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Colonialism: Impacts in Latin America

Most historical archives of countries in Latin America will mention colonialism as a vital aspect in reshaping the democracy in their respective states. Colonialism comes from the Latin word Colonia, which means a country estate acquired by foreigners. Thus, McLean and MacMillan (2003) defined colonialism as “the policy and practice of a strong power extending its control territorially over a weaker nation or people.” Usually, colonialism is presented with a negative pretext because the dominant power is usually a foreign country that is controlling and exploiting a weaker country. The exploitation is not only for the political purpose of expanding their control over the area, but the stronger country often takes a bigger share in the economic benefits garnered from the weaker country. In this case, the weaker country receives serious impacts on their society:

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  • their inherent cultures are altered,
  • there is widespread political and economic inequality,
  • the emergence of racial divisions.

No doubt, the altering of inherent cultures of the weaker country is very evident in most democracies that were formerly colonial states. In Latin America, this could be clearly seen in their languages of Spanish and Portuguese, which are widely used in former colonies, while their religion is mostly Catholic, just like their colonizers. Anthropologists have pointed out the altering of cultures as “ethnogenesis,” which is a historical process of ethnic formation or “the rapid formation of entirely new societies and cultures when individuals of diverse backgrounds are suddenly thrown together by fate and forced to create societies afresh” (Bilby 1996, p.119). Ethnogenesis is a concept “encompassing peoples’… cultural and political struggles to create enduring identities in general contexts of radical change and discontinuity” (Hill 1996, p. 1). Ethnogenesis is hardly the sole outcome of European colonialism because the emergence of new ethnic identities is part of the cultural history of any region. For example, the major upheavals spurred by the spread of the Inca and Aztec empires almost certainly resulted in multiple instances of ethnogenesis, and historical and ethnohistorical research suggests analogous processes at work deep in Amazonia prior to the European presence. Nevertheless, the bulk of current research on Latin American ethnogenesis relates it to the tremendous effects of their colonization.

The second impact of colonization in Latin American countries is the widespread political and economic inequalities in their present societies. In the past, governing millions of culturally distinct peoples was a daunting challenge for Spanish colonizers, so they overcame this difficulty in the early colonial period by awarding encomiendas to those Europeans who had participated in the conquest. Essentially a spoil of war, an encomienda was a Spanish crown grant over indigenous labor, whereby “Indians” were entrusted and required to provide labor and tribute to an encomendero. The encomendero, in turn, pledged to the crown that he would ensure the Indians’ economic well-being and their conversion to Christianity. Haciendas (parcel or lands) and plantations later resulted from these enconmiendas. The profoundly unequal and exploitative economic, political, and social relationships of the hacienda system constituted defining characteristics of the rural worlds of most Latin American peoples until recent times. These hierarchical relationships also accounted for the landlessness and profound inequality in access to land that underpinned the Mexican and Bolivian Revolutions of 1910 and 1952, and they also were at the core of grievances, political instability, and massive violence in Central America decades after these revolutions. Deep and lasting political and economic inequality was a fundamental dimension of the colonial period that worsened after the independence of Latin American countries. This profound disparity, in turn, partly accounts for the difficulties experienced by Latin American landowners after independence as they were forging a unified national identity. Landowners often refused to give up their lands. The result was fertile ground for contemporary large-scale popular movements, such as the Mexican revolution of 1910 and the Bolivian revolution of 1952. Indeed, the ongoing Zapatista rebellion in Mexico, and the Central American civil wars of the 1980s which, especially in Guatemala, pitted large numbers of Maya Indians against Hispanicized state elites in a ferocious and bloody conflict, is a clear reminder of this social, cultural, and political-economic legacy of colonization.

Lastly, the emergence of racial divisions became widespread. When Spanish colonizers went to Latin America, there were intermarriages occurred. Therefore, a Mestizo (Mestiza for a female) was a child born to Indian and Spanish or Portuguese parents, and a Mulatto was a child born to African and Spanish or Portuguese parents. As unions between Spanish/Portuguese men and Indian or African women produced large numbers of children of mixed ancestry, the categories of Mestizo and Mulatto, respectively, came to reflect the emerging racial diversity. Racial classification is complicated in Latin America because it determines occupational differences, wealth, and education, among other factors. For example, plantation workers in Brazil are stratified based on ethnicity, with different ethnic groups thought to be best suited for different kinds of jobs. Although Brazil makes claims of racial democracies, occupational opportunity and social status are still largely determined by the color of one’s skin, and blackness—with its association with a cultural and behavioral difference—continues to structure hierarchies of power. Far from being color-blind, these countries are still deeply marked by legacies of slavery, racial prejudice, and difference.

Although colonialism has long been gone in Latin America, people could still feel the impacts of colonization because its impacts have been ingrained permanently in their history and in their way of life. Despite these impacts, it is quite not right to blame everything on colonialism because it has also brought them many benefits, despite the negative impacts. In the future, it is the task of people in these countries to focus more on reforming their new society to make it work for everyone and benefit everyone.

Works Cited

Bilby Kenneth M. “Ethnogenesis in the Guianas and Jamaica: Two Maroon Cases”. In Hill, Jonathan D. History, Power, and Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Americas, 1492-1992, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996. .

Hill Jonathan D. “Introduction”. In Hill, Jonathan D. History, Power, and Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Americas, 1492-1992, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996.

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Mclean, Iain and McMillan, Alistair. “Colonialism”, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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