The History of Latin America in the Colonial Era

Full-color painting of Christopher Columbus's first landing in the Americas in 1492.

John Vanderlyn/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Latin America has seen wars, dictators, famines, economic booms, foreign interventions, and a whole assortment of varied calamities over the years. Each and every period of its history is crucial in some way to understanding the present-day character of the land. Even so, the Colonial Period (1492-1810) stands out as being the era that did the most to shape what Latin America is today. There are six things you need to know about the Colonial Era.

Colonizers Decimated Indigenous Populations

Some estimate that the population of Mexico’s central valleys was around 19 million before the arrival of the Spanish. It had dropped to two million by 1550. That’s just around Mexico City. Native populations on Cuba and Hispaniola were all but wiped out, and every Indigenous population in the New World suffered some loss. Although the bloody conquest took its toll, the main culprits were diseases like smallpox. Indigenous people had no natural defenses against these new diseases, which killed them far more efficiently than the conquistadors ever could.

The Spanish Repressed Indigenous Cultures

Under Spanish rule, Indigenous religions and cultures were severely repressed. Whole libraries of native codices (they’re different than our books in some ways, but essentially similar in look and purpose) were burned by zealous priests who thought that they were the work of the Devil. Only a handful of these treasures remain. Their ancient culture is something that many Indigenous Latin American groups are currently trying to regain as the region struggles to find its identity.

The Spanish System Promoted Exploitation

Conquistadores and officials were granted "encomiendas," which basically gave them certain tracts of land and everyone on it. In theory, the encomenderos were supposed to look after and protect the people that were in their care but, in reality, it was often nothing more than legalized enslavement. Although the system did allow for Indigenous people to report abuses, the courts functioned exclusively in Spanish, which essentially excluded most of the Native population, at least until very late in the Colonial Era.

Existing Power Structures Were Replaced

Before the arrival of the Spanish, Latin American cultures had existing power structures, mostly based on castes and nobility. These were shattered as the newcomers killed off the most powerful leaders and stripped the lesser nobility and priests of rank and wealth. The lone exception was Peru, where some Inca nobility managed to hold onto wealth and influence for a time but, as the years went on, even their privileges were eroded into nothing. The loss of the upper classes contributed directly to the marginalization of Native populations as a whole.

Native History Was Rewritten

Because the Spanish did not recognize Native codices and other forms of record-keeping as legitimate, the history of the region was considered open for research and interpretation. What we know about pre-Columbian civilization comes to us in a jumbled mess of contradictions and riddles. Some writers seized the opportunity to paint earlier Indigenous leaders and cultures as bloody and tyrannical. This, in turn, allowed them to describe the Spanish conquest as a liberation of sorts. With their history compromised, it is difficult for today’s Latin Americans to get a grasp on their past.

Colonists Were There to Exploit, Not Develop

The Spanish (and Portuguese) colonists who arrived in the wake of the conquistadores wanted to follow in their footsteps. They did not come to build, farm, or ranch. In fact, farming was considered a very lowly profession among the colonists. These men therefore harshly exploited Indigenous labor, often without thinking about the long-term. This attitude severely stunted the economic and cultural growth of the region. Traces of this attitude are still found in Latin America, such as the Brazilian celebration of malandragem, a way of life of petty crime and swindling.


Just as psychiatrists study the childhood of their patients in order to understand the adult, a look at the “infancy” of modern Latin America is necessary to truly comprehend the region today. The destruction of whole cultures — in every sense — left the majority of the population lost and struggling to find their identities, a struggle which continues to this day. The power structures put in place by the Spanish and Portuguese still exist. Witness the fact that Peru, a nation with a large Indigenous population, finally elected the first native president in its long history.

This marginalization of Native people and culture is ending, and as it does many in the region are trying to find their roots. This fascinating movement bears watching in the years to come.

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Your Citation
Minster, Christopher. "The History of Latin America in the Colonial Era." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, Minster, Christopher. (2021, September 9). The History of Latin America in the Colonial Era. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The History of Latin America in the Colonial Era." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).