Latin American Civilization: History and Society, 1492 to the Present

By Benjamin Keen | Go to book overview

9
COLONIAL CULTURE AND THE ENLIGHTENMENT

COLONIAL CULTURE in most of its aspects was a projection of contemporaneous Spanish culture and only faintly reflected native American influences. Colonial culture thus suffered from all the infirmities of its parent but inevitably lacked the breadth and vitality of Spanish literature and art, the product of a much older and more mature civilization.

The church enjoyed a virtual monopoly of colonial education on all levels. Poverty condemned the great majority of the natives and mixed castes to illiteracy. The universities of Lima and Mexico City, both chartered in 1551, were the first permanent institutions of higher learning. Because they were modeled on Spain's University of Salamanca, their organization, curricula, and methods of instruction were medieval.

Within the limits imposed by official censorship and their own backgrounds, colonial scholars, especially those of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, were able to make impressive contributions in the fields of history, anthropology, linguistics, geography, and natural history. The second half of the seventeenth century saw a decline in the quantity and quality of scholarly production. Nevertheless, in this period two remarkable men, Carlos Sigüenza y Góngora, in Mexico, and Pedro de Peralta Barnuevo, in Peru, foreshadowed the eighteenth-century Enlightenment by the universality of their interests and by their concern with the practical uses of science.

Colonial literature, with some notable exceptions, was a pallid reflection of prevailing literary trends in Spain. Among a multitude of poetasters towered a strange and rare genius, one of the greatest poets of the New World, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Sor Juana could not escape the pressures of her environment. Rebuked by the bishop of Puebla for her worldly interests, she ultimately gave up her books and scientific instruments and devoted the remainder of her brief life to religious devotions and charitable works.

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