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Letrados, university graduates (literally "men of letters") and synonymous with lawyers and judges. Letrados comprised a special group, equal to knights and noblemen (fidalgos), who occupied most of the judicial and many of the administrative positions of government. Lusophone members of this group usually were educated at the University of Coimbra in Portugal and were schooled in canon law or civil law before entering royal service. Letrados were closely associated with the crown and often were appointed to one of the king's councils, to knighthoods and to military orders. As members of the bureaucracy, letrados established and ran the administration of the Portuguese Empire, including colonial Brazil.

In the Hispanic world letrados were educated at the Universities of Salamanca and Alcalá before taking positions in the colonial government. Very early on, New World universities such as the Universidad de San Marcos in Lima were established, allowing for the creation of a secondary class of letrados, the Creole elite.

In all cases the letrados read books and frequently indulged in literature. Early Ibero-American literature was written by letrados who dominated the literary scene throughout the colonial era. Some early and diverse letrados who wrote foundational chronicles that helped to establish an Ibero-American literary tradition were Pero Vaz de Caminha (1450–1500), Hernán Cortés (1485–1547), and José de Acosta (1539–1600). Letrados participated in the wars for independence oftentimes as ideological nation-builders and continued to have importance throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Stuart B. Schwartz, Sovereignty and Society of Colonial Brazil (1973).

Additional Bibliography

Calaça, Carlos Eduardo. Anti-semitismo na Universidade de Coimbra: Cristãos-novos letrados do Rio de Janeiro, 1600–1730. São Paulo: Humanitas, 2005.

Díaz Caballero, Jesús. "El incaísmo como primera ficción orientadora en la formación de la nación criolla en las Provincias Unidas del Río de la Plata." A Contracorriente 3, no. 1 (Fall 2005): 67-113.

González, José Eduardo. "Los nuevos letrados: Posboom y posnacionalismo." Revista Iberoamericana 194-195 (2001): 175-190.

Prado Arnoni, Antonio. Boêmios, letrados e insubmissos: Nota sobre cultura e anarquismo. Revista Iberoamericana 208-209 (2004): 721-733.

Rama, Angel. La ciudad letrada. Montevideo, Uruguay: Arca, 1998.

                                    Ross Wilkinson

                                      Thomas Ward