From the Desk of Lina del Castillo: “Colonial Legacies” of Latin America

Del Castillo_LinaLina del Castillo is an assistant professor of history and Latin American studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Crafting a Republic for the World
Scientific, Geographic, and Historiographic Inventions of Colombia (June 2018).


For generations, we have been taught to understand the period of Spanish Monarchical rule in America as the “colonial period” left an array of legacies. These teachings are hard not believe precisely because traces of that long-ago past do seem to live on as people in the region communicate in Spanish, worship through Catholicism, or eat cow or pig meat. Taking nineteenth-century Colombia as a case in point, my book invites the reader to reflect on how we choose what counts as a “colonial legacy” and why. In other words, I ask readers to consider how “colonial legacies,” as interpretations, are invented. To illustrate my point, I would like to offer two examples that demonstrate how different scholars in the twentieth century invented two different kinds of “Spanish colonial legacies,” and what assumptions and world-views went into those inventions.

Consider, for instance, the massive resources deployed by the United States to develop “Area Studies,” and especially “Latin America” in the wake of Castro’s 1959 regime in Cuba. During this period, an array of scholars worked to mark the United States off as different from the rest of the world, and especially from the Western Hemisphere. The US thereby could lay sole claim on an “American exceptionalism” of democratic rule and opportunity. A deep store of Anglophone scholarship reaching as far back as the 16th century perpetuated a “Black Legend” of an obscurantist and tyrannical Spanish Monarchy. That framework facilitated a kind of “colonial legacy” that undergirded “modernization theory.” The problem of underdevelopment in Latin America as a region became, from this perspective, a natural result of the resilient and intractable long-standing trends dating from the period of Spanish Monarchical rule. Modernization theorists therefore argued that significant interventions needed to take place for democracy and development to occur. Several of these scholars took for granted that British modernity and parliamentarianism explained the economic trajectory and political developments of the United States. Rarely, if ever, did they mention the massive wealth and devastating inequalities created by the United States’ long engagement with plantation slavery. For these US-based scholars, such analyses were unthinkable, perhaps in part because they completely ignored the writings of intellectuals considered in my book, like José María Samper, who alluded to an intractable “colonial legacy” of white supremacy inherited from Britain by the United States.


An alternative “colonial legacy” invention emerged around the same time, one that denounced colonialism’s brutality. By the 1960s, Latin American jurists joined other countries from the Global South in pressuring the United Nations to pass a declaration against colonialism. They argued colonial rule prevented the development of international economic cooperation, impeded the sociocultural and economic development of dependent peoples, and militated against the ideal of universal peace. Colonialism, in short, was an abomination. Within this framework, dependency theorists such as Andre Gunder Frank offered wholly new interpretations of what “colonial legacies” entailed and the effects they had on countries in Latin America. These scholars wisely rejected the supposedly entrenched characteristics inherited from Spanish monarchical rule that US-based modernization theorists offered. Instead, the Dependentista School argued colonial legacies stemmed from the dynamics of a global capitalist system. Underdevelopment in some parts of the world was a direct effect of the economic development that other regions enjoyed. Related corollary arguments quickly followed, including the idea that ruling elites in poor countries, complicit with foreign developed countries, gained economic advantages from underdevelopment. This perspective fundamentally shaped interpretations of how Latin American countries engaged international markets through commodities trade during the late-19th and early 20th-centuries.

These two distinct mid-20th century inventions of “colonial legacies” continue to be with us today and feed our interpretations of the past. One of the more egregious effects of those inventions, however, is that they have created an inaccurate and superficial reading of the early to mid 19th century in Spanish America as a failed experiment. The “colonial legacies” invented by modernization theorists and the Dependista School appeared to be too insurmountable. The early post-colonial period, from these perspectives, could to amount to nothing more than chaos, corruption, and caudillos. These narratives have worked to erase the engaged, original and creative historical, geographic, and scientific contributions to republican rule that early 19th-century historical actors in Spanish America had to offer.

By contrast, my book delves into the active historical imaginations of the 19th century actors who offered original inventions for how we should frame the past. Their writings, categories, and analyses were among the first to invent the so-called category of the “colonial period” for Spanish America. The book traces out the vast array of “colonial legacies” these historical actors developed in order to understand their present and shape their future. As such it reveals much more interesting “colonial legacies” than those handed down to us by mid-20th century scholars.





One thought on “From the Desk of Lina del Castillo: “Colonial Legacies” of Latin America

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s