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Interesting Subjects for Classroom Activities on Latin America

written by: Dige • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 9/17/2014

Latin America is a region with high cultural diversity and a history that presents interesting as well as painful episodes. Classroom activities can be elaborated to study some aspects of its culture and occupation by Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries.

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    A Large Part of the World...

    There are many interesting facts on Latin America that can be chosen as subjects for classroom activities. Let's make a brief review on Latin America some of them.

    The history of Latin America has been shaped by foreign intervention, mostly European. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Spain and Portugal were the powerful nations that first reached the so-called New World and settled colonies. The invasion of the continent by European forces was mainly driven by: (a) the "need" of expanding their territory, (b) the "need" of primary products, and (c) the "need" of spreading Christianity all over the globe.

    The colonization process completely changed the existing cultures. The Spaniards conquered the Inca and Aztec empires and, along with the Portuguese colonization that initiated in the 1500s in South America, imposed the control of the Catholic Church on the native population. The exploration of natural resources has contributed to one of the most depressive events in the history of humankind: slavery, which is also part of the history of Latin America. Over one-third of the 10 to 16 million slaves who survived the trip from Africa to the New World landed in Brazil. The conditions under which the slaves lived resulted in extreme high mortality among them.

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    Activity: Identifying the Native People

    An important activity for the students is the identification of the different people that were living in the region before the arrival of the European forces. A map of the region is an indispensable tool to show where exactly those people were located. It is also important to talk about their culture and clarify the concept of civilization, since some of those ancient cultures already presented complex organizations and can be considered civilized. Don't forget to include the dates of important happenings.

    Details of the Activity. Divide the class into several groups and ask the students of each group to pick people of a specific ethnicity that lived in a certain region of Latin America before the European conquest (the concept of conquest can also be discussed, since it represented the destruction of the native cultures).

    Besides the well known Aztecs, Incas and Mayas, there were several indigenous groups living in South America by the time, such as the Tupi (Brazil) and Guarani (Paraguay) tribes. The goal of this activity is to understand the impact of colonization on the native cultures and how people that were not killed by the intruders had their lives completely changed. It is also important to emphasize the relationships established between Europeans and native inhabitants.

    Appendix. If you choose to go any further with the discussion on "civilized" and "wild" cultures, you can tell the students that these concepts depend on who is writing the story. In this sense, many indigenous peoples that lived in the region before the foreign intervention had what can be considered advanced civilizations, especially the Aztec, Inca and Maya.

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    Activity on Slavery

    Slavery is a good theme for a Latin America classroom activity. You can write some sketches that represent situations related to the difficult way of living of the slaves that came to the New World. By playing different roles in the sketches, the students can have a better idea of the work the slaves performed and how they lived. Obviously it is impossible to study slavery all over Latin America, so you can pick only the regions where large number of slaves coming from Africa have landed.

    It might be interesting to show some peculiarities of slavery in Latin America. As an example, it is known that compared with the British and French people who colonized North America, the Spanish and Portuguese were more tolerant of racial mixing.

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    Digital History: The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery