Social System in 19th Century Latin America
Latin America was a place where there were social
distinctions. One knew one's place. In the colonial period, one's social position was
defined and protected by law. Classes had rights and privileges. There was a hierarchical
order. People in lower classes deferred to people of high status.
Nineteenth century conservatives wanted to preserve
this social order. Some saw it as ordained by God, as the natural order of things.
To them, all life is hierarchical. Institutions like the church, schools, governments,
craft guilds, etc, should uphold this social order.
Nineteenth century liberals expressed some interest
in equality before the law and equality of opportunity (which they tended to see as
equality before the law). They did not believe in egalitarianism. What they tended to want
is access for people like themselves. They did not mean Amerinds (American Indians/earlier
immigrants), or blacks, or women.
The maximum number of people who counted in the early
19th century was limited. One guess puts the number like this:
- Argentina 38%
- Brazil 10%
- Colombia 33.5%
- Mexico 18%
- Venezuela 20%
In practice, the number was
probably fewer. Only a few "whites were in the most prominent positions. More than
half the population was excluded because they were female or children. Some of the
"whites" were in lower jobs. Some were geographically isolated. Some were not
interested in public affairs.
We are concerned with this rather small group at the
top of the pyramid because they were the principal actors.
The other people tended to be reactors. The presence of the
reactors and the necessity of controlling them dictated or conditioned the behavior of the
As Latin American societies diversified, grew in
population, asorbed new ideas, etc., the social and political ordered changed. New groups
such as industrialists and urban workers came into existence and wanted different things
than did the old landowning elites. By the 20th century, the ideas of democracy and
egalitarianism became prevalent in some Latin American countries.
In spite of changes, Latin America has been a
very unrevolutionary region. Elites have been able to exercise ideological
control in many societies. In addition, the force of inertia ("that's the way we've
always done it") has discouraged change. People tend to believe that the present
order is what is supposed to be. They did not see alternatives. They could no more
conceive of a different social order than people in the antebellum U. S. conceive of a
nation of free blacks and white living together or present society conceiving of a society
free of racial, class, and sexual prejudice. Social conservatism characterized and
characterizes Latin America.