The Enlightenment in Latin America and Mexico 1780 – 1820

With the European Enlightenment to the late 18th century came the Encylopedist movement of Condorcet and Diderot in France, the German Romantic poets Goethe and Schiller and philosophers Kant and Hegel, and the Austrian and German musicians, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven. The parallel experience among Latin American intellectuals is as noteworthy and important to study (Brading 1991). Spanish colonialism and Latin American society in the 18th century was structured on a racial caste system that privileged European ancestry and family in a hierarchical relation to mestizo indigenous residents of mixed parentage and marriage and those who were entirely of Mexican Indian or other Latin American Indian or of African and slave origins.  This caste system was identified and depicted in a Mexican panel from 1777.

In Mexico, the outstanding literary career of the Catholic nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695) was exemplary of the potential for new careers and advances in the Americas that were now independent of Europe. As in France and Germany, it is the establishment of academies of science and arts that provided a base of support for intellectual development.  Among these was the Academy of San Carlos, established in Mexico City in 1781 as an arts academy and school for engraving.  Built in classic Renaissance proportions and stout masonry, it quickly became a center and sponsor of a wide array of artistic and intellectual activity.

Academy of San Carlos 1781

Figure 1 Academy of San Carlos, Mexico City est. 1781

Caste map of Mexico 1777

Figure 2 Depiction of Caste system in Mexico, 1777 Source:  Wikipedia

José Celestino Mutis (1732-1808

Among the principal figures in science was the polymath and botanist José Celestino Mutis (1732-1808) who was born and educated in Spain where he graduated from the University of Seville.  Mutis was commissioned to manage and direct an intensive botanical survey some 8,000 sq. kilometers of the interior of Colombia beginning in around 1783 and continuing until his death.  His work overlaps and parallels that of the German explorer and botanist Alexander von Humboldt who also toured Latin America after Mutis had begun his survey.

Mutis Zamia seed pod

Figure 3 Zamia seed pod from Royal Botanical Expedition late 18th century

Francisco Javier Clavijero Echegaray (1731-1787)

Born in Veracruz, Mexico to a Spanish father and criolla mother, Francisco Echegaray was a Jesuit priest who because of his childhood living among the indigenous Mexican population of his mother’s origins took up an interest in writing a history of ancient Mexico and its indigenous culture and past.  When the Jesuits were expelled from Mexico in 1767 he moved to Padua, Italy where he continued to write his multivolume La Historia Antigua de México in 1789.  For his achievement he should be considered as an equal and contemporary of the British historian Edward Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in 1776.  In Volume 2 of La Historia provides a detailed history of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital of the Mexican empire and its conditions at the time leading up to Cortés conquest in 1519-21. In his history he details the various trades, manner of education, administration of law and regulation of the marketplace of the premodern capital.

Map of Tenochtilan 1789


Among the achievements of the Latin American Enlightenment was the banning of slavery in Mexico where it was called for in 1810 and enacted into law by 1813, fifty years before the Emancipation Proclamation was declared and signed by Abraham Lincoln.  The Plan of Iguala formally declared the end of slavery in Mexico in 1821, although some remained slaves in Mexico until 1829.  Simon Bolivar declared the end of slavery in Venezuela in 1817.



Brading, D.A. 1991. The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492-1867. New York: Cambridge University Press.