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date: 01 March 2021

Oral Culture: Literacy, Religion, Performancefree

  • Cara Anne KinnallyCara Anne KinnallyDepartment of Spanish, Purdue University


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.

Colonizing Language(s)

Throughout the colonial period and into the independence movements of late 18th and early 19th century Latin America, to lay claim to or create a written history meant to possess knowledge and to be part of civilization and progress, according to European standards. In both North and South America, the lack of a written language served as an affirmation of the barbarism of indigenous communities and, therefore, a justification for their subjugation at the hands of supposedly more advanced colonizers. In the early years of contact between Europe and indigenous America, Columbus and other European explorers often portrayed indigenous peoples as not possessing language (sometimes even oral language).1 Similarly, Europeans often failed to recognize indigenous forms of writing, graphic representation, and visual and tactile arts as forms of communication; more often they portrayed these societies as lacking in such forms.2 When forms of writing or graphic representation were acknowledged, European colonizers often labeled them evil and heretical.3 In the Andean region, for example, Spanish authorities attempted to destroy images of pre-Hispanic myths as a way of controlling and redirecting the religious beliefs of the indigenous population.4 In what is now Mexico, Diego de Landa, one of the first Franciscan missionaries to arrive to the Yucatán peninsula in the mid-16th century, is well known for having burned huge collections of Maya codices. According to him and many other missionaries, these writings promoted idolatry and represented the words of the devil. At the same time, Diego de Landa was intensely interested in chronicling pre-Hispanic Maya culture and history; in effect, he replaced indigenous texts with his own texts and versions of Maya understandings of their world. As Diego de Landa’s actions highlight, Spaniards recognized the power of indigenous languages and forms of writing, while simultaneously working to destroy and replace them. To rename a place in the Spanish (or Portuguese) language or to retell a story in translation in a European tongue meant not only to silence indigenous voices and languages, but also to take possession of those lands and indigenous ways of knowing the world.

European script writing and printed texts served not only as a justification for colonization over those communities that did not possess such forms of communication but also as a colonizing tool. In The Lettered City, influential Uruguayan literary critic Ángel Rama showed how, in colonial Latin American spaces, letrados (urban lettered elites), constructed, imposed, and maintained a European ideal of the city and of the society that would inhabit it. This European ideal city was imagined through their writing and was set in opposition to “all local expressions of particularity, imagination, or invention.”5 Through their writing, letrados facilitated “the concentration and hierarchical differentiation of power” in the colonies, and carried out the empire’s civilizing mission.6 This involved establishing and maintaining colonial administrative units; evangelizing and overseeing the transculturation of millions of indigenous people; and spreading the ideological propaganda of the Catholic Church and the monarchy to the masses.7 All of this was done through the writing of the letrados. Letrados, who were almost exclusively men, not only transmitted ideological messages and cultural models from monarchs or administrative heads in Europe to the masses in the Americas, they also helped to produce and maintain these messages and models, and to transform their societies through these processes. The ability to read and write—specifically in a European tongue—led to a fetishization of European languages and literacy during the colonial period and later.8 Writing, linked to both ecclesiastical and royal authority in the colonial period, took on an almost sacred aura in Latin America.

In other words, writing in European languages, starting in the colonial period and lasting through at least until the early 19th century, was a central way in which European powers established and maintained their control, not only over the land, but also over the minds of the people of Latin America. Language and writing, memory and archiving, along with other representational forms such as cartography, were vital technologies of colonization.9 Replacing indigenous languages with European vernaculars, whether written or oral, was an attempt not only to obliterate the production of knowledge in the native tongue, but also to deny recognition of indigenous languages as languages through erasure of the history of their very existence.

Orality and the Canon

During the colonial period in Latin America, Spanish and Portuguese imperial authorities, with the help of letrados, established and maintained a rigid hierarchy of power through their use of the written (European) text. The fetishization of writing in both colonial and ecclesiastical enterprises in Latin American established the power and legitimacy of European languages (Spanish and Portuguese) and also diminished the prestige and power of indigenous and creole languages and other local, oral and performative forms of expression, which were rarely seen as valid forms of knowledge or worthy of inclusion in the archive.

It is important to note that, during this same time period, another linguistic hierarchy of power was emerging within the Western world that placed Northern European languages on a higher plane than Spanish and Portuguese. Toward the beginning of the 17th century there was a reorientation of philosophical and scientific discourses towards certain languages—English, German, and French—that established these as the languages of modernity and their associated cultures as the heart of Europe.10 As the power of the Spanish and Portuguese empires further declined in the 18th and early 19th centuries, they and their empires were seen in Europe and the Americas as non-modern empires, or as communities perpetually “late” to modernity, never fully achieving “true” or “authentic” modernity. The supposed backwardness of the Spanish and Portuguese empires became increasingly seen as a cultural and racial degeneracy, a discourse that was, in turn, internalized as an inferiority complex by elites throughout Latin America.11 As the colonial period waned, Spanish and Portuguese languages became progressively understood as markers of a lack of modernity and of racial inferiority—a sign of subalternity—in the Western world. And American indigenous and creole languages, the subaltern of the subaltern, became that much more stigmatized, further marginalizing communities that did not have access to or knowledge of a written European language, even if a stigmatized one.12 Thus, in colonial Latin America, language, written and spoken, was an important component of identity and a marker of one’s place within incredibly complex regional as well as international hierarchies of privilege and power.

Although writing and European languages remained a vital weapon of colonialism in the Americas, for the vast majority of Latinas/os, oral/aural practices and creative forms were the central way in which they participated in, changed, contested, and helped to create public discourse throughout the colonial period. Written texts created and sustained official discourse, but individuals and communities used oral cultural forms to record and create local histories, participate in politics, voice concerns, and contest (or reinforce) elite discourses. While written or printed texts capture the words, thoughts, and worldviews of mostly European or European-identifying elites, the vision of public discourses contained within such written texts is partial at best. Texts produced primarily by and for elites did not often directly reflect the voices of the majority of Latinas/os, especially non-elite communities and individuals—those who were indigenous, Afro-mestizo, female, not Spanish-speaking, or poor. These texts also did not capture the ways in which communities—both letrados and those who could not read—understood, engaged with, circulated, changed, and repurposed the ideas contained in such texts.

The fetishization in Western society of the printed text, the archive, and European vernaculars has led to oral culture being frequently understudied and undervalued in Latina/o cultural studies, despite the vibrancy, longevity, and centrality of oral culture to Latina/o cultural production throughout the colonial period. In addition, to create an opposition between print and oral culture is misleading, as these forms were constantly altered by one another and always in conversation with one another. Even those people who could not read or write still engaged in other ways with various written forms—such as poetry, letters, testimonios, political essays, religious texts, histories, theater, sermons, and governmental publications—through oral (and aural) cultural practices.

Although print culture was produced almost exclusively by elites in the colonial period, and the written word was seen and understood in quasi-religious terms, the division between print culture and oral culture was not clear cut. While reading in the early 21st century is largely considered a solitary endeavor, in colonial Latin America, texts were written with the explicit knowledge that such texts would circulate orally among the vast majority of the population—that reading, in other words, was a communal endeavor.13 Indeed, texts from the time period cannot be fully understood without also considering how print culture and oral/aural culture worked together to produce meaning in and through such texts, as well as outside of the texts. Furthermore, to limit the study of Latina/o literature, culture, and history to the written word means to reproduce “the historical violence of a lettered elite that counted as texts only those written in Spanish and Portuguese; that is, literary history in the past reproduced the colonial power installed by the colonial model and continued by the internalized colonialism of nation-builders.”14 The study of oral culture, as well as the ways that oral and print culture functioned as complements of one another to create meaning for readers, listeners, and other participants, can shed light on the experiences and worldviews of the vast masses of Latinas/os during the colonial period and can open up new avenues of inquiry that question colonial power as all-encompassing.

Literacy and Education

Literacy rates remained woefully low throughout the colonial period and well into the 19th century in all of Latin America—only about 10 percent (or perhaps even less) of the inhabitants in Spanish America, for example, were considered literate by the beginning of the 19th century.15 School attendance rates were even lower, with 1 percent or less of the population participating in formal education in many regions of Latin America in the first half of the 19th century.16 But these literacy and school attendance rates tell only a partial story of how texts and ideas circulated and were understood by Latinas/os in the colonial period. Indeed, to rely solely upon literacy rates (or even more dangerously, school attendance rates) ignores the multifaceted ways in which communities engaged with, changed, and manipulated the written word and written texts.17 It also ignores the many types and gradations of literacy that existed; many Latinas/os who could read, for example, could not write.18 And lastly, these statistics discount non-European, oral, and performative forms of communication, knowledge production, and memory-making.

Despite the fact that people engaged with texts in a diversity of ways other than through private or solitary reading, however, literacy rates were understood as important markers of the level of development and modernization of a community from the Renaissance forward. Education and literacy (and specifically, literacy in a European language) were seen and portrayed as a means toward “civilizing” and “enlightening” the masses in the Western world.19

Education was also one of the primary endeavors of the earliest missionaries in Latin America, and remained a central concern for Latinas/os even after independence—although formal education, especially higher education, was reserved for a tiny minority of elites, even throughout most of the 19th century.20 In Spanish America in the 19th century, for example, education was understood a way of freeing Latinas/os from the supposed ignorance in which they had lived for centuries under oppressive Spanish colonial rule. It is significant that many of Latin America’s earliest statesmen, such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in Argentina, were also educators, because it emphasizes just how important education was understood to be for new Latin American nations during their first decades of independence. Education was seen as fundamental to the building of a new nation. Accordingly, the goals of statesmen and educators overlapped: the construction of a new nation and an educated citizenry. Latina/o travelers in the 19th century invariably commented in their travel narratives upon the educational systems of the places they visited, frequently comparing them to the systems in their home countries and using them as a yardstick to gauge the supposed modernization of that other country, and their own, through comparison. In what is now the US Southwest, in the early decades of annexation and incorporation into the United States in the late 19th century, Latinas/os similarly saw education as proof of their right to be included as full citizens within the United States, and they used their local presses to educate their Latina/o communities.21 Latinas/os thereby internalized these European standards of literacy and education as measurements of the level of civilization of both individuals and communities, and of their worthiness or suitability for full citizenship in their national communities.

Further evidence of this concern with education is provided by the rapidity with which schools and universities were established throughout Latin America. Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, and only ten years later, the first missionary and convent schools were already being founded.22 During the colonial period in Latin America, higher education was controlled by the Catholic Church and was reserved for elites. One of the main goals of such institutions was to create good Christians who were faithful to both Catholicism and the Crown. Indeed, the conquest of what is today Latin America was just as much a spiritual as a military conquest; the political and the religious were densely intertwined. The intellectual education of European-identifying elites prepared them, as letrados, to be the leaders of their local communities, and to manage and sustain Spain’s colonizing project in the Americas. Educating and indoctrinating the elite Latin American youth in a European-style university, in European culture, and from a European viewpoint, also worked as safeguards to the hegemonic power of both the Church and the Crown.

Evangelization and Education

The Church’s other principal endeavor related to education in the New World, and the one that relates most directly to discussions of oral culture, was to evangelize the indigenous masses—to teach them about and convert them to Christianity. Literacy in European alphabetic script was a part of the education of native populations during the early colonial period—especially for elite indigenous who came from noble families, since it was necessary to incorporate indigenous elites into European culture to advance the acculturation process and involve indigenous leaders in that process.23 But the vast majority of evangelizing, intended for the indigenous masses, was carried out through oral culture, especially public rituals, song, theater, and other sorts of performances. This sort of education was intended to indoctrinate indigenous communities in European language, culture, history, and, most importantly, Christianity, while simultaneously working to strip away indigenous religious beliefs, languages, cultures, and ways of life.

In central Mexico, for example, where Franciscan missionaries were some of the first Spaniards to seek to evangelize indigenous communities in the Americas, poetry, music, singing, processions, festivals, and theater served as principal ways in which they sought to convert the indigenous to Christianity and indoctrinate them in the Spanish language and culture. In fact, this was not a practice first attempted in the New World, as there is evidence that Franciscans had used scriptural plays as part of their evangelical endeavors in Europe since the emergence of their order, and that they had used European vernacular religious dramas since the middle ages for evangelical and educational purposes.24 The friars used music, lyric, and drama to make scripture more tangible and relevant to the daily life of ordinary people.25 Although the content of such practices was not always recorded in the archives, the ubiquity of archival references to the existence of improvised dramas, music, and other sorts of performance illustrates how important oral cultural forms were in both Europe and the Americas, for both literate and illiterate alike, prior to and up through the 19th century.

In their new American context, Spanish missionaries quickly recognized the discursive and ideological power of public performance and theater, particularly when communication was difficult. Supporting elements, such as the visual and the gestural, along with “music, regulated bodily engagement, group performance, images of santos, and ritual care of sacred spaces” were obviously useful for reinforcing complex religious dogma, especially when language could not always be relied upon.26 Public ritual had also held a vital role in many pre-conquest societies, and missionaries capitalized on this fact, realizing that one of the most effective ways to attract large numbers of indigenous to Christianity was through the continuance of the tradition of public ritual performance in the form of songs, dance, plays, and processions.27 Spanish missionaries also might have been seeking a way to “transplant some of Spain’s own traditions of public religious celebrations to fill the terrible void that the suppression of pre-Hispanic rituals had left behind.”28 There is evidence, for example, that some Spanish priests imitated native oral literary genres and patterns in their written sermons, because they were aware of their Indian audience’s appreciation for these forms of expression.29 And Franciscan missionaries in Central Mexico promoted the rhythmic singing of prayers in unison, often accompanied by musical instruments, thereby creating a more intensive and memorable experience, but also in the process transforming “the doctrinal text from its script status into the somatic and densely aesthetic experience of group intoning.”30 In this way, Spanish missionaries used oral, ritualistic, and performative genres to facilitate indigenous acceptance of new Christian and European cultural content, since the form in which these new ideas were delivered was already familiar to and respected by their indigenous audiences.

In the hands of Spanish conquistadors and missionaries in the Americas, evangelization was carried out for the indigenous masses through these types of didactic oral/aural and physical/bodily experiences, and often by establishing connections—not discontinuities—with pre-Hispanic religious and cultural practices and beliefs.31 Spaniards capitalized upon the discursive and cultural power of such forms and used them to their own ends. In the northern frontiers of New Spain (present-day New Mexico and Arizona), for example, one of the very first things that newly arrived friars and Spanish conquistadors did when they reached the banks of the Río Grande in 1598 was, significantly, to produce and perform dramas depicting the defeat of indigenous communities at the hands of Spanish conquistadors as well as autos sacramentales, didactic religious plays based on biblical narratives and popular Christian traditions. Through repetition of these didactic plays and performances, Spaniards created a historical consciousness among the Pueblo Indians of their own conquest, humiliation, and subsequent embrace of Christianity.32 The purpose of such performances “was to indoctrinate the Indians with a highly ideological view of the conquest, simultaneously forging in their minds a historical consciousness of their own vanquishment and subordination from the Spanish point of view.”33 Even though this was a historical fabrication by the Spaniards, through the ritualistic repetition of such didactic plays, Pueblo Indians eventually internalized the Spaniards’ messages and vision of their own history. Through their use of theater, Spaniards thus “inculcated into the Pueblo Indians a historical consciousness of their own defeat.”34 Furthermore, such performances taught the Pueblo Indians “the meaning of their own defeat, of Spanish sovereignty, and of the social hierarchies under Christian rule.”35

Evangelization and religious indoctrination, like many others form of education, was a double-edged sword: it suppressed indigenous cultures, ways of knowing, and expression, but it also, sometimes, established continuities between that past and the colonial present, thereby often helping to preserve certain elements of non-European cultures. Similarly, while a reading of the early colonial religious texts and a consideration of their evangelizing purpose rightly confirms the ways in which written language was used as a weapon of colonization, a deeper consideration of the ways in which the text circulated and was used, performed, changed, and understood among a variety of people—Spanish clerics, indigenous actors, or indigenous audience members—reveals the complex ways in which oral cultural forms, such as drama and ritual performance, could also be used as forms of resistance to colonization and domination.

Oral Culture, Performance, and Resistance

Spaniards employed oral cultural forms in their colonial evangelical endeavors throughout Spanish America, but it is also important to consider how indigenous and mestizo, or mixed race, Americans actually understood, altered, and re-employed these forms for their own purposes, sometimes as forms of resistance—although not always a form of resistance that was recognizable to Spanish ecclesiastical or governmental authorities or that was perhaps not even a conscious choice on the part of such communities and individuals.

Mexico and the northern Mexican regions (present-day US Southwest) once again provide poignant examples of the complexity of evangelical theater during the colonial period. While originally only Spaniards performed in the didactic theatrical performances addressed to indigenous audiences, playing the roles of both Spanish conquistadors and vanquished Indians, eventually the production and enactment of the performance was handed over to indigenous actors, who performed the roles of both conquerer (Spaniard) and conquered (indigenous). These sorts of performances thereby gave indigenous communities the chance to manage public space again, incorporate new meanings into the plays, and possibly encode hidden messages of resistance for their indigenous audience.36 Moreover, the written texts that have survived cannot communicate the ways in which indigenous actors might have used comic gestures, altered word play, or engaged in burlesque behavior during the performance to invert or undermine messages in the original text for their indigenous audiences.37 In sum, while such spectacles had explicit didactic purposes, they also provided opportunities for indigenous actors and their audiences to “reactivate, if not reaffirm, their collective memory and to embody many of their cultural categories and values.”38 Embodied performances, in other words, had the power to transmit and create knowledge, preserve social memory, and foster communal identity, often contradicting the original content or purpose of the text that was being performed.39

In New Spain, Nahuas already had a strong tradition of communal ritual performance, and the continuation of this tradition, albeit in a forever altered form, could be understood as a way of maintaining pre-Hispanic forms of community expression. Paradoxically, then, indigenous performances in New Spain were “transferred and reproduced within the very symbolic system designed to eliminated them: Roman Catholicism.”40 In other locales across Latin American, research has shown the ways in which indigenous culture was preserved within other cultural forms, such as poetry, religious festivals, dance, and music—in other words, how syncretism became a dominant feature of Latin American culture, especially in religious practices and beliefs.41 Although ecclesiastical or governmental authorities might not have fully recognized the continued presence of indigenous culture and beliefs in such practices, indigenous communities used such forms of syncretism, consciously or not, to preserve essential aspects of their community’s culture and identity, thereby resisting complete domination and erasure.

Festivals offered additional didactic opportunities for ecclesiastical as well as political authorities. Reasons for having a festival, which often took place over several days, included the celebration of a patron saint’s feast day, the ascension of a new king or ruler, celebrations in honor of regal authorities (such as the viceroy), holy days, and other similar events or dates. Such festivals and feast days, similar to theatrical performances, offered opportunities for syncretic expression—both appeasement of ecclesiastical and European political authorities and maintenance of (some) non-European beliefs and practices. For instance, El divino narciso (1690), an auto sacramental written for the feast of Corpus Christi by the celebrated Mexican nun and writer, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, employs syncretism of Hispanic and indigenous cultural and linguistic features.42 Other dramas dedicated to the Virgin of Copacabana and the Virgin of Guadalupe—similarly mixing Hispanic and indigenous culture, language, and images—were performed in public squares for a predominantly indigenous public in a plethora of locales.43

In the Andean region, to give another example, such festivals established the importance and maintained the vitality of indigenous oral traditions by including theater and dialogue, including performances in Quechua.44 Grand festivals such as the festival of Corpus Christi involved theatrical performances, both secular and religious, with the secular plays performed in coliseums and playhouses and the religious performed in churches or church plazas; processions; parades; mascaradas, masquerades or nocturnal parades in which the participants dressed up in disguises and costumes; bull fights; games; fireworks; chariot races; and other street performances.45 Indigenous masses participated in and often dominated the street performances and mascaradas. Furthermore, they incorporated their own cultural and religious components into such festivities by continuing certain pre-Hispanic forms of creative and religious expression, sometimes in their native tongue, and by using such opportunities to challenge colonial ecclesiastical and political authorities through mimicry, humor, burlesque acting, and other forms of oral and visual subversion. Although there are few surviving textual records of the exact content of many such street processions/performances, mascaradas, or plays (especially in Quechua or other indigenous languages), the archives do mention the abundance of such activities, further confirming their importance and popularity in the colonial period.46

Other sorts of oral and bodily performances were used in festivals throughout Latin America and displayed religious and cultural syncretism, with layers of meaning that would have been intelligible in distinct ways for different audience members (indigenous versus Spanish, for example). In central Mexico, during pre-colonial times indigenous communities performed popular and ritual dances as dramatized performances, accompanied by dialogues and speeches.47 While many missionaries tried to ban these after the conquest, they just as often adapted them to the new Christian pantheon, thus allowing indigenous communities to maintain pre-Hispanic performative and oral cultural expressions, although now mixed with Hispanic religious content.48

In the Caribbean, where indigenous communities were largely exterminated, oral forms of expression similarly came to be a way of preserving African religion, culture, languages, and beliefs, while also helping to create new syncretic cultures and forms of expression. In this context, Afro-Latinas/os fused African religions and Catholic beliefs in their worship of African deities; they predominantly used creole languages to do so, conducting their worship orally, through songs, incantations, and spells.49 Their religious practices and the very language they used to maintain them are examples of syncretism. Thus, even as European masters suppressed African culture and forced African slaves to acculturate, African slaves (and, later, freed Afro-Latinas/os) employed the colonial languages of their masters as well as creole languages as forms of liberation, and as a means to retain features and beliefs of their original African cultures. Afro-Latinas/os also used music to preserve many aspects of African culture, even when that music was ostensibly being used in Christian ceremonies or rituals. Drums, or the use of drum-like beats and rhythms when drums were not available, for example, have been recognized as a form of writing and communication maintained by Afro-Latinas/os.50 Drumming, or “drum writing,” was (and is) a form of ritual performance that maintained a connection with the African past of Afro-descendants in Latin American.51 It also functioned as way of transmitting information that would not have been understood in the same way, if at all, by slave masters. Even when participating in and seemingly adapting to Christian religious practices, then, Afro-Latinas/os used various forms of oral performance, especially music and song, to maintain African culture, to communicate with other Afro-Latinas/os, and to preserve their history and ways of knowing the world.52

Religious festivals, feast days, and other ritual celebrations were ways for Europeans to impose a new culture and religion on marginalized groups; but when the role of the masses in such practices is looked at more closely, it becomes more apparent that such celebrations offered opportunities for marginalized communities to make these events their own—and in many cases, to mix old and new beliefs together through the incorporation of non-European or non-Christian oral cultural elements, such as music, theater, dialogue, song, poetry, dance, and other sorts of performative acts. In doing so, such communities often appeared to be participating in and accepting their own indoctrination, but they were often simultaneously maintaining their connections to pre-Hispanic or African culture and memory, while also creating new syncretic forms of expression that could potentially undermine the dominant group’s goals of indoctrination. Written texts, while important, cannot fully capture the ways in which such marginalized communities made these texts and events their own through oral as well as bodily performative acts and interpretations. To consider the possible roles of oral culture and bodily performance in such texts and spectacles opens up new layers of meaning and a deeper consideration of the ways in which marginalized communities both succumbed to and also resisted colonization and erasure.

Oral Histories and Storytelling

As first-hand connections with pre-Hispanic or African cultures died with the older generations of indigenous and Afro-mestiza/os communities, and as mestizo culture—a mixture of European, indigenous and/or African—and syncretism became more dominant during the later centuries of the colonial period in Latin America, oral performance and other cultural forms remained important ways of recording history and sharing communal experiences, culture, and history intergenerationally. Although oral culture did not have the prestige that written language did in official discourses such as governmental communications or state-sanctioned histories, it nonetheless remained a vital resource for the vast majority of Latinas/os, both elites and non-elites alike. While it is true that letrados helped to plan, imagine, and write the new cities of Latin America (along with their complex hierarchies of power), stories and storytellers helped (and help) to construct something just as important: a community’s sense of identity and belonging.53 Scholars have long recognized the important role that 19th-century romantic novels, for example, had in the discursive founding of nations in Latin America.54 But literary critics and historians have not always recognized the importance of oral storytelling as part of the cultural history of a community, despite the fact that orality was one of the primary ways in which communities in Latin America created and maintained their own histories and culture, given the high levels of illiteracy during the colonial period.55 One of the principal ways in which Latinas/os have long shared stories, histories, fables, and myths about themselves and their community is through the oral performance of the storyteller or narrator, and many of these forms have had, perhaps for this reason, extremely long traditions, many of which endure to the present day.

What differentiates oral storytelling from a written tradition? To begin, there is a performative element, with an immediate audience.56 The storyteller is both a narrator and a performer for this audience. The subject matter can vary widely in oral storytelling. However, repetition and variation are key components, in both the form and content. The story is repeated hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times, by different narrators/performers, and they often change the form of their telling and the details of the narrative slightly to fit their own ever-changing needs and those of their audiences. Oral storytelling and oral literature are in constant transition; to perform and to hear an oral story is a fleeting experience, one only fully experienced in the moment of recitation.57 The vibrancy of oral storytelling is that, through this repetition and constant change, the story’s meaning is continually renewed and “grows, enriched by the community’s historical knowledge—interpreting, judging, analyzing, and thereby incorporating current events.”58 Most, but not all, forms incorporate rhythm, meter, rhyme, and/or alliteration; they are often accompanied by music and sometimes dance.59 Such features also function as a mnemonic devices for the narrator, and, later, for audience members who might repeat the story to others and themselves become storytellers.

While oral history or oral storytelling does sometimes record the events of heroes or major historical figures, it also significantly “rescues that which is the everyday thing, the transcendental, the historical past expressed by word of mouth, in the style of its various protagonists—the very universe that builds diverse histories, finally integrating them into only one, in which its makers, plain men and women, are recognized.”60 In other words, while letrados created official visions of their communities through the written word, oral historians and storytellers recorded and disseminated stories about the everyday lived experiences of their communities, both elites and non-elites alike. They also remembered and maintained histories of their communities as told by non-elite members of their communities. Oral histories and storytelling served as forms of both individual and collective memory, as well as ways of remembering and communicating these experiences to successive generations. Oral histories and oral storytelling during the colonial period preserved connections to the culture, history, and beliefs of indigenous, African, and other marginalized groups, while also mixing orality with dominant literary forms and content, in the process creating hybrid stories that spoke about the experiences of the masses in a form that was accessible to them.

A final key component of oral history or oral storytelling is that these forms are understood by their communities as expressing the true character and values of their community; they help to define and maintain a sense of identity for their community. In this sense, oral histories largely strive to maintain, not challenge, the traditions of a community.61 Yet it is also important to note that while such forms are conservative (of traditions) within their own communities, they are frequently performed by and representative of marginalized social groups within a larger regional or national community. Oral histories and storytelling are often a means for maintaining a marginalized community’s identity and its history, and making that history heard by the larger society.

Because of these features, oral history and oral storytelling have endured in various forms for hundreds of years in Latin America. In the Southern Cone, for example, gauchos have been improvising payadas, lyrical compositions in the form of a dialogue between two or more speakers, probably since at least the 17th century.62 The payador, or narrator of the payadas, a “contrapuntal singer who traveled through what is now Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, and the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, was the main propagator of the oral literature that predominated in the region until the beginning of the 20th century.”63 Like other forms of oral storytelling, payadas were lyric narratives, containing meter and rhyme, which also served as mnemonic devices for the payadores. Thus, oral, aural, and performative components were key to this genre—it is a form that should be recited or performed for an audience to be fully experienced. Improvisation, also an important component, emphasized the fluidity and malleability of the genre. Originally, the payada reflected the colloquial language and expressions of the people of these regions, mixing Spanish, indigenous words, and neologisms unique to the region. It was, in other words, a form accessible to and performed for and by non-elites. It was a radical form in that it thus celebrated the common man (it was almost exclusively dominated by men), especially the gaucho.64 However, while the payador represented a somewhat marginal voice within the colonial societies of the Southern Cone, during the 19th and early 20th centuries his voice came to be equated with the nation and the dominant group, eventually being incorporated into written texts, thus in some ways changing the role of the payada and the payador within Southern Cone communities, while still maintaining its importance as a representative voice of community values and identity, and as an intergenerational archive of community history and culture.65

Corridos are another prime example of the longevity, richness, and proliferation of oral storytelling for Latinas/os in the colonial period and up through today. A corrido can be recited or sung, commonly using four-lined octosyllabic strophes, with assonant or consonant rhyme in alternating verses. Like the payada, it is a lyrical-narrative genre that often contains elements of the epic. It was a popular form of storytelling for communities during the colonial period in what is today Mexico, and continues to be a popular genre today, especially in Northern Mexico and in the US-Mexico borderlands.66 Unlike the payada, however, the corrido today tends to be associated with marginal groups.67 It is also a hybrid form in multiple senses. The corrido, for example, has much in common with the medieval romance, or ballad, which originated in Spain and was brought over to the Americas during the colonial period. It straddles the line between history and fiction, between individual and collective representation, and between subjective memory and historical documentation, just as it snakes among multiple genres—music, lyric poetry, narrative, and history.68 Like other forms of oral narrative, the corrido has, perhaps most importantly, been a way for marginalized communities to record their own histories and has served “mnemonically to package and pass down from generation to generation the values and the historical and cultural meaning of events that constitute a tradition” for those marginalized groups.69

Other examples of the centrality of the oral storyteller abound across the time and space of colonial Latin America, including popular narrators such as indigenous shamans, the hablador of Peruvian Amazonia, the akpalô or negra velha of the Afro-Brazilians, and the Santería priestess of Afro-Cuban culture.70 Oral storytelling in the colonial period served as an archive of communal history, culture, and memory. It worked to create and preserve stories that spoke to a community’s values, sense of belonging, and identity. Its power and longevity came from the fact that it functioned as an intergenerational repository of knowledge and as a fluid archive that could be changed or adapted to different circumstances with each storyteller or narrator, with different audiences, and in different historical and cultural contexts as those communities changed.

What all of these examples reveal is not only the importance of oral culture for Latinas/os in the colonial period, but also the vitality and longevity of the various expressive and creative forms of oral culture that emerged during and following the conquest in Latin America. Oral culture has been and continues to be both a ubiquitous and malleable form of expression in Latina/o cultures. It maintains traditions, as seen in the corrido or the Afro-Latina/o use of “drum writing,” but it often contests the traditions of the dominant culture. It can be used as a form of oppression, as exemplified through the use of oral culture in evangelical theater, and as a means of liberation, as illustrated through the subversive performative elements in that same theater of evangelization. It often incorporates both European and non-European elements, in the process creating new hybrid and syncretic forms of expression that demonstrate both the power of European colonialism to eradicate non-European cultures and the tenacity of these same cultures to adapt to new social and cultural contexts.

Discussion of the Literature

Various fields of study engage with Latina/o oral culture in the colonial period. Folklore and ethnography have played a vital role in studies of Latina/o oral culture. Starting with such landmark works as With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero and A Texas-Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border from Américo Paredes, the Chicano public intellectual and pioneer in Border Studies and Chicano Studies, close attention has long been paid to popular culture, folk forms, and non-dominant cultural forms, including such forms as the corrido, that have their origins in oral culture.71 This tradition continues in the 21st century with works such as John Holmes McDowell’s ¡Corrido!: The Living Ballad of Mexico’s Western Coast.72

Work in folklore and ethnography also stimulated an intensified interest in publishing original indigenous sources from the colonial period, many of which were originally oral histories or based upon oral accounts. Miguel León-Portilla’s groundbreaking Visión de los vencidos: Relaciones indígenas de la conquista [The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico], for example, was one of the earlier attempts to capture, at least partially, the experiences and stories of indigenous Americans before and during the conquest and colonial period.73 The goal of Visión de los vencidos, like other ethnohistorical works from this time period, was to retell the history of the conquest from the perspective of the colonized and, frequently, through analysis, and sometimes publication and translation, of source materials in indigenous languages. Such studies contributed to a growing scholarly interest in alternative modes of communication and knowledge production, oral histories, and, especially, indigenous voices in the early colonial period.

Starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s, specialists trained in postcolonial theory and influenced by Subaltern Studies sought to uncover the relationship between writing and colonization, as well as the less understood role of oral culture during the colonial period in Latin America. Walter Mignolo’s The Darker Side of the Renaissance, for example, focused on the role of European script, cartography, and literacy in the colonization of the New World.74 Rolena Adorno’s Guaman Poma: Writing and Resistance in Colonial Peru examined how marginalized communities, as represented through the figure of Guaman Poma, were able to use Spanish tools, including writing and European literary genres, for subversive purposes.75 Starting in the 1990s and moving into the first decades of the 21st century, scholars have sought to more fully understand and uncover the role of alternative, non-European forms of both written and oral expression in newly rediscovered canonical colonial texts and creative forms of expression, while also working to break down long-held Western-centric dichotomies of literate versus illiterate, or oral versus written cultures. Numerous works on the Inca knotted khipu highlight the presence and importance of alternative forms of indigenous writing and communication.76 Additional examples of scholarly work that examine the importance and role of alternative forms of writing and expression include Elizabeth Hill Boone and Walter D. Mignolo’s collection of essays, Writing without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes.77

Sometimes indirectly, many of these critical works, in their discussion of literature and writing as forms and tools of Western colonization and in their work to uncover the role of non-European forms of writing and expression, have paved the way for further analysis of the importance and influence of oral culture and for a renewed interest in the ways in which indigenous communities, especially, but also other marginalized communities, such as women and Afro-Latinas/os, contested, appeased, or integrated themselves into conquest-era and colonial societies through written and oral creative expression. The revisionist New Conquest History, for example, emerged in the 1990s and took more definite shape around the turn of the 21st century. New Conquest History expanded on previous interest in archival and paleographic recovery work that focused on indigenous voices and manuscripts. It complicated a conquest narrative that focused on Spanish conquistadors and friars by focusing instead on a multiplicity of actors and accounts from the conquest period, new source materials (often in indigenous languages), the voices of indigenous and other marginalized groups, and peripheral, understudied regions of the Americas. Important works that encapsulate new trends in New Conquest History include Laura E. Matthew and Michel R. Oudjik’s collection of essays, Indian Conquistadors: Indigenous Allies in the Conquest of Mesoamerica, which demonstrates the central (not peripheral) role that Nahuas and other indigenous Mesoamerican communities played in the Spanish conquest; and Laura E. Matthew’s monograph, Memories of Conquest: Becoming Mexicano in Colonial Guatemala, which similarly focuses on the indigenous allies of the Spanish during the conquest, and the enduring legacy of conquest for these allies during the colonial period.78

While many of the scholarly texts that form a part of New Conquest History focus on written archives, in the early decades of the 21st century, scholars have further sought to question and expand the canon of early colonial Latin America by also looking more closely at performative, visual, and aural genres of expression and communication. Gary Tomlinson’s The Singing of the New World: Indigenous Voice in the Era of European Contact, for example, uncovered the fundamental, but little recognized, role of song in the making of indigenous and colonial American worlds.79 Lisbeth Haas’s Saints and Citizens: Indigenous Histories of Colonial Missions and Mexican California turns not only to indigenous textual archives but also to genres like dance, to more fully explore mission life, as a place of destruction and as a creation of culture from the perspective of indigenous communities.80

Performance Studies offers another lens for reassessing the Latina/o and Latin American canon and for correcting the long-held view that printed texts and writing are the only ways of preserving culture or transmitting and creating knowledge. Although performance studies as a field of inquiry had its origins in the 1970s, it was principally starting in the 1990s that it became a prominent theoretical lens for understanding and interpreting colonial Latina/o and Latin American culture and history. Diana Taylor’s The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, for example, showed how bodily performances have served as key forms for producing and transmitting knowledge, conserving memory, and consolidating group identity.81 Her work questions the assumed endurance of the traditional archive (literary and historical documents, written texts, etc.) and the supposedly ephemeral qualities of what she called the “repertoire of embodied practice/knowledge,” which includes spoken language, dance, sports, and ritual, among other acts.82 Other works in Performance Studies, such as Patricia A. Ybarra’s Performing Conquest: Five Centuries of Theater, History, and Identity in Tlaxcala, Mexico, uncovered how performance and performative acts connect Latina/o communities across time and space, thus questioning neat disciplinary, geographic, and national categories of belonging.83 Works in the burgeoning field of Performance Studies, such as Taylor’s and Ybarra’s, have contributed to the continuing scholarly interest in reassessing the canon of colonial Latin America and in rethinking and revising past dominant narratives of conquest, colonization, and nation formation in Latin America. Such works displace the historic role that writing has been assumed to play throughout the colonial period. They acknowledge that not only those who could (or chose to) read and write transmitted knowledge, claimed social memory, or created concepts of community and identity; and they recognize that other important forms of cultural power and knowledge-making, besides writing and reading, existed during the colonial period (and today) in communities throughout the Americas.

Within Latin American literary and cultural studies, critics have long been interested in the intimate connections between writing and orality, and between language and colonialism, with Ángel Rama’s groundbreaking study, La ciudad letrada [The Lettered City] serving as a prime example.84 But, as this discussion of different areas of research has shown, from the 1990s to the early decades of the 21st century, scholars have critiqued, in various ways, the idea that writing and print culture were the sole ways of transmitting and creating knowledge, forming community identity, and preserving communal memories. Within Latina/o Studies, especially in the context of Latinas/os in the United States, scholars have similarly begun to more fully and critically examine the connections between the Spanish language and colonialism. This is a more recently developing field, opening up mostly in the 21st century. The situation of Latinas/os in the United States is perhaps more complex than a context in which there is one dominant culture and one (or more) cultures being colonized and repressed, as is the case of most of Spanish America, for example, with the imposition of Spanish culture and language. Spanish is both the colonizer’s language and a subversive and colonized language for Latina/o communities within the United States and more broadly within the Western world, where, since the colonial period, it has been seen as a lesser European language, a language of derivative literary production, and a marker of racial and cultural backwardness. Texts such as José Aranda’s When We Arrive: A New Literary History of Mexican America have begun to look at these complexities, particularly for Latinas/os in the United States from the 19th century and later.85 Nicole Guidotti-Hernéndez’s recent book, Unspeakable Violence: Remapping U.S. and Mexican National Imaginaries, is another example of such recent critical work, as it reexamines the dual positioning of Latinas/os and critically assesses the ways in which narratives of mestizaje and resistance to Anglo America have obscured histories of violence within Latina/o communities.86 More recent criticism in both Latin American and Latina/o Studies has looked rather critically at the idea that mestizaje or syncretism are always signs of rebellion or resistance, just as it has also examined more closely how Spanish-speakers are both colonizers and colonized in the Western world.

Recovery work, not just in the field of indigenous Latin America but also in the context of recovering Latina/o voices within the United States, represents another important field related to the concern for rescuing or maintaining marginalized oral histories. Great strides have been made in the recovery of such work.87 Works abound, for example, on the Mexican, Mexican American, and borderlands corridos of the 18th and 19th centuries.88 Recovery scholars have completed work on the testimonios of 19th-century Californios, particularly those of women. Rosaura Sánchez’s Telling Identities: The Californio Testimonies, Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz’s Testimonios: Early California through the Eyes of Women, 18151848, and Gregorio Mora Torres’s Californio Voices: The Oral Memoirs of José María Amador and Lorenzo Asisara offer examples of the sort of stimulating work being done in this area in the early 21st century.89

Links to Digital Materials

Biblioteca Digital del Patrimonio Iberoamericano

Further Reading

  • Aguirre Salvador, Rodolfo, ed. Espacios de saber, espacios de poder. Iglesia, universidades y colegios en Hispanoamérica. Siglos XVIXIX. Mexico City: Bonilla Artigas Editores, 2013.
  • Blayer, Irene Maria, F., and Mark Cronlund Anderson, eds. Latin American Narratives and Cultural Identity. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.
  • Boone, Elizabeth Hill, and Walter D. Mignolo, eds., Writing without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.
  • Brill, Mark. Music of Latin American and the Caribbean. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2011.
  • Díaz Balsera, Viviana. The Pyramid under the Cross: Franciscan Discourses of Evangelization and the Nahua Christian Subject in Sixteenth-Century Mexico. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2005.
  • Herrera-Sobek, María, ed. Reconstructing a Chicano/a Literary Heritage: Hispanic Colonial Literature of the Southwest. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1993.
  • Horcasitas, Fernando. El teatro náhuatl. Épocas novohispana y moderna. México City: Universidad Autónoma de México, 1974.
  • Jara, René, and Nicholas Spadaccini, eds. Amerindian Images and the Legacy of Columbus. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
  • León-Portilla, Miguel. Visión de los vencidos. Relaciones indígenas de la conquista. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1959.
  • Lienhard, Martin. La voz y su huella. Mexico City: Ediciones de Casa Juan Pablos, 2003.
  • Matthew, Laura E., and Michael Oudijk, eds. Indian Conquistadors: Indigenous Allies in the Conquest of Mesoamerica. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.
  • Mignolo, Walter. The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
  • Rama, Ángel. The Lettered City. Edited and translated by John Charles Chasteen. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.
  • Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Uzcátegui, Emilio. Historia de la educación en Hispanoamérica. Quito, Ecuador: Editorial Universitaria, 1973.
  • Valdés, Mario J., and Djelal Kadir, eds. Literary Cultures of Latin America: A Comparative History, Vols. 1 and 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.