For your Learning Journal entry this week, respond to the following prompt:
BELOW IS THE INFORMATION FOR THE QUESTION
While the Catholic Church dominated all facets of Colonial Latin American life, the “old ways” could not be fully suppressed. In some isolated communities and smaller villages, a parallel society developed which preserved, as best it could, Pre-Columbian indigenous heritage.
To this day, there are still a number of communities, primarily in the more remote areas, which live much like their indigenous ancestors did. As well, it would be incorrect to imply that in the 300 years of colonization the Europeans did not borrow or absorb anything from the indigenous or African cultures. Transculturation, after all, implies a give-and-take process and not a one way street. While indigenous and African peoples were forced in one way or another to accept Catholicism, they also blended their own beliefs with those of the “true religion.” It was easy enough to consider one of the many Catholic saints as one of a pantheon of African or indigenous deities. We see this in the Afro-Caribbean religions of Santeria and Voudou and the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomble, all of which we will discuss in the next module.
Another iconic example of cultural and religious syncretism is the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico, who has become a national symbol for Mexico and a patroness of the Americas for Catholic believers. According to legend, an indigenous peasant named Juan Diego encountered the Virgin in a vision on the barren hill of Tepeyac in 1531. Tepeyac had once been the sight of an Aztec temple for the mother goddess Tonantzin, so many indigenous peoples view the Virgin and Tonantzin as synonymous. The Virgin spoke to Juan Diego in Nahuatl, his native language, and had the physical appearance of a mestiza: tan, olive skin and dark brown hair. After seeking out the archbishop of Mexico City, who asked him for further proof of the apparition, Juan Diego returned to the hill only to find roses blooming in the normally fallow place. Gathering them up in his cloak, he returned to the city, whereupon opening the cloak, he revealed the image of the Virgin imprinted inside it.
This cloak, or tilma, now hangs in the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City where devoted pilgrims visit her shrine. In the visual arts, the Virgin of Guadalupe is always depicted with tan skin and dark hair, representing the indigenous population of Mexico. She appears on all types of objects, even souvenirs, and it has been said that her image is the most widely circulated in Latin America.
The key element in creating a stable and orderly society during the approximate 300 years of colonial life was hierarchy. Parallel to the hierarchical political structure was an equally hierarchical social structure. The social structure was complex and based on a lot of factors, but perhaps the overriding factor was race and ethnicity. The conquest involved indigenous and European peoples; however, African slaves were eventually brought to the Americas to offset the decline in the indigenous population. Through 300 years of colonization, the reality of Latin America was the mixture of these ethnic and cultural groups–what is called transculturation. Another word synonymous with this blending of cultures is syncreticism: the amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought. Finally, mestizaje, a word that comes up frequently in Latin American studies, specifically refers to the blending of races–a key theme in Colonial Latin American art and postcolonial Latin American culture to the present day.
Very soon after the conquest, Spanish men and Indigenous women became the parents of mestizo children. Mestizo children were treated as second-class citizens who inherited very little from their Spanish fathers. This was only the beginning of an attempt to control race mixing. To control colonial Latin America, the Europeans sorted people into fixed categories called castes (castas in Spanish). A person’s caste classification was noted in the baptismal register. People of low caste had numerous restrictions placed upon them. There seem to have been upwards of 15 different categories of castas depending on the various ethnic combinations that could occur over time through “racial” mixing.
To illustrate the Casta System, paintings were commissioned to illustrate all these variations. The majority of these paintings made their way to Spain where they were viewed like species classifications. The paintings clearly illustrate the varying economic and social advantages of one caste over another. Through a system termed “gracias al sacar” some people could, in a sense, buy “whiteness”. Another way to improve one’s social mobility without legal permission was to “marry up” by marrying someone of a lighter skin color or to serve in the military to increase one’s honorable status despite the color of one’s skin. All of these notions indicate the colonial obsession with race mixing which was ever so present during the colonial period.
At the time of the conquest there was an intellectual awakening in Europe known as the Renaissance. This era, also known as the Age of Discovery, gave rise to many new ideas which defied medieval superstitions and pushed the boundaries of knowledge. While the Iberians lagged behind the rest of Europe in some aspects of the Renaissance, in the field of exploration and navigation the Iberians were in the forefront. They excelled in new weaponry and navigation techniques such as piloting and the ability to adapt coastal ships to the challenges of the open ocean.
The contrast between Renaissance philosophies and the scholasticism of the Middle Ages cannot be understated. Humans began to depart from the Church-controlled scholasticism. For example, theories describing the earth as flat were replaced by new notions of the earth as a sphere which could be navigated without the danger of falling off.
The Spanish conquistadors conceived the world with the dynamic optimism of the Renaissance and the idea of progress. As the explorer Bernal Diaz del Castillo summarized, “we came here to serve God and the King and also to get rich.” These words indicate the main motive of the Spanish conquerors to reach the New World: the achievement of wealth and social status. Most of the Spanish conquerors came from the lesser nobility or were of plebeian origin. They saw the New World as an opportunity for upward social mobility and the crusading ideal of converting masses to the Christian religion.
Spain’s geographic position is unique in Europe, and it has had tremendous influence over its development. First, the Pyrenees Mountains serve to isolate the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of Europe on the one hand, and make it a transition zone to Africa. Its geographic location also lends itself to maritime enterprises to the west or to the south. Additionally, the land is not terribly suitable for agriculture and mountainous regions serve to create small pockets of human population which in turn results in strong regionalism and individualism.
The Peninsula was also the target of many invasions and it was almost completely conquered by the Moors by the year 718 C.E. There remained, however, a Christian stronghold in northern Spain which launched a struggle to regain their lost lands and peoples. This struggle termed La Reconquista or The Reconquest took on the character of religious crusades, pitting Christian against Muslim. The reconquest of Spain meant the expulsion or forced conversion of Muslims and Jews. This religious zeal would carry over into the conquest of the “New World.”
Heroes of La Reconquista like El Cid became the quintessential Spanish hero. He represented a man who could fight a battle, court a woman, write a poem, and rule a kingdom with equal skill, individualism, honor, and style. These then became the values ingrained in the Iberian character, the values of individual military prowess, religious crusades, conquest, and capture of booty.
The Spanish Conquistadors are said to have been motivated by the three G’s: god, gold, and glory although not necessarily in that order. The religious nature of the reconquest extended to the “New World” as the Church saw the potential of new converts to Catholicism. Additionally, these explorers could potentially elevate their status in society by bringing back riches such as gold and silver found in the conquered lands. Most of these early conquistadors were uneducated and had much to gain from these expeditions.
Sailors, captains, and soldiers were the first to describe the New World to the European readers. They wrote to the metropolis to receive rewards and privileges or to justify their actions. In their letters, stories, chronicles, and reports they told of their great deeds and they described with admiration the role of Spain to bring Catholicism to the newly discovered territories. Their writings manifest the European humanistic spirit of the period characterized by the individualism, the optimism, and the desire to explore new territories and explain what they learned.
These writers, many of whom lacked formal training, attempted to describe a new, unfamiliar and exotic world and to relate their own participation in the conquest and the colonization. They mixed reality and fantasy, and they included strange details and moralizing digressions since their stories were supposed to serve as examples to the reader. Divine intervention in favor of the conquistadors would often appear in their narrative. In Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva Espana (1568) (The True History of the Conquest of Mexico), Bernal Diaz del Castillo provides a testimony of how a soldier thought and acted in such a risky enterprise as was the Conquest.
Most of the art of the conquest dealt with depictions of what the conquistadors came to know in the New World and their impressions of these new lands. It was documentary in nature rather than aesthetic. Therefore, the arts would involve pictures of indigenous peoples in their family units, depictions of human sacrifices, fauna, and fruits and vegetables the conquistadors had never seen before. These would invariably serve the purpose of “illustrating” the new world for those back in Spain.
One major artist who was able to capture the European imagination of the Americas was the engraver Theodore de Bry (Links to an external site.).