Colonial roots

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Mark A. Martinez Politics in Latin America

CSUB Political Science 309



Encomienda: A legal device adopted in 1503 by which the Spanish Crown assigned rights over Indians or granted land to loyal military officers during the colonial era. Through encomienda (from encomendar, “to entrust”), encomenderos were allowed to exploit Indians but were charged with taking care of their physical and spiritual needs.

Significance: Designed to play a civilizing role, the entrusting part of encomienda was generally ignored by encomenderos. The system eventually degenerated to the point where most Indians were virtual slaves, with no recognized rights. Concern for the safety of the Indians, King Charles V abolished encomienda in 1520. The decree was largely ignored and established a pattern of division between the Crown and her subjects in the New World.
Encomenderos: Those granted encomienda. Higer-ups or officials granted rights and privileges by the Spanish crown. Later encomenderos became intermediaries for achieving or acquiring goods and services. Encomenderos argued against decrees promoting improved treatment of Indian populations by arguing that (1) their care was a civilizing element in their lives and that (2) forced labor was a small price to pay for eternal salvation granted by the Catholic Church (of which they had introduced them to).

Significance: Encomenderos steadfastly refused to do any menial labor themselves; later the system engendered by encomienda and encomenderos established patterns of defiance against the Crown and elitism against the Indians of the New World that created many of the cultural patterns that we see throughout Latin America today.
Repartimiento: With the decline of encomienda, and with the official decree(s) from Spain (in 1520 & 1542) against the enslavement of Indians, the system of repartimiento - the temporary allotment of Indians for a given task - was created. Under this system, the Spanish colonist would apply to a royal official, explaining both the work to be done and the time necessary to finish the job.

Significance: Because the availability and access to Indian labor depended on the frequency of epidemics, Indian migration patterns, and the arbitrary decisions of vice-roys and local caciques (who decided where and how Indian labor would be allocated), this system was eventually abandoned in favor of the forced labor that marked the repressive Spanish system from the late 1600's to the early 1800's.
Peon: A day laborer under the Hacienda system. With the decline of official encomienda, its replacement, repartimiento combined with the the system of credit and debt so that simple peonage became known as debt peonage.

Significance: In many places debt peonage replaced encomienda. The hapless state of Indians today can be traced to economic, social and poilitcal impact of three centuries of encomienda, repartimiento, and peonage.
Mestizo: An individual of Indian and European mix. Known as ladino in Guatemala, cholo in Peru, and mameluco in Brazil.

COLONIAL ROOTS (continued)

Peninsulares: New World inhabitants born in the Iberian peninsula. Most important governmental, ecclesiastical, and military positions during the colonal period were held by peninsulars. In Brazil, known as reinois.

Significance: Thier privileged position engendered much antagonisms between the crown and American born crillos. Many of social and cultural antagonisms between Spaniards and Latin Americans persist to this day.
Creole or Criollos: In the colonial period, a person of full Spanish ancestry born in the Americas. By the end of the 18th century, many creoles saw themselves as americanos rather than as Spaniards. In Brazil, known as mazambos.

Significance: Crillos eventually came to despise their subservient role to peninsulares and became the moving force behind the movement towards colonial rebellion.
Mulatto: Offspring of white and Negro parents.
Turco: A peson whose orignin is the Middle East; a term that includes Turks, Lebanese, and Syrians, but not Jews.
Black Legend: A critical (and at times, exaggerated) interpretation of the Spanish conquest and colonization which attributed cruelty, evil, bigotry and exploitation to the Spaniards. One of the most prominent of these interpretors was Bartolome de las Casas (1474-1566), a Spanish colonist who profited from the system of exploitation but later became a priest, a bishop, and a staunch defender of the Indians.

Significance: The Black Legend became the foundation of change and, later, revolution against European colonization in Latin America. Generally acknowledged as the first debate on what would later become known as Human Rights.


Adelantados: The title adelentado was given to explorers and conquereors in the early 16th century.

Significance: Adelantados possessed broad military, civil, and judicial powers and were equivalent to colonial governors.
Viceroy: The highest official in the colonies. Viceroys possessed supreme civil and military authority in his territory.
Presidente: Less important regions were called presidencias and were ruled by presidentes.

Significance: Today many Latin states are divided along county lines where presidente municipales (county presidents) are the dominant political figures.
Audencia: An administrative area composed of oidores (judges), audencias were the highest court. Audencias also acted as the council of state with administrative powers.

Significance: Audencias acted as a check against the power of the viceroys.
Residencia: At the end of a royal official’s term of office, judicial and administrative review of his actions was undertaken by a residencia.


Corregidor: Provincial governments were generally headed by corregidores (correctors or protector) who had supreme authority within their districts, including pueblos (towns).
Cabildo: Municipal governments included a town council known as cabildos. These cabildos were made up of twelve Regidores (councilmen) who were closely watched by corregidor. On occasion a cabildo abierto (open council) was authorized which permitted non council members to express their views on matters.

Significance: Creoles participated only at the cabildo level. This had a tremendous impact when they assumed authority during the Wars of Independence.

Caciazgo were municipal government positions created and endorsed by the viceroyalty. These positions were filled by hereditary rights and after the decline of official encomienda became powerful positions during the repartimiento system. In many areas Spaniards would apply for Indians to labor on their haciendas through these municipal government posts (which were increasingly filled by mestizos and peninsulares in the 16th and 17th centuries).

Significance: The official position of caciazgo provided caciques and other well positioned intermediates, with the opportunity to extort, embezzle, and coerce persons of less powerful lineages (which they did ruthlessly at times). Later, as caciques began to accumulate resources, the caciazgo of hereditary rights began to give way to ambitious political and economic entrepreneurs who engaged in commerce and adopted the European-Spanish lifestyle.


Latifundia: Large plantation style estates; usually mono-crop production. First developed by the Romans (generally to reward warriors for 25 years of service), and took root in the Iberian peninsula and transferred to the New World when Spain and Portugal established their colonial empires. An enduring feature of Latin American economic, social and political organization. Two types are seen in the Fazenda of Brazil (dependent on slave labor) and the Hacienda (dependent on local Indian population for labor) of the rest of most of Latin America. Argentinian Estancias (cattle ranches) are also be included here.

Significance: The significance of the latifundia system is that it established a model for elite behavior and class structure that typifies much of the urban and rural scene throughout Latin America. Over 50% of total farm acreage in Latin America is held in the form of huge landed estates. Because agriculture jobs are significant employers throughout Latin America, control of land translates into political power. Many see the Latifundia system as a major obstacle to development in Latin America because large concentration of land denies people access to land. In this manner it can be argued that royal grants established patterns of large landownership (latifundias) which prevail to this day throughout Latin America.
Mini-fundia: Small estates or small landholder; usually less than twenty hectares (1 hectare equals about 2.5 acres). Mini-fundias constitute the vast majority of farms in Latin America (about 3/4 of total land), but aggregate less than 4% of the land under cultivation. The system exists typically where inheritance laws divide property among heirs. In others it is the result of homestead laws and land reform.


Significance (of mini-fundia): While mini-fundias support many subsistence families, they are largely uneconomic in that they provide few surpluses. This is especially the case when they are not alligned with large-scale agriculture concerns.
Ejido: An agriculture landholding community in Mexico. Crop land distributed to small farmers after the 1910-17 Mexican Revolution. Legally ejidos could not be sold, borrowed against, mortgaged, leased or rented. An ejido differs from from a state farm in that the land is nationalized in state farms and peasants become agricultural laborers working for a wage.

Significance: Before the ejido system, more than 90% of the heads of rural households were propertyless. Today, over 50% of Mexican croplands are held in ejido form. While economically unproductive (for lack of credit, irrigation systems, market access, etc.), the ejido system is one of the major social achievements of Latin American revolutions because of the subsistence lifestyles that it affords to ejidatarios throughout Mexico.
Mayordomo: An overseer of production on large estates.
Favelas (Brazil) & Colonias Populares (Mexico): Shantytowns that have sprung up in cities as rural and dispossesed populations migrate to the cities. They are not immediately recognized by local or state governments, nor have access to public services.

Significance: These shantytowns are products of an industrialization and urbanization process that continues today. Often begun by large settlements of squatters looking for a home, these areas are also the only places uneducated rural peasants can locate, and become cradles of disease, poverty, crime, and other social maladies.


Cacique: An Indian chief of a village or tribe. The conquering Spaniards employed regional indian chiefs, or caciques, who collected tribute and filled labor quotas from conquered tribes. These chiefs became intermediaries and organizers of the system of tribute and were later given special privileges that enabled them to become bosses in the system of repartimiento, and other forced labor systems. A cacique who established his control and power beyond a particular region became know as caudillos.

Significance: The process of tribute was significant because it acknowledged vassalship on the part of the conquered and created a social unit that functioned on the ability of a select group of traditional lords and chiefs to oversee the new tribute system developed in New Spain. After independence, the term cacique referred to any strong local leader, and caciquismo became a way of life in rural areas. A local form of personal autocratic rule, caciquismo has characterized the vast majority of Latin American political and social life. Because it perpetuates extralegal (informal) relationships, many claim caciquismo is to blame for the lack of development in Latin America.
Patron/Amo: Boss, chief or superior person who rules the clan or group; derived from the Latin word pater for father.

Significance: Scarcity of labor helped create patrons as some Indians were provided the opportunity of choosing who they would work for. Usually the most benevolent patron - those providing better salaries and working conditions - won out. According to Paul Friedrich, this is what helped create the conditions for patron-client relations to develop and clientelism to prosper throughout contemporary Latin America.


Guacho: Originially associated with Argentinian cowboys. Weak governments would usually employ “gauchos among gauchos” to maintain order in rural areas.
Caudillo: A leader or military chieftan who has power and control beyond small or local areas. Personal characteristics include charismatic leadership, repressive rule, the use of the military to gain and hold power, and the centralization of authority.

Significance: Helps create the conditions for caudillismo -- the system of rule by a strong man who excercises dictatorial power.
Jefe Maximo: A leader who commands the loyalty of all major caudillos in the country. In Mexico, Plutarco Elias Calles attained this title in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.


Compadres: Men linked by the baptism of a child. Importance is not with the child and individual godparent per se, but with the two co-parents.
Compadrazgo: Co-parenting of the same child. A quasi-kinship relationship designed to guarantee social, economic and social reciprocity between adult parties.

Significance: Used as a way to increase your extended family.
Don/Doña: A term of respect given to older males or females. Usually reserved for those control resources (economic or social goods) and have distributed these resources in the past to those who are using the term; e.g. Don Ignacio Aguirre or Doña Marina.

Significance: Dileneates and maintains hierachy, social structure, respect, and popularity in social groups throughout Latin society.
Directory: ~mmartinez

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