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Perceptions of the world differ according to the specific realities experienced by groups of individuals living in different places at different times. These “micro-realities” determine how we interact with our peers and our environment. As we seek to understand how the inhabitants of colonial Latin America perceived their world, we must first understand that these inhabitants, these natives, slaves, mestizos, and Spaniards who formed the major classes of colonial Latin American society, undoubtedly experienced different realities of life amongst themselves, but came to share an acceptance of a number of unifying ideas. This paper explores the manner in which colonial Latin American society was both markedly different and subtly similar to modern American society in terms of perception of religion, honor, and government.
In studying colonial Latin American society, we are forced to adjudicate between the omnipotence ascribed to God and the unquestioning reverence for the Spanish king. Both of these positions of power are decidedly Spanish constructs, and while the indigenous peoples certainly did not subject themselves to either the Catholic God or the Spanish king prior to the arrival of the conquistadors, they more or less adopted them either by choice or by force. In doing so, colonial Latin American primary sources present a rather homogenized collection of beliefs about higher power. From them we assume the dominant forces in colonial Latin America to have been Catholicism and the Spanish king, and while God is understood today as a relatively more abstract entity, his power was believed to be just as tangible as that of the Spanish king in colonial Latin America.
Herein lies a fundamental difference between the religious tendencies of colonial Latin America and those we encounter in today’s society. Inhabitants of colonial Latin America perceived a comparatively more direct relationship with God that assumed some degree of causality. Prayer and good deeds were linked to acts of God in a way that they are generally not today. In The Mission, we see a reference to “God’s land” (Joffé, 1986), demonstrating the earmarking of tangible things for an intangible recipient. This sort of sacrifice or tribute is not nearly as common today. Individuals may donate their time or money to a religious group but rarely do we see the same sort of tribute manifest itself in a physical entity. Religious groups today may own land, but that land usually provides a location for a house of worship and little else. Churches today are not landowners on a scale nearly as large as they were in colonial Latin America.
Perhaps this phenomenon of the church as the primary landowner is rooted in the method of constructing and settling towns in colonial Latin America. Expeditions into the frontier were often religious in nature, meant to establish missions and convert natives. As such, towns sprung up around the missions as the frontier receded. To a great extent, the mission was simply a microcosm of the town, and it assumed a central role to fledgling settlements (Plan of La Concepción mission, Paraguay, 1). Missions were necessarily self-sufficient and provided an excellent core from which a town could expand. From Nenguiru’s plan for La Concepción mission, we can see similarities to the traditional Spanish town, but notably absent are any sort of government buildings (2). Missions were church-dominated, both in purpose and in structure, and perhaps this religious centrality gave rise to an acceptance of the church as the de facto infrastructure and driving force behind the town.
The influence of the Catholic church was certainly not limited to the construction and expansion of towns. Indeed, we can see evidence of a difference in perception of the higher power itself. In the intervening years between the advent of colonial Latin America and modern society, countless innovations have come to pass such that we now have evidence for more convincing explanations for powers that were historically ascribed to God. As such, there exists a rift in perception; where colonial Latin Americans perceived the God as an agent in society, an entity with the power to dictate events based on the actions of the members of society, we now view God as a more abstract figure, one not necessarily as concerned with the day-to-day operations of a specific group of people.
Equally as instrumental to understanding how man perceives his place in the world is how he perceives his fellow man. In the case of colonial Latin America, the influence of honor cannot be overstated. The concept of honor was woven into the very fabric of colonial Latin American society in a way that it is not today. Members of modern American society are certainly acutely aware of how others perceive them, but these perceptions have more to do with external qualities. We do not devote nearly the same attention to how others perceive us as a respectable member of society as we do to worrying about what others will think of what we wear, where we work, and what we have. Colonial Latin Americans perceived and interacted with one another in accordance with the law, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in accordance with the dictates of the established code of honor (Affairs of the Courtroom: Fernando De Medina Confesses to Killing His Wife, 63). Honor was indicated in the stratification of society into classes, and while honor did not make for an egalitarian way of life, it did enable those born into a lower class to climb the social ladder to some extent. In this way, social status was perceived differently than it is today. While we, as a society today, are relatively more concerned with the trappings of wealth and luxury, the material items and status symbols that advertise our place in society, colonial Latin America was based more on honor than profession or wealth. Profession and wealth were still exceptionally important, but only so long as the man behind them was honorable (63). Today it might be perceived a more desirable to be an unscrupulous corporate lawyer than an excellent, but blue-collar carpenter. That distinction weighs the possessions of the man as more important than the quality of the man himself. Today we tend to use extrinsic character traits as a proxy for honor, we might assume that because someone goes to Harvard or is a doctor that he or she represents a higher standard, but in colonial Latin America, a man was measured and judged strictly by his honor.
It would be easy to lump honor and government together and call it all the mildly convoluted colonial Latin American legal system, but as tightly intertwined as these two concepts were, it is essential to pull them apart in order to examine their individual contributions to their underlying society’s perception of the world. While an emphasis on honor does indeed nuance the otherwise rather cut-and-dry proceedings of a legal system, it is the government structure that provides insight into just how disparate perceptions of the world were in colonial Latin America. Particularly informative is the reverence for the Spanish king, the rather paradoxical total trust in the figurehead exhibited by his subjects (Mills & Taylor, 265). Colonial Latin Americans displayed complete faith not so much in the king, but in the concept of the king. They treat the promises of one king as absolutes ad infinitum and reject the idea that his son and successor could see fit to act in any other way besides that which was promised beforehand by a now irrelevant king (265). And yet they refuse to place blame, declaring instead that because the two messages do not align, the newer message “is not our king’s will” (265). We see a rather self-serving intuition of the kingship in that Nenguirú fully understands that the promises came from different kings, but does not agree with the latest decree and thus concludes that it simply cannot be the true desire of the king.
This reverence is blind in that Spanish subjects ascribe near omnipotence to the king, but then refuse to so much as question him when they perceive that something has gone wrong, but then also seek to uncover his “true intentions” when his message is not what they want to hear. This belief that the king could somehow only be responsible for good deeds and positive change dehumanizes him, it makes the king himself subservient to the role or idea of the king. Therein lies a fundamental between colonial Latin American and our modern society. We generally understand that each President is different from the last, and we are surely cynical enough to drop any pretense of our elected leader being infallible.
But of course issues did arise, and suitable explanations had to be laid out or concocted. As such, colonial Latin Americans were quick to find fault with the king’s advisors, not the king himself. This “long live the king, death to bad government” trope presents a paradox in itself from the point of view of today’s modern society. We would think that the king is part of the government, indeed the head of it, and for death to befall bad government, the king would definitionally have to die. But perhaps this is a subtle extension of the way in which colonial Latin Americans perceived the interplay between the government and the king. We understand the President, our analog to their king, as an integral part of and representative for the government as a whole, and in today’s society, we tend to turn a skeptical eye on all of our politicians, from state representatives all the way up to the President. When something goes wrong, we hold the figurehead responsible. I suggest that colonial Latin Americans considered the king as only a nominal part of the government, and even then, it was not so much the man on the throne as the role itself. Yes, he was the face of the nation and yes, his power was immense, but most of the nitty gritty governing, the law and policy-making were left to his advisors. The unquestioning loyalty to the role of the king manifested itself in the expectation that any decree or promise or opinion from the throne, regardless who sat atop it, was true and right and just for eternity. This notion contrasts the skepticism and fluidity we find in modern American society. We see the post of President through the lens of the man who holds it, colonial Latin Americans saw a throne and a man who happened to be sitting on it wearing a crown.
Perhaps it is unfair to draw parallels between the perceptions exhibited by colonial Latin Americans and those seen in modern American society because they are such vastly different societies living in such vastly different contexts. Their perceptions of the world were necessarily different from ours because their world and the issues they faced within it were dramatically different from ours. Perhaps then it’s it more accurate to say that they perceived their world similar to the manner in which we perceive ours. I suggest that in today’s society, sports have effectively become a new religion, if not the dominant one. For so many Americans, God has been replaced by a team, his house of worship by a stadium. But the message remains the same. People come together over a shared interest, they find common ground and invest in something larger than themselves over which they have absolutely no control.
So perhaps we are not so different from colonial Latin Americans. Everybody needs something to believe in; they had God and we have the hometown team. Colonial Latin Americans prayed and sacrificed for their God, and I believe that yelling and screaming at the TV will cause my team to play better. They estimated each other on the basis of honor, and I would like to think that my peers pay more attention to what I say and do than what I have or don’t have. Colonial Latin Americans put their King on a pedestal and I do the same with my coaches. These similarities are not necessarily the products of societal similarities so much as human ones. We all have these desires and tendencies and quirks, but where we live and who we live with often determines how we express them.
Affairs of the Courtroom: Fernando De Medina Confesses to Killing His Wife. Courtesy of the Archivo Nacional de Bolivia. 1995.
Mills, Kenneth, and William B. Taylor. Colonial Spanish America: A Documentary History. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1998. Print.
Plan of La Concepción mission, Paraguay. Courtesy of the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires
The Mission. Dir. Roland Joffé. Warner Bros. 1986, Film.