The Formation of Latin American Nations: From Late Antiquity to Early Modernity

The Formation of Latin American Nations: From Late Antiquity to Early Modernity

by Thomas Ward


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This pioneering work brings the pre-Columbian and colonial history of Latin America home: rather than starting out in Spain and following Columbus and the conquistadores as they “discover” New World peoples, The Formation of Latin American Nations begins with the Mesoamerican and South American nations as they were before the advent of European colonialism—and only then moves on to the sixteenth-century Spanish arrival and its impact.

To form a clearer picture of precolonial Latin America, Thomas Ward reads between the lines in the “Chronicles of the Indies,” filling in the blanks with information derived from archaeology, anthropology, genetics, and common-sense logic. Although he finds fascinating points of comparison among the K’iche’ Maya in Central America, the polities (señoríos) of Colombia, and the Chimú of the northern Peruvian coast, Ward focuses on two of the best-known peoples: the Nahua (Aztec) of Central Mexico and the Inka of the Andes. His study privileges indigenous-identified authors such as Diego Muñoz Camargo, Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, and Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala while it also consults Spanish chroniclers like Hernán Cortés, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Pedro Cieza de León, and Bartolomé de las Casas.

The nation-forming processes that Ward theorizes feature two forms of cultural appropriation: the horizontal, in which nations appropriate people and customs from adjacent cultures, and the vertical, in which nations dig into their own past to fortify their concept of exceptionality. In defining these processes, Ward eschews the most common measure, race, instead opting for the Nahua altepetl, the Inka panaka, and the K’iche’ amaq’. His work thus approaches the nation both as the indigenous people conceptualized it and with terminology that would have been familiar to them before and after contact with the Spanish. The result is a truly decolonial account of the formation and organization of Latin American nations, one that puts the indigenous perspective at its center.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806161501
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 10/25/2018
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.21(d)

About the Author

Thomas Ward is Professor of Spanish and Director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at Loyola University Maryland. He is the author, editor, or translator of numerous Spanish-language works on culture, colonialism, globalization, and the nation.

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The nation appears today as a contested category, diversely construed from different perspectives and positionalities, a signifier always in tension with what it is supposed to represent or signify. In Latin America, even as imagined communities, nations are still fragmented entities (in terms of territory, regional diversity, social inclusiveness, and racial and ethnic make-up), striving for some unity of purpose.

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Since the idea of the nation and the word to describe the idea came into being during the Middle Ages, its meaning has modulated with events such as the so-called Conquest, the Enlightenment, and nineteenth- century state formation in Europe and the Americas. The progression from "people" to ethnic group, then to nation, and from there to a postethnic concept of nation reigning among certain academics and politicians today makes the semiotic meaning of the term "nation" unstable during our time. Indeed, this term, as well as the adjective "ethnic," mean many things to many people. Sociologists Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis remind us in their book Women-Nation-State, "The very conceptualization of 'ethnic' and 'national' groupings and the concepts of ethnic culture, ethnicity and racism have led to much difficulty." This is because, as Alarcón, Kaplan, and Moallem call to our attention in Between Woman and Nation, "it is a commonplace of our time to note that nation-state formations are influenced, underpinned, and even founded by ideas rooted in the Enlightenment and liberalism of the West." Those liberal ideas, devoid of ethnic formulations, however, are still unachieved in our time. Think Kurds, Palestinians, the Rohingya people, and modern-day Amerindians who, while different from the cultures of late antiquity, are still excluded from nation-state formulations.

In the world of late antiquity, the Kuna people of Panama had a notion they called Abya Yala that referred to the land and thus the American continents. Their distant relatives, the Nasa Community, living today under the gun in Cauca Valley in Colombia, have a term, Kwe'sx Kiwe Wala, meaning Our Big Land. Inkakuna conceptualized their empire as Tawantinsuyo, which referred to the four cardinal directions. The Mexica (imprecisely called Aztecs) and their Triple Alliance could have described their country as Anahuac, a noun taken from the name of the valley where they founded their capital city and eventually subordinated many groups of people. The cultures of late antiquity are revealing because they show a pre-Enlightenment concept of nation. In addition, if the reader believes racial, ethnic, and gender differences still inform our view of the nation, then the cultures of late antiquity and early modernity may have something to say to us. These ingredients of nation were submerged during the colonial era because they were deemed unnecessary, even as that era evolved, ended, and was folded into Enlightenment and subsequent postcolonial, postracial, and postethnic conceptualizations.

Another issue comes up in a discussion of geographic categories. This book is entitled The Formation of Latin American Nations, but before the nineteenth century the expression "Latin America" had not yet been coined. A brief orientation on the idea of Latin America will be helpful before returning to the pre-Hispanic and early modern eras. The region consists of various countries with variegated histories. Panama, for instance, did not become an independent country until it was detached from Colombia, which itself had split off from Gran Colombia, the latter a metamorphosis of New Granada. When Spaniards arrived in Tawantinsuyo they called it "Peru," and it officially became the Viceroyalty of Peru. It did not become the "Republic of Peru," more or less as we know it, until the nineteenth century. The Anahuac region and beyond immediately became the Viceroyalty of New Spain and did not emerge as the United Mexican States until after independence. The Central American confederation broke off from Mexico and eventually split into five distinct republics. The region as a whole became known as Spanish America, but as the nineteenth century came under French influence, it became recognized as Latin America, the preferred but not exclusive term today. "Hispanic America" is another possible designation, and Great Britain and Spain still seem to prefer the appellation "Spanish America," both of which exclude Portuguese- speaking Brazil, Francophone islands, and parts of Canada. The complexities and vagaries of the long arc of these politically configuring processes are outside the scope of this book. What I do throughout this study is focus on the origins of nations with special attention to the regions known as Mesoamerica and the Andes. In this chapter, I try to clear up some of the denotative and connotative issues regarding the term "nation" before shifting focus to late ancient and early modern notions of the nation in Latin America.


People might think of the nation as a modern enterprise, developed since the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A number of world-shaping events come to mind: the spectacular birth of the United States on July 4, 1776, the explosive reconfiguration of the French nation after July 14, 1789, the long Mexican war for independence between 1810 and 1821, San Martín's emotional proclamation of Peruvian independence on July 28, 1821, the final thrust for Italian unification between 1861 and 1871, and the proclamation of the German Empire on July 18, 1871. In the context of these great paradigm-shifting events in the transatlantic world, the nineteenth-century French philologist Ernest Renan held that nations are born and that they die. He states unequivocally in his famous essay "What Is a Nation?" that "nations possess not even one iota of the eternal" (Les nations ne sont pas quelque chose d'éternel). In the Americas, these modern constructions supposed unencumbering nations from European origins, adopting what Thomas Holt describes as "a new consciousness of we-ness," where "people must now picture themselves as part of a physical and conceptual abstraction." This view, unhinged from ethnicity, is much like Renan's conception of "a spiritual family" (une famille spirituelle). The nation is a place, according to one New York Times article, "where loyalty is less about particular places or tribes than particular ideas." It is a place where people "are not constrained by accidents of birth." This conceptualization of the nation as a mindset tends to coincide with the idea of postethnic nations.

Today the idea of the nation in the West is generally held to be a unitary grouping of peoples regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender. Hobsbawm's view in his oft-cited Nations and Nationalism since 1780 is typical and prescriptive: "The basic characteristic of the modern nation and everything connected with it is its modernity." Anderson, who published his wildly popular Imagined Communities in 1983, just before Hobsbawm began to prepare the 1985 lectures that eventually would become his masterpiece Nations and Nationalism, seems to suggest that "national consciousness" becomes possible only with the advent of print cultures. Taking his intellectual cues from Anderson, Hobsbawm studied the various editions of the Diccionario of the Spanish Royal Academy and concluded that in Spain, the notion of state was not linked to that of nation until the 1884 edition of the Diccionario. He quotes directly from the Diccionario de la lengua castellana from 1734. The word nación only meant "'the aggregate of the inhabitants of a province, a country or a kingdom.'" It was not until 150 years later, in the 1884 dictionary, when the idea of nation became linked with that of state.

Here we are concerned with culture, ethnicity, and nation, and it is important to consider the possibility that in the past the contours of the nation were not necessarily viewed as contiguous to those of the state. This was the case in the European view and especially in the larger empires in this hemisphere, such as the Triple Alliance and Tawantinsuyo, although not inexorably so in the smaller polities where nation and governance (frequently controlled by a hereditary ruler) may have coincided. Moreover, in the present some scholars view the nation as noncontiguous to the "ethnic group." Consider the thought of Adrian Hastings, who, using Hobsbawm as a point of departure, concludes, "An ethnicity is a group of people with a shared cultural identity and spoken language. It constitutes the major distinguishing element in all pre-national societies, but may survive as a strong subdivision with a loyalty of its own within established nations." Anthony Smith also distinguishes between ethnic group and nation, but from another perspective: with ethnicity, "the link with a territory may be only historical and symbolic," while nations "possess territories." Thus, we can conclude that while an ethnic group may or may not dwell on the land associated with it, nations must reside on the land with which they are associated. Hastings, because he did not read texts from the time Europeans encountered Amerindian communities, separates ethnicity from nation and supposes nation can exist separate from ethnicity. Smith's distinction is conditional because it is based on political control of territory, whereas Hastings's seems essentialist in that it is based on language and identity. This post-Enlightenment conceptualization that extracts ethnicity from nation seems to be what Hastings is envisioning when he alludes to the ethnicities existing within nations, not constituting them. There are too many ethnicities and nations on the planet to prove or disprove this hypothesis with absolute certainty, but, as we will see below, it would be an error to argue that ethnicity must necessarily be dislodged from nation. In late antiquity the nation was based on what we call ethnicity, and so it remained in early modernity, but universal Christianity and King Charles's Holy Roman Empire began to work against ethnic forces at play within the nation.

Taking the Europeanist theory of the nation as postulated by Anderson, Hobsbawm, Hastings, and others to be universal, as many scholars do, leads to the misconception that the Nahua altepetl, the Mixtec ñuu, the Yucatec cah, the K'iche' amaq', and the Qheswaphone ayllu were only stateless "aggregates of inhabitants," which was not the case. We know many of the polities of Colombia, Guatemala, and Yucatán, as well as the imperialist Mexica and Inkakuna, were governed by states and state- like structures before 1492. The idea of stateless communities is one convenient way to argue for European superiority over those communities.

Furthermore, if there is a state, there is generally a nation. Indeed, a notable percentage of early modern authors writing in Spanish (both Hispanic and Amerindian identified) found entities such as altepetl, ñuu, cah, amaq', ayllu, and others could be represented with the term "nación." Those authors who avoided the term "nación" were saying something about their conceptualizations of Amerindian political status. This inquiry into the formation of Latin American nations discusses previous incarnations of this concept, referred to by many names, including "nación," in the Americas that were linked to lineage, ethnicity, gender, and territory. As the period of late antiquity transitioned into the early modern one, indigenous terminology on social organization was generally rejected and replaced with various terms such as "nación," "province," and even "kingdom."

If race (still) matters, as the public intellectual Cornel West blazoned across the cover of one of his books, the possibility of a color-blind nation free from hierarchical thinking and based on citizenship for all is thrown into doubt. It might be overly pessimistic to think the modern nation in race-free form put forth by free-market theorists and globalization advocates is not possible in the future. However, we have come a lot less distance than we imagine. Ethnic cleansing occurred recently in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia; Russia has reclaimed parts of Ukraine based on ethnic principle; people from one Latin American country are not easily accepted as nationals in another Latin American country; and people from those countries are not freely accepted in the United States. Our overlapping neocolonizing and decolonizing national models still have much to learn from colonizing and colonized nations of the sixteenth century. To get there, we must understand as national constructions the organizational patterns and practices of pre- and postcontact peoples during the frames immediately before the advent of the Spanish and in the decades after their arrival in the region.

We cannot consider these matters adequately if we do not mention the realities in Spain that informed the minds of conquistadors, encomenderos, priests, administrators, and even colonists. What was happening there was a consolidating of socio-ethnic forces — Basques, Andalusians, and Castilians — all under the banner of "Spanish." This was an eternal process going back to before the Roman Empire and, as we will see, an eternal process in Mesoamerica and the Andes. The reader will realize that traditional notions had been coalescing (not unlike in Spain) and they continued to so with new elements as "early modern" began to take root. However, even in Spain, the ethnic factor is a rudimentary one, and even today, the forces of ethnicity are so strong that Catalonia and the Basque Country still toy with the idea of forging ethnic nations separate from Castile-dominated Spain. Thus, there are always alternative concepts of modernity.

There is an additional point of comparison to Spain, New Spain, and Peru. Not even the power of the postethnic vein of Western discourse can camouflage the fact that Great Britain is likewise not "one" nation. A brief discussion of the United Kingdom is helpful because most readers of this book in English are familiar with it. Its example highlights both the Enlightenment ideal tending toward postethnicity and the ethnocultural reality of the nation it tries to leave behind. Frank Welsh takes note of this in his history of the United Kingdom: "Inhabitants of other countries can define themselves as 'French,' 'German' or even 'Italian' without great difficulty, but those of the British Isles may wish to be known as English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, or British, to say nothing of Jersymen, Guernseymen or Manx." While author Welsh may have been unaware of local sentiments in Germany, France, or Italy, his observations on the United Kingdom are relevant to our understanding of Spain and the New World. Tellingly, he titled his book The Four Nations: A History of the United Kingdom. The "four" refers to the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish. There was already backtracking from the unitary ideal of the United Kingdom when Ireland, except for the northern province, left in 1922. Recent voting in the case of Scotland is illuminating. Indeed, much has been made of the "national" differences in the Brexit vote between the English and the Scottish. To say it right out, the ideal is the United Kingdom, but the reality is the four nations still coming to grips with that ideal installed on May 1, 1707, when Great Britain was born. What makes the idea of nation presented in this book on the sixteenth century and earlier seem somewhat outré is that it responds to previously deemphasized peoples as nations and that it is not blinded by the postethnic ideal, which is so compelling. We want this ideal, but it is difficult to obtain.

Two other points need to be made. First, besides modern notions of the nation, earlier conceptions persist to counterbalance modern ones, or to inform them, causing or creating a kind of heterogeneous modernity. These may be notions such as the previously mentioned Scotland, Catalonia, and Kwe'sx Kiwe Wala. As ethnographer Katinka Weber cautions, even in our time, people in Bolivia still identify with the nación aymara, the nación guaraní, or with the nación chiquitana. For McKim Marriot, these terms and the process that occurs as they float to the surface refer to what philosopher F. S. C. Northrup has described as the "resurgence of submerged civilizations." These notions endure despite "Bolivia" being the shared ideal. Tellingly, this ideal itself has changed to take into account the ethnic nation. Since 2009, this country is officially calling itself the Plurinational State of Bolivia, with many official languages, including Aymara, Qheswa, Guarani, Spanish, and dozens of others. Each "nation" included in the Plurinational State is an etnia, a term that, as established by Smith, means "ethnic community."


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
Abbreviations for Sources Frequently Cited in the Text,
1. The "Birth" of Latin American Nations,
2. From People to Nation: Mesoamerica,
3. From People to Nation: The Andes,
4. Gender and Expanding Ethnicity,
5. Migrations, Trade, and Other Human Interactions,

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