What do you think was the greatest challenge for newly independent Latin American nations in establishing their national cultures? Use examples from the learning materials to support your response.
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What Led to the Struggle for Independence?
By the early 1800s, Spain and Portugal controlled all the lands of Latin America except for a few scattered settlements. They had controlled these colonies for nearly 300 years. Beginning in the late 1700s, discontent with European rule began to grow, and by 1824, most of the colonies had fought wars that freed them from Spanish and Portuguese rule. What led to this quest for independence? Consider:
Secularization & Creole Identity
Enlightenment philosophies of the 1700s in Europe and America questioned conservatism epitomized by colonial rule, the divine right of kings, and the closely interrelated institutions of Church and State. The Enlightenment stressed reason, study and analysis, and natural rights. It emphasized the need to know and understand the natural, physical, economic, and political world here on earth more than metaphysical and religious abstractions of what might lie beyond life on earth. The emphasis on science and nature coincided with a growing appreciation of the wealth and natural wonders of the new world, and how they had for centuries been exploited and pillaged to serve the empires of the Old World.
Plaza de Armas luego de la firma de la declaratoria de la independencia el 15 de septiembre de 1821 by Rafael Beltranena, 1910
After two hundred years of living in the new world and intermixing with its original inhabitants, the European descendants (or criollos) began to form societies of people who, although they shared a common language with their European ancestors, were becoming increasingly distinct from them. These emerging societies became more autonomous linguistically, economically , and socially; creating their own sense of reality which did not necessarily coincide with that prevalent in Europe. This feeling of pride in one’s American land and roots grew into regional pride and a nativism that reinforced the notion that Americans (and especially the creoles) were just as good, if not better, than the Europeans.
Nativism & Liberalism
After 300 years of life in the Americas, criollos considered themselves “Americans” and not European. Generations of European descendants had been born and raised in the Americas without any relationship to their “European cousins.” That is not to say that the criollos had much in common with indigenous, African or mixed raced people of the Americas either. But in a sense, they played second fiddle to the Peninsulares, a term given to those born on the Iberian Peninsula, and so stood to gain from independence. The Peninsulares were not truly interested in helping the masses economically or in terms of equality, so instead, the criollos would now rule Latin America themselves. By stressing birthplace, however, it created a unifying cause. This nativism then was married with liberalism, or rule by the people, to appeal to the masses.
In general, independence movements did little to change the lives of the masses. In a sense it was the “same bus with just a different driver.” Now the criollos ruled in the same way the Peninsulares had for three centuries. However, the seed had been planted for social change.
Political Instability & The Caudillo
Events in Europe at the turn of the 19th century greatly influenced events in Latin America. Thanks to Carlos IV, who was basically an absentee ruler, Spain was almost bankrupt in the late 1700s. This led to higher taxes and corruption. The war with England was a further strain on Spain’s economy. As well, The French Revolution of the 1790s inspired many around the world to question the divine right of kings and rule by kings who were in power only because of their pedigree. The battle cry was popular sovereignty. Once obtained, independence unfortunately did not match the promises of popular governance. Old hierarchical structures remained in place. The language and laws of the Iberian colonizers became those of the new nations, and those at the bottom were essentially the labor force for those economically empowered as was the case prior to independence.
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna by Carlos Paris, 19th Century, Mexican caudillo, CC Wikimedia Commons
The new question facing Latin America was what kind of political system were the new nations going to put in place. The new nations had little or no experience with democracy prior to independence. Political theorists and lawyers had read a lot about the French and U.S. revolutions and would attempt to put similar constitutions in place. However, they had very little knowledge about how they worked. This led to a period of instability lasting about 50 years.
In the power vacuum that had been created, often times military leaders became political leaders. Unfortunately, military skills were often quite different from skills needed by the new constitutions and political theories. These leaders often ruled with a heavy authoritarian hand, and this begins Latin America’s long experience with the caudillo, the strongman who frequently governed like a dictator. The caudillos allied themselves with the landowners and with the Church. For many years, this alliance ruled Latin American politics.
As with most war-torn nations, independence struggles had devastating effects on Latin America’s infrastructure and economy. Many industries were destroyed and European moneylenders were busy with other European countries and the United States, making money scarce in the newly independent nations. In addition, there was no transportation infrastructure to handle the high volume of trading that would now be needed. Prior to independence, trade had been on a much smaller scale. Moving products on a large scale from the interior to the coasts for shipping would become a challenge.
The Spanish-Caribbean Remains Spanish Much Longer
Spain did not lose full control over its remaining Caribbean colonies until the end of the 1800s. The Dominican Republic did not fully cut ties with Spain until its second war for independence in 1865. After a few attempts at liberation, both Cuba and Puerto Rico received U.S. intervention in the Spanish-American war of 1898, resulting in Cuba becoming a U.S. protectorate until its full independence in 1902. Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory today. Considering Cuba and Puerto Rico, revolutionary literature is quite popular with writers during the independence and post-independence eras as you will see in some examples in this and the next module.
One writer, the poet Lola Rodríguez de Tió (who we will further discuss in this module), wrote the poem “To Cuba” in 1893 to express the solidarity between the two islands–their shared culture and their longing for freedom:
Cuba y Puerto Rico son
de un pájaro las dos alas,
reciben flores o balas
sobre el mismo corazón …
Cuba and Puerto Rico are
As two wings of the same bird,
They receive flowers or bullets
Into the same heart …
Arts and Independence
Just as Latin American colonies were trying to exert their autonomy and unique identities through revolutions for independence, the cultural expressions during this time reflected these themes as well. We will now explore a few examples from the arts and literature, starting with the visual arts.
Visual Arts in the 19th Century
At the beginning of the century formats and functions were purely European. Paintings were created using oils on canvases and were displayed in frames; work of this type had of course existed in Latin America since the Spanish Conquest. By the end of the nineteenth century religious art of the type made for churches had almost died out, and paintings were made just as they were in Europe: either as collectors’ pieces or large scale for display in museums and official buildings of various types. Sculpture was devoted to the commemoration of significant national events and the personification of civic virtues or served as a memorial to national heroes or to civic or military leaders. Often these functions overlapped.
In the mid-19th century, Mexico expressed itself in art through works such as The Tlaxcotlan General Tlahuitcole doing Battle at the Gladiator’s Stone of Sacrifice, a sculpture by the Catalan immigrant Manuel Vilar (1812-59) and The Discovery of Pulque, an historical composition by the Mexican painter Jose Obregon (1832-1902). Both show inspiration of European ideals, particularly Romanticism, adapted to suit American historical themes.