A Brief Yet Captivating History of Latin America
The history of Latin America dates back centuries to when it was first populated by ancient civilizations and cultures. However, Latin America as a region acquired its name after the arrival of European colonizers in the 15th century.
Read this article for a full timeline and breakdown of the captivating history of Latin America.
The History of Latin America
We’ll dive deep into the different periods and changes the region has gone through, how it became Latin America, and how it has evolved to become the Latin America we know today.
The Arrival of European Settlers
Let’s begin by revisiting the thriving cultures that once thrived and still maintain a legacy in Latin America.
The first civilizations established in the region were the Maya, Aztec, and Inca. The Maya ruled over Mesoamerica, the Aztecs in central Mexico, and the Incas in South America. Many indigenous cultures inhabited the Caribbean, as well.
All of these cultures contributed in large part to agriculture and other unique discoveries we value to this day in epigraphy, astronomy, numerology, and math. However, none of them were prepared for what was coming.
A turning point in the history of Latin America was the arrival of Christopher Columbus from Spain. Columbus and his crew landed on the island of Guaraní on October 12th, 1492. He was seeking to reach Asia and unexpectedly encountered a giant continent that Europeans weren’t aware existed.
The first interaction of Columbus and the Spanish with indigenous tribes on the island sparked their curiosity as soon as they saw the tribe’s gold, silver, and precious jewels. This marked a turning point on Columbus’ voyage, and Europe turned its eye to this “new” continent and its resources.
La Conquista – Conquest
La conquista de América (the conquest of America) is an essential portion of the history of Latin America. Spain wasn’t the only country interested in the new continent. Portugal also wanted a piece of the action, as they were already colonizing other parts of the world.
To make sure both countries got their “fair share,” Spain and Portugal signed El Tratado de Tordesillas (The Tordesillas Treaty) in 1494. The treaty marked a territorial border between Spain and Portugal and the lands they were entitled to conquer. Spain kept the majority of the new continent from Mexico to the south, while Portugal kept the area we know as Brazil today and continued to focus its efforts in Africa.
In 1519, the conquistador Hernán Cortez arrived in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan in México. He defeated the Aztecs and their emperor Moctezuma with help of other indigenous groups.
In 1524, Pedro de Alvarado, another Spanish conquistador, arrived in Guatemala and defeated the Quiché Maya due to an alliance with the Kaqchikel Maya.
Further down south, in 1532, the conquistador Francisco Pizarro conquered the city of Cuzco in present-day Perú after imprisoning and defeating the Inca emperor Atahualpa.
This is the tragic history of Latin America. It took decades for the Spanish to conquer the territories of Mexico, Central America, and South America. Indigenous tribes formed their own resistance movements. It was a long period of war, looting, exploitation, and genocide of indigenous peoples.
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Nueva España – New Spain
As Spain and Portugal moved forward with conquering new portions of land, the need to define boundaries and territories became more evident.
Spain established el Reino de Nueva España (the Kingdom of New Spain). The whole territorial divide included a portion of the United States, British Columbia in Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Belice, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Trinidad y Tobago, and Guadalupe. Nueva España also included the Philippines in Asia, along with other Pacific Islands.
These portions of the kingdom were organized into smaller areas known as capitanías generales. During this period of the history of Latin America, cities including Bogota, Lima, México City, and Antigua Guatemala were founded by the Spanish. These were in charge of the rest of territories and were known as virreinatos (vice-royalties).
The Colonization of Latin America
The virreinatos established institutions to govern the new continent. During this period of the history of Latin America, the indigenous population was put under strict rule and new ways of life were imposed on them.
They were submitted to forced labor, slavery, and exploitation. Their culture was threatened by the eradication of their temples, writings, and most valued pieces that made their heritage.
They were also forced to adopt Christianity, European traditions, and the Spanish language. Spain and Portugal exploited the resources they found in Latin America and focused on trading gold, silver, potatoes, tobacco, corn, and cacao.
The arrival of thousands of hundreds of Spanish and Portuguese settlers in the area shaped the history of Latin America. Europeans brought cattle, sugar cane, olives, and grapes. Sadly, they also brought unknown diseases to the indigenous population like measles and smallpox. A vast amount of people died due to exposure to these illnesses.
This part of the history of Latin America gave birth to el mestizaje (miscegenation) between the native population and Europeans. This sparked a social division that divided into:
- upper class settlers from Europe at the top
- descendents of Europeans born in America known as los criollos in the middle
- the indigenous and African slaves at the bottom
Independence from Spain
By this point in the history of Latin America, the region had been colonized for about 300 years.
Meanwhile in Europe, Spain was invaded by France. The French Revolution in 1799 brought liberal ideologies and winds of change to Latin America and its diverse population.
Los criollos started growing tired of the settlers from Europe because they didn’t give them access to power. They started seeking independence from Spain and promoted the first independence movements.
In 1815, Simón Bolívar and Jose de San Martín were the first leaders to advance toward independence from Spain. Followed by criollos in other areas, independent nations begin to rise.
1821 marked the independence of Mexico, Guatemala, and other Central American countries. By 1826, most of the virreinatos were dissolved, with the exception of Cuba and Puerto Rico.
The Definition of Latin America
New countries began to form, and the region we know today as Latin America began to thrive. Following independence from Spain, the virreinatos were divided into the countries of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panamá, Nicaragua, Colombia, Bolivia, Perú, Ecuador, Venezuela, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina.
The other portion that belonged to Portugal also became independent and stayed unified as Brazil. By 1898, all Latin American nations had become countries.
Some people still wonder why it was named Latin America rather than Spanish America or Hispanic America. We know this region as Latin America because both Spanish and Portuguese are spoken widely, and both are Romance languages derived from Latin.
After colonization and imperialism, these newly founded nations were affected by political instability, corruption, and economic crises.
The majority of Latin American countries became military dictatorships, and democracy was nonexistent. Not much had changed from when Spain and Portugal were running the show.
With the arrival of the 20th century, many Latin American countries encountered a brief period of democracy. However, in the mid-20th century, military dictators including General Batista in Cuba and Augusto Pinochet in Chile began a long period of human rights violations and oppression.
In response to the terrible practices of torture, forced dissapearences, inequality, and scorched land, revolutionary ideals started to surge.
Revolution in Latin America
These new ideals gave room for a revolution to take place in Cuba when Ché Guevara and Fidel Castro defeated General Batista. The Cuban Revolution inspired other countries to form their own resistance, enabling left-wing groups like FARC in Colombia and other guerrillas around the region to grow strong.
Military dictators weren’t alone in their endeavors. The United States’ war against communism opened a window of opportunity to destabilize Latin America and focus on their lands for exploiting resources like bananas and tobacco as they fought the Communists.
This period of the history of Latin America carries heavy scars due to countless crimes against humanity and genocide carried out by military dictatorships. These governments received support from the U.S. and other countries who facilitated weaponry, intelligence training, and the ideal scenarios for staging coups.
Due to US intervention, more than 300 coups took place in Latin America, which led to decades of civil war that once again affected the majority of indigenous populations and vulnerable sectors of society.
Modern History of Latin America
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many Latin American countries reached peace agreements and settlements that put a stop to civil wars. Finally, democracy started to arrive in Latin America.
Sadly, inequality didn’t improve and people’s livelihoods continue to be threatened today. Although Latin America is home to some of the largest and most productive countries in the world, about 40% of the population continues to live in extreme poverty.
Corruption, violence, and continuous foreign intervention has continued to destabilize the region throughout the 21st century. A shift between socialist left-wing governments to far-right governments has brought the region to a large ideological division.
The past few years of Latin America history have been defined by events like the economic crisis of Venezuela, the establishment of a wall on the United States border to prevent migration, the fall of socialist governments, the rise of neo-liberal policies, and an increase in Central American migration.
Today, social protests and movements that fight for change and justice are on the rise. Hopefully one day, the history of Latin America will be marked by a long-lasting period of peace, stability, tolerance, quality of life, and equality.
I recommend the book Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano for a full take on the history of Latin America.
Latin America is Worth Exploring
Have you been to Latin America? Do you have plans to travel there? Knowing Spanish makes a trip to Latin America go more smoothly. You’ll be able to communicate easily with the majority of people in the region and could even land an awesome and well-paid job as an interpreter or translator while abroad. According to the BBC, learning Spanish also opens doors for you to learn other languages and become multilingual.
Sign up for a free trial class with one of our native Spanish-speaking teachers at Homeschool Spanish Academy and prepare for your visit by improving your Spanish skills.
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