Decolonizing Latin America as Social Geography: Comments on Charles Mann’s 1491.

[Image: Presencia de América Latina (Presence of Latin America, 1964–65) is a 300 square meters (3,200 sq ft) mural at the hall of the Arts House of the University of Concepción, Chile. It is also known as Latin America’s Integration (Wikimedia Commons)]

The origins of Latin America and the Caribbean as a place involve layers of designations of space and place, forming a lexicon which constructs our mental understanding of the geographies incorporated into “Latin America” and “the Caribbean”. Both of these categories, like other socially constructed geographies such as “Europe” (a product of the emergence of what is now Europe as a center of the capitalist world-system), defy rigidly scientific understandings of geography. Europe is, geologically speaking, a peninsula of Asia, and while Latin America roughly corresponds with South America, Latin American cultural designations extend into North America via Mexico (and even into the United States according to many Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Chicanx nationalist theorists).

Latin America, or more accurately Latinoamerica, is a Spanish European term, later instrumentalized by French imperialism, to justify its presence based on the “Latinaity” of the region, while “Caribbean” is derived from Carib, an indigenous people of the region, but also has a colonial root. During the days of early Spanish rule, racist mythologies made “Carib” and “Cannibal” synonymous in colonial records and cultural memory, and thus the Spanish by designating the region as the “Caribbean”, also designated the entirety of the populations of that region as cannibals (Hulme, 1992).

1732 Map of the “West Indes”, what we now call the Caribbean (Herman Moll).

It is because of these colonial interventions into the social geographies of what we call Latin America and the Caribbean that theorists like Mignolo (2005) call for a rejection of the category of Latin America as a colonialist regional conception forged by Creole elites in collaboration with the Europeans. Mignolo extends this argument saying that the imagining of a “homogenous” Latin America works to “render invisible” indigenous populations of African descent and the Chincanx/Latinx population of the US.

Yet, at least for now, Latin America is still with us as a social-geographic category. But despite of (or maybe because of) its persistence as a category which subsumes so many others, its meaning is constantly contested. Indeed, how could it not be? As Sanabria writes:

“Dozens of countries and territories with half a billion citizens; hundreds of languages spoken; millions of people concentrated in huge megacities, many others living in rural communities; every imaginable ecological niche spread over eight million square miles of land and sea; diverse historical trajectories, some pointing to Africa, some to Europe, and others firmly rooted in the New World; a long history of movement (diasporas) within and across national boundaries; hundreds or thousands of groups with their own self-ascribed, ethnic identity; a multiplicity of overlapping racial types and classifications, far from stable and rooted in biology; widely diverse notions of sexuality and gender relations; dozens of religious traditions and hundreds of diverse rituals, both secular and religious; widely dissimilar ways of construing health and classifying and treating illness; hundreds of different foods and cuisines; dozens of musical and dance traditions; a wide array of secular and religious popular celebrations with African, European, and New World influences—this is Latin America and the Caribbean…yet, what makes this a space or area of study and research? On the basis of which criteria or ideological positions do scholars delimit what is and what is not “Latin America” and the “Caribbean”?” (Sanabria, 2005, p. 17).

In recent years, numerous forces have tapped the diversity that is the conceptual world of Latin America described by Sanabria in order to advance their own visions and agendas. From the US creation of Latin American Studies to advance imperialist interests, to diaspora identity politics discourses, to the emergence of Bolivarianismo as the definitive ideology of the new Latin American left, what is and what will be Latin America is a crucial question for many vested interests.

One of the key battlefields of this contest is history, and pre-Columbian history takes on a special significance in particular. Competing narratives of the pre-colonial and colonial eras inform the legitimacy of various political and cultural worldviews. Thus, the renewed interest in accurate histories of these periods provokes controversy. Mann’s work 1491: The Americas Before Columbus is one such history. An excerpt of his work in The Atlantic (2002) with the same title as his book centers on two of his more interesting contributions,  – amalgamations of decades of other  research, fieldwork, and debate, – that (1) pre-colonial indigenous populations were numerous, numbering at least in the tens of millions, and (2) indigenous civilizations molded and crafted the ecology of the continent in monumental and lasting ways.

These contributions are significant, though not necessarily unique. Mann cites numerous other theorists and engages in many intimate interactions with them, before proposing is own synthesis. Sanabria (2005), who’s Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean, is intended as a survey text of the discipline, posits many of the same positions as Mann, though in less detail, imply that Mann’s claim that these positions are slowly gaining clout in the mainstream seems to be at least somewhat correct.

Firstly, understanding precolonial populations as vast and numerous helps us conceptualize what exactly colonialism was in a new way. The scale of human suffering and cultural destruction is of holocaust proportions. However, it is my position that Mann’s presentation of the numbers problem is undertheorized. While noting casually the combination of colonial actions and accidental introduction of diseases, Mann fails to analyze how these two forces worked in conjunction to accomplish genocides of indigenous peoples. For example, Mann might note how atrocious working conditions for Aztec slaves in Spanish mines, or the French forceful selling of unsanitized sugar to the Huron, worked to exacerbate plague and epidemic directly in service of colonial economics. In this sense, Mann makes a valuable contribution to a certain extent to our understandings of what happened in colonialism but why it happened is remarkably absent, and worth investigating. Put another way, what anthropologists call power systems and what Marxists call material conditions, is not addressed by Mann.

Mann’s second contribution is theorized more deeply. The idea that the American continents have been meddled with, often in drastic ways, by human activity for centuries before colonial contact is a controversial one. Mann particularly points out that contemporary environmentalists’ understanding of areas like the Amazon rainforest as untamed and untouched wilderness defies the archaeological evidence; Mann goes so far as to present fieldwork suggesting that the Amazon is itself a creation of human actions, an engineered rainforest created by Inca and Aztec mass-scale landscape planning.

I postulate that this contemporary environmentalist conception, the idea of untamed and untouched preserves, is firmly rooted in terra nullius colonial ideology, a suggestion Mann hints at but does not explicitly come out and say. We can see this reified from North (PETA interventions against Inuit seal hunting) to South (Conservationist support for land grabs in the form of humanitarian purchases of preserves in Brazil). Conservational ideology legitimizes itself by projecting the idea of untouched nature preserves (never mind that by designating a space a “preserve” is, itself an act of human intervention), onto indigenous peoples.

This is especially important to critique in the context of Latin America, where the negotiation of space and place is ongoing, and often dramatic in how it is resolved. We should understand the indigenous impact upon how we understand Latin American space and place as neither reflexively environmentalist, nor trapped in the mythic pre-Colombian process, but as holistic, ongoing, and shaped by the contours of history, culture, and political economy.


HULME, P. (1992). Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean 1492-1797. London, UK: Routledge.

MANN, C. (2002). “1491”. The Atlantic. Retrieved from:

MIGNOLO, W. (2005). The Idea of Latin America. New York, NY: Wiley.

SANABRIA, H. (2005). The Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean. London, UK: Routledge.


Aunque mi amo me mate, a la mina no voy

“Even if my master kills me, I shall not go to the mine.” So go the lyrics of a popular song in the Pacific lowlands. They serve as a reminder of black resistance during slavery times in this region. By withdrawing their bodies – essential tools of capital accumulation  in the alluvial gold mines – from the production process, the enslaved hit out at the source of their oppression. Relatively little is known – and even less documented – of these embodied experiences of resistance in the gold mines. Why is that so?

Resistance formed part of the slavery system from the beginning. As Norman Whitten and Arlene Torres (1998) put it, “Wherever slavery existed, self-liberation began.” In fact, the Pacific lowlands can be regarded as a territory of resistance, dating back to the early stages of colonization which was confronted with bitter and long-lasting indigenous resistance. Alonso Valencia (1991) regards the Spanish attempt at conquest as a failure, considering that for nearly two hundred years the indigenous populations were never conquered. The first conflicts took place in Uraba on the northwestern Caribbean Coast in 1510, and Valencai registers major resistance as late as 1687 without the Spanish Crown able to establish central, colonial control over the pacific lowlands. The lowlands consequently became known as “war frontier” (frontera de guerra), with indigenous resistance proving a major obstacle to the exploitation of the region’s gold resources. West (1957) observes, “Although Spanish mining acitivty in the Choco began on the upper Tamana in the 1570s, Indian hostility prevented intensive placering and the importation of many Negroes for more than a century.”

Indigenous groups in the southern part of the Pacific lowlands became known as indios de guerra, or “warring Indians”, for the ferocity with which they attacked the conquistadores so that Spanish settlements were mostly restricted to the Andean axis of Quito (in today’s Ecuador), Popayan, and Cali. Rebellions in the gold mines too were quite common. Mateo MIna (1975, AKA Michael Taussig) documents one such in Zaragoza, Antioquia, in 1598, which involved four thousand enslaved laborers. in another incident, on January 15, 1684, Citaries indios massacred miners and Spanish missionaries in the town of Negua (in today’s Choco Department). This incident spread like a fire and gripped the whole region, as towns and churches were destroyed (FUNCOP 1996). The Choco rebellion forced Spanish miners and enslaved laborers to retreat into the highlands, thus preventing the exploitation of gold placers for four years (West 1957). According to Valencia (1991) it is only from 1690 onward that we can talk of authentic conquest, and even then resistance remained a daily practice for both indigenous and Afro-descendant populations.

Resistance took on a variety of forms, including escapes, rebellions, killings, and suicides (Friedemann, 1998). Abortion and infanticide were frequent forms of female resistance, as enslaved mothers denied the slave owner control over their children, who would have been appropriated as labor (Spicker 1996). However, many acts of resistance either are not documented or are misrepresented in history. The reasons for such omissions are quite obvious. According to Sabas Casaman (1997), an Afro-descendant elderly political leader in the North Caucra region, “Colombia’s history has not been written…for a very simple reason. Because history is always written by the winners; the losers, we have no part in it, as long as we have this condition of losers.” Remembering a verse passed on in the oral tradition, Casaman reflects on the impossibility of meaningful speech in the context of oppression. Here he refers to the slave owner Julio Arboleda, who was renowned for his cruelty toward the enslaved (briefly discussed in the interlude):

Aqui aunque mas se habla

no habla sino quien pueda

el dueno de la propiedad

senor Don Julio Arboleda 

(Here, no matter what you say,

only speaks who can,

the owner of this property,

Mr. Julio Arboleda)

Historical documents of black resistance, if they exist at all, are often plagued with a racist vocabulary. Black rebellions are not represented as liberating processes by historical subjects, but as criminal acts that betray the enslaved people’s lack of gratitude toward their masters, who saw themselves as having brought Christian redemption to ignorant pagans. According to Arocha (1999), these are “documents in which the Spanish never cease to be heroes while the blacks are rarely anything but cowards and traitors.”

This unequal power relationship is also the heart of the extraordinary Afrocentric novel Chango el Gran Putas, written by the Afro-Colombian novelist, ethnographer, and intellectual Manuel Zapata Olivella (2010). In this unrivalled literary masterpiece – still to be fully acknowledged in literary history as such for its sheer mesmerizing narrative power and sweeping vision – in a section dedicated to the rebellion of the enslaved on Haiti at the end of the eighteenth century, the author addresses the relation between dominant history and international oblivion: “For the Wolf’s forgetful scribes the history of the Republic of Haiti will always be the fanatic and hate-crazed blacks’ massacre of their white brothers, never the slave owners’ genocide against a defenseless people” (the “Wolf” being a metaphor for the white man in Zapata’s account).

It is important to document the myriad historical experiences of rebellion for a number of reasons. First, such documentation challenges dominant versions of history by ascribing agency to the libres that is often missing in the accounts of the “Wolf’s forgetful scribes.” Second, and most important is today’s organizing processes of the social movement of black communities in Colombia, such a focus on agency allows for empowering connections to be made to historical resistances form today’s perspective. The pacific lowlands, once considered a territory of indigenous resistance against the colonizers of the Spanish Crown and of black resistance against slavery, is now seen by PCN [Process of Negro Communities] activists as a territory of Afro-Colombian resistance against dominant development models fueled by the logic of displacement-inducing modernity.

Oslender, U. (2016). The Geographies of Social Movements: Afro-Colombian Mobilization and the Aquatic SpaceNew York: Duke University Press, pp. 100-103.

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