Ascribing literary precedence to the colonial period in Latin American history is something that has been done increasingly by contemporary writers who have turned to the writings of that period for a tradition. They have, in effect, turned to the historical and bureaucratic documents of a massive and complex empire that established, in the middle of the sixteenth century, two major viceroyalties in Lima, Peru, and in Mexico City. These complex communities were shaped by the acts of the conquistadors, who marched through the continent transforming what had once been an empire of islands into a vast empire of lands and peoples, which stretched throughout the Americas, as far north as Texas and as far east as the Philippines. At first the island of Hispanola was the heart of the Spanish empire, but once Hernán Cortés had ransacked Mexico and had been followed first by an equally formidable army of monks and priests and later by a remarkably organized battalion of lawyers and bureaucrats, the Spanish empire was in full swing in the Americas.
For nearly two hundred years, the Spanish were the dominant force in the region. Havana remained an important Spanish American center and trade city, while Lima and Mexico City evolved as cultural hubs that in many ways challenged the ascendancy of Castille and Madrid. In these New World cities, there was a thriving artistic and literary community. The work produced by this community, however, was notably imitative of the work of the Golden Age in Spanish letters, and it produced a poet who is still recognized as one of the last of the great Golden Age poets, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Modern Latin American writers have found greater affinity and relevance not in the literary output of the early colonials but in the historical documents of the great figures of that period.
Spain’s government bureaucracies were, if nothing else, fascinated by the act of recording. Files upon files remain that detail the strange and vicious process of colonialization and the terrible anxiety and guilt that surrounded many of the actions of the colonizers in the region. The narratives of historians, governors, priests, and leaders of the evolving empire remain some of the most fascinating accounts of an emerging culture, an emerging identity that can now be regarded as distinctly Latin American.
Christopher Columbus himself began a trend in writing about the Indies that regards the apprehension of the new space as an act of “discovering” the other or coming to grips with the other. This otherness would come to influence the works of such Western artists as William Shakespeare, who in his play The Tempest (pr. 1611) echoed the fantastical...
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