While cultural critics and historians have demonstrated that print culture was an essential tool in the development of national, regional, and local communal identities in Latin América, the role of oral culture, as a topic of inquiry and a source itself, has been more fraught. Printed and hand-written texts often leave behind tangible archival evidence of their existence, but it can be more difficult to trace the role of oral culture in the development of such identities. Historically, Western society has deeply undervalued oral cultures, especially those practiced or created by non-Westerners and non-elites. Even before the arrival of the first printing presses to the Americas, starting with the very first encounters between Spaniards and indigenous peoples in the Americas in the late-15th and early-16th centuries, European conquerors understood and portrayed European alphabetic written script as a more legitimate, and therefore more valuable, form of history and knowledge-making than oral forms. Those cultures without alphabetic writing were deemed barbaric, according to this logic. Despite its undervaluation, oral culture was one of the principal ways in which vast numbers of Latinas/os were exposed to, engaged with, and exchanged ideas about politics, religion, social change, and local and regional community identity during the colonial period. In particular, oral culture often offers the perspective of underrepresented voices, such as those of peasants, indigenous communities, afro-Latinas/os, women, and the urban poor, in Latina/o historical, literary, and cultural studies. During the colonial period especially, many of these communities often did not produce their own European script writing or find their perspectives and experiences illuminated in the writings of the letrados, or lettered elites, and their voices thus remain largely excluded from the print archive. Studies of oral culture offer a corrective to this omission, since it was through oral cultural practices that many of these communities engaged with, contested, and redefined the public discourses of their day.
Oral culture in the colonial period comprised a broad range of rich cultural and artistic practices, including music, various types of poetry and balladry, oral history, legend, performance, religious rituals, ceremonies, festivals, and much more. These practices served as a way to remember and share ideas, values, and experiences both intraculturally and interculturally, as well as across generations. Oral culture also changes how the impact of print culture is understood, since written texts were often disseminated to the masses through oral practices. In the missions of California and the present-day US Southwest, for example, religious plays served as one of the major vehicles for the forced education and indoctrination of indigenous communities during the colonial period. To understand such a play, it is important to consider not just the printed text but also the performance of the play, as well as the ways in which the audience understands and engages with the play and its religious teachings. The study of oral culture in the Latina/o context, therefore, includes an examination of how literate, illiterate, and semi-literate Latinas/os have engaged with, resisted, or repurposed various written forms, such as poetry, letters, theater, testimonios, juridical documents, broadsides, political treatises, religious texts, and the sermon, through oral cultural practices and with various objectives in mind. Oral culture, in all of its many forms, has thus served as an important means for the circulation of knowledge and the expression of diverse world views for Latinas/os throughout the colonial period and into the 21st century.