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Latin America refers to regions of North America (except Mexico), South America (except Suriname, Guyana and French Guyana) and Central America (except Belize) where Portuguese, Spanish and French languages are spoken. As aforementioned, territories in America dominated by Spanish and Portuguese language that are considered to be Latin America include; Mexico, most parts of south and central America, Caribbean countries which include; Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican republic. Latin American countries are generally defined as those countries that were at some point recognized and Spanish and Portuguese empires.
European conquest of America is widely believed to have begun in 1492 following the voyages of Christopher Columbus and eventually it led to the formation of Latin America. The Spanish and Portuguese were the first European settlers to conquer America. The two colonial powers colonized the region together with other parts of the uncolonized world. Demarcation of Latin America occurred in 1493 where Spain took all parts lying to the west while Portuguese took the eastern parts. Generally, Spain took much control of the Latin American region and the Iberian cultural practices were adopted by both indigenous and the immigrants.
The period of the conquest of the new world, which was between 1492 to late 16th century, witnessed a great spurt in human activity in terms of destruction and creation. Vast areas of the American continents were brought under European control. Commerce and immigration was set into motion and these processes were made possible through conquest and destruction of numerous Indian indigenous societies and tribes.
The primary focus of immigrating into the new world was the abundance of mineral resources together with large sedentary populations. Later on, conquest and immigration radiated outward to other parts of the American continent. Distinctive features of the Iberian society became part of the American ventures. Spanish and Portuguese societies were heavily urban just like many Mediterranean people. Their lifestyles and desire to live in urban settings helped create patterns similar to Spanish cities despite the fact that there were vast Indian countrysides in the Americas. The Iberian society put a strong emphasis on nobility and the Portuguese and Spanish commoners who inhabited America as conquerors embarked on recreating themselves as the nobles and preferred to use Indians as their serfs. During their conquest, they emphasized patriarchal ideals although women took an active role in family life. During the early 1500s, rumors and hopes based on the new world stirred massive immigration from Spain. Most of the immigrants now included large numbers of Spanish women. Slaves were also imported to the new land and this was made possible by the thriving trans-Atlantic slave trade that characterized most parts of indigenous Europe. The arrival of Spanish women and the slaves was a clear indication that the Spanish not only wanted to conquer America but to settle in America.
The Spanish killed most of the indigenous American populations especially the Indians. Moreover, a considerable number also died from diseases transmitted by the European immigrants. The few remaining Indians together with sedentary communities held much longer because the islands they inhabited were less attractive to the European settlers. In fact, the Spanish and other European settlers used most of them as slaves.
Women became part of the Latin American world as soon as the colonies were formed. Most of them immigrated from Spain and others from Portugal and Italy. Most of the natives were converted to Christianity and the Spanish continued to exercise control over their women both in Spain and in their colonies. The control over women was marked by social roles and religion (Christianity) that characterized European societies; therefore, very few women were allowed to pursue professional careers. Women were not considered for professional duties and were never taken seriously. The women were left to perform feminine duties. The sexism and prejudice among women left most of them oppressed and demoralized. They suffered religious strains, social oppression, and other abusive issues in most of the colonies.
The Spanish culture has always been patriarchal in nature and the eldest son from the oldest male member of the family presides over issues affecting the family. Essentially, he is in charge of all the family resources. This structure left native women docile because they had limited control and say over familial resources. This structure meant that women in Latin America had to get married at an early age, give birth to children and remain loyal and faithful to their husbands. Under such structures, wealthy individuals and women had laws, regulations and codes that regulated their day-to-day actions and behaviors. These women’s roles were restricted and no matter how rich and powerful they were, they were not able to enter partake of any profession or join any university for studies. Research suggests that women relied on the permission of their husbands or fathers to sign contracts or sell property unless she was single or belonged to a family that lacked of a male heir to control particular property. Most women in Latin America never had the chance to have money or own property. Many women especially the natives were poor. In the American colonial hierarchy, any woman of any ethnicity apart from the European women was considered to belong to the lowest hierarchy in the society. Therefore, most poor women in Latin America were of black or of mixed race. Poverty forced most of the women out of their homes as they sought ways of survival into the world. They therefore became servants, streetwalkers or street vendors none of the professions being a respectable pursuit. This trend continues to date whereby dark-skinned women in living in the Latin American region tend to be in professions that are widely looked down upon.
Race relations played a major role in women’s social hierarchy in the larger Latin American region. Spanish women were the most respected followed by women form mixed races, Native Americans and finally black women or women of African heritage. Since not so many Spanish women moved to America, mixed marriages were very common. White settlers and the natives intermarried and gave rise to a race called “mestizos”. Those of mixed black and white ancestry were referred to as “mullatoes”. Therefore, people of mixed races characterize Latin America. Additionally, the region has various cultures. Since women in Latin America were mainly composed of the natives, mixed races and blacks, it therefore meant that majority of the women lived in poor conditions and never enjoyed some of the privileges enjoyed by their white counterparts.
Most social rules within the Latin American region stemmed from Spain’s devotion to Christianity. Catholics celebrates the ability of a woman to give birth but not her ability to be a scholar or a philosopher. This informs the reason why woman played a second fiddle to the man in Latin America during the era of colonization. The rules were however defied by some women due to their upbringing. One such woman was Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a Mexican nun who was known and revered for her intelligence. Men around the colonies wanted to test her legitimacy and knowledge as a child and she experienced the reality of sexism against aspirations in women. She wrote many poems most of which were published in Europe. She never attained professional knowledge because universities were not open for women students. Sor Juana’s poems questioned the church and the Spanish crown for the stance they took towards women together with their roles in the society. She held the belief that the society expected women to be saintly but also expected them to submit to the advances that could be imposed on them by the man.
Some women in the Latin American colonies used their sexuality to gain power. One such woman was a native woman from central Mexican valley known as Malinche. She was a lover, interrupter and confidant from of Herman Cortes. The two became intimate despite the fact that Cortes was married and had children. La Malinche soon became a symbol of extravagance and power of the new world. Research suggests that she managed to help Cortes during Spanish conquest of Mexico.
Further, the society treated women as tools of marriage throughout the period of Latin America n colonization and they were not considered equal to their male counterparts. This norm emanated from European social norms and imposed on Native Latin American women. Native Latin American women were never given the opportunity to occupy higher social cadres, or break away from religious dogma nor did they ever feel comfortable in the Spanish colonies. Women had to obey the rules prescribed to them by the male dominated society. The rules still apply in most parts of contemporary Latin America.
Women never performed respectable jobs in the society. Most of them had to find a way to earn a living. Those in the rural areas took their produce to markets in the towns while others operated businesses such as taverns, bakeries, retail stores and inns. This enabled them to get into contact with other people. Other women also worked as cooks, midwives and tailors while elite families hired some young mothers as wet nurses. Wives of businesspersons especially shopkeepers helped their husbands run their businesses and some even continued to run the shops after the death of their husbands. Some women however resorted to prostitution and worked in brothels in the larger cities and urban areas. They perhaps did this because they knew they would earn more income through exchanging sexual favors than they could earn in other honorable occupations. Iberian inheritance laws favored widowed women. In most cases, women lived longer than men and this was partly because many of them were married at a much younger age compared to their husband’s age. The Iberian inheritance laws permitted women to inherit half of their husband’s wealth and divide the other half among their children. As a result, many women especially those who had rich husbands benefitted immensely from the laws and most of them had a lot of wealth inherited from haciendas, plantations and mines. The patriarchal laws however required them to live with their adult son or a male relative. Those with poor husbands never benefited from the inheritance laws and most were forced to move to the towns to fend.
In conclusion, it is clear that the Iberians (Spanish and Portuguese) had a large contribution to the way of life of the Latin American continents. The culture and way of life is widely characterized by Spanish influence. Latin America has a mixture of cultures and this was brought about by the mixture and intermarriages between the Native Americans, black African slaves and white settlers. This article focused on the roles of Latin American women in the colonial and revolution era. From the article, it is clear that many women indeed suffered from the patriarchal structure imposed on them by the Spanish immigrants. This made them socially and economically weak. During the era, social classes existed especially with regards to women, at the bottom of the class were black women while the top was occupied by the white or European women.