The negative social and economic effects of colonialism in Latin America Preface

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The negative social and economic effects of colonialism in Latin America


This short essay was originally written for one of my college courses. The paper was originally intended to be a basic passing paper, but as I began to write I realized that it was more than that. As I formulated the topic in my mind, I began to realized that I had a lot of pain. The pain of finding out so late in my life about the crimes committed against my people. The pain of being a Latino descending from both the perpetrators and the victims. The pain of knowing that Latinos are still living in a degrading system. The long lasting negative effects to the social and economic structure of Latin America from colonization is the topic of this essay. I hope you will find it both informative and inspirational.

The negative social and economic effects of colonialism in Latin America

Colonialism is defined as “the implementation of various political, economic, and social policies to enable a state to maintain or extend its authority and control over other territories”. However, the definition does not explain or describe the negative long term effects of colonialism. In this paper I will discuss how the colonization of the New World negatively affects society and the economy in present day Latin America. How the past has left a deep scare that can still be observed in our everyday lives.

It’s been over five-hundred years since the first settlers landed on the island of Quisqueya, but the negative effects of their “implementation” of social and economic policies can be observed today throughout Latin America. Initially the Iberians’ intentions were of trading, but as they came to the realization of previously “undiscovered” land, it became of savagery, looting, and rape. Their newly found goal of conquest and riches both shaped and stained the New World. The economic ambitions and Casta system deeply impacted the dynamics of society in the Americas. To understand this we must first analyze the manner in which this came about.

When the Peninsulares began to divide the land among themselves and enslaved the Natives, they saw it necessary to maintain their newly acquired lands and exporting of goods. Most of the indigenous people were reduced to “subservient workers” (Burns 19), primarily agricultural laborers. Colonization of the New World shifted to an even grimmer direction after Hernando Cortes conquest of Mexico. The discovery of mass amounts of gold and silver shifted Spaniards’ interest from finding a new trade route to India to conquering the New World (Burns 15). This led to the killing and rape of many Amerindians, striking both fear and a sense of despair among the remaining natives. Amerindian’s only way of survival was to submit to Spanish rule, sacrificing their language, culture, and way of life.

The high demands for exported goods from the New World paved the way for the massive slave trade in the New World. This brought millions of slaves from different parts of Africa. Iberian monarchs and slave traders viewed and treated them as property, some quantifying them as piezas which at one point represented eleven persons (Rout Jr. 62). To meet the high demands, many slaves were kidnapped from their families and homes, even though the Spanish claimed that they were “prisoners of a just war” (Rout Jr. 33). Once here, they were put to work in plantations. The inhuman manner in which the slaves were brought here, and the conditions they were force to work in, was intended to make them feel inferior.

As Latin America began to form, mixing among the different races became common. The result of racial mixing of Peninsulares with both Natives and Africans led to a growing fear of revolt (Gonzalez 19). In order to suppress people of color, the Peninsulares instated the Casta system. The Casta system separated the races into groups by heritage (Mestizo for Amerindian-white, Mulatto for Black-white, Zambo for Amerindian-black, etc.) The classification made it easier to segregate people from social, economical, and political stature; ensuring the higher power remained with the Peninsulares.

The looting of the lands gold and silver, the exportation of its natural resources, the dependency on slaves laborers, and the Casta system paved the way for the modern social and economic structure in Latin America.

Today, migrants from different parts of Latin America face a heavy hand when it comes to migrating to the United States. Some Americans feel that their presence is somehow negatively affecting them. Because of the migrant’s willingness to initially work for lower wages (Gaston 5), Americans fear losing “their” jobs, wages, and quality of life; even though evidence shows the contrary. They also fail to realize the situation most migrant’s face in their countries and what compels them to migrate.

Latin migrants come from countries that have suffered for hundreds of years under peninsular rule; where the monarchs’ demand for trade goods consumed the natural resources, ravaged the land, and left the once rich in gold and silver countries poor and in debt. Without its abundance in gold and silver, many of the newly freed Latin countries had no means to build its economy. This resulted in massive borrowing from investment bankers of the same people that stole it, the Europeans. Newly freed Latin countries came under Creole rule (Burns 72). Their high position in the social class and wealth in lands, courtesy of the Casta system, afforded them their lead roles. This left freed Mestizos, Amerindians, Mulattos, Zambos, and Blacks at the bottom of the social class. Resulting in a socio-economic structure in which many of the newly freed countries had virtually no middle class (Gaither 277). Latin Americas agricultural resources retained its appeal to European countries and the United States. This was primarily the reason why they were so eager to “invest” in these countries. The result was seizure of lands by major agricultural and mining corporations (Gonzalez 70-71), leading to the displacement of many Latinos. The profits made by exporting goods from these countries went into paying back debts. This has left Latin countries in the conditions we see today; with a weak economy, high poverty levels, and displaced Latinos constantly trying to climb the social and economic ladder. A vicious system where Mestizos and Mulattos best option is to migrate, do hard labor, and earn low wages; a modern form of enslavement.

When we think about racism we immediately think about the Whites and Blacks in the U.S. However, racism exists throughout the Americas. In many parts of Central and South America racism is a very present force. The interesting part of racism in those regions is the way it is structured. I have observed Criollos looking down on Mestizos, but even less on Mulattos, and Mestizos looking down on Mulattos. Of course, this is not always the case. There are many Latinos that are not racists, but for the cases where racism exists, the structure follows a similar pattern. This pattern of discrimination is identical to that of the Casta system. The racial divisions caused by the Casta system can be observed to this day, negatively affecting each and every one of us. Every time we watch movies that portray Mestizos or Mulattos as villains and Criollos as heroes, television shows portraying Mestizos and Mulattos as ignorant peasants, and news with only Criollo casters it affects how we perceive things. It raises us believing that the color of our skin is a way of valuing ourselves, with Black at the bottom and White at the top. This has very serious negative psychological implications, similar to what Iberians did to slaves. It affects how we perceive, judge, and treat each other and ourselves. It has lead to racial segregation against indigenous and people of color throughout Latin America (Van Djik 83-86).

Today we are no longer under peninsular rule or have to worry about the Casta system, at least not directly. However, it can’t be denied that the effect of the colonization of Latin America has a negative presence in our society. The present racial divisions, economic turmoil, poverty, and displacement of Latinos are all products of colonization. This is not even taking into account the underlining effects that these carry, such as lost of culture and self-worth. Before the Iberians came, the Amerindians had learned to live harmoniously with nature. They lived free from obsessions with precious metals, capitalism, and firearms. Instead, they were exploring knowledge and building great wonders of the world. We could have learned a lot from each other, but the greed and lust for power got the best of us. It made “civilized” men into savages, and “savages” into slaves; leaving a negative social and economic imprint that Latin America has not broken free from. The scare is there, and it is up to us now to try to heal it.-Jose Manuel Diaz


Burns, E. and Charlip, J. “The Origins of a Multiracial Society” Latin America: A Concise Interpretative History, 7th Ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 2001.

Gaither, R. B. “The Labor Laws of Mexico” Virginia Law Review, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Feb., 1922), pp. 277-288

Gaston, M. Barriers to the Employment and Work-Place Advancement of Latinos, Massachusetts: Cornell University. 1994.

Gonzalez, J. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, New York: Penguin Books. 2000.

Rout Jr., L. “The Slave Trade to Spanish America” The African Experience in Spanish America, New York: Cambridge University Press. 1976.

Van Dijk, T. A. “Elite discourse and Racism in Latin America” Racism and discourse in Spain and Latin America, Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co. 2005

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