Letter: Critical Response to Jorge Zeballos Presentation

I am concerned about the historical accuracy and reductive perspective in Jorge Zeballo’s presentation “Cosmic Race, Rainbow People, and Other Myths”, which aims to trace the history of racism from the Iberian Peninsula to the Americas over seven centuries. The presentation subscribes to what scholars call the ‘Black Legend,’ a propaganda that demonizes Spaniards, and portrays the Spanish Empire as backward, by exaggerating the roles of the Inquisition, the Catholic Church and treatment of the Amerindians. This approach does not take into account complex historical processes occurring during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. This historical bias, incorrect use of historical items, and identification of contemporary racism by saying ‘this is a racist image,’ does not help our understanding of the root causes of racism and the construction of religious/ethnic/cultural difference. The presentation falls short because it does not propose alternative models of understanding of other cultures, and instead perpetuates myths and stereotypes about Spain. It suggests that racism is embedded in the “Latino” culture and language, but does not address how “Latinos” can learn to handle issues regarding race. It also oversimplifies contemporary struggles of identity and racial discrimination in “Latin America,” by not taking into account the role of social class. Therefore, I would briefly like to address the six most significant myths communicated in this presentation.

Myth 1: Latin America exists. The concept “Latin America” was conceived by a young French intellectual to describe this geographic region. It has been criticized because it assumes unity and similarities among these nation-states, and a European origin for its people. However, there is a need to note the diversity of all countries with this space, and although they may share similar histories, events unfold at different times and experiences of “Latin Americans” differ greatly. Also, the presentation focusing on Latino identity, which in reality was Hispanic Identity, focuses entirely on Spanish colonization, but never mentions the Portuguese, French, Dutch or English presence in “Latin America.”

Myth 2: No other religious leaders express racist views, like the Pope did in the 14th century. This blanket statement is problematic because in the medieval world, there were three religions that believed very strongly that their God was the true one and would do whatever was necessary to defend their faith. In fact, Christians (like Cervantes) were held as captives and enslaved in Muslim kingdoms. The Reformation resulted in egregious language even among Christians. Still today, Christian leaders express hatred towards other Christians, Jews or Muslims. Ethnic-religious racism is not only a crime of one Pope or a nation, but something that plagues all facets of humanity. Over time, other Popes developed their views on topics such as purity of blood and natural slaves, and relinquished these postures.

Myth 3: Columbus was praised and rewarded for enslaving and killing indigenous peoples. In 1500, Columbus returned to Spain in shackles and was jailed because of his tyrannical rule in Santo Domingo. Because of the barbaric acts committed, he was stripped of his governorship. He spent the remainder of his life suing the Crown for profits and titles of nobility originally promised to him in The Capitulations of Santa Fe, and received nothing.

Myth 4: All Spaniards abused native peoples and believed in a violent conquest and rule. Not all people involved in the Spanish conquest dehumanized or agreed with a violent conquest, and notable exceptions are Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and Bartolomé de Las Casas. Cabeza de Vaca, shipwrecked soldier, spent eight years roaming the Gulf Coast and interacting with native populations. When he finally encountered Spaniards, he proposed a peaceful and unarmed conquest. He successfully ended the capture of Amerinidians for the slave trade in New Spain. Later, Las Casas becomes known as the ‘defensor de los indios,’ and for many years argued against their enslavement. His main adversary was Ginés de Sepúlveda (featured in the presentation), who did dehumanize and used an Aristotelian argument to conclude that the native peoples were “natural slaves.” What is not discussed in the presentation is that as a result of Las Casas’ writings, reforms were instituted. In 1537 Pope Paul III’s bull declared the Amerindians as rational beings with souls and that their lives and property should be protected. In 1542, Charles I signed new laws prohibiting slavery and put an end to the encomienda system.

Myth 5: The conquest was completed by a few exceptional men, notably Cortés and Pizarro. This myth of colonizer / colonized being Spanish / Amerindian is also ineffective of expressing colonial reality. Both conquistadores relied heavily on native military forces and their knowledge. The conquistadores and native peoples, to the detriment of the Aztecs and Incas, all participated in the destruction of these empires. Some Amerindians who participate in the conquest learned to read and write Spanish and became experts on Spanish law. Amerindians and freed blacks owned slaves. They consistently asserted their nobility rights, right to own horses and property and sued for abuses committed. Until today, indigenous groups continue to fight for water rights and sue oil companies, and/or participate in the global economy or politics.

Myth 6: The Spaniards prohibited native languages.

Initially, there was great destruction of native knowledge (books, in the case of New Spain) and Spaniards did not learn native tongues. However, the only reason Quechua, Aymara and Guaraní exist as written languages is due to religious orders who learned native languages and wrote them using the Roman alphabet. In the 19th and 20th centuries, some countries/regions in “Latin America” did unsuccessfully prohibit or marginalize native tongues. In universities and communities today, there is a revival of interest in native languages. Others have been speaking their native languages for centuries. However, there are also those that reject their native tongue and prefer Spanish and English, because they associate speaking these languages with economic opportunities.

Much remains to be said about this presentation and I regret I do not have more space. With that being said, careful and thorough research needs to be completed to avoid making generalizations about nations and stereotyping its people.


Adriana Rojas Campbell, Spanish Instructor,  Ph.D. Candidate


Categories: Opinion

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