GEOG 3515 The Geography of South America Class 13/14: Race, ethnicity and cultural traits in South American society Racial Diversity
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Due to the presence of many different indigenous peoples, European colonizers (Iberian and then more general migration post-independence), African slaves and Asian worker migrants, combined with inter-racial unions and marriages, racial diversity is extremely broad in South America.
Many observers believe that South America is the most racially heterogeneous of any of the main geographic regions of the world.
With increasing difficulty over distinguishing racial groupings on the basis of physical appearance, racial standing in many South American countries has been more broadly determined by how one lives – there being particular racial “lifestyles”.
Sociologically speaking, with societies dominated by white-skinned Europeans, with widespread efforts to convert natives to the Catholic Church, and with a general denigration of Indian cultures and traditions as inferior, becoming “white” has been a widespread goal in the Andean nations.
Becoming culturally whiter and attaining mestizo status was something an Indian could do by learning Spanish, learning how to read and write, and rejecting traditional clothing, headgear, hairstyles and diets.
In some countries, like Peru, people engaged in this process were given an intermediary social standing, referred to by special names like “cholo”.
Pursuing enhanced social status by cultural whitening has been a major social phenomenon, swelling the towns and cities with Europeanized Indians and blacks.
In the United States, racism has generally been of the physical kind, discriminating people on the basis of skin-color.
In South America, the racism has been equally severe, although without race-based laws of apartheid such as our infamous Jim Crow.
More subtle to interpret, South American discrimination has generally been class-based, bestowing inferiority and differential opportunities for advancement on the lower classes.
However, since social class is very highly correlated with race – the darker the skin, the lower ones class and economic standing - the discrimination has effectively been one of race even though not explicitly stated.
Centuries of discrimination has lead to social movements aimed at advancing the status of the disadvantaged.
The main force in South America is generally called Indigenismo – the celebration of the indigenous heritage of a region and peoples and promotion of Indian rights and advancements, including preservation of languages and cultural practices among the youth – has been selective.
Elsewhere in the Caribbean, but not so much in South America, has been the Négritude movement – extolling black culture and values.
Indigenous movements have been gathering strength in many South American countries, for example in Peru, where Alejandro Toledo became the first Indian President and in Bolivia, where Indian populations have been major forces in shaping national politics, for example, resisting water privatization, trade policies, etc.
Cultural geographers not only like to look at racial differences in a region, but also examine cultural attributes of regions and sub-regions.
South America has some strong cultural attributes deeply ingrained into the social fabric, each with a number of ramifications.
La dignidad de la persona – European(ized) South Americans have inherited from their Iberian forerunners the idea that self-worth is increased by striving to distinguish oneself (distinguirse) from others, by pursuing individual honor in a form recognized or valued by society.
Personalismo – going along with this, the most visible measure of personal honor/worth is how much power one has over the lives of others – the bigger ones web of ties and obligations on the part of others to oneself, family and friends, the better.
Personalismo has played a major role in shaping many South American social relations:
Caudillo politics – is enhanced by the drive of the “big men” to distinguirse and amass power and influence over others.
Compadrazgo system – the role of godfather outgrew its church roots to become a vehicle for concreting business and political alliances between the powerful elites and to extend control over social inferiors, swapping patronage and protection for loyalty and service.
Nepotism – personalismo frequently manifests itself as giving out jobs and appointments based on patronage not on merits.
Personal aggrandizement – personalismo is enhanced by ritual politeness and formality – the use of official titles, often somewhat inflated, is common.
Bureaucracy – all levels of administration can become hierarchies for exerting influence and the syndrome of papeleo is common in which simple tasks require multiple forms, stamps and waits at various clerks/deputies desks.
Corruption – Hand in hand with the exercising of power and the heavy bureaucracy has come corruption, manifest in a variety of forms – see Box 8.1.
Political corruption – high level politicians frequently engage in diversions of funds, kickbacks, tax evasion and other acts of high level corruption.
Greasing the wheels – the phenomenon of la mordida or presentinho is unfortunately pervasive in many official situations – in many countries, it has lead to an army of tramitadores or intermediarios that help facilitate such acts as getting a visa or a driving license, splitting the fee with officials to get ahead.
Gender roles and relations have been changing in South America, as in most parts of the world, as suffrage, more universal education, and female employment has expanded.
Male preeminence is still relatively common, defined by the notion of machismo, in which men are expected to be self-confident, dignified and in command – the male domain is en la calle or on the street and he should be the breadwinner.
Female subservience is also still common (although as with many cultures, the influence of women behind the scenes is pervasive and powerful), defined by the notion of marianismo, in which women are expected to take a back seat, serve the males and family, and be long-suffering – the female domain is en la casa or in the home and is expected to reinforce the traditional values.
By the way, at least from my experience through Central America, the section on Sex, Reproduction and Honor is both exaggerated and condescending.
While undoubtedly the characteristics of marianismo and machismo manifest themselves in unequal gender roles and double standards, the situation of male female relations, roles, honor, and so forth is far more complex than the simplistic generalizations offered in this book.
It denigrates both men and women to portray their roles and relations so one-dimensionally.
While undoubtedly the muy macho men and the subservient amas de casa exist, the gradations of society falling short of these extremes exist also.