Printer friendly version Print this page

Historical Text Archive © 1990 - 2014
Printer friendly version of: http://historicaltextarchive.com/sections.php?action=read&artid=121


Social System in 19th Century Latin America

Latin America was a place where there were social distinctions. One knew one's place. In the colonial period, one's social position was defined and protected by law. Classes had rights and privileges. There was a hierarchical order. People in lower classes deferred to people of high status.

    Nineteenth century conservatives wanted to preserve this social order.  Some saw it as ordained by God, as the natural order of things. To them, all life is hierarchical. Institutions like the church, schools, governments, craft guilds, etc, should uphold this social order.

    Nineteenth century liberals expressed some interest in equality before the law and equality of opportunity (which they tended to see as equality before the law). They did not believe in egalitarianism. What they tended to want is access for people like themselves. They did not mean Amerinds (American Indians/earlier immigrants), or blacks, or women.

    The maximum number of people who counted in the early 19th century was limited. One guess puts the number like this:

       In practice, the number was probably fewer. Only a few "whites were in the most prominent positions. More than half the population was excluded because they were female or children. Some of the "whites" were in lower jobs. Some were geographically isolated. Some were not interested in public affairs.

    We are concerned with this rather small group at the top of the pyramid because they were the principal actors. The other people tended to be reactors. The presence of the reactors and the necessity of controlling them dictated or conditioned the behavior of the actors.

    As Latin American societies diversified, grew in population, asorbed new ideas, etc., the social and political ordered changed. New groups such as industrialists and urban workers came into existence and wanted different things than did the old landowning elites. By the 20th century, the ideas of democracy and egalitarianism became prevalent in some Latin American countries.

    In spite of  changes, Latin America has been a very unrevolutionary region. Elites have been able to exercise ideological control in many societies. In addition, the force of inertia ("that's the way we've always done it") has discouraged change. People tend to believe that the present order is what is supposed to be. They did not see alternatives. They could no more conceive of a different social order than people in the antebellum U. S. conceive of a nation of free blacks and white living together or present society conceiving of a society free of racial, class, and sexual prejudice.  Social conservatism characterized and characterizes Latin America.