4 Ways Indigenous Cultures Resisted Colonialism in Latin America

Despite the challenges of everyday life for Indigenous peoples in colonial Latin America, many communities adopted creative strategies to preserve their cultures and identities.

Mar 10, 2024By Rowan Glass, BA Cultural Anthropology, History, and Latin American Studies
ways indigenous survived colonialism latin america


It is often assumed that following the Spanish and Portuguese conquests of Latin America, European colonizers totally subjugated Indigenous populations. According to this view, Indigenous culture quickly gave way to European culture, erasing the cultural distinctions between Indigenous and colonizer. However, many Indigenous cultures of Latin America were able to preserve their cultures and identities throughout the colonial era by creatively adapting to changing circumstances. This article explores four ways in which Indigenous cultures resisted colonialism in Latin America.


1. They Fought Back With Force

The Conquest of Tenochtitlan by unknown artist, second half of 17th century. Source: Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.


Although most Indigenous peoples of Latin America eventually succumbed to the military might of Spain, Portugal, and other European powers, they did not go down without a fight. While European colonizers were able to quickly establish a foothold in the Caribbean and other territories where local Indigenous communities lacked the military means to fight back, they encountered much stiffer resistance the further they penetrated into the mainland of Mesoamerica and South America.


Contrary to expectations, the Spanish did not conquer the two great Indigenous empires of Latin America with military might alone. Rather, they were assisted by Indigenous allies and convenient happenstance at every step along the way. For instance, it was only with help from the Indigenous enemies of the Aztec Empire that the conquistador Hernán Cortés was able to conquer Mexico in 1521—and only after months of brutal combat culminating in the siege of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital.


john millais pizarro seizing inca empire painting
Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru by John Everett Millais, 1846. Source: Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Further south, in the early 1530s, the conquistador Francisco Pizarro encountered a weakened Inka Empire embroiled in civil war. Coupled with the rampant spread of European diseases in advance of the Spaniards and the deceitful capture and execution of the Inka leader Atahualpa, these circumstances allowed Pizarro to conquer Peru within a few short years.

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However, in both cases, conquering the Aztecs and the Inka did not put an end to Indigenous military resistance. In Mexico, Peru, and elsewhere in colonial Latin America, Indigenous guerrilla warfare and periodic rebellions continued to threaten colonial rule for decades and even centuries following the initial conquest.


El Rebelde Tupac Amaro, unknown artist, c. 1784–1806. Source: Wikimedia Commons


One of the most notable Indigenous rebellions of the colonial era was led by the Quechua chieftain Túpac Amaru II. This rebellion occurred following the implementation of the Bourbon Reforms, which sought to centralize the Spanish military and administrative system throughout the empire, reducing Indigenous autonomy. In response, Indigenous peoples in what are today Peru and Bolivia rose up in rebellion, asserting a resurgent Inka identity. Although this rebellion was crushed by the Spanish authorities, it signaled the fact that even after more than two centuries of colonialism, armed resistance was still a viable strategy of Indigenous cultural survival.


Armed Indigenous resistance to colonialism did not end with Latin American independence from Spain and Portugal in the nineteenth century. Well into the later nineteenth, twentieth, and even twenty-first centuries, resistance continued. Even today, groups like the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) of Mexico demonstrate that some Indigenous peoples continue to use military means to preserve their autonomy.


2. They Fled from the European Advance

lacandon maya family
Photograph of Lacandons, by Teobert Maler, 1901. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Military resistance was not the only strategy by which Indigenous communities in Latin America resisted the impositions of colonialism, especially as the European powers solidified their grip on the colonies. Where armed conflict proved unfeasible, some Indigenous communities instead opted to flee from the European advance. These communities migrated away from centers of colonial power in a bid to preserve their autonomy far from the towns and cities of the European colonizers.


In fact, some of the same societies that later explorers and colonists would describe as “remote” or “isolated,” such as the Amazonian tribes found deep in the heart of tropical South America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (some are still in voluntary isolation), were the result of mass exodus during the colonial era. Some were the survivors of European conquest and disease seeking to reestablish their communities far from the colonizing foreigners. Others, hearing about the Europeans in advance of their arrival, moved deeper into the hinterlands to avoid encountering them directly. This ensured that some Indigenous cultures were able to thrive for decades or even centuries longer than they otherwise would have.


One of the Indigenous communities that successfully preserved their cultural identity by moving away from colonized areas were the Lacandon Maya, offshoots of the ancient Maya civilization whose cities and temples still dot the landscape of Mesoamerica. The Lacandon Maya inhabit the Lacandon Jungle of the Mexican state of Chiapas, a region that remains remote and sparsely populated even today. In the colonial era, the Lacandon Maya escaped the worst excesses of Spanish rule by remaining in small farming communities far from both the Spanish and other Maya living under the colonial system.


Photograph of members of a tribe in voluntary isolation in the Brazilian state of Acre, by Gleilson Miranda, 2012. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Only since the mid-twentieth century have the Lacandon Maya come into greater contact with the outside world, although they still retain a distinct culture thanks to their centuries of relative isolation and autonomy. The Lacandon are an outlier today, but historically, many other Indigenous communities in colonial Latin America benefited from the same strategy of intentional isolation.


This strategy enabled Indigenous peoples to preserve their cultures and autonomy outside of, or at least peripheral to, the colonial system. For the few tribes that remain in voluntary isolation — numbering perhaps a few dozen societies located in the furthest reaches of the Amazon — this strategy is still employed today.


3. They Adopted Catholicism but Practiced Indigenous Religions in Secret

Photograph of the Kamëntšá people of Colombia carrying a portrait of the Virgin of Las Lajas, a Catholic figure, while celebrating a precolonial festival, 2023. Source: Rowan Glass.


One of the major objectives of European colonialism in Latin America was to spread Catholicism, typically by forced conversion. Every major conquistador expedition took at least one priest with it, whose job it was both to serve the troops and to proselytize to any Indigenous people the company might encounter along the way. Likewise, one of the first steps the Europeans took when conquering a new territory was to build churches, often on Indigenous sacred sites, and to quickly establish a local presence of Catholic clergymen. This ensured that the spread of Christianity went hand-in-hand with European political domination. What’s more, the Spanish Inquisition was perhaps even more vicious in attacking heresy and dissent in Latin America than in Spain itself.


Predictably, these tactics resulted in the rapid spread of Catholicism among the Indigenous peoples of colonial Latin America. However, the types of Catholicism that developed in Indigenous areas were often markedly distinct from the mainstream, orthodox Catholicism promoted by the European authorities. Instead, Indigenous cultures developed syncretic forms of Catholicism that allowed them to preserve elements of their pre-colonial religious beliefs.


The Virgin of Guadalupe, unknown artist, 16th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons


One of the most emblematic symbols of Latin American religious syncretism is the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Although a Catholic figure representing an apparition of the Virgin Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe is also a distinctly Mexican figure that incorporates elements of Indigenous religious symbology. For instance, the Virgin of Guadalupe is depicted wearing a blue-green mantle, a color associated with the Mesoamerican deities Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl. The sunrays emanating from behind her are associated with the spines of the maguey plant, from which Mesoamericans produced the sacred drink pulque long before the Spaniards came. Furthermore, the Virgin of Guadalupe first appeared to an Indigenous man, Juan Diego, who was later named a saint by the Catholic Church.


Some depictions of the Virgin of Guadalupe include other symbols associated with Indigenous Mesoamerican spirituality, such that it is not always clear where Indigenous religion ends and Catholicism begins. The merging of Catholic and Indigenous symbols in this figure is evidence of the ability of Indigenous traditions and beliefs to powerfully retain their meanings under a Catholic veneer.


Although, in many cases, elements of Indigenous spirituality were preserved through syncretism with Catholic doctrine, sometimes, Catholicism was only given lip service by Indigenous people who secretly practiced their ancestral religions in full. Some people in remote regions of the Andes and the Amazon still practice the old ways, even after decades or centuries of Christian proselytization. This perseverance of Indigenous religion, whether in part or in full, demonstrates the overall success of this strategy of cultural survival.


4. They Learned Spanish and Portuguese but Continued to Speak Their Own Languages

The author on his way to Lima, Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, c. 1615. Source: The Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark.


Just as Indigenous cultures adopted Catholicism but employed it to their own ends, so did many adopt colonial European languages — Spanish and Portuguese — even while they continued to speak their own languages. Learning the languages of the colonizers was a means to gain access to and prestige within the colonial system. This was important for Indigenous peoples at times and places in which interaction with Europeans and mestizos — mixed-race Latin Americans, the offspring of European and Indigenous parents — was essential. Local elites learned Spanish and Portuguese as a matter of prestige and necessity within the colonial system, but for most of the colonial era, they maintained their own languages as well.


At the same time, however, millions of Indigenous people never learned the colonial languages at all. For most, it was not necessary since Indigenous communities under European rule were highly restricted in terms of freedom of movement, both in and out. This meant that for commoners, encounters with Europeans and mestizos were rare enough that they never had to learn their languages. While it might be necessary for local elites to speak Spanish or Portuguese in order to interact with Europeans in an official capacity, in many cases, most Indigenous people had no reason to learn these languages.


For several centuries of the colonial era, European languages were not even the most widely spoken languages in much of Latin America. Instead, Indigenous languages such as Quechua (spoken in the Andes), Nahuatl (spoken in Mexico), Maya dialects (in Central America), and Tupi-Guaraní (Brazil and Paraguay) served as regional lingua francas. Because it was not always possible or effective to preach in Spanish or Portuguese, colonial missionaries and administrators often found it necessary to learn Indigenous languages themselves. Quechua and Nahuatl in particular therefore became missionary languages employed by Europeans to aid in their proselytizing. This had the effect, however, of also strengthening Indigenous identities by preserving the use of their languages.


Photograph of detail from the Codex Borbonicus, Mireille Vautier, 2014. Source: The Guardian, Natural History Museum in Paris


Even today, a few Indigenous languages in Latin America retain their historic status as lingua francas, and there are still millions of Indigenous people who use them every day—and some still do not speak Spanish. In Peru, for example, it is estimated that a quarter of the population today speaks Quechua, while in Mexico, there are over one million Nahuatl speakers. These contemporary numbers indicate the historic success of this final strategy of Indigenous cultural survival.

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By Rowan GlassBA Cultural Anthropology, History, and Latin American StudiesRowan is an anthropologist, journalist, and filmmaker with a BA in Cultural Anthropology, History, and Latin American Studies. Rowan grew up in Oregon but has spent much of his life exploring other cultures and corners of the world. His undergraduate research took him from the mountains and rainforests of southwest Colombia, where he conducted an ethnography of cultural reproduction and autonomy with the Indigenous Kamëntšá people, to the streets of Dakar, Senegal, where he crafted recommendations for culturally responsive pedagogy with local NGOs. Rowan strives to tell engaging stories about underreported people and places through incisive research and creative endeavors.