Violence Against Indigenous People, Latin America

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Violence Against Indigenous People, Latin America

“You nobles are greatly burdened; the story of your hardships is no joke. It is a tale of partings, of endless deprivations, and of people being left by the roadside because there they had been knifed—as it was at Balcab, where you runners were cut up while on foot on the road, and as it was in the scrub forest, where the runners went along afraid of being raped, of being forced to assume a shameful burden by the foreigners, the abuse of all the foreign dogs together empowered by the possession of steel to lift skirts.”

“You! Man! Your clothes to the dogs!”

The cah residents were lifted up and hung like pigs; they suspended them like swine.

“Your clothes, man!”

They had also abused the women in this way: “Woman! Your clothes! Off with your petticoat!” This was the nature of the burden.

What has been told here happened not once, nor twice, but many times; on countless occasions these things were done to our lords here on the road to Calkini” (Restall 1998, p. 91–92).

This account of the experiences endured by the mid-sixteenth-century Yucatec Maya nobility, given in 1541 by the fifteen-year-old Alonso Canche, does not test modern expectations of what is meant by the term violence, which is generally conceived of in terms of physical acts. Yet a charting of such physical violence over the past 500 years would, for one thing, take volumes, and, as Michael Taussig provides a reminder, it would also be insufficient, for words on a page can never transmit adequately the experiences engendered by violence. What is more, any attempt to make the violence in Canche’s account more familiar by noting the parallels between the rapes of men and women in his times and those that occur in modern cultures would fail to capture the racial character of the centuries of violence against indigenous people.

There is, however, a second level of the meaning of violence. That is, one can consider the types of conceptual or ideological violence that make physical violence acceptable or even advocated in the first place. Here, one confronts the way in which the violator justifies and legitimizes his act, the process by which violence becomes possible to begin with. This rationale will not, however, be found in the writings of indigenous authors, for such records were not widely circulated and so did not have an impact on the overall sensitivity toward indigenous people. One must therefore turn to those records that did get widely read and replicated by secondary authors, and thus contributed to an overall “outside” perspective of indigenous people. From this perspective, the main contributions to the racialization of indigenous people since the time of European contact can be recognized. Specifically, one can then confront an external ideological definition of racial difference coupled with the potential for substantial external economic gain that has enabled physical violence against indigenous people.

Such interplay is illustrated by Hernán Cortés’s sixteenth-century letters to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Concerning his activities in the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, Cortés gave a conflicted description of local folk: “I will say only that these people live almost like those in Spain, and in as much harmony and order as there, and considering that they are barbarous and so far from the knowledge of God and cut off from all civilized nations, it is truly remarkable to see what they have achieved in all things” (Pagden 1986, p. 108). Much as, his companion in arms, Bernal Díaz del Castillo marveled at his first view of Tenochtitlan, comparing it to a dream, Cortés appreciated much of what he encountered. Yet his sixteenth-century Spanish sensibilities, anchored to Christian and Aristotelian ideologies, forced him to downplay an observationally derived appreciation in favor of ideological deprecation.

Indeed, the extent to which Christian and Greek philosophies justified racial violence (and from which Cortés consciously and subconsciously drew) took center stage in the Great Debate at Valladolid between Juan GinésdeSepúlveda and Bartolomé de las Casas in 1551. Sepúlveda argued that indigenous people were to be considered natural slaves who would benefit from conquest, irrespective of whether or not they were first evangelized. Las Casas, on the other hand, championed the idea that the role of the Spaniards was to convert indigenous people to Christianity—that political or economic interests should take a back seat to spiritual demands. The fact that Las Casas enjoyed favorable royal appointments after the debate, along with the decree of Charles V’s successor regarding forced labor in the Peruvian silver mines, might be interpreted retrospectively as signs that the concerns of indigenous people had been vindicated. A written diplomacy that took shape within the post-debate period, evidenced in Philip II’s decree concerning the racialized maintenance of the Potosi mines’ economic salience, also supports this view:

“Given that the mines of Peru cannot be exploited using Spanish laborers, since those who are there will not work in them, and as it is said that slaves cannot withstand the work, owing to the nature and coldness of the land, it appears necessary to employ Indians. Though these are not to be forced or compelled, as has already been ordered, they must be attracted with all just and reasonable means, so that there will be the required number of laborers for the mines. To this end, it seems that great care must be given to the settlement of large numbers of Indians in nearby towns and estates, so that they might more easily apply themselves to the work involved” (Cole 1985, p. 5).

Whereas there is a hint here as to the unenviable position of being subject to “settlement,” it would appear that indigenous Andeans were not only to be respected, but that they also might stand to gain financially from the mining operations.

This statement, however, serves to demonstrate the complexity of the continued racialization process of indigenous people, which cannot entirely be traced back to a hierarchically driven ideology. On the contrary, ideology and local sensibilities were amalgamated into local variants that produced strikingly similar experiences for the indigenous people subject to them, regardless of the degree to which they saw themselves as diverse in culture or identity. That such an amalgam existed in the Peruvian mines during the late sixteenth and entire seventeenth centuries is readily attested, for example, by eyewitness accounts. At the close of the sixteenth century, Fray José de Acosta wrote:

“They labor in these mines in perpetual darkness, not knowing day from night. And since the sun never penetrates to these places, they are not only always dark but very cold, and the air is very thick and alien to the nature of men; so that those who enter for the first time get as sick as at sea—which happened to me in one of these mines, where I felt a pain at the heart and a churning in the stomach. The [laborers] always carry candles to light their way, and they divide their labor in such a way that some work by day and rest by night, and others work by night and rest by day. The ore is generally hard as flint, and they break it up with iron bars. They carry the ore on their backs up ladders made of … twisted rawhide joined by pieces of wood … so that one man may climb up and another down at the same time. These ladders are twenty meters long, and at the top and bottom of each is a wooden platform where the men may rest… Each man usually carries on his back a load of twenty-five kilograms of silver ore tied in a cloth, knapsack fashion; thus they ascend, three at a time. The one who goes first carries a candle tied to his thumb, … thus, holding on with both hands, they climb that great distance, often more than 300 meters—a fearful thing, the mere thought of which inspires dread” (Cole 1985, p. 24).

The climbing of fifteen sequential six-story buildings with a fifty-pound load on one’s back in the conditions described by Acosta may in itself constitute a type of violence, but the treatment of indigenous Andeans beyond the job description resolves any ambiguity. Engaging in a continued textual diplomacy, Viceroy Francisco de Toledo dictated at the time that mine laborers should be restricted to making two trips per day, but by the 1580s they were making more than ten times that. Moreover, indigenous laborers were “whipped, beaten, [and] struck with rocks” on their way to completing their individual daily quotas of nineteen loads, “despite the fact that quotas themselves had been prohibited by the viceroy” (Cole 1985, p. 24).

So the words spoken in Europe, even the decrees sent from Spain, would not overturn or unmake the stereotyping of racialized indigenous people or the persistent racialization (and its effects) in the Western Hemisphere en route to economic gain. The triumvirate of physical violence, racialized ideology, and economic gain worked together to engender violence, even after such governmental mandates as the post-debate upholding of the New Laws of 1542. Las Casas advocated for the new laws, which notably prohibited enslavement and mistreatment of indigenous peoples. These laws spurred a revolt that led to most of them being revoked on October 20, 1545.

The violence extended to indigenous families as well as entire communities. Jeffrey Cole gives an account of the degree of exploitation suffered by the mine laborers’ families: “If a [laborer] died in the hospital … his wife and children were forced to hire a … substitute to serve in his stead. Hospitalized [laborers] and their families were further preyed upon by priests, who charged exorbitant sums for religious services and demanded devastating compensation for funerals” (Cole 1985, p. 31). The number of young men leaving their hometowns in order to avoid conscriptions further disturbed community life. The fact that indigenous voices were not heard in the “Great Debate,” and that they played no positive role in shaping local sensibilities in Potosi regardless of purported royal sentiment, thus facilitated their continued racialization.

The discord between official declaration and local adaptation played out along racial lines as clearly in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Colombia as in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Peru. For example, Michael Taussig notes that, in reference to the extraction of rubber, authorities balked at the local use of the word conquistar to describe the interactions between representatives of the British Rubber Company and indigenous Amazonians. Joaquin Rocha, though, sent a ready response in his report of 1905:

“When a tribe of savages is encountered which nobody knew about or which has never had contact with whites, then it is said that they have been conquered by the person who manages to trade with them so that they will work rubber, will plant food, and will build a house for him to live in their midst. Thus entering into the great and common labor of the whites, these Indians are brought into civilization” (Taussig 1987, pp. 24–25).

With the exception of substituting “whites” for “Spaniards,” the reader will be challenged to find any way in which this statement differs from the underlying assumptions, motivations, expectations, or racializations of Europeans seeking financial gain from the Western Hemisphere during prior centuries. Moreover, the masking of indigenous experiences with euphemisms belies the eyewitness account provided by Roger Casement in 1912:

“The number of Indians killed either by starvation— often purposely brought about by the destruction of crops over whole districts or inflicted as a form of death penalty on individuals who failed to bring in their quota of rubber—or by deliberate murder by bullet, fire, beheading, or flogging to death, and accompanied by a variety of atrocious tortures, during the course of these 12 years, in order to extort these 4,000 tons of rubber cannot have been less than 30,000, and possibly came to many more” (Taussig 1987, p. 20).

Again, racialization is a tool of foreign economic venture, and the same rhetoric is marshaled, leading to the same methods of physical violence. Indeed, there may be few master narratives still recognized by the postmodern academy, but one would be hard pressed to find anything so coherent or enduring as the story of violence against indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere.

Yet caution is needed here so as not to take this as a demonstration that to be indigenous is to be violated, or to be violated uniformly. Rather, it shows that among the countless indigenous experiences, those that have included encounters with colonialism, statehood, or globalization have been accompanied by a process of racialization that incorporates a propensity for violence.

On the other hand, to be indigenous is, in many ways, to recognize the groundedness of meaning in a community’s locale. The very approach of European and European-derivative cultures to indigeneity, however, has explicitly violated this groundedness. The setting has not mattered, nor has the difference in goods, whether it be fabled gold, silver ore, or rubber trees. The racialization process has resulted in indigenous experiences that are independent of location, which is perhaps the greatest violence committed against them. The very fact that Aymara speakers from the Andes, Maya speakers of the Yucatan Peninsula, and Chumash speakers of the California Pacific Coast were all referred to in official documents simply as indios lays bare the role of indigenous peoples in European economic and religious ventures.

Taking violence now can thus be seen as a forced infringement on an individual’s or a community’s sovereignty. In this case, it becomes apparent that the racialization of indigenous peoples, through economic pressure and ideological irresponsibility, has been facilitated by a violence of representation. Namely, indigenous people have had no voice in representations of themselves, either as individuals or as a culture. These representations have consistently come from others, either in “travelers’ tales,” in records of the Inquisition that found their way into general histories, or in the tales of anthropologists from the nineteenth-century through the present day. The percentage of media representations of indigenous culture by indigenous people most likely does not register as a whole number. Are these not forced impositions on indigenous communities? And have they not facilitated the construction of racial images?

The issue of violence, thus defined is among the most important confronting indigenous attempts at cultural revival, of sovereignty and of the redress of human rights violations. Numerous coalitions have attempted to overcome this predicament for centuries (several by taking up arms), but the latest such attempt, that of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation) in Chiapas, Mexico, carries with it an opportunity unavailable to previous groups relative to the factors discussed here. Namely, the indigenous Maya of the EZLN have used radio and the Internet to create their own voices and create representations of themselves. The degree to which this effort is successful may well impact the potential for future indigenous attempts at cultural revival, political representation, and civil rights advances.

SEE ALSO Blackness in Latin America; Indigenismo in Mexico; Indigenous; Latin American Racial Transformations; Mexicans; Occupational Segregation; Zapatista Rebellion.


Cole, Jeffrey A. 1985. The PotosíMita 1573–1700: Compulsory Indian Labor in the Andes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Pagden, Anthony. 1986. Hernan Cortés: Letters from Mexico. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Restall, Matthew. 1998. Maya Conquistador. Boston: Beacon Press.

Taussig, Michael. 1987. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gerardo V. Aldana

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