Before Europeans arrived in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Latin America was home to a variety of indigenous peoples. Many had advanced civilizations - most notably the Aztec, Inca, and Maya. By the end of the sixteenth century, large areas of what would become Latin America were colonized by European settlers, primarily from Spain and Portugal. In the early nineteenth century most of the region attained its independence, giving rise to new countries. A few small colonies remain.

A course in Latin American history will most likely cover the following topics:

  • The colonial foundations, 1492-1880s
  • The transformation of modern Latin America, 1880s-2000s
  • Argentina: prosperity, deadlock, and change
  • Chile: socialism, repression, and democracy
  • Brazil: development for whom?
  • Peru: soldiers, oligarchs, and Indians
  • Colombia: discord, civility, and violence
  • Mexico: the taming of a revolution
  • Cuba: late colony, first socialist state
  • The Caribbean: colonies and mini-states
  • Central America: colonialism, dictatorship, and revolution
  • Latin America, the United States, and the world

Students will be able to find books on Latin American history from Google Books and Amazon. Michigan State University Libraries offers Selected Resources for Latin American History. Cambridge Journals has the Journal of Latin American Studies which students should follow, as well as the journal supported by the Colonial Latin American Historical Review.


Latin America as a magnet for European immigrants

When we speak about immigration as a historical phenomenon, we often mean the USA, Canada or Australia. Recently the mass influx of refugees into the European Union became news, coining the phrase “refugee crisis.” The discourse about immigration usually happens in the context of the Hispanic immigration to the USA from such countries as Mexico or Cuba. Relatively few people outside of South America are aware of the fact that some South American countries once were an important destination for immigrants from Europe and from around the globe. 

Such South American countries as Argentina and Uruguay are about as “immigrant” and “European” as the United States or Canada. Indigenous native tribes were driven away, assimilated or destroyed during the Spanish colonization of those lands between the 17th and early 19th centuries.  At this point the only recognized indigenous tribe of Uruguay, the Charrua, survives only in the form of a heritage club of the people claiming to be descendants of the tribesmen.

The extensive grasslands of Argentina and Chile thus had to be resettled by colonists from elsewhere. A surprising fact is that there are more people with Italian roots in the population of Argentina and Uruguay than with Spanish ones. Due to economic and political turmoil, high unemployment and other hardships, Italy was a major source country of immigrants to the New World throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries. This process gave birth to Italian quarters of many large U.S. cities, but it also brought millions of landless and impoverished Italian settlers to the green pastures and growing urban centers of Argentina and Uruguay. A quick look at the ethnic roots of the Argentinean heads of state in the 20th and 21st centuries gives an exhaustive idea of how important the Italian element has been in the formation of the Argentinean nation. We find such names on the list of presidents and military dictators as Eduardo Lonardi, Arturo Frondizi, Raul Alberto Lastiri, Leopoldo Galtieri, Reynaldo Bignone, all the way up to the current president, Mauricio Macri.

German immigrants were another very important source of European settlers in many South American countries. A popular myth suggests that South America became a safe harbor for Nazi fugitives following World War II. Even if true, the vast majority of Germans came to South America either as agricultural colonists by invitation of respective governments or as religious refugees. The first Germans came to the Lake District of Chile around 1850 to clear out rainforest and introduce advanced agricultural techniques in the area which only a few years earlier was incorporated into the Chilean state. Today, about half a million Chileans have German ancestry. For a century and a half Lutheran churches and German clubs and schools have been a part of South Chilean architectural and cultural landscape. The Beer Festival Bierfest Valdivia), similar to Munich’s Oktoberfest, is celebrated in the Chilean city of Valdivia with great success every year. The festival was initiated by the local Kunstmann brewery proudly bearing the name of its German founders. 

Other German settlers in South America were Mennonites, a Christian denomination known for its strict pacifism, isolationism and a conservative lifestyle. Today Mennonites live mostly in separate rural colonies and own thousands of acres of land all over Latin America, from Mexico to Bolivia and Paraguay. Latin America, with its relatively weak government control and vast sparsely populated areas proved to be a perfect place for a religious sect striving to live up to their faith far away from the temptations of the modern world.

On a more exotic note we find on the continent numerous immigrants from Wales, Russia, Japan, and the Middle East who also contributed to the immense ethnic and cultural diversity of the region.

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