The purpose of this unit is to help students gain a clear understanding of the Latin American heritage and cultural milieu. The selected materials deal with past and current attitudes and perceptions prevalent in some parts of Latin America. In order for students to really understand, appreciate, and possibly identify with the dilemmas posed in the literature, it is necessary for them to acquire an understanding of the dynamics of how and why, Latin American society and culture actually functions in different situations. In order to reach this goal, students will read literary works and view films dealing with, but not limited to the following cultural issues: The role of women, cultural gender expectations, political structure, and the role of religion. Existing customs, as well as myths, will also be explored in terms of their effects on socialization and acculturation.
It is not easy to comprehend the complex role religion plays within Latin American culture. It is not an issue of God or Christianity, but an intricate synchronization of the beliefs of different cultures and races that have been present at one point or another in the history of Latin America. Although there have been many different influences the most prevalent has been the European Tradition, consisting of the Catholic and Protestant Faith. The native Indian influences, of the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans from Central and South America as well as the Arawak and Tainos of the Antilles with their polytheistic views and last but not least, the African influences of the Yoruba and Congo Tribes, brought to Latin America from Africa centuries ago.
In order to survive what became both a new and threatening world for the African slaves, and the eradication of their existing way of life for the Indians; both groups struggle to preserve their sense of spirituality and religious beliefs as pure as possible. Under the control of European Conquerors both Indian and African slaves were subjugated to a new religion, Christianity. Interestingly enough, the efforts of the Spaniards to Christianize the heathens were more effective on the Indians than on the African slaves.
Faced with the conquest of their culture, the Aztecs (Mexico) who at the heights of their civilization had conquered many tribes in Mexico and Central America (Lerner 1987) understood and to a certain degree accepted the impact that Hernand Cortes and his conquistadors would have on their way of life. Due to superstitions and religious beliefs, Montezuma, the last ruler of the Aztecs viewed Cortes as the Deity Quetzalcoatl (Lerner 1987), who in a Legend vowed to someday return, regain and rule his kingdom.
In the midst of omens in the form of natural catastrophes, and celestial phenomena, such as: eclipses, high rates of abnormal births in both, humans and animals. The very superstitious Montezum a fearfully relinquished his throne to Hernand Cortes upon his arrival to Tenochtitlan, the crowned of the Aztec empire (Bierhorst, 1992).
Thereafter, the Spaniards proceeded to annihilate the Aztecs way of life via the destruction of their palaces, temples, pyramids, and worst of all, their spirit. Both land and Indians were assigned to explorers, soldiers, and nobles by the King’s representative. Having conquered many tribes, the Aztecs understood that as they did to others, the new rulers would impose a new set of rules and guidelines for them to follow. Initially, most Aztecs felt that they were being punished by the gods. They tried to appease the gods via sacrificing humans among other things. Unable to understand the sacrifices, the Spaniards ordered the Aztecs to halt such religious practices. Soon after, the Spanish priests introduced writing and reading as well as the Roman Catholic faith to the indigenous population as part of their new way of life.
Since human sacrifices were no longer tolerated, some of the Indians continued to worship nature and follow their ancient religious practices in secrecy; while others embraced the new teachings of the friars. Consequently, a small segment of the population along with Catholicism, continued to worship nature, and to follow their ancient religious practices in secrecy (Gossen 1986).
Although the Indians and the Africans were forced into Christianity, they continued to practice their religion in a clandestine manner. As the Spaniards struggled to indoctrinate Christianity onto the heathens, the Africans, unlike the Indians, increased their efforts to preserve their religious culture by fusing it with Christianity.