Frontiers in Latin America

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Frontiers in Latin America

Frontiers in Latin America can be defined in three ways. The more traditional definition is the line of demarcation between different nations. A second definition conceives of a frontier as contested space where European and indigenous influences pass back and forth, as through a membrane. In both cases, frontiers are often theaters of political, social, economic, and cultural clashes. In its third incarnation, the frontier takes on symbolic or mythological significance (Slatta 2001a, pp. 6, 27, 32-33, 53).


The fuzziness of national boundaries in Latin America begins in 1494, with the line of Tordesillas, running 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. That bit of geographical intervention produced centuries of conflict first between Spain and Portugal and later between Brazil and Argentina over who controlled the territory between them. British intervention in 1826, which turned the Banda Oriental (aka Provincia Cisplatina) into Uruguay, finally resolved the issue.

Conflicting land claims, often over remote and lightly populated regions, have continued into the early twenty-first century. In some cases, even clear natural features, such as rivers, have failed to prevent conflict. War erupted between Mexico and the United States in the mid-1840s because each claimed a different river, the Rio Grande and Nueces respectively, as the boundary between Texas and Mexico. In the War of the Pacific (1879–1884), Chile defeated two neighbors and annexed the mineral-rich provinces of Tarapacá from Peru and Litoral from Bolivia. During the 1930s three boundary wars broke out: Bolivia and Paraguay over the Chaco region, Peru and Colombia over the Leticia region, and Peru and Ecuador over the Zarumilla region (Domínguez, p. 20).

The late twentieth century featured a number of conflicts over national boundaries. Wars erupted between El Salvador and Honduras (1969), Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falklands/Malvinas (1982), and Ecuador and Peru (1995). Serious disputes not resulting in warfare included Argentina and Chile (1978), Chile versus Bolivia and Peru (late 1970s); and Colombia and Venezuela (1987). Tensions remain over longstanding disputes between Venezuela and Guyana and between Guatemala and Belize (Domínguez, pp. 18-19).

Many factors can exacerbate frontier boundary disputes. Natural resources, such as oil, can fan frontier conflicts, such as between Ecuador and Peru. Revolutionary groups and drug traffickers have fomented shootings near the long border between Colombia and Venezuela. Cross-border migration heightened the tension between El Salvador and Honduras, and illegal immigration across the Mexican-U.S. border remains a political hot issue.


Throughout the Americas, frontier regions have served as membranes through which trade goods and intercultural exchanges passed in both directions. Vicente de Zaldívar noted in 1598 that the Apache of northern New Spain "sell meat, hides, tallow, suet, and salt in exchange for cotton, blankets, pottery, maize, and some small green stones" (quoted in Slatta 2001, p. 71). In Uruguay, Argentina, and southern Brazil, gauchos and gaúchos adapted many elements of native language, cuisine (maté), dress, and riding equipment. Similar borrowings occurred on the llanos of Venezuela and Colombia and in southern Chile (Slatta 1994, pp. 160-161). Indians likewise adopted elements of European culture. Navajos, for example, took up sheep raising. Firearms and metal knives also became important to many native groups.

However, the policy of domination by colonial powers quickly turned natives from cooperation toward resistance and conflict. Competition for resources, including livestock, water, land, and salt, precipitated Indian-white conflicts. Resistance became even more formidable after native groups acquired horses that turned Indians from the pampas of Argentina to the Great Plains of the United States into highly successful hunters and cavalrymen. J. Ignatius Molina observed of the Araucanians of the pampas: "perceiving the great advantage which their enemies derived from cavalry, they soon began to discipline themselves in the same manner. Their first care was to procure a good breed of horses" (quoted in Slatta 2001a, p. 41). Not surprisingly, equestrian Indians resisted longer than sedentary groups, and whites in Chile, Argentina, Mexico, and the United States did not subdue them until the waning decades of the nineteenth century (Slatta 1994, pp. 161-162, 170-171).


As a symbolic or mythical place, the frontier in Latin America appears in a number of guises. One is the "Golden Frontier of Treasure, Abundance, and Opportunity." Beginning with the wanderings of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1528), there are tales of a land "abounding in gold and silver, with (seven) great cities whose houses were many stories high, whose streets were lined with silversmiths' shops, and whose doors were inlaid with turquoise." A decade later, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, after traveling for months in the wilderness, reached the so-called Seven Cities of Gold in the land that he named Cibola. In South America, the wealth of the Chibchas or Muiscas of the Andes created a vision of El Dorado, "the gilded one" (Slatta 2001b, pp. 96-97).

A second incarnation is the polar opposite of the golden frontier, the "Desert Frontier of Barbarism and Emptiness," devoid of civilization. Dangerous frontiersmen, often horsemen, inhabited these distant reaches. Alexander von Humboldt accurately described life in llaneros, the cowboys of Colombia and Venezuela. "Men naked to the waist and armed with a lance, ride over the savannahs to inspect the animals…. Their food is meat dried in the air and a little salted; and of this even their horses sometimes eat" (quoted in Slatta 2001a, p. 91).

Argentina's Domingo F. Sarmiento provided one well-known paradigm of frontiersmen with his portraits of gauchos in his 1845 book Civilization and Barbarism. He described the pampas frontier in unflattering terms: "the evil from which the Argentine Republic suffers," "desert," "wastes containing no human dwelling," "savages ever on watch" (Sarmiento, p. 2). Also writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Ramón Páez, a European-educated Venezuelan, found many shortcomings in the "barbarous" life of the llaneros, the "mongrel breed" inhabiting the plains. In Doña Bárbara (1929), Rómulo Gallegos reprised Sarmiento's theme of civilization versus barbarism, this time set in the Venezuelan llanos. Gallegos has his protagonist describe the frontier: "Wild plains! Wild vastness! Illimitable deserted prairies—deep, silent, solitary streams!" (Gallegos, p. 17).

Yet a third symbolic incarnation posits the "Frontier as the Future." Brazilian politicians acted on this myth with their push to the West in the 1960s and the creation of the new national capital of Brasilia on the edge of the Amazonian wilderness. In the early twenty-first century, gold miners, or garimpeiros, in the Amazon, most working illegally, have created a new gold rush. Hoping to emulate Brasilia's success, Argentina briefly renamed its currency the "austral" to point national energy south toward its vast, still sparsely settled Patagonian frontier. In similar fashion, Venezuela pins its hopes on the remote inland Orinoco River basin. In each case, the frontier is visualized as the key to future national greatness (Slatta 2001a, p. 24).

Frontiers, real and imagined, have played a huge role in Latin American history, culture, and mythology. Expect future reincarnations to continue to influence the region's culture and politics. Given its allure and malleability, as metaphor, myth, historical category, place, and process, the frontier shows little real signs of passing. Nor should it.

See alsoAraucanians; Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Núñez; Gallegos, Rómulo; Humboldt, Alexander von; Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino; Tordesillas, Treaty of (1494); War of the Pacific.


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                                    Richard W. Slatta