Latin American Independence: The Rodney Dangerfield of World Historical Events?


Mr. Chasteen is the author of Americanos: Latin America's Struggle for Independence (Oxford University Press, January 2008).

As in the famous lament of comedian Rodney Dangerfield, the revolutions of independence in Latin America tend to “get no respect.” At least, for a long time, decades, most historians of Latin America have devoted little attention to events in the region between 1810 and 1825, when Spain’s New World empire fragmented so dramatically into more than a half dozen new republics. To my generation of historians, the so-called “revolutions of independence” appeared as a non-event, sound and fury that did nothing to remedy the region’s social ills. The unhappy role of U.S. intervention in the region concerned us particularly. “Latin American independence,” I myself have intoned professorially from time to time (paraphrasing Gandhi’s famous quip about Western Civilization) “that would be a good idea”! The turbulent events of 1810-1825 were so complex and confusing that their reputed insignificance was rather welcome. So many other topics seemed more worth reading about! Today, even professors of Latin American History, those who are trained in the United States, at least, commonly do not study Latin America’s wars of independence much, if at all.

Bicentennial commemorations from Mexico to Argentina in 2010 will hopefully draw attention to this veritable Rodney Dangerfield of world historical events. The problem is not so much within Latin America as in the United States. Latin Americans still certainly do take patriotic inspiration from the heroes and events of 1810-1825. They get their “historia patria” drilled into them at school, and the nomenclature of avenues and plazas rings with the names of victors, martyrs, and battlefields. Moreover, Latin Americans have remembered their independence heroes, the continual protagonists of historical novels and television serials, with particular fervor in recent years. President Hugo Chávez has famously made Venezuela a “Bolivarian Republic,” and FARC guerrillas of Colombia are also going “Bolivarian”—playing up nationalist and anti-imperialist themes over Marxist ones.

Given this collective mood, 2010 will represent an important Bicentennial year, one that is likely to get significant attention in a repoliticizing Latin America with strong nationalist currents. The year 1810 marked the beginning of Latin America’s struggles for national independence, rather than their culmination. The United States took the same approach, after all, by celebrating in 1976, the bicentennial of the year when its war of independence began, not the year when it was won.  Celebrating a beginning works well, too, for commemorations keynoting the qualities that animate nationalism in Latin America, which have always been optimism, commitment, and belonging, rather than chauvinism, exclusivity, and triumph. Besides, the precedent for the up-coming fete was set by 1910 centennial observances across the region.

In 2010 Latin American independence will remain as much aspiration as accomplishment, but the accomplishment is not small. Consider the place of Latin American independence in the overall picture of global decolonization. The United States led the way with the creation of a constitutional republic founded on the principle of popular sovereignty, but one event does not constitute a trend. The creation of a string of independent Latin American countries founded on similar principles, beginning in 1810 definitely did constitute a trend. In addition, the newly independent states of Latin America defined the Sovereign People of their new nations to include large, diverse populations of African and indigenous descent, something that the young United States had not done. Admittedly, the fight to make the rights of citizenship effective for all these supposedly sovereign people has been tough and is far from over even now. Still, the Latin Americans republics have endured despite revolution, intervention, and civil war. By the time that decolonization reached Africa and Asia in the mid 1900s, new nations there adopted basically the same model, virtually all would be founded as constitutional republics based on the principle of popular sovereignty. Today, the nations of Latin America are among the oldest constitutional republics in the world—not too shabby an outcome, at all, given the hazards of authoritarianism, exploitation, and outside intervention that the region has suffered along the way.

Hopefully, the 2010 Bicentennial of Latin American independence will show a new generation the drama and significance of 1810-1825. Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and Portugal (in progress two hundred years ago this month) created two quite anomalous situations. Spain’s New World empire became a monarchy without a king as its adored Fernando VII disappeared into French imprisonment. That’s how things fell apart so thoroughly in Spanish America. In contrast, Portugal’s New World Empire met its monarch in person when João VI fled from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro to escape Napoleon--the first and only time that a European monarch has reigned outside Europe. The unifying presence of the royal family in Rio is the main reason why Portuguese America became independent as a single country, Brazil, without fragmenting the way that Spanish America did.

The 2010 Bicentennial observations are likely to feature stories of patriot heroes who continue to inspire modern people much more in Latin America than the United States. Father Miguel Hidalgo is among the best known. He was a free-thinking priest who was already under investigation by the Inquisition when he rallied and led a largely unarmed indigenous multitude through western Mexico behind the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe, abolishing slavery and Indian tribute payments before being captured and dying in front of a firing squad. Probably the greatest hero of all was Simón Bolívar, one of the richest young men of Caracas, began a personal crusade that would consume all his fortune and twenty years (the last twenty years) of his life and result, ultimately, in the creation of five republics, the last of which, Bolivia, bears his name. There are too many independence heroes to even begin to name here.

Finally, the 2010 Bicentennial commemorations of Latin American independence should remind us in the United States that we are not the only americanos. For Latin Americans, America is not synonymous with the United States. Proud americanos fought for independence from Spain and Portugal, and they fought not in the name of today’s individual countries but in the name of América. The name “Latin America” didn’t even exist until around 1850 when the French invented it as part of an effort to carve out an imperialist sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere--because Spanish and Portuguese, like French, descend from Latin. Spanish-speaking people in the United States may one day want to reclaim the name americanos, under which their ancestors achieved independence.

Most Spanish-speaking immigrants to the United States identify with individual countries of origin in the first generation. In the second generation, though, cultural affinities (and sometimes market strategies) gather people under the label Hispanic or Latino. Hispanic, the older of these labels, holds strong associations with Spain and has more conservative, “white” connotations. Latino, on the other hand, is a trendier term that feels much more inclusive. Still, its historical origins are no less Eurocentric. The modern usage of Latino probably derives from the “Latin” in Latin America, a term created to subordinate “latinos” to French imperialism! Alas, even the name América has a European etymology, but it is a name that has historically brought Latin Americans together, one they consensually chose for themselves in stormy events whose 2010 Bicentennial observations should command our respect, and that of the entire world.

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