Latin American Historiography in the 20th Century

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the trends that became relevant in Latin American historiography in the 20th century. We discuss some important background material before delving into the important theories that shaped historiography in this century.

Latin America

Latin America is a pretty big place. Generally speaking, it includes virtually all of Spanish- and/or Portuguese-speaking North, Central and South America, beginning in Mexico at the north end and going all the way down to Argentina and Chile at the southern end of South America.

The study of history changes from region to region, from time to time. Culture, politics, and our customs both affect, and are affected by, how we view history. Latin America is no different. In this lesson, we will examine Latin American historiography and how this changed over the course of the 20th century.

Broad Ideas

Latin American historiography in the 20th century was driven by its recent history. The 19th century saw most of the region free itself from the colonial rule of Spain and Portugal, while also developing better relations with western capitalist powers like the United Kingdom and the United States. While these political relationships may have changed, the economic relationships with these new powers were similar: the trade that developed between the fledgling nations and Western powers was highly slanted in favor of the established powers.

This new relationship, and its similarities to the colonial period, affected the way Latin American history was written in the 20th century. Writers like Eduardo Galeano and Silvio Frondizi contributed to the development of dependency theory, which attempted to cohesively explain Europeans' interaction with Latin America. The theory contends that throughout history, when more developed nations trade with lesser developed nations, the relationships that are created are ones which tend to favor the developed nations, with resources and wealth leaching out of the lesser developed states.

Perhaps most importantly, dependency theory rejected modernization theory prevalent throughout the colonizing period and the 20th century, as well. The idea assumed Latin America, as a conglomeration of lesser-developed nations than its Western partners, simply needed to adopt capitalism and more Western practices in order to compete on the same stage. Dependency theory challenged this idea, claiming it was the very Western practices Latin American nations were supposed to adopt that had kept the countries in a disadvantaged state.

The world systems approach, a relatively new approach to history that gained popularity in the second half of the 20th century in Latin America, is related to dependency theory. The world systems approach, with its roots in both Marxist views of history and the works of the French Annales school, views global history as the interaction between different groups of social, economic and political structures. Within this view, Latin America was viewed as a cohesive whole, and the analysis of how Latin America was treated by colonial, and later Western, powers is in step with the view presented by dependency theory.

Indigenous History

The 20th century also saw the further growth of indigenous and ethno-history in Latin America. Historians began to investigate and write on the indigenous societies that had existed in Latin America long before colonialism had reached American shores. These historians found it difficult; there were fewer records of pre-European societies in Latin America, in part due to the conditions and in part due to destruction wrought by European conquest.

Nonetheless, historians in the 20th century began investigating these cultures and, more importantly, tried to investigate them on their own terms. That meant not applying Western cultural customs or attitudes when analyzing these societies. Effectively, they tried to present as objective a view of these countries as possible.

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