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Colonial Latin American societies were structured in a hierarchical system that interwove ethnicity, class and race.

In this lesson, you will learn about the peninsulares, who were a special group at the pinnacle of that system.

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Colonial Order in Latin America

The colonial order in Latin America was hierarchical and quite intricate. It was in fact, a caste system that promoted inequalities among the colonial subjects. This social hierarchy was based on considerations of race, ethnicity and wealth, but many times, it wasn’t as clear cut as it may seem. At the top of the hierarchy were:

  • whites, born in Spain or in the New World
  • natives, with royal blood
  • mestizos, mixed-blood from white and native
  • mulattoes, mixed-blood from white and black
  • other mixed-bloods, which Spaniards called castas
  • natives
  • blacks

But racial categories were quite elastic, particularly among the wealthy. Among whites, there were two main distinctions: criollos, meaning creoles, who were born in the Americas as the sons and daughters of Spaniards, and peninsulares, which literally means ‘born in the peninsula.

Definition of Peninsulares

The peninsulares were the group of people who came directly from the Iberian Peninsula in Spain to the colonies in the Americas. The Iberian Peninsula is the geographical region comprised by Portugal and Spain. Peninsulares were Spaniards that immigrated to the so-called New World between the 16th and 18th century.

This group was at the pinnacle of the social structure that was created within the colonial order of the Americas. They were entitled to occupy the most important posts in the colonial administration and also had the right to hold the highest ranks within the military and the church.There are several characteristics of peninsulares, or Spaniards.

Most peninsulares didn’t belong to the nobility. But, as they gave good services to the Crown, were able to get a minor nobility title called hidalgo. This non-inherited nobility title, allowed many peninsulares to carry weapons as part of the militia and to be exempted from paying taxes. They also enjoyed additional entitlements.Other peninsulares belonged to a special group called encomenderos. Encomenderos were extremely privileged, since they belonged to the nobility and were appointed by the Crown to direct duties at the forefront of the colonial enterprise. One of those duties was to teach Christian doctrines to the natives of the Americas that were under their particular care.

Those natives were called encomendados. Encomenderos were entrusted to defend the natives from abuses and exploitation. But, in fact, there is strong historical evidence that encomenderos were quite abusive with the natives.

They also had the responsibility to enlarge the land holdings and assets of the Crown.Peninsulares arrived from different regions of Spain, mainly Castile, Catalonia and the island of Majorca, in the Balearic Islands. In most cases, Castilians were in charge of the conquest and settlement of the Americas. Catalans and Majorcans mostly organized and managed commercial enterprises.

Gachupines and Chapetones

In Mexico and parts of Central America, peninsulares were called gachupines or cachupines. Although the origin of the word is still under debate, the fact of the matter is that the word was used pejoratively by the natives of the Americas and the Creoles. In Peru and other parts of South America, peninsulares were derogatorily called chapetones. Both concepts, which carried a negative connotation towards the people, who weren’t sons and daughters of the Americas but reaped most of the benefits of the colonial system, were invoked during calls of independence.

In Mexico, historical accounts and popular folklore claim that the Priest Manuel Hidalgo, ‘The Father of the Homeland,’ used the concept in 1810 while calling for a rebellion against the colonial rulers. Presumably, Hidalgo held a banner with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe and shouted: ‘Live America! Live Ferdinand VII! Live the Religion and death to the gachupines!’ Much earlier, in 1781 in Peru, a group of creoles, natives, and mestizos organized a rebellion against the administrator of a city. They resented the way taxes were imposed and collected. During the rebellion, they yelled: ‘Death to the Chapetones.

Lesson Summary

Peninsulares were Spaniards that came to the Americas between the 16th and 18th centuries to hold the most important and prestigious positions in the colonial administration. They were one of the two distinctions among white people in Latin America, the other being criollos, who were born in the Americas as the sons and daughters of Spaniards. The peninsulares amassed a lot of wealth and power. They were the masters of the colonial order, which was essentially a caste system that promoted inequalities among the colonial subjects.

Most came from Castile, Catalonia and the island of Majorca in the Balearic Islands.They became hidalgos (a non-inherited nobility title, allowed many peninsulares to carry weapons as part of the militia and be exempted from paying taxes), encomenderos (an extremely privileged group, belonged to the nobility and were appointed by the Crown to direct duties at the forefront of the colonial enterprise), political administrators, admirals and generals, landowners, businessman and merchants. They enjoyed most of the benefits of the colonial legal, political, economic and racial system.

Towards the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, they became the target of uncountable rebellions that led to the independent movements in the region. This led to the peninsulares being called gachupines, a pejorative used by the natives of the Americas and the Creoles in Mexico and Latin America, and chapetones, the pejorative used in Peru.

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