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This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.
The Spanish crown claimed to wield sovereignty over Mexico’s vast geographic territory from around 1521 to 1810, though many regions remained beyond Spanish influence. As part of Spain’s ongoing effort to exert political and economic control, royal representatives (such as secular and ecclesiastical bureaucrats and military personnel) attempted to create and maintain a stratified social order. Colonial society was meant to resemble a kind of pyramid, with Indians (the legal name for indigenous vassals) and foreign slaves at the bottom and a small group of colonists and their descendants at the top. To preserve this social organization, secular and ecclesiastical law distinguished between people based on their ancestry or purity of blood (related to religion, ethnicity, and race), sex, and legal standing as either free vassals or human chattel. Spanish men of old Christian blood had the most rights and privileges, and slaves the fewest. This framework existed in the secular and ecclesiastical courts and in the highest corridors of Spanish political power, especially in Mexico City and other urban centers like Puebla and Guadalajara.
The reality of social relations on the ground, however, bore little semblance to the archetype. Mexico had an extraordinarily diverse population, including indigenous peoples of different ethnicities (in the majority), Iberians, and forced migrants from Africa and Asia, who mixed and interacted with one another in complex ways. People followed innumerable life trajectories and faced diverse challenges, most of which had little to do with the constraints of the colonial governing system. To think that Spanish social constructs, such as the caste system depicted in eighteen-century paintings, shaped the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who lived in Mexico during three centuries of colonial rule is to overlook historical contingency and to exaggerate Spain’s imperial perspective. This article illustrates the paths taken by individual men and women—some merely to survive and others to achieve great social standing—in an overall effort to see beyond the categories used in colonial documents and understand Mexico’s social organization from people’s actual experiences.
The Spanish language arrived in Latin America as a tool of Iberian colonization. Indigenous languages struggled to survive under the implacable presence of an imperial tongue serving not only to make all subjects part of the Spanish Empire but also, and primarily, as a mechanism to evangelize a population considered by the conquistadors, soldiers, missionaries, and entrepreneurs as barbaric. During the age of independence (1810–1910), defined by bloody armed movements, the emerging republics in Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean Basin declared their autonomy by seceding politically, economically, and legally from Spain while pushing for a vigorous nationalist agenda that shaped them as nations. Spanish was an agglutinating force toward a new collective identity, regionally and locally. Important figures like Venezuelan philologist, lexicographer, and diplomat Andrés Bello established an agenda that helped define the cultural parameters of the young republics in terms of grammar, syntax, and morphology. Followers include Rufino José Cuervo.
Various aesthetic movements, such as modernismo, led by figures like Rubén Darío and José Martí, helped consolidate a transnational sense of linguistic unity. During the 20th century, the nationalist fever spread throughout Latin America, encouraging educators to establish pedagogical patterns that emphasized the uniqueness of the language within the country’s context. The effort was supported by ethnographers, anthropologists, and sociolinguists like the Cuban Fernando Ortiz and Venezuelan Ángel Rosenblat intent on finding what was local in the language. Simultaneously, each nation developed its own idiosyncratic media, which, again, allowed for verbal peculiarities to be included while also driving toward a standardized form. In this atmosphere, the Spanish language has been used as an organ of control by the state. It is also an invaluable tool through which to understand regional, national, and cultural differences.
By the end of the millennium, a new phenomenon emerged, not in Latin America per se yet intimately linked to it: Spanglish. It is a hybrid tongue used by millions of immigrants in the United States, whose power is increasing as time goes by. Spanglish has the potential of reconfiguring the way the Spanish language is understood in the future.
Reinaldo Funes Monzote
For the greater part of the 19th and 20th centuries, Cuba, the largest island in the Antilles, figured as the principal exporter of sugar cane, a product that dominated the country’s agro-industry. In this way, Cuba became illustrative of the economic, social, political, and environmental impact of basing an economy on monoculture in order to supply foreign markets. This does not mean, however, that sugar cane was the only major crop being grown in the Cuban fields, as there was no dearth of different plants destined for foreign markets, such as tobacco and coffee, or for local markets, such as yucca, plantains, corn, sweet potatoes, and rice, not to mention a long if little-known livestock tradition. However, the dominance of agro-industry almost always eclipses agricultural and economic alternatives that could become potential competitors, despite the periodic adverse circumstances that affect consumers. But, in the 1990s, the production and exportation of sugar suffered an abrupt fall, creating a vacuum that allowed diversification of land use and that prompted a search for alternative agricultural models.
Jeffrey M. Pilcher
Mexican cuisine is often considered to be a mestizo fusion of indigenous and Spanish foods, but this mixture did not simply happen by accident; it required the labor, imagination, and sensory appreciation of both native and immigrant cooks. In turn, diverse regional and ethnic expressions of domestic cooking, street food, festival dishes, and haute cuisine provided affective foundations for rival attempts to define a Mexican national identity. To understand these processes of historical change, food studies scholars have begun focusing on the embodied sense of taste as an important complement to discursive studies of social construction that formerly predominated in the scholarship. Research from around the world has suggested the rise of sweetness as the predominant sensory experience of the modern dietary transition from peasant cuisines dominated by complex carbohydrates and vegetable proteins to industrial diets based on sugars and fats. This was certainly true of Mexico, but historical sources reveal a far more complicated picture of changing tastes. Although the arrival of sugar cane with the Spanish conquest did begin to shift the sensory balance from pre-Hispanic bitterness (chile peppers, cacao) toward sweetness, the introduction of other new foods brought complementary increases in sourness (lime, tamarind) and savory tastes (from the meat of domesticated animals), as well as new fragrances from spices (cinnamon, clove, pepper). New imagined communities arose with 18th-century creole patriotism among Spaniards born in the Americas and explicitly nationalist ideologies in the 19th century, but these were largely overlaid onto sensory and social understandings that assigned elite status to European flavors. Only in the 20th century did the unique taste of the corn tortilla become identified with the national community, and by that time, industrial production had fundamentally changed the tactile, olfactory, and taste sensations evoked by tortillas.
Elena Jackson Albarrán
The shape, function, and social meaning of the Mexican family changed alongside its relationship to the state, the Catholic Church, and popularly held beliefs and customs over the course of the 20th century. Liberal reforms of the 19th century, and in particular the Penal Code of 1871 and the Civil Code of 1884, accelerated the intentionally political function of the family, as policymakers sought to bring the domestic sphere into the service of the state. Although domestic policies aimed to wrest influence over the private sphere from the Catholic Church, both the secularizing effects and economic impact of these efforts resulted in markedly unequal gender standards. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 wrought some dramatic demographic changes that had a long-term impact on family structure, gender roles within the family, and, perhaps most significantly, the resulting revolutionary government’s conception of the role that the family unit ought to play in nationalist development projects. The post-revolutionary decades saw the reinterpretation of late-19th-century liberalizing tendencies to align the family more consciously with a vision of a modern, collectively identified economic nationalist vision of the future. Men, women, and children saw their social roles reimagined in the rhetorical ideal, even as agrarian and educational reforms revised individuals’ relationships to the labor and socializing institutions that had come to define their identities. By the 1940s, economic growth, political stability, and technological advances in medicine and healthcare all contributed to the beginning of a surge in population growth that continued until the early 1970s. Coupled with a radical shift in population density to the urban areas, these changes contributed to transformations in family residence patterns, the division of labor, and the role of children and young people. But events in the 1970s conspired to bring a radical end to the high birth rate. These included the conscious domestic-policy reform of the Luís Echeverría administration (1970–1976); the availability of contraception and its tacit approval by the Mexican Catholic Church; the transnational feminist movement, culminating in the 1975 meeting in Mexico City of the United Nations’ Conference on Women to commemorate International Women’s Year; and, not least of these, preventive measures taken by citizens themselves to reduce the strain on the family unit. By the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, transnational migrations and remittances came to define an increasing percentage of families and kinship structures.
Stephen W. Campbell
The Transatlantic Financial Crisis of 1837 produced a global depression that lasted until the mid-1840s. Falling cotton prices, a collapsing land bubble, and fiscal and monetary policies pursued by individual actors and financial institutions in the United States and Great Britain were all responsible. A comprehensive understanding of the panic must take into account the global movements of gold and silver that linked Mexico, China, the United States, and Great Britain in complex networks of credit and debt. In the United States, businesses, banks, and individuals declared bankruptcy; states defaulted on their debts; commodity prices dropped; credit instruments lost their value; and unemployment rose amid a general atmosphere of pessimism and an erosion of confidence. The severity of the panic prompted politicians and financial theorists to reevaluate their ideological assumptions regarding the proper role of governmental regulation in an economy. In a larger sense, the panic demonstrated how the expansion of slavery in the United States, British imperialism, financial speculation, and recurring cycles of boom and bust were emerging as defining features of modern capitalism.
The Cuban poet José María Heredia (1803–1839) spent twenty months exiled to the United States because of his involvement in pro-independence conspiracies. In that time, Heredia wrote a prodigious number of poems and letters, which are the subject of an ongoing scholarly project undertaken by Frederick Luciani of Colgate University. Luciani’s work involves more than translating these poems and letters into English—it examines Heredia’s stay in North America against the background of political and historical events, and traces the matrices of his connections with key figures, literary and otherwise, in Cuba and the United States. Questions that have surfaced through the translation process and scrutiny of this period of Heredia’s life include the relationship between Heredia’s poetry and his letters; the value of his letters as a form of travel literature; the contradictions inherent in his exilic condition; the ambiguity of his political sentiments; the nature of the networks that joined 19th-century Anglo-American and Hispanic writers, translators, and scholars; and the challenges and opportunities that Heredia’s life and work pose for readers, translators, and scholars today.
Sergio E. Serulnikov
Led by Túpac Amaru, Túpac Katari, Tomás Katari, and others, the pan-Andean uprising from 1780 to 1782 was the largest and most radical indigenous challenge to Spanish colonial rule in the Americas since the conquest. Whole insurgent armies were organized in the heart of Peru and Alto Peru (today Bolivia) over the course of two years. Ancient and populous cities such as Cuzco, La Paz, Chuquisaca, Oruro, and Puno were besieged and occupied. Extensive rural areas in Charcas, the provinces in the high Andean plateau bordering Lake Titicaca, and the southern Peruvian sierras, fell under the complete control of the rebel forces. These forces occasionally relied on the direct support of creoles and mestizos. Although Túpac Amaru, the self-proclaimed new Inca king, would become the primary symbol of the rebellion, the insurgent uprisings combined multiple regional uprisings, each with its own history and dynamic. This article explores the similarities and differences among these uprisings in terms of ethnic ideology, social composition, leadership structure, and insistent demands for change.
Urbanization and environmental change have worked in tandem over the course of Mexican history. Hinterland production, the establishment of market economies, and the intensive transformation of nature have fueled urban growth. The concentration of capital and expertise in cities has, in turn, enabled urban elites to rework the urban environment by creating industrial centers, executing technical-heavy infrastructure, building new subdivisions, and regulating hygiene. From the beaches of Cancún and the air and water pollution of Tijuana’s industrial parks to the prolific silver mines of Zacatecas and the henequen monoculture surrounding Mérida, Yucatán, rapid urban growth and profound changes to the environment within and outside cities have depended on and intersected with each other.
Daniel Alex Richter
Cinema began in Uruguay with the exhibition of foreign films by visiting representatives of the Lumière brothers in 1896 before the first Uruguayan film was produced and shown in 1898. From the early period of Uruguayan cinema to the end of the 20th century, Uruguayan national cinema struggled to exist in the estimation of critical observers. Considering these periods of growth and stagnation, this history of Uruguayan cinema seeks to shed light on the industry’s evolution by focusing on exhibition, production, and spectatorship. This essay explores Uruguay’s national film productions, transnational businesses in shaping local film exhibition, the growth of mass publics and critical spectatorship, and the significance of political filmmaking in understanding the evolution of Latin American cinema during the 1960s. The history of Uruguayan cinema during the 20th century also provides a lens for understanding the political, social, and cultural histories of a country that has struggled to live up to its reputation as South America’s “most democratic” nation.