos (Creoles)
were the American-born children of Europeans; mestizos the children
of Indians and Europeans; mulatos, the children of Negros and Europeans;
and zambos, the children of Negros and Indians. Today, although
some areas of the region are almost exclusively black and others Indian,
the majority of Latin American people are either mestizo or mulatto.
Spanish Conquest and Colonization of the New World: 1492-1776.
Christopher Columbus sailed westward on 3 August 1492 from the little port of Palos in southwest Spain and arrived three months later on Guanahani Island in the Bahamas, which he named San Salvador. Having carefully read the explorer Marco Polo's journal, he was convinced he had reached Cipangu (Polo's name for Japan). About the people he found, Columbus wrote in his diary:
They took everything we gave them and gave willingly from anything they had. And it looked to me that they were very much in need. They wore no clothes and were as naked as when their mothers gave them birth. The women also were naked, although I saw only one, quite young. The men I saw were young also; I didn't see anyone who appeared to be over thirty years old. . . . They have a good size and . . . must make good servants. . . .
I paid attention to them and tried to find out whether they had gold. . . . These islands are green and fertile, and the air is very sweet. There could be things I do not know about, but I do not want to try to find out because I want to see and explore many other islands to search for gold. (My translation)2
And Columbus and his crew did go in search of gold.
Columbus's voyage to the New World in 1492 was followed by a series of Spanish expeditions. Driven by lust for power and money and spurred on by medieval tales of chivalry, the conquerors launched their ships westward. Since Spain had recently achieved the so called "reconquest" of its lands by the expulsion of the Moors, who had occupied Spanish lands for eight hundred years, the Spanish simply transferred their zeal for glory to the conquest of new territories.
Spain accomplished an extensive occupation of the New World within fifty years. Late in 1493 Columbus returned to La Hispaniola, the site of his first settlement, with a fleet of seventeen ships and twelve hundred colonists, to whom he had promised the prospect of gold. Disappointed in their hopes for quick wealth, the colonists mutinied against Columbus. To appease the rebellion, Columbus granted the settlers lands and Indian slaves. For granting lands that were not his to distribute, Columbus was shortly afterward seized and returned to Spain in chains.
Another Spanish explorer, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, reached the Isthmus of Panama in 1513. In 1519 Hernando Cortés conquered the Aztec Empire with only six hundred soldiers. This conquest was aided by the Aztec king, Moctezuma, who believed that Cortés was their god Quetzalcoatl who had returned to claim his lost realm. One of the soldiers of this expedition, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, recorded his impressions of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire:
We then set forward on the road to Mexico, which was crowded with multitudes of the natives, and arrived at the causeway of lztapalapa, which leads to that capital. When we beheld the number of populous towns on the water and firm ground, and that broad causeway, running straight and level to the city, we could compare it with nothing but the enchanted scenes we had read of in Amadis of Gaula novel of chivalry], from the great towers and temples, and other edifices of time and stone which seemed to rise out of the water. To many of us it appeared doubtful whether we were asleep or awake; nor is the manner in which I express myself to be wondered at, for it must be considered, that never yet did man see, hear, or dream of anything equal to the spectacle which appeared to our eyes on this day.
When we approached lztapalapa, we were received by several great lords of that country, relations of Montezuma [Moctezuma], who conducted us to our lodgings there, in palaces magnificently built of stone, and the timber of which was cedar, with spacious courts, and apartments furnished with canopies of the finest cotton. After having contemplated these noble edifices we walked through the gardens, which were admirabte to behold from the variety of beautiful and aromatic plants, and the numerous alleys filled with fruit trees, roses, and various flowers. Here was also a lake of the clearest water, which communicated with the grand lake of Mexico by a channel cut for the purpose, and capable of admitting the largest canoes. The whole was ornamented with works of art, painted, and admirably plastered and whitened, and it was rendered more delightful by numbers of beautiful birds. When I beheld the scenes that were around me, I thought within myself that this was the garden of the world!3
Continuing the explorations and conquests, between 1528 and 1536,Cabeza de Vaca crossed the North American continent on foot from the Tampa Bay in Florida to the Gulf of California; and in 1535 Francisco Pizarro founded Lima after his brutal subjugation of the Inca Empire. In 1539 Gonzalo Pizarro, searching for El Dorado (the man covered with gold)--who existed only in the imagination of all explorers and conquistadores (Spanish conquerors)--penetrated the Andes and explored the upper Amazon River. A small group of Pizarro's men, led by Francisco de Orellana, continued the expedition by journeying down the Amazon; they reached the Atlantic Ocean in 1542. Meanwhile, in the north, Ponce de León claimed Florida for the Spanish Crown in 1513, Hernando de Soto visited Georgia in 1538, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado explored the Colorado River in 1540, and Spaniards went as far as Oregon in their explorations. Thus, in the fifty years following the discovery of the Western Hemisphere, mountains were crossed, river basins were charted, and the Pacific Ocean was surveyed; and everywhere nature and the prospect of wealth made it possible, colonies were established.
During these fifty years, the government of the colonies assumed the form it retained until the late eighteenth century. The first government was in the explorers' hands; the Spanish Crown, for whom they had won these new territories, granted them sweeping powers. But as a consequence of the expeditionary leaders' abuses of authority, the Emperor Charles V replaced the martial law of the colonies with a civil government, with himself as the supreme head. In 1524 he appointed a council of lawyers, nobles, and personal favorites, the Council of the Indies, to advise him on and to help control the affairs of the new territories. In the colonies themselves, those who enforced the rulings of the Council of the Indies (all Iberian-born) were the viceroys, captains general, oidores (governors), and corregidores (magistrates).
Each official ruled his own territory. Until 1700 there were three viceroyalties: New Spain in the north, founded in 1535, with Mexico City as its capital; Perú in the southeast, founded in 1542, with Lima as its capital; and Brazil in the southwest, founded in 1548, with Salvador de Bahia as its capital. The captaincies general were large subdivisions of the viceroyalties; smaller subdivisions called presidencias were governed by the corregidores. Although the first duty of the corregidores was to protect the natives from the abuses of the colonists, the corregidores themselves were notorious for their exploitation of the Indians.
One supposedly "protective" institution in particular benefited the corregidores. The repartimiento or mita was a system whereby all adult Indian males were required to work, in rotation, the colonists' mines, farms, factories, and public works. The Indians were paid in tokens that the corregidor himself redeemed for goods. In this way, the corregidor granted himself exclusive trading rights by a system not unlike the "company store" system that existed in the United States from the early to mid-twentieth century.
In regions distant from the capitals of the viceroyalties,
it was actually the landowners and not the central government who reigned
supreme. Like the corregidores, they gained notoriety for their corruption
and mercilessness toward the natives. Many times the landowners were government
representatives as well, which legalized their brutal power. The ruling
classes' corruption and despotism during the Latin American colonial period
was this era's legacy to the revolutionary period.
From Dependence to Independence: 1776-1826
After Balboa took possession of the Pacific Ocean in 1513 in the name of Spain, and Ferdinand Magellan, sailing under the Spanish flag, found in 1521 a sea route to Asia by way of the passageway now known as the Strait of Magellan, the Spanish Crown closed the waters around its territories to the commerce and navigation of all other countries. This policy inspired other European countries to undermine the Spanish monopoly of the seas. A long line of sea hawks, mainly English, began to raid Spanish-American trade centers and Spanish vessels.
The first English seaman to open trade between the New World and England by means of raids or attacks was Sir Francis Drake in the 1560s. Much admired in the English-speaking world (Queen Elizabeth knighted Drake in 1580 and made him admiral in 1584), Drake's name stands for sophisticated piracy and terrorism in the Spanish-speaking world. You will find this view in One Hundred Years of Solitude where García Márquez, mixing the historical with the fictional, writes with irony and ridicule that in the city of Riohacha, in the sixteenth century, Drake had been "crocodile hunting with cannons and that he repaired them and stuffed them with straw to bring to Queen Elizabeth" (p 19). Following the precedent set by Drake, other sea hawks continued attacking Spanish ports and vessels until the Spanish-American colonies' trade with and loyality to Spain weakened.
To regain Spain's usurped supremacy in the New World and to reinforce its ties with the colonies, Charles III introduced commercial and military reforms in the colonies soon after he came to power in 1759. Where Spain's only port open to trade with the colonies had been Cadiz, new ports opened, making trade more practical. Farming and agriculture were expanded, and restrictions on intercolonial trade were lifted. To reform the military, the king formed a colonial militia headed by Creole officers in 1760, thereby placing more authority in the hands of the colonists. These reforms eased tensions between the colonies and the Crown but did not eliminate them.
From 1560 to 1760 Spain tried to maintain control of the colonies not only through trade but also through culture, language, religion, and miscegenation (interracial marriages). The colonies, however, remained separate geographically and culturally, as well as divided on social, economic, political, and racial issues. These cleavages led to divisions among the colonies themselves, to a pulling away of the colonies from the motherland, and thus to a period of great unrest.
Since the beginning of the colonial period, the natives had been rebelling against foreign rule. During the eighteenth century, the rebellions grew numerous, incited by the English who sought access to trade by creating social disorder. The numbers of rebels grew and included mestizos, mulattoes, blacks, and Indians. The rebellions were unsuccessful. Nonetheless they encouraged the revolt against the caste-like system of social/ethnic stratification by which the Iberian-born and Creoles enjoyed prestige; the mestizos, mulattoes, and Indians suffered progressively less status; and the blacks had no political power whatsoever.
The unrest in Latin America was heightened by reports of revolution in the United States and France and by the influence of foreign revolutionary writers. Despite Spanish censorship aimed at controlling the flow of dangerous and revolutionary ideas into the colonies, the works of philosophers Jean Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire (nom de plume for Francois Marie Arouet), Denis Diderot, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin spread through Latin America. The Creole intelligentsia advocated the equality of restrictions on trade and production for each colony. They received news of the U.S. declaration of and struggle for independence enthusiastically. Reports of the French revolution of 1789, whose Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was translated into Spanish by the Colombian liberal Antonio Nariño, reached every corner of intellectual activity, especially the twenty-three universities extant in Latin America at the time. The Creoles came to believe their interests would be better served if they themselves and not remote monarchs took control of their political and economic decisions. Thus they began to move toward revolution.
The black slaves of Haiti carried out the first successful revolution for independence in 1804. Haiti had been a French colony since 1697. Although Haiti's example brought much hope to the rest of the colonies of Spain and Portugal, the Creoles, not willing despite their original idealism to relinquish their power in favor of equality, began to fear that either the blacks or Indians could take control of their long-awaited revolution. The Creoles waited for the right moment to seize control; and when in 1808 Napoleon invaded Spain, they took advantage of the weakened motherland, moving quickly toward independence.
In 1810 popular revolutions toppled Spanish power in Mexico, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela. In 1815 Brazil was declared a kingdom. In 1817 General San Martin of Argentina crossed the Andes to defeat the Spanish in Chile. In 1821 Simón Bolívar defeated the Spanish in Venezuela, and the same year Mexico proclaimed and struggled for its independence. The last major military confrontations for South America's independence took place at Ayacucho, Perú, in 1824.
In 1826 Simón Bolívar, the Creole general whose admirers consider him the George Washington of Spanish America, convened the Congress of Panama to discuss the possibility of creating a confederation of Latin American nations. Much to his distress, the delegates could not reach any agreement. Four years later, exiled in Barranquilla from the same country whose liberation he had masterminded, he described the disheartening net results of the revolution in a letter to the Ecuadorian general Juan José Flores:
I have held power for twenty years, and I have dtawn but a few accurate conclusions: (I) America is ungovernable for us. (2) He who serves a revolution plows in the sea. (3) The only thing one can do in America is emigrate. (4) This country will indubitably fall into the hands of an unbridled crowd, and then to petty tyrants of all colors and races almost unnoticed. (5) Once America has been devoured by all crimes and extinguished by ferocity, the Europeans will disdain us and will not even deign to conquer us. (6) If it were possible for a part of the world to go back to primitive chaos, America would qualify. (My translation)4
Government corruption continued after the revolutions, as the reforms achieved in the wars were deemed applicable only to the upper classes. Creoles, rural merchants, and landowners all gained power and prestige after the wars. Slavery was abolished by decree of the Venezuelan military leader of Simón Bolívar in 1816, but in a land financially, politically, and culturally ruined, this was a token gift from those who in turn became the slaves of other nations. As inflation, capricious taxes, and interference with trade routes brought economic collapse, the new nations were forced to depend on English trade. Politically, not one of the nations saw the rise of a democratic government, and they began to lean on U.S. interventionism. the cultural scene, French and English literatures became the intellectual nourishment of Spanish-speaking nations. Latin America's hard-earned independence was thus compromised by its dependence on foreign influences.
On the cultural scene, French and English literatures
became the intellectual nourishment of Spanish-speaking nations. Latin
America's hard-earned independence was thus compromised by its dependence
on foreign influences.
Dictatorship and Democracy: 1826 to the Present.
The transfer and legitimation of power in Latin America was a difficult experience. For example, in 1822 the Creole Agustín Iturbide was crowned Emperor of Mexico, which at that time included the territory from Oregon to Panama. The same military officers who raised him to power, however, tired of waiting for their paychecks, deserted him. In 1823 these officers established a federal republic; but weakened by corruption, falling prices, and economic stagnation, Mexico soon fell under the despotic rule of General Antonio López de Santa Anna.
When Bolívar convened the Congress of Panama in 1826, he dreamed of a Pan-American union, a confederation of all regions of the Americas into one single bloc, "the mother of all republics, the greatest nation of the whole inhabitable earth."5 His dream never became a reality. The question that hopelessly divided the delegates of the Congress in 1826 is still unresolved in most Latin American countries: What kind of government should there be? Should a government be federalist or centralist, republican or monarchist, democratic or dictatorial?
Bolívar himself was torn by this conflict over what type of government. He began his political career as an admirer of the U.S. government and of republicanism; as the years passed, however, he sympathized with Caesarism. He was offered a crown by almost every general who fought next to him during the liberation of Spanish America. But he rejected all these offers because, he said, "the generals of the revolution would never tolerate a government which would deprive them of supreme power."6 Later on these generals rose to authoritarian power and still do.
After the revolutionary wars, despotic--and in most cases corrupt--governments formed all over Latin America. The supreme head of each of these governments, the caudillo, was either a general or a wealthy landowner. The caudillos of corrupt governments, loving power, shaped the laws to suit their own purposes and stayed in power by the complete support of their armies. They controlled information and suppressed opposition by exile and murder.
No country in Latin America has escaped the rule of a caudillo, whether or not corrupt. Caudillos rose to power by means of elections or civil wars. The first caudillo was Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez Francia (a doctor in theology) in Paraguay, whom his fellow citizens called "His Supreme Highness" according to his wishes and due to their appreciation of his leadership. Francia governed Paraguay from 1811 until his death in 1840. The two most recent caudillos, modern-day versions of this beast, are Fidel Castro of Cuba and Alberto Fujimori of Perú. Between Francia and these two leaders is a long list of caudillos, the most representative among whom are Juan Manuel Rosas of Argentina (1829-1852), José Antonio Páez of Venezuela (1830-1848 and 1858-1863), General Antonio López de Santa Anna (1833-1855) and General Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911) of Mexico, the Somoza family of Nicaragua (1932-1979), and General Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay (1954 to 1989).7
The history of Colombia's government is unique. While Bolívar surrounded himself with glory in Venezuela, the Colombian general Francisco de Paula Santander instilled in his fellow citizens respect for the laws drawn by their representatives. Colombians still have this respect. Paradoxically no country in Latin America has had more civil wars, but the battles have been fought over ideals and not as the result of the caudillos' hunger for power. Although today fewer Colombians go to the polls than any other Latin American country, democracy is strong in Colombia. The same can be said of Costa Rica. This tiny Central American country boasts the longest democratic tradition of Latin America, a very equitable land distribution, and a literacy rate second only to that of Cuba.
The norm for the rest of the Latin American countries has been a continuous struggle for power. Mexico had a populist revolution in 1911 that brought to power one party that has dominated the political arena ever since. In Central America, with the exception of Costa Rica (which abolished its army in 1949), military governments have predominated. Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina, which in the past set examples of democratic regimes for the rest of Latin America, fell under the rule of modern caudillos in the form of military juntas. In the eighties, Uruguay and Argentina returned to democratic governments, but in the late nineties Perú has fallen to an autocratic government.
The role the United States plays in this conflict between democracy and dictatorship throughout Latin America has been the object of much discussion since the colonies became independent. When the newly independent nations proclaimed their constitutions, they used the U.S. constitution as their model. Bolívar praised the North American people and their form of government as a singular example of political virtues and moral enlightenment. This admiration, however, gradually turned into resentment and even hatred as the United States began to interfere in Latin American affairs.
Ironically U.S. involvement with Latin America began with a policy of noninterventionism, the Monroe Doctrine. This was instigated in 1823 when Russia, Prussia, Austria, and France (known as the Holy Alliance) began talks to aid Spain in regaining its colonies. The United States--which that very year had recognized the governments of Chile, Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia--immediately answered the European threats with the doctrine.
More specifically, in September 1823, Prime Minister George Canning of Britain, seeing it advantageous for English commerce, asked President James Monroe to help the Spanish-American colonies oppose the European powers. President Monroe asked Thomas Jefferson for advice. Jefferson replied:
Our first and fundamental maxim should be, never to entangle ourselves in the broils of Europe; our second, never to suffer Europe to intermeddle in cis-Atlantic affairs. America, North and South, has a set of interests distinct from those of Europe, and peculiarly of her own. She should therefore have a system of her own, separate and apart from that of Europe. While the last is laboring to become the domicile of despotism our endeavor should be, to make our hemisphere that of freedom.8
This statement was the basis for the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine 2 December 1823, which states:
We owe it, therefore, to candor, and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those (European] powers, to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.9
But the Monroe Doctrine became the United States' shield for expansionism. In Latin America, the fear of European intervention gave way to fear of North American invasion. In 1831 the U.S. warship Lexington sacked the port of Soledad in the Falkland Islands, preparing the way for Great Britain's invasion of the islands in 1833, and today remain occupied by the British. The second intervention by the United States was in 1836 during the Texas-Mexican War, which resulted in the annexation of Texas to the United States and in yet another war, the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Through the Treaty of Guadalupe, which ended the Mexican-American War, Mexico lost California, New Mexico, Arizona, and adjacent regions to the United States. Three years after the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which Spain lost Cuba and Puerto Rico, the United States introduced the Platt Amendment, which gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuba at any time to restore order. These events inaugurated a new relationship between North and South America, one of opportunism countered by resistance.
The history of the relationship between the United States and Latin America was and still is characterized by the tension of conflicting interests. Latin American efforts toward sovereignty are pitted against U.S. political interference. The United States strives to protect its enormous financial investments in Latin American oil, mining, agriculture, and banking from political and economic unrest and from the government irresponsibility that has consistently marked some Latin American administrations. U.S. interventions have been in the form of support for government leaders who protect and promote U.S. interests, occupations of countries to restore order and install a compatible government, and occupations to enforce repayment of defaulted loans.
Although in many cases U.S. intervention has been profitable for Latin American governments, the Latin American people's overall reaction has varied from full acceptance to complete rejection. The Latin American intelligentsia, however, have reacted consistently and bitterly. José Martí, the apostle of Cuban independence, wrote in a Mexican newspaper in 1891: "The greatest danger of our America is the scorn of our formidable neighbor who does not know us" (my translation).10 Rubén Darío, one of the most representative poets of the Americas, in his book Songs of Life and Hope (1905) denounced "our most likely destiny"4 of becoming "Yankee Americans;" and he warned President Roosevelt in his poem "To Roosevelt" that "our America" was not dead but still alive and was going to wake up some time in the future.11
In 1900 the Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó wrote his essay Ariel, in which he praised North America's inventiveness--the transformation of human labor into progress and wealth--and its sense of freedom ("they have created the modern concept of freedom"); but he attacked the "moral conquest" of Latin America by the "mighty nation of the North."12 After referring to the Latin American ruling classes' admiration for its greatness and power, he concluded, "North Americans would almost be willing to rewrite the Book of Genesis in order to put themselves on the front page." Other well-respected writers who have opposed U.S. interference in Latin America are the Nobel Prize winners Gabriela Mistral, Miguel Angel Asturias, Pablo Neruda, and Gabriel García Márquez.
Looking back, the Latin American revolutions can
be compared with the American revolution of the 1770s. The years that followed
the surrender of Charles Cornwallis to George Washington in 1781 were marked
by the impatience, jealousy, greed, and rivalry that often follow on the
heels of war. It was not until after the Constitution was ratified in 1787
that the United States became a nation. In 1861 the Civil War, which lasted
five years, threatened its unity. Before the war was over, many had died;
and a few days after its end, the president was assassinated. But the United
States emerged from that experience ready to reconstruct itself and gain
world leadership. The difference between the United States and Latin America
is that the Latin American countries have not yet finished their revolutions.
Leading Social Institutions
In this section we will discuss the most important
institutions--the family, the Catholic church, the state, and the army--that
comprise Latin American society and some of the patterns of social relationships
within these institutions. Ths discussion is vital to the study of Spanish-American
and all other Latin American fiction because the latter seeks to offer
a credible picture of the reality to which it is linked. We will look at
the family separately because of its relevance to One Hundred Years
of Solitude and other texts we will analise. We will study the rest
as a block because they represent the triumvirate of power in almost every
region of Latin America and because they have contributed greatly to the
authoritarian tradition of Latin American thought and life.
The family is the nucleus of Latin American society; and as in every complex society, it is an intricate institution always undergoing modification. (From my previous pages you might have already gathered that changes are slow in Latin America.) Changes in the family mainly affect its external configuration, like the number of children and social activities. The basic functions-reproductive, economic, protective, and emotional--remain practically unchanged.
There are two reasons why family ties are so strong in Latin America: one is economic, the other is judicial. First, Latin American economies are characterized by instability; jobs are hard to find and tend to dissolve once demands for products are filled. Moreover, lacking means to move their products to areas where demand is greater, people find it difficult to market them. Second, since the administration of justice is unpredictable, family members defend each other from outside attacks--economic, physical, or social. Defending themselves and each.other from infrequent work, political instability, and an irresponsible system of justice, the Latin Americans invest their time and feelings in the secluded and almost invulnerable intimacy of the family orbit.13
To extend this family security, husband and wife keep in touch with as many relatives as possible from both sides of the family and use their family names to make others aware of their blood ties. Children bear the last names of both parents. For example, in the case of Gabriel García Márquez, García is his father's last name and Márquez is his mother's. Some times women add the husband's name to their own at marriage; e.g., when Mercedes Barcha married Gabriel García Márquez, she became Mercedes Barcha de García, thereby not-relinquishing her family name. This usage is even more important among families that have been powerful or influential in a region's economic or political life.
The male is the dominant figure in a Latin American marriage. He selects his future partner and either he or his parents are expected to ask the female's family for her hand. Most times the couple has agreed beforehand, but once in a while the female has no idea that she is about to be "promised" to someone.
Once the couple is married, the man financially supports the family and exercises authority over it. He decides its residence, who will inherit its property, and bestows the descendants' names on them. Due to cultural influences, the man believes it is the essence of his maleness to act with authority. This principle has become second nature to many Latin American men. Adherence to this attitude all over Latin America formed the cult of machismo.
Machismo, extended throughout Latin America, requires men to have control over their emotions and to be reticent and aggressive. Machismo demands that while men guard the virginity of unmarried daughters and sisters, they prove themselves muy macho (very much a man) by the sexual conquest of many women and by increasing the population both in and out of wedlock.
This sexual aspect of machismo is connected with the Don Juan myth that was perpetuated in Spanish ballads. Unlike Don Juan, however, who defied all moral codes and boasted about his dissolute life, the macho will publicly adhere to morality, keeping his double standard in secret.
In the second essay in his series The Labyrinths of Solitude, the world-known Mexican poet Octavio Paz comments on this characteristic of many Latin American men:
The ideal male never gives in to anything outside. If he does so he is "penetrated" and feminizes himself, for females are those who are penetrable by nature. Women are inferior beings for when they give in, they open themselves. Their inferiority is rooted in their sex, in their physical orifice, a wound that cannot be healed. Thus, a man may have to bow down, to humiliate himself, to lie low, but he must never "give in," that is, to allow the exterior world to penetrate his interior self, his maleness.15
Some Latin American men, apart from their legitimate family, also maintain an unofficial house with a mistress and sometimes as many children as with their wives. This practice constitutes one of the region's major problems, because it contributes in large part to the related problems of poverty and overpopulation.
These generalizations do not describe all Latin American males. There are also men who share the household and family responsibilities with the same devotion as their wives. These men are forced to struggle with a society in which their behavior is considered strange. Despite this difficulty, this direction is being followed more and more by the younger generation of better educated, urban men.
If the man is the head of the Latin American family, the woman runs it. She takes care of the family problems, runs its economy, and educates the children. In this sense, the Latin American family is matriarchal for it revolves around the mother. Since she spends much more time with the children than the father does, she has great influence on their decisions, especially in regard to marriage. Energetic, industrious, and capable, she seems to multiply herself to be everywhere. She normally does not work outside the house but often manages to have a small home business, marketing her products in the neighborhood.
The children stay in their parents' home until they marry. If a male child has fathered children before marriage, those children are brought into his parents' house and reared by their grandparents. If a daughter becomes pregnant before marriage, which is considered a dishonor for the family, either her marriage is arranged or she disappears for some time from the social scene. After marriage, many children (especially females) bring their spouses to their parents' houses to live. If they do not live with their parents, married children try to live close to one or both of their families. This is where the bonds of the extended family begin.
It the children do not marry, they traditionally live with their parents, sharing household responsibilities. When a spouse dies, what happens afterward to the surviving spouse depends on his or her sex. Men will soon marry again, their sexual needs considered stronger than women's. A widow, on the other hand, will remain celibate for the rest of her life. She is expected to remain faithful to her husband even after his death.
Family relationships are modeled on the Catholic
church's definition of the relationship between God and man. Human fathers
are as distant and far away from their children as God is from his. To
reach God, one goes through his intermediary, the Virgin Mary. In this
same way, Latin American children go to their fathers through their mothers.
The fathers, both human and heavenly, are associated with authority and
the distance that respect demands; mothers, on the other hand, are linked
with love and proximity. Priests, men representing the church's power,
preach that men should be strong and protective, while they encourage women
to mirror the virtues of the Virgin Mary-especially her chastity, submission,
and maternal love. Women and men are shaped by these ideals. The church's
power to design patterns of conduct for family members is one of the subjects
of my next section.
The Church, the State, and the Army
Authoritarianism has been the traditional tool for control of power in Latin America. Through machismo, husbands and fathers control the family's workings. On a larger scale, authoritarianism delivers power from the masses to the governments and ruling elite. We will examine the triumvirate of institutions--the Church, the State, and the Army--that have collaborated in obtaining and retaining power within Latin American society.
These three institutions were instrumental in the conquest of America. Among the twelve hundred original colonists, there were twelve friars. The Iberian monarchs had given Columbus specific instructions: "The King and Queen have more regard for the augmentation of the faith than for any other utility."16 Thereafter, priests and soldiers accompanied every expedition, arriving in growing numbers in the territories claimed for the Portuguese and Spanish monarchs. Their duty was not only to give the aborigines the salvation of Christianity but also to make them loyal subjects of the Catholic monarchs. The monarchs selected the missionaries; the soldiers conquered the lands and people; and the friars persuaded the natives to embrace Christianity, as well as Iberian culture, language, and habits.
This collaboration was even approved by Rome. In a papal bull of 1501, Pope Alexander VI conferred patronato real (royal patronage) upon the crown in return for the monarchs' protection of the faith within their realms. This royal patronage gave the Iberian rulers the exclusive right to nominate all church officials; collect and spend tithes (income taxes); and erect churches, schools, convents, and bishoprics.
The idea of separating church and state, or state and army, was inconceivable. They were so intertwined they they really functioned as one institution. The church began to exercise its social and religious control through its local missions called aldeias in Brazil, reducciones in the south, and misiones in the north. These missions, governed by priests, were villages that kept the natives gathered for better instruction, protection, and supervision. Each mission consisted of a church built at the center of the village, a school, living quarters, and warehouses. The missions also served as fortresses, for the institutionalization of the Indians helped control rebellion and free soldiers for other duties.
One of the most effective means of control came with the establishment of the Inquisition, a religious tribunal, in 1569. Philip II chartered central offices of the Holy Tribunal in Mexico and Perú to protect the natives--who were not knowledgeable of the Catholic dogma--against heretical practices, beliefs, or statements. The Holy Office's jurisdiction included all individuals and castes of society, including the viceroy, but exempted the Indians (because of their lack of knowledge). Its members even visited bookshops and private libraries in search of religiously dubious writings. Besides the religious dictatorship, the inquisitors kept a tight censorship over works of art and secular books produced in the colonies or imported to them. All novels were banned; it was not until 1816 that Fernández de Lizardi published the first Latin American novel in Mexico, El Periquillo Sarniento, which was a compilation of moral lessons attacking greed, hypocrisy, and pride from the viewpoint of a dying rogue.17
The church also exercised a monopoly over education. In 1523 in Mexico, several friars founded the first school of the continent. Its curriculum included religion, reading and writing, Latin, music, and all the arts and crafts. Soon afterward in many colonies new schools were established, all of them opened by missionaries. In 1538 the first university was erected in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, by Dominican friars. In 1551 the University of Mexico and the University of San Marcos, in Lima, were chartered. The church and state took an equal part in governing these institutions and all the others that followed them in the Latin American colonies. For two centuries classes were taught in Latin, and the education imparted had a distinctly dogmatic flavor.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, when revolutions were starting, the Catholic church--always in favor with the state and assisted by the army--ranked as an omnipotent institution of wealth, power, and prestige; its influence reached not only the religious but also the social, political, and even economic life of every colony.
The caudillos who rose to power during the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries always sought the support not of the public, which for their purposes was not important, but of both the church and the army. Without this support, the caudillos could not have remained in power.
The most powerful institution of present-day Latin America, however, is not the church but the army. The army is now the only truly national institution in most Latin American countries. It emerged as a political force during the wars of independence and has since then retained dominance over political affairs. But, as you read earlier in this unit, military control is not new in independent Latin America. Most of the conquistadores either held military ranks or were given military honors for their deeds. During the first century following the Europeans' arrival, a military spirit presided over culture and society and reigned supreme over every walk of life. The militant and expansionist zeal of conquest gave way, during the second and third centuries of colonization, to a less martial system. The soldier, however, still played an important role. He defended and extended the empire, and his military status gave him prestige. Many of the viceroys were appointed to office because of their high military ranks, which enhanced their authority. When by 1760--in preparation for the English attacks--Spain created a colonial militia drawn from the Creole upper class, the Creole officers were given fuero militar (a special military privilege). This privilege exempted them from civil law and established the army as a special class, which was very useful for the ideals of independence but dangerous for those of democracy.
After the wars of independence, because none of the
new republics developed a satisfactory method of electing or altering its
government, the army found itself exercising the dual rote of guaranteeing
order and changing the government. The army became the state. No president
or caudillo since the revolutions has managed to remain in power without
courting the military. Army officers enjoy generous salaries; the army
budget at times is as much as 50 percent of the entire national budget,
absorbing capital needed for economic and educational growth. At the same
time, the army's meddling in political matters and its officers' lust for
power have caused considerable damage to the people's aspirations for a
democratic social order.
The information in this introduction to the major historical and political
events that have shaped Latin American culture and society is a necessary
tool for studying Latin American fiction, which is the object of the next
five weeks. Before going on, take some time to review the information you
have gathered in the preceding pages by answering a few general questions
about Latin America.
I. Why did the Spanish and Portuguese colonize the New World?
2. What were the reasons for the nineteenth-century revolutions in Latin
3. What is a caudillo and how or why did many rise to power in Latin
4. What was the Monroe Doctrine and how did the United States use it?
5. What is the cult of machismo?
6. Why are family ties so important in Latin America?
7. What three institutions form a triumvirate of power in Latin America?
1. Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, Historia de las Indias. Vol.III, ed. Agustín Millares Carlo (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1951), 177-178; 274-275. For a selection of Las Casas's writings, see Andrée Collard, History of the Indies (New York: Harper and Row, 1971). Pages xvi-xviii include a commentary on Las Casas's position on both Indian and Negro slavery.
2. Cristóbal Colón, Diario de Colón. Vol. I (Madrid: Revista Geográfica Española, 1977), 46-55.
3. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The True History of the Conquest of Mexico. Trans. Maurice Keatinge (London: John Dean, 1800), 130-133.
4. Simón Bolívar, Doctrina del Libertador. 2d ed., ed. Manuel Pérez Vila (Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1979), 321-324.
5. See Rufino Blanco-Fombona, El pensamiento vivo de Bolívar. 2d ed. (Buenos Aires: Losada, 1983), 32.
6. See John A. Crow, The Epic of Latin America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 490.
7. Despotic figures mentioned here:
Juan Manuel Rosas was a Gaucho leader, who came to power to heal the wounds of a recent civil war.
José Antonio Páez, a llanero or man of the plains, Bolívar's own right hand, becarme general during the wars of
independence and was elected dictator of Venezuela in 1830.
General Santa Anna was first and always an opportunist. In 1833, having been elected president by the liberals, he
realized money was with the conservatives and so dissolved Congress and proclaimed himself "dictator of Mexico."
General Porfirio Díaz came to power in 1876 when President Lerdo de Tejada announced he was going to run for a
second term. Díaz, the most prominent soldier in Mexico, said if the people reelected Tejada, he would go to war, and
proposed his own candidacy. Once elected, he held power for thirty-five years.
Somoza family in Nicaragua. Since the constitution did not permit the president to succeed himself, the Somozas appointed
sons and brothers to succeed each other and held power for more than forty years.
General Alfredo Stroessner, an old friend of the Somozas, was elected to power in 1954. Immediately after that, he
supressed Congress and sent into exile everyone who expressed a different opinion.
8. James Monroe, "The Monroe Doctrine." In Old South Leaflets, no. 56 (Boston: Directors of the Old South Work, ), 19.
9. Ibid., 14.
10. Quoted in José de Onís. Los Estados Unidos vistos por escritores hispanoamericanos (Madrid: Cultura Hispánica, 1956), 332-337.
11. Rubén Darío, Poesías completas. Ed. Alfonso Méndez Plancarte and Antonio Oliver Belmas (Madrid: Aguilar, 1975), 626.
12. José E. Rodó, Ariel. Ed. Gordon Brotherston (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1967), 86-87.
13. A brief but good descriptive discussion of family ties in Latin America, very much related with what I have mentioned here, can be found in Erich R. Wolf and Edward C. Hansen, The Human Condition in Latin America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 200-202.
14. On the subject of machismo, see Marvin Godwert, Machismo and Conquest. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983), especially chapter 1: "Machismo and the Conquest in Kairotic Time;" chapter 3: "God and Man: Religion and Power;" and chapter 5: "Man and Government: Dictatorship and Separation."
15. Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la soledad (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1959), 62. [This work has been translated into English by Lysander Kemp as The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico (New York: Grove Press, 1985). See the chapter "The Sons of La Malinche."]
16. E. Bradford Burns, Latin America: A Concise Interpretive History. 2d ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977), 57.
17. Periquillo is the diminutive of Perico; which in turn is a diminutive of Pedro. Perico also means parrot. Sarniento means mangy.
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