In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Popular Movements in 19th-Century Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Popular Politics in the 19th-Century Master Narrative
  • Independence
  • Artisans and Labor Movements
  • Campesinos
  • Heterogeneous Popular Movements
  • Popular Conservatives and Popular Loyalists
  • Religion and Millenarianism
  • Soldiers
  • Urban Popular Movements
  • Women and Gender

Latin American Studies Popular Movements in 19th-Century Latin America
James Sanders
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0126


After most of Latin America became independent from Spain in the 1820s, popular groups faced the challenge of finding a place for themselves in the new, postcolonial nation-states. From being subjects of a European monarch, subaltern groups—be they indigenous peoples, Afro-Latin Americans, artisans, campesinos, women, or soldiers—now occupied an undefined social and political space in nation-states created, at least initially, by powerful elites. Over the course of the century, these groups utilized various strategies to deal with the new states and to attempt to improve their social, economic, and political livelihoods: direct rebellion, flight, concern with only local prerogatives, pursuit of patron/client relationships, and, most often, engagement with the nation and appropriation of the identity of citizen. It is this last strategy that has dominated the historiography of these movements since the 1990s. Before this, most works on popular movements asserted that 19th-century subalterns were ignorant of national politics, only concerned with life within view of their village church’s bell tower. If plebeians entered into national political life it was only as the clients of powerful patrons or as conscripted soldiers to serve as cannon fodder in wars between elite factions that meant nothing to them. Some subalterns did heroically rebel against the nation-state, but such insurrections were rare, doomed to fail, and ultimately did not affect the trajectory of Latin American societies. Since the early 1990s, however, a new historiography of nation and state formation has stressed the importance of popular movements for shaping national politics and life. Not all popular movements rejected national life; many sought to claim a place in the nation, formed alliances with elite groups, called upon the state to help them, voted in elections, and fought in civil wars, all with an eye to bargaining with the powerful in order to improve their social, economic, and political lives.

General Overviews

A synthetic “master narrative” on popular movements in 19th-century Latin America has yet to appear. Popular movements are, of course, treated in general histories of the region or individual nation-states. Most studies on popular movements focus on distinct and specific popular actions, in one country, often with a focus on one region. Studying subalterns’ politics and lives perhaps requires an intensely local focus, in order to understand how popular groups’ quotidian lives affected their participation in social movements. Additionally, the relatively recent focus on such movements in the historiography means that, arguably, only recently have enough secondary works appeared to allow a synthetic study. Therefore, comparative overviews and general treatments, beyond the national level, are still rare; Mallon 1995, a pioneering study, is the best, but compares only Mexico and Peru. Mallon’s study shares many theoretical preoccupations with Joseph and Nugent 1994, an edited volume to which the author contributed; both of these studies have informed many subsequent works. Larson 2004 provides the best effort at a synthetic study but covers only the Andean region, with a focus on indigenous peoples. Andrews 2004 offers a magisterial overview of the Afro-Latin American experience post-independence, with a much broader purview than popular movements, but does cover such actions in the 19th century. For those interested in Afro-Latin American experience after slavery, Scott, et al. 2002 provides an exhaustive bibliography in which to look for popular movements. Beyond these texts, perhaps the best general works are essay collections (Barragán, et al. 1997; Connaughton 2008) that bring together numerous approaches and topics (more of these collections may be found under Edited Collections).

  • Andrews, George Reid. Afro-Latin America, 1800–2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Andrews argues for the essential role slaves and free people of color played in the independence wars, not just for wining independence but for initiating a great wave of movements for abolition and equality, which would roil the 19th century. He also explores how after the 1880s scientific racism’s dominance worked to roll back previous gains of citizenship and equality and restrict much popular action.

  • Barragán, Rossana, Dora Cajías, and Seemin Qayum, eds. El siglo XIX: Bolivia y América Latina. La Paz, Bolivia: Muela del Diablo Editores, 1997.

    This edited collection, inspired by a conference in Bolivia (but covering the entire region), provides a rich overview of important trends in 19th-century historiography, from scholars working in Latin America, the United States, and Europe. While not all articles deal with popular movements, many touch on the importance of popular groups for understanding independence, regionalism, caudillismo, gender relations, labor and economic development, identity formation, nationalism, and national politics.

  • Connaughton, Brian F., ed. Prácticas populares, cultura política y poder en México, siglo XIX. Mexico City: Casa Juan Pablos, 2008.

    A strong essay collection that seeks to emphasize the role of popular groups in shaping Mexican national politics, instead of the traditional focus on elites. The essays, which together provide an excellent overview of the variety of Mexican popular political activity, treat indigenous, Afro-Mexican, urban, campesino (country people), popular liberal, popular conservative, and popular religious movements.

  • Joseph, Gilbert, and Daniel Nugent, eds. Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.

    While almost every contribution to this volume is about post-revolutionary 20th-century popular movements, its theoretical framework has strongly influenced many studies of 19th-century movements. Instead of understanding popular movements as resistance against or accommodation to a hegemonic politics, the editors propose that nation and state formation was a negotiation between subalterns and elites and the state.

  • Larson, Brooke. Trials of Nation Making: Liberalism, Race, and Ethnicity in the Andes, 1810–1910. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511616396

    Larson explores how immediately after independence indigenous peoples created their own visions of citizenship, focused on communal rights, within the new nation-states. Larson argues that after 1850, elites crushed such popular movements, embracing a liberalism (and racism) that rejected popular movements as antithetical to capitalist development and elite civilization.

  • Mallon, Florencia E. Peasant and Nation: The Making of Post-Colonial Mexico and Peru. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

    The single monograph most synonymous with studies of 19th-century popular movements, especially popular politics. Mallon sought to understand why campesinos (country people) in Mexico and Peru supported liberal politicians, and how these subalterns’ popular liberalism affected both elite liberalism and nation formation. Instrumental in reviving an interest in 19th-century popular liberalism.

  • Scott, Rebecca J., Thomas C. Holt, Frederick Cooper, and Aims McGuinness. Societies after Slavery: A Select Annotated Bibliography of Printed Sources on Cuba, Brazil, British Colonial Africa, South Africa, and the British West Indies. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002.

    This bibliography of both primary and secondary sources is an extensive and extremely useful resource for exploring Afro-Latin American life and action after emancipation in Cuba and Brazil (but not the bulk of Spanish America, unfortunately). While not directly focused on popular movements, the annotations do note which works share this concern.

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