Conference on Latin American History 37
Spain’s Imperial Margins and the Native Arts of Flight, Resistance, and Negotiation
The Spaniards who invaded America gravitated to centers of indigenous population and to areas promising mineral wealth. Scholars have generally followed them there. There is a rich body of work on the densely populated areas of central Mexico and upper Peru, and on the mining towns of Potosí, Zacatecas, and Guanajuato. Far less is known about the places that lacked abundant mineral and human resources. Regions such as north Mexico and the Amazon are the next frontier of colonial Latin American scholarship, and new discoveries are published daily. The excitement scholars of Latin American frontiers feel comes from several sources. Much as the politics of the Roman Empire were shaped by struggles against “barbarians,” so the distinctive political cultures of the Spanish colonies were influenced by the imperative to control the “savage” peoples that surrounded them. Yet the Huns, Goths, Avars, and other peoples who threatened Rome have received far more searching attention than the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of the Spanish imperial fringes.
The panel we propose will address the history of relations between the Spanish empire and its nomadic neighbors through the lens of James C. Scott’s recent study of stateless people in Southeast Asia. Professor Scott has generously offered to act as the panel’s commentator, and will bring his theoretical acumen, and star power, to bear on the panel discussion. Scott’s work is deeply suggestive for the study of Latin America’s fringe regions. In The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott’s most recent book, he writes “the enormous ungoverned periphery surrounding these minute states also represented a challenge and a threat. It was home to fugitive, mobile populations whose modes of subsistence—foraging, hunting, shifting cultivation, fishing, and pastoralism—were fundamentally intractable to state appropriation.” Scott argues that marginal peoples were most threatening to empires in that they offered an alternative way of life to peoples caught in empire’s web. The history of Latin America bears witness to this insight in its many maroon communities, quilombos, and uncontrolled nomadic tribes.
Using Scott’s work as a theoretical touchstone, our panel will explore the motives, strategies, and cultural life of these marginal peoples. Each of the four papers to be presented consists of fresh research in native peoples at the imperial margins, and the choices they faced as the Spanish empire encroached upon them. Some fled, some fought back, and others chose to be members of Spanish-American communities, creating new cultures and political structures under the pressures exerted the colonial power. In all these processes, missionaries, parish priests, and nuns played a critical mediating role, thus linking the political history of empire to the theme of “history, society, and the sacred.”