THE YEAR 1492 marked the beginning of an era of conquests, wealth, and power for Spain. When Christopher Columbus stepped onto the clean shores of the Caribbean, he was convinced that he was in India. The natives living on the continent were henceforth called “Indians”. In Columbus’ journal, these Indians are described as “all young and of fine shapes, very handsome; their hair not curled but straight and coarse like horse-hair … the people are ingenious, and would be good servants … they would very readily become Christians.” On the other side, for the natives, the encounter with the Spanish meant the beginning of massacres, cultural devastation, and terror. “Our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy,” wrote Bartolomé de las Casas – the first Bishop who resided in America – in his chronicle. Upon the Spanish arrival, Indians were trapped in an endless struggle for survival.
“Gods” return with guns and horses
Before 1492, the continent of America was divided into several different tribes or civilizations, some of them advanced in culture. Though different arguments exist for how these native people emergedand where they came from, the most popular theory is that they migrated through the Bering Strait connecting Asia and America.
By the time the Spanish arrived in Latin America, the three major civilizations – the Maya, the Aztecs, and the Incas – had already been developing their own social, cultural and political systems, with a strict legal system.
The arrival of Hernan Cortés in Mexico was the beginning of a massive cultural devastation for the Aztecs. The Spanish conqueror, packed with pistols, cannons, crossbows, and horses, was craving gold and silver. A text by the Aztecs in the Florentine Codex* describes how the Spaniards were hungry for lust: “They lifted up the gold as if they were monkeys, with expressions of joy, as if it put new life into them and lit up their hearts … Their bodies fatten on it and they hunger violently for it. They crave gold like hungry swine.”
1519 was an ominous year for the Aztecs. Emperor Montezuma II thought that Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of creation, had returned. Not only had Quetzalcoatl been described as a white-skinned man with a beard according to the Aztec mythology, but he had also promised to return from the East after death. Cortés perfectly fit both of these descriptions: he was a white, bearded man, and arrived by sailing from the East. Also, the year of Cortés’ arrival coincided with Quetzalcoatl’s year**, and from Montezuma’s view, the god’s return meant the disposal of the king. Feeling powerless, Montezuma’s army was easily defeated by the Spanish.
The conquest of the Incan Empire was led by Francisco Pizarro in 1533. Pizarro had been governing areas that are now Panama and Colombia, and after hearing about the Incas, he headed towards Peru in 1524. At that time, the Incan Empire was in turmoil due to the civil war between Atahualpa, the last emperor of the Incas, and his half-brother Huascar who was ruling the territory surrounding the capital, Cuzco. Pizarro took advantage of the confusion to capture and threaten Atahualpa for treasure. Atahualpa was also exhorted to pay tribute to the Spanish King but was slaughtered after continuous refusal. In the end, Pizarro crowned himself king after defeating the Incan Empire. A thousand years of Mesoamerican culture disappeared within a decade.
Meanwhile, the Mayan Civilization was already in decline at the time the Spaniards landed on America. Frequent battles between Mayan clans, severe droughts, deforestation, and malnutrition all contributed to the Mayan decline. Since Mayan Civilization was divided into various city-states, it took more than a hundred years for the Spanish to conquer the Mayans.
Atrocities against native inhabitants
Eventually, the Spanish started colonizing America, instituting administrative territories called viceroyalties into four major areas: New Spain centered in Mexico City, New Granada around Bogotá, Lima in Peru, and Buenos Aires in today’s Argentina. The Americas had all the resources to fulfill the Spanish ambition for wealth – gold and human labor. Indians were the perfect suppliers of labor for the Spanish; they were forced to work for the colonists as well as to convert into Christians. Those who refused were often tortured for heresy. Such was the nature of interaction between the native inhabitants of America and the Spaniards, and this eventually shaped the identity of Latin America.
The encomienda, meaning “entrust” in Spanish, defined the early labor relationship between the natives and the Spanish. Under the trust system, the Spanish colonists were granted a specific portion of land along with a number of Indians. These receivers called the encomenderos were entitled to take care of the well-being of the Indians as well as to convert them into Christians. The Indian laborers, in return, had to pay tribute in form of gold, silver, or food, and work in the fields for a certain amount of time. However, problems rose as encomenderos demanded harsh labor and exorbitant tributes. Sometimes the laborers were tortured or easily sickened.
In 1542, New Laws were passed under King Charles V of Spain after noticing the horrific treatment of the Indians. The laws prohibited enslavement of the Indians and aimed to abolish the encomienda system. The Indians were granted the right to be free from labor, and encomenderos were not allowed to demand labor anymore. However, the encomienda continued to exist in different forms. After the Spanish king banned the encomienda, wealthy colonizers started to acquire private landholdings. For instance, some acquired private estates called haciendas, which often took the form of plantations, mines, and factories. The owners of haciendas often exploited Indians to carry out their business.
Even more devastating than the harsh labor were diseases that the Spanish brought to the new continent after 1520. Smallpox, measles, typhus, and other unknown diseases ravaged the Indian population. Indians were particularly susceptible to these diseases since they had never been exposed to such epidemics before, while Europeans had already developed immunities and antibodies. In the end, approximately 90% of Native Americans were killed due to epidemics, according to Jared M. Diamond, the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel.
The result of active interaction between Spaniards and Indians was a multifarious racial system. The Spanish colonizers created a hierarchical system called casta in the 16th century, classifying people of various ethnic and racial backgrounds into different social ranks. At the top of the social pyramid came the Peninsulares – Spaniards born in Spain – followed by Creoles, or Spaniards born in America. Then came the Mestizos, who were half Spaniards and half Indians, as well as the Mulattoes, those who were half Spaniards and half Africans. At the bottom of the social pyramid were the Native Indians and the Africans. The social classification mattered a great deal; being at a lower racial class meant paying more tax or tribute to the lords. Such racial paradigms continue to influence Latin America today, though in subtler ways.
In search of an identity in modern society
Today, approximately 60.5 million people out of a total of 970 million living in the American continent – that is, 6.2% – are Native Americans. Also, more than 600 Native American tribes exist. The dominant ethnicities that remain in Latin America are Europeans and Mestizos. The independence movements led by Mestizos against Spanish colonization during the 18th to 20th centuries did little to compensate for the long years of abuse, massacres, and racism on native inhabitants. Cultural rifts between different ethnic groups continued to exist.
Much effort has been made to break away from the past patterns of exclusion and discrimination. In recent years, there have been major international indigenous movements advocating for better Indian rights regarding the preservation of culture and better Indian representation in society. The Indian Council of South America (CISA), for instance, is a non-governmental organization that works with the UN to secure justice, peace, and the autonomy of Native American Indians. In response to globalization, the organization also encourages the exchange of knowledge among indigenous peoples. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), adopted in 2007 by the General Assembly, also secures the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their culture and tradition. Article 8(1) ensures that “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.”
Many Latin American countries now try to acknowledge and respect the rights of the native inhabitants. In some countries like Colombia, indigenous rights are incorporated into national constitutions. Article 246 of the Constitution of Colombia states, “The authorities of the indigenous [Indian] peoples may exercise their jurisdictional functions within their territorial jurisdiction in accordance with their own laws and procedures as long as these are not contrary to the Constitution and the laws of the Republic.” Such law grants the indigenous population complete socio-cultural autonomy as well as right to self-determination.
Despite increased indigenous rights and autonomy during the past century, the indigenous population is characterized by poverty. According to the World Bank Group’s 2015 report on Indigenous Latin America in the Twenty-First Century, “Poverty is a byproduct of a protracted history of external aggressions on their values and economies.” The poverty and education gap between the indigenous and non-indigenous is high in Latin America and is associated with wide income disparities and chronic poverty. The report also states that 43% of the indigenous population live with less than US$4 per day, compared to only 21% of non-indigenous populations.
In some areas, the indigenous population suffers from social exclusion and the lack of political participation. In Argentina, the majority of the Indian population was swept off their land a long time ago, and the remaining few are socially discriminated, despite the acknowledgement of indigenous rights in Argentina’s Constitution. “We don’t want to be considered as strangers in our own country, poor or useless. We want to live without discrimination,” expressed Félix Díaz, leader of an indigenous community in the province of Formosa, Argentina, to *Amnesty International*.
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To some, the arrival of the Europeans in the American continent was the start of cultural progress. However, for the native inhabitants, it was the beginning of continuous massacres and destitution. 21st century Latin America is still stratified, and indigenous people continue to suffer heavy discrimination and social isolation. Tension between the government and the natives persists. Future policies and agendas for these indigenous peoples must take into account their long history of exclusion as well as the present situation they are faced with.
*Florentine Codex: Consisting of 12 books, the Florentine Codex is a pile of manuscripts researched and compiled by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, together with a group of Nahua people. It describes the history of the Aztecs.
**Quetzalcoatl’s year: Under the Aztec ritual calendar, different deities were associated with the cycle of each year. 1519 was the year of Quetzalcoatl, the “feathered serpent” deity of arts, knowledge, and creation.