Colonization through the use of Social Constructs in Latin America Brief Description

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Preliminary lesson plan- Abeer Odeh
Colonization through the use of Social Constructs in Latin America
Brief Description: These are lessons that examine the social constructs forced upon Latin America by colonizers; myths, labels and stereotypes will be revealed and dissected to show how they were used to control and repress indigenous populations.
Grade/Subject: 8th grade/World History
Topic: Race, Gender, Religion, Labor, Societal Structure, Art, Colonization, Repression, Assimilation
Background Essay
Latin America, Central America and the Caribbean are diverse countries that have many different types of cultures as well as languages. But the Americas at one point were not thought of as individual countries with unique people and backgrounds. Rather during the early colonial period the Spanish and Portuguese did not originally differentiate between the different indigenous people or African slave class. It was not until later when the colonizers decided to set specific criteria for different racial categories. This process is known as race making and It is an essential concept when trying to understand the different intricacies of the colonization process and how it occurred through the period of the 15th century to the 19th century. Race making in the Americas has evolved over time to create more rigid categories of race and through this process the issues of religion, gender, labor and social structures are not only shaped by race making but also these factors interact with race making to construct the idea of race throughout the colonies and how the colonization process used race making as a tool to repress the pre-existing society and the mixed ethnic and slave society of the Americas.

The Spanish and Portuguese’s first encounter with the different races in the Americas and Africans led them to loosely categorize them based on color and ethnicity during the late 15th century. The colonizers had never seen Indigenous people or Africans until they discovered the Americas as well as Africans. So the most logical way to categorize a person was based on their skin color, and this was the first type of race making that occurred in the America’s and was used by the colonizers. According to Irene Silverblatt’s analysis of race, this is how she describes early ideas of race making,

Avila then explained their genesis: ewes and rams, unknown before the Spanish invasion, crossed the Atlantic with the first band of conquistadors…. He also reminded them of the sheep’s remarkable range of color: some black, others white, some brown. Then the human comparison in like manner, we humans have multiplied and spread throughout the world: whites, blonds, browns and blacks. (Silverblatt, pg. 104)
It seems that Silverblatt is referring to the four different types of people, Europeans, northern Europeans, Indians and Africans as the different types of colors which symbolize race. The colonizers used skin color as the first way of deciding race because that was the most obvious characteristic to use at the time. But as the colonies develop it is clear that the idea of race making changes as the population of indigenous people and slaves change.

Race has been constructed by the phenotype of people but within the next century race became a socially constructed idea, that the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers created, to categorize the indigenous people living within the colonies. Race previously had been based on a person’s skin color and how they looked on the outside. The new approach for race making was determined through a person’s social aspects such as religion, clothing, culture and position in society. So now Indians who were able to afford nice clothing and who practiced the truth faith were seen as whiter than those Indians who wore traditional dress and practiced native religions. Also the idea that race could be socially constructed was quite revolutionary for the time, since the colonizers had an inherent bias to discriminate against those who were different. So by allowing race to be a socially constructed factor, the population is able to intermingle more and create a more mixed society, which in turn leads to more divisions of race within the colonies.

This idea of socially constructed race applied to the mestizo’s in the colonies, in order to keep them white, religious and respectable so that they would be eligible to marry the Spanish men. The population in the Americas was changing, more and more children being born were of mixed heritage, those who were of Spanish and Indian blood were referred to as mestizos. In order to deal with this new fast growing population, covenants wee formed to help train these girls to become proper Spanish women. This type of race making was used by the Spanish to ensure that not only the Spanish culture continued but the culture of the indigenous women would assimilate into Spanish culture and lose their indigenous identity. Kathryn Burns examines the idea of the covenant and comes up with this analysis,
Whatever course their lives took after their entry into the monastery, the girls to whom Santa Clara imparted Spanish religion, language, dress, manners and more became part of the reproduction of the Spanish culture in whose midst they had been raised. This was the point, as the corregidor Polo de Ondegardo observed in 1560 when he expressed to the new abbess his optimism that Santa Clara would save many souls by removing mestizas from their mothers, who represented an impediment to instilling anything good in them. (Burns, pg. 30)
It is evident from this quote that the reason the monasteries were used was to socially construct mestizo into proper Spanish girls, and the colonizers at the time believed that this could be successful done through training and grooming the girls. This is a shift from the previous type of race making which involved, creating categories for people based on their skin color. During this period race is a social construct that is not determined by appearance rather by the manner in which people dress, act, practice their religion and socialize. This is a very important shift in the idea of race making because it shows how the Spanish colonizers are willing to intermarry with mestizos as long as they appear to be Spaniards in their society. Burns points out, “As nuns mestizas would lead cloistered lives and teach other girls Christian cultural ways; as wives, they would be enclosed within domestic space and subordinate to their husbands, and could become part of the republica de espanoles” (Burns, pg. 37). So it is clear that the colonial society at this time is very accepting of mixed Spanish and Andean women and that they are allowed to become part of the Spanish republic and therefore are basically equal to full blooded Spanish women. The idea here is that gender actually helped construct the 16th century beliefs of race making. Mestizos (women of Spanish and Andean blood) found their own specific niche in society and their rules of the monastery and their beliefs helped shape the idea of race as a social construct in the colonies. But this was not the case for all mixed ethnic people living in the colonies.

Mulattos, who were half African and half Spanish, were not welcomed into society and were not given the privileged of becoming full citizens of the society or the equal treatment of being a Spanish woman, this inequality shows the diversity of race making as well as the racist nature of it. Mestizos were allowed to be considered marriageable Spanish women because the colonizers believed that the Indians were not the lowest members of society, rather that position was reserved for Africans. Since Africans were considered pagans and unconvertible they held a lower position in the colonies and that position was being a slave. So the laws for mulattos were much different, they were not allowed to assimilate into society like the mestizo and were not considered to be proper for a Spanish man to marry. One law that was passed against mulattos is explained by Burkholder and Johnson, “No mulatto women, nor negro women, free or slave, wear woolen cloth, nor any cloth of silk, nor lace of gold, silver, black or white, under pain of confiscation of the offensive clothing, one hundred lashes or exile” (Burkholder and Johnson, pg. 248). It is evident from this quote that mulattos were not on the same level as mestizo and were discriminated against much more than their half Andean counterparts. This shows a hierarchy between the mixed ethnic groups is developing in the colonies, which only leads to a greater division between the expanding population and ethnic groups.

This emerging hierarchy between the races in the colonies is captured by the Casta paintings which depict how different ethnic groups are considered a higher part of society based on whether they are mulatto or a mestizo mixture. The Casta paintings were painted in Peru near the end of the 18th century and they depict a mother, father and their child. The series of painting shows how whiteness has progressed through the colonies. For instance the first painting know as the “Negro bozales de Guinea” is a painting that depicts an African women who does not practice Christianity or speak Spanish, so the painting shows how different she is compared to the rest of the society. Following paintings will include mulattos mixed with creoles and then mulattos mixed with part Spanish people, then mestizo mixed with Spanish and the final painting will have gone through so much mixture that the people are both white in appearance. These paintings represent a pivotal point in the idea of race making. Rather than race making be a socially constructed idea which in some parts it still is, the idea of purity of blood is introduced to construct race.

The idea of pure blood becomes an important race making factor, because it further divides the already diverse population in the colonies. The Spaniards believed that pure blood or Limpieza de Sangre, was essential in order to become a part of higher society. So once again the lines of the races are solidifying and becoming more rigid. Socially constructed “Spaniards” are not considered Spaniards anymore because they are not of pure blood and therefore unfit to hold certain positions in society. It became clear that mixed races such as mestizo or mulattos were no longer welcome to join the higher ranks of society because they had stained blood. Silverblatt explains stained blood as, “Thus with all the instruction in the world, indios and negros indelibly stained would still be lesser in a colonized earth for the most part” (Silverblatt, pg. 112). So the concept seems clear, it does not matter if you have been trained in a monastery or have a Spanish father, if your blood is stained then you are not able to be a part of the higher society. The issue of pure blood becomes the latest technique in race making in the colonies. Evidently this new categorization causes laws to be enacted that prevent even Spanish people who are raised in the Americas to hold certain government positions.

In the late 18th century, Spain wished to further the further solidify the differences of ethnic groups in the Americas by imposing the Bourbon reforms which included, giving high level job positions to Peninsulars. This reform directly discriminated against the creoles who were people of full Spanish blood but were raised in the Americas. This shows the crowns determination to continue is discriminatory practices against not all different ethnic groups but also Spanish who were not raised in Spain. The belief was that since the creoles grew up in the Americas they did not know the proper way of being a Spaniard and could not be trusted. So, with the reform came a new job position, know as an intendant. Basically these people had the final say in all matters in the colonies and the only person above them was the Spanish crown. Burkholder and Johnson state, “These powerful, prestigious, and well paid positions went almost exclusively to peninsulars” (Burkholder and Johnson, pg. 306). Clearly this is a move towards further diversifying and solidifying the racial constructs of the people living in the Americas. This race making is quite unique because this time, the Spanish crown has specifically singled out its own people, which shows how dangerous race making can be and the consequences to come in the future are a direct result of these solidified racial categories. This is how the people of the Iberian Peninsula saw race making as a way to achieve their goals of gaining more power and wealth.

The term race making itself is used differently by the colonizers in Latin America, because they tend to use it to suppress the people and force them into slave labor. For instance the Black slaves that were brought to Cuba and Haiti in order to work on sugar plantations were considered the lowest rung of society, so of course they were treated the worst out of all the ethnic classes. This is why new slaves had to be constantly brought in cause so many were dying do to the slave labor and horrible conditions. The colonizers allowed the hierarchy of the races to construct the labor system in the colonies. So with blacks being at the lowest position they were forced into the hardest jobs. Then came the Indians and they were a level above African in the social hierarchy of labor so they would work a different job, silver mining perhaps, which was still difficult but the had better conditions than the Africans. So the colonizers used race making to define the labor hierarchy in the society. Burkholder and Johnson explain the different labor requirements for slaves and Indians,

Indians and other free rural laborers routinely toiled from ten to twelve hours a day for up to three hundred or more days a year. Slaves, particularly on sugar plantations, often worked longer. On Jesuit sugar estates in Peru, for example the day began at 4:40 am in the winter and 5:15 am in the summer. Mita laborers had their workweek reduced from six to five days with Sundays and Mondays off. (Burkholder and Johnson, pg. 245)
This quote shows how different slaves and Indians were treated in the area of labor, because the colonizers based their work on the particular ethnic group’s labor hierarchy in society. Silverblatt explains this hierarchy as,
Blacks were the principal example of God created servants, born to serve or learn trades or work or plant fields. Indians were to be drafted to work in mines…God, they continued had created some men to be kings and rule over others, Spaniards of course were the kings and rulers. (Silverblatt, pg. 102)
Clearly it is evident that the colonizers used race making as well as religion to determine ethnic group’s position in the labor hierarchy of society.

Religion was used as a means to construct the race-making process in the colonies; Indians were seen as convertible gentle beings so they would be above the African infidels in the societal structure of the colonies. The missionaries believe that the Andean people were innocent, and often portrayed them as child-like with a blank slate to be filled with Christian beliefs. Bartolome De Las Casas, paints this image,

All these universal and infinite people a tote genre, God created to be a simple people, altogether without subtility, malice or duplicity, excellent in obedience, most loyal to their native lords and to the Christians whom they serve; the most humble, most patient, meekest and most pacific, slowest to take offence and most tranquil in demeanor. (De Las Casas, pg. 5)
From the above passage it is evident that the missionaries used religion to construct the idea of race making for the natives as simple and peaceful creatures that would be willing to convert. This is important because it shows the difference between the convertibility of the blacks compared to the Indians and this is why certain labor practices are constructed for each group. Evidently religion is used as a means to construct different races in different lights in the Americas.

Through the Colonial Latin American period there are many changes that are made to solidify the different ethnic lines, which are used to repress those groups of people. Race making clearly involved during the colonial period from different constructs and through the ideas of gender, religion, labor and social structures, it is clear that race making is not mutually exclusive but intertwined with those different factors which themselves help create the different ideas of race throughout the colonial period and solidify those different races so that they are rigid structures in society and that legacy helped created today’s Latin America.

Burkholder, Mark. Johnson, Lyman. Colonial Latin America. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Burns, Kathyryn. Colonial Habits:Convents and the Spirtual Economy of Cuzco, Peru. Duke University Press, 1999
De Las Casas, Bartolome. An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies with Related text. Hackett Publishing Company, 2003.
Silverblatt, Irene. Modern Inquisitions: Peru and the Colonial Origins of the Civilized World. Duke University Press, 2004.


  1. Race making has evolved from a biological, phenotypical construct to a social construct. In groups of 4 choose one of the factors that were involved in the race making process (religion, labor, gender, bloodline, social structure, culture/dress). Within your group you are to delve deeper into primary resources and secondary resources, so that you will be able to present the case to the class of why your construct in race making was the most influential on the Latin American community(focus on a specific region) and be able to explain the positives and negative effect it had on the economic structure.

  1. The Casta paintings are seen as a visual representation of the diversity and mixing of the Latin American communities. But they also are a reminder of the negativity associated with labels and the stigma that is almost unshakable. You and your partner are to study the different Casta paintings and the labels associated with Latin Americans that are of mixed heritage and discuss how the art has chronicled the progression of mixing and how the labels affected the actions of everyday people. Then you and your partner must compare the Latin American example to a modern example in today’s society, the example could be from labels within your social circles, family, work, culture, society, ect. Use Venn diagrams to show the similarities and differences between your Latin and modern example. Then we will have a discussion on why people label? Why it is so hard to remove labels? How do we live without creating labels? When do labels become negative?

  1. Your group of 3 is to Choose a Latin American country to become a expert in. You will focus on the themes of race, mixing, gender, economy, land, labor, colonization, religion, indigenous people, language and culture. Examining the country from different perspectives will allow you to understand the society and relationship between the country and its neighbors, allies and enemies. For your presentation you will presenting to the 5th, 6th and 7th graders simultaneously. In the sense they will need to have their paper passport and walk around to all the different country presentations and get a stamp after each presenter. You will be responsible for a research paper, travel brochure, power point, trifold board, maps, ethnic food, ect. The goal is for your team to show the continuity of Latin America and the lack of continuity, as well as the uniqueness of your country.

Suggested Resources

Primary resource Introduction
Primary resources of Colonial Latin America
Concise history of Latin America
Visuals of Slave Trade
Links to Educational websites

Burkholder, Mark. Johnson, Lyman. Colonial Latin America. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Burns, Kathyryn. Colonial Habits:Convents and the Spirtual Economy of Cuzco, Peru. Duke University Press, 1999
Chasteen, John. Bron in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America. W.W. Norton & Company, 2006
Chasteen, John. James Wood. Probblems in Modern Latin American History: Sources and Interpretations. SR Books, 2005

Clendinnen, Inga. Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570. Cambridge University Press, 2005

De Las Casas, Bartolome. An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies with Related text. Hackett Publishing Company, 2003.
Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. Oxford University Press, 2003
Silverblatt, Irene. Modern Inquisitions: Peru and the Colonial Origins of the Civilized World. Duke University Press, 2004.
The Mission (1986)
  “The Mission” is a very interesting movie in the sense of its depiction of the Indigenous people. It paints them in a very angelic and child-like light throughout the majority of the movie. Not only are they seen as civilized human beings (savages is the message some movies choose to portray) but also as good people who have accepted the “true faith”. This image of the natives being angels is enhanced throughout the movie with the white outfits that the indigenous people wear and also their angelic singing voices complete the picture of them being pure and innocent. The director definitely was trying to get a certain message across to the audience that the natives were innocent victims of cruel conquerors. This maybe seen as bias by some, but after so many years of depicting the Spanish and Portuguese as heroes, its time for a film that shows what really happened and how the natives are innocent people that were killed and tortured for European greed. Also another excellent part of the movie is the tension that was evident between the colonizers and the missionaries. Many times throughout history this tension is downplayed or simply not represented. This film showed how there were conflicting goals between the missionaries and colonizers, and the matter was often resolved by the colonizers overpowering the missionaries and indigenous people in order to satisfy their desire for land and power. It’s clear that the two had different ideas for the new world but it is also evident that the colonizers would always win the battle. The movie was not biased towards the natives or the colonizers and missionaries; rather it was a vivid account of the underlying tensions within the European community and a truthful depiction of the innocence of the indigenous people who have been massacred all throughout history including the 21st century. The movie is exactly what is needed in today’s society to show what indigenous people had to go through and to prevent it from happen again.


Index of Images
Image 1: Map of Latin America
Image 2: Caste
Image 3: Caste
Image 4: Patriarchy
Image 5: Torture
Image 6: Cortes, Exaggeration of Power
Image 7: Propaganda of Indians shown as savages and torturers as they abuse Spaniards

Image 1

Image 2

Miguel Cabrera, 4. De español y negra, mulata, 1763. Private Collection. Katzew, Ilona. Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, p. 102.

Image 3

José Guiol Buenaventura, De español e india nace mestiza, ca. 1770-80. Private Collection. Katzew, Ilona. Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, p. 28.

Image 4

Image 5

Image 6

Image 7

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