Teaching Latin America: A Comparative Approach

Richard Sigwalt, April 2008

When I started in late 2004 to revise my one-semester Latin American history survey course for the spring semester, I was dissatisfied on two points about how I had taught the course last time around. As a historian of early Africa, I realized I had "prehistoricized" Native Americans by depicting even the complex systems of highland America essentially as prologues to the 16th-century conquests that created what Napoleon later dubbed "Latin" America. In addition, the "underdevelopment" paradigm I had used, while not wrong, had, I thought, obscured the degree to which U.S. history was part and parcel of a hemispheric past.

The notion of doing a comparative history of North and South America—as opposed to an "Ibero-" and "Anglo-" America approach—suggested itself as I wrestled with the problem of how to "historicize" the Native American experience.1 Mid-20th-century proponents of a comparative history of the hemisphere focus on how similar global phenomena affected the whole of the Americas. The result is a rich literature that can be drawn upon in a comparison of North and South America.2 It struck me as I reviewed the language-family map of the hemisphere that there existed profoundly distinct "deep" histories north and south of Panama, whereas within each continent there was much in common. That Apache is closely related to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, means that preconquest Mexico formed part of a continental historical experience which has continued to the present in myriad ways; the same is true south of Panama. I decided to structure the course around systematic comparison of the histories of what I now recognized (from the same map) as the Western hemisphere’s two massive northern and southern "islands."3

In terms of physical geography, the two "islands" are the same size, with North America’s slight edge in area consisting of "ice anyway," in the words of one student. On both continents, high linked ranges of geologically recent mountains dominate in the west, dropping sharply to the Pacific with only a narrow coastal plain. East of the mountains, each "island" is dominated by a single major river system—the world’s longest in North America, its most capacious in South America. Finally, both "islands" have enormous prairies containing the world’s greatest resources of rich agricultural lands outside Eurasia. Alongside these similarities stand a number of equally impressive differences, the most important being that the South American river system is transected by the equator, with a basin largely comprising original tropical rain forest, while the corresponding North American river basin consisted originally mainly of temperate prairies and deciduous forests. The eastern slope of North America’s western mountains descends into dry savannahs, while much of that of the Andes descends into the rain forest (with a good deal of grasslands in the south).

Initially I had qualms about how accessible the comparative core of the course would be, especially for first-year students. After a few weeks, though, everyone was on board—history students, language majors, and even 18-year olds who apparently had not had any exposure to college-level history courses. In terms of periodization, the course was conventional, though we spent more time on the "pre-Columbian" unit than is usual for a Latin American survey. Subsequent units included the usual suspects: Conquest, Colonial Systems, Age of Reform and Revolution, Caudillismo, Racism and Positivist Authoritarianism, Depression and Nationalism, Cold War and Since. Focus on the comparative histories of the two continental "islands," however, meant that material within each period was treated quite differently from how I had treated it earlier. North and South America now each had what we took to be its own historical "core" zone before 1500—Mexico in the north and Peru in the south—and these "cores" continued to dominate well into the 18th century, with the river basin/prairie agriculture regions of Brazil/Argentina and Canada/USA emerging clearly only in the 19th century to match the mountain core zones in population and military and economic clout. In effect, I identified three "dyads" for comparative treatment : (a) Mexico/Peru; (b) Brazil/U.S.; and (c) Spanish/Anglo-Lusophone entities. For what they are worth, the following are random examples of how the comparative perspective revealed facets that had remained hidden before.

Comparing the precolonial empires of North America and South America brought out that the Inca empire functioned essentially to counter threats of famine, the Aztec to guarantee security for a highly developed trade network. Structurally different internal crises (together with epidemics) largely explain the conquest. "Spiritual conquest" occurred very differently: in Mexico, the Virgin addressed a peasant in Nahuatl,* mass conversions followed, and Catholicism mediated by the vision of Guadalupe* became the foundation of a new Mexican culture; in Peru, courts of the Inquisition were set in motion to "extirpate idolatry," and the preconquest past informed rebellions against Spanish rule. In Mexico, power remained centered in what had been the Aztec capital, with mining and agricultural complexes developing on the periphery, especially on the northern mining frontier; in Peru, the capital was in the new coastal city of Lima, with the mines located in the heart of the old empire, which remained isolated from Spanish institutions and cultural impact from the capital. As for the river-basins, the age of conquest (to ca. 1600) in Brazil meant essentially the establishment of the eastern slave plantation complex on the coast—a subject that deserved treatment because of its later significance along the Atlantic coast regions of both continents.

Throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries, mestizaje and the spread of Spanish was rapid in Mexico, much slower in Peru. Outside the highlands areas, Brazil and North America developed in a roughly parallel way, with the emergence of wide-ranging exploitation of the interior from São Paulo and Quebec, and the development of extensive plantation systems in the southern colonies of British North America (which developed a caste system to bolster slavery) and the northern captaincies of Brazil (which had slavery but did not develop a caste system).4 Overall what Portugal did on the river-basin frontiers—exploring, exploiting, enslaving, trading—parallels closely what the other Europeans (Spanish, French, and English) together did in North America.

Late 18th-century imperial reforms affected Spanish and non-Spanish areas in both continents. In Brazil and the British mainland colonies, ruled only loosely from Lisbon and London, reform challenged colonial autonomy. British North Americans resisted successfully and subsequently implemented a federal constitutional order that incorporated the old autonomous units, while Brazil remained Portuguese because it absorbed the Portuguese Court after Napoleon took over Lisbon and ousted the king: both held together, though. North and South American Spanish territories, on the other hand, suffered long-term disruption because the wars for independence put an end to a Spanish bureaucratic structure the like of which had never existed under the British and Portuguese. In the heartlands of the original Spanish viceroyalties, the Peruvian elite depended on Spain to preserve the racial hierarchy, while in Mexico hierarchy was less rigid and the populace less hostile to Creole ambitions. Comparing the situations of Washington and Bolivar and the slave-based systems that bred them—dwelling on the significance, for instance, of the fact that Bolivar’s armies were heavily African American, while those of Washington excluded African Americans because their service as soldiers would violate North American caste norms—also proved instructive.

After independence, local power centers prevailed throughout the hemisphere, not just in the old Spanish empire, where the phenomenon is called caudillismo. In Brazil and the United States localism was the somewhat altered continuation (under a cloak of national sovereignty) of the pre-independence status quo, while in former Spanish North and South America it emerged out of the breakdown of the bureaucratic regime. Brazil and the United States profited from the breakdown of the old order in the former Spanish empire by assuming control of the river valleys and other lands formerly held by the Spanish—the United States by taking over of the Mexican mining/cattle frontier and Brazil by moving effectively to claim its present boundaries.

Common to all or nearly all American countries in the 1850–75 period was that conflict and a revolution in transport and communications led to the dominance of the nation-state. Brazil’s domestication of regional power holders in the mid-1950s, the U.S. Civil War, and the rise of porteno (the Buenos Aires colonial elite) dominance in Argentina are examples. These states were then dominated for a generation by revolutionary modernizers identified (except in the United States!) as "positivists". Overall, industrialization in the United States and Canada—as against emphasis on primary product export in South America—is important; but so is the fact that Mexico and Peru maintained unusually high levels of economic self-sufficiency into the mid-20th century. During the period 1875–1917 South America was able to maintain its own balance of power diplomacy while dealing as best it could with the United States as one of several intrusive imperial powers. But in North America the European imperial powers acknowledged de facto that the United States was hegemon in its own "backyard."

At the heart of the Mexican Revolution was dissatisfaction by mestizos in central and northern Mexico with a positivist regime that considered the highest end of government to be encouragement of industrial agriculture, usually at peasant expense. In Peru the guano boom at mid-century was a paradigm of an extractive economic system, to the point that the exploited laborers who worked the guano fields were East Asian contract laborers, not Peruvian highlands people. By the time the depression struck, the ideological foundations had been laid throughout the Americas for rejection of the racial side of positivism, and with it the ideology that lazily posited the ultimate worth of economic growth based on extractive enterprises and industrial agriculture. A series of American presidents took power and held it for decades—Cardenas in Mexico, Roosevelt in the United States, Vargas in Brazil (and later on, Peron in Argentina), for example. Policies aimed at reviving and/or encouraging industrialization were implemented as export markets shrank, racial preferences were increasingly renounced, and union organization under central government aegis was encouraged.

The rise of the United States to global hegemony after World War II brought South America into the U.S. orbit in a way it had not been before 1945. Nevertheless, U.S. policy in South America, especially the northern superpower’s support of conservative military "modernizers," resembled policy in the Middle East and East Asia more than it did the exercise of its long-standing hegemony in North America, which continued unchallenged, even, as with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, by the Soviet Union. This theme was the main focus of the final weeks of the course, when we abandoned conventional periodization in an attempt to deal at least a bit with areas of the Americas slighted by our focus on major players like Brazil, Mexico, Peru, and the United States by comparing smaller countries in North and South America with each other. The opening comparison was between Bolivia and Guatemala, two heavily Native American countries whose experience with agrarian revolution was conspicuously different in the 1950s owing mainly to contrasting U.S. responses. Other countries compared included Argentina and Canada, comparable late-developing, European-based export-oriented nations; Costa Rica and Uruguay; and Nicaragua and Ecuador. Separate attention was given to three countries, El Salvador, Colombia, and Venezuela.

Latin American surveys taught in the United States typically devote a certain amount of time to comparing Latin and Anglo-America and examining the U.S. impact "south of the border," so the attention I gave U.S. material in my course last year was probably no more than marginally greater than the norm. Whatever the case, drawing on the United States as unit of comparison introduced U.S. students to think in new ways about their own country. Broadly speaking, and in light of the recent emergence of Atlantic history as a distinct field, I think the comparative approach outlined here could conceivably serve as a framework for integrating the history of the Americas; at the very least, it enabled a couple of dozen U.S. students to realize, in the words of one student, that "the United States is an American nation."

—Richard Sigwalt has a PhD in African history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has taught Latin American history at the College of William and Mary and at Luther College.

This essay is based on a course taught in the spring semester of 2005 at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa. The 26 students in the class ranged from second-semester first-years getting a global studies requirement out of the way before going on to more serious things, through history and Spanish majors and minors, two or three of whom had spent time in Latin America. All were Midwesterners, except for two Africans and one Peruvian of mature years who had married into the local community. The text was John Charles Chasteen’s Born in Blood and Fire (New York and London, 2001), and all students read and reviewed George Reid Andrews, Afro-Latin America 1800–2000 (Oxford and New York, 2004).


1. The Ibero-Anglo comparison has informed a long tradition, most recently seen in Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s The Americas: A Hemispheric History (New York: Random House, 2003).

2. See, for example, Herbert E. Bolton, "The Epic of Greater America," American Historical Review 38:3 (April 1933), 448–74; and Silvio Zavala, "A General View of Colonial History of the New World," American Historical Review 66:4 (July 1961), 913–29.

3. Spanish-speaking islands of the Caribbean fell outside the purview of the course because the department had a separate offering in Caribbean history.

4. "Caste" seems to me to be a useful paradigm to distinguish continental North America’s division into unequal "racially" defined endogamous groups with blacks relegated to manual and domestic labor roles. For a useful discussion of caste, see the article on "Caste" in the International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences.

*We regret that in the print version, these words were misspelled.