Goods, Power and History: Latin America´s Material Culture

Arnold J. Bauer,  Goods, Power and History: Latin America´s Material Culture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.),. ISBN-13: 978-0521777025 ISBN-10: 052177702X

Bauer examines the materials used by the people of Latin America throughout time. He focuses in on food, clothing, and housing. While he speaks very little of genealogical resources, this book is an excellent glimpse into the complex and ever changing social dynamic of Latin America.

Summary by Chapter

The Material Landscape of Pre-Columbian America

Like today, it centered on food production. Humans spread maize, beans, squash, chilies, turkey, ducks, and dogs across Mesoamerica. They also had course fiber-woven cloths and single room homes. In the Andes, root crops were most popular, with similar clothing and housing. The Andes did have domesticated llamas and alpaca, providing meat and wool. In Mesoamerica, there was a strong gender difference in agriculture, with men planting and harvesting and women preparing the good (usually grinding masa for tortillas). Andean women, with less time commitment in food preparation, had greater participation in agriculture.

In both systems, nonmonetary trading systems existed, with different goods being brought together and the formation of distinct classes based on wealth. The Inca were the most extreme, demanding labor and produce in exchange for goods.

Contact Goods

All goods and trade came from conquistadors, not on the native’s terms. Christianity was also heavily tied to the new customs and goods. The ‘natural’ commodities yielded little for the Europeans to take and trade. Spaniards organized their towns in strict gridlines, with the church, plaza, and government buildings in the center and the poorest homes on the outskirts.

Goods went first to the elite, tying European material with prestige. Colonizers did not mix with natives. They wore European garb, ate European food, and stayed in segregated towns.

Because the Spaniards acted as conquistadors, their refusal to part from Spanish food and clothing meant that Spanish cuisine and dress spread outwards as the predominant food and clothing in the colonies. As natives were increasingly forced to work for and under Spaniards, they were forced to (or willingly) accept European customs. As the two cultures intermarried, the offspring often clung to European was in an attempt to gentrify themselves, showing the distinct class distinctions that came into play with the conquest.

Civilizing Goods

Spaniards both craved the familiarity that came with wheat-based breads, and the cultural distinction it gave them over the maize or potato-based diets of the Indians. Natives resisted the introduction of wheat, both because of its unfamiliarity and the space and resources required to grow it. Over time, it spread across the continent. On the other hand, chocolate, tomatoes, and avocados became staples of Spaniard households., and alcohol flowed both ways. Chile proved to be a great place for wine production, which was then transported across Spanish colonies. As time went on, the Creole elite feasted on a wide array of dishes while the Indians were even more restricted than their original diet.

The European looms, carding boards, and spinning wheels, combined with an upsurge in cotton production and shepherd led to the quick production of linens in the Americas. Unlike food products, many native who came into contact with Spaniards quickly began to mimic their style of dress. All classes sought for silks and jewelries, causing the officials to try to regulate trades to better establish a hierarchal class, forcing the lower classes to purchase cloth, iron, and other goods.

The greatest thing the Spaniard brought was a universal commonality. Catholicism and basics of dress and food were expected across America, with regional variants in place of what were once distinct cultures.

Modernizing Goods

By the 1830s, what was once a unified empire had become distinct countries. Northern European culture was prevalent on port towns, and there was competition between foreign and domestic goods where once imported goods were clearly superior. Exports had also risen, both with the colonies of North America and Europe. Railroads allowed for goods to travel efficiently across nations, and also made exportation easier, as larger quantities of inland-based goods could reach sea ports.

A middle class began to emerge, with books of etiquette describing the differences of behavior between classes. The rural natives still saw little change, especially in diet. Footwear increased, and styles of dress still didn’t allow for easy class-based classifications.

The elite classes constantly looked to northern Europe as a model for developing their countries, and their culture became increasingly materialistic as they sought to imitate the northern aristocracy. Lavish parties, dress, and high-quality European food (particularly wine) was cultivated to satisfy this need. They shunned the checkerboard streets, building more extravagant avenues, asserting a civilized identity on everything they could reach. The upper class fully embraced French cuisine, while the middle class tried to distance themselves from Indian cooking, using the Spanish influenced cooking developed through colonization.

Developing Goods

The 1900s brought significant changes. Generations of intermarriage led to increased ethnic identity. Nationalism increased, and as urban population grew, the lower-class citizens began demanding increased rights, either through revolutions or gradual political changes.

Rural people began resorting to a mixture of cardboard and sheet metal houses, all built in a similar manner. Ordinary people also evolved from adobe to square, concrete buildings, with many large apartment blocks. The upper class imitated Europe and California in design, with suburbs featuring ranch-style houses.

Clothing also began to standardize. While flamboyance and color were maintained, and native people continued to cling to traditional dress, jeans, trousers, and shoes were widely adapted in attempts to not appear backwater. Specialized clothing for work and recreation emerged, showing distinction not in class, but in clothing use.

As the upper class began to take hold, they pushed nationalistic cuisines, based off native recipes. Cookbooks emerged, allowing corn back into the menu, but still incorporating large amounts of European influence. Masa began to be produced mechanically, increasing its availability and usage and with the support of woman who viewed it as an opportunity for greater freedom.

Global Goods: Liberalism Redux

In the 1950s nationalism began to be replaced by mercantilism. The pervasion of technology unified the entire world, making different cultures easier to see, as well as the goods associated with them. International brands of clothing and food flooded the market. Coca-Cola constructed bottling plants across Latin America, expanding their market to the surrounding neighborhoods, and the market responded favorably. The drink was inexpensive and safer to drink than local water, and consumption boomed. Fast food chains, also providing inexpensive, easy access food also flourished. This book led to increasing uniformity not only across countries, but across Latin America (and the world) as a whole.





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