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Lesson 2: Social Structure in Latin America

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From the rise to the fall of the Spanish Empire, the Spanish made a practice of categorizing people and creating social hierarchies to keep non-European populations in check. In Spain, Muslim descendents and Jewish converts faced scrutiny from the "pure"-blooded Spanish. As Spanish dominance expanded in the New World, a complex caste-like system was developed to maintain order and keep the Spanish at the top of the social pyramid. For many Spanish, this system justified their exploitation of both Indian and African laborers. This lesson expands on Bartolemé de Las Casas' protests against the poor treatment of the indigenous people by including discussions about the caste-like system. Acting as 16th century civil rights activist, the student writes a plea to Charles V to force the Spanish settlers in the New World to treat the indigenous populations with respect.

Main Tasks

  • From the perspective of a fictional 16th century civil rights activist inspired by Bartolemé de Las Casas, write a letter to King Charles V of Spain to convince him that the crown must protect the Native Americans and end the caste system.


  1. Ask students to brainstorm how people are put into "classes" in the United States. Share the responses.
  2. Explain that in Latin America, the Spanish established a class system that was based upon family heritage. Show the Spanish Empire's complex system of ethnic classification in the New World video clip. Then, project or review the Inequalities of Life Under the Caste System ( website information.
  3. Have students read the Bartolemé de Las Casas biography. Discuss the difficulties he must have faced at the time for speaking up on behalf of New World inhabitants.
  4. Quickly compare and contrast the actions taken by de Las Casas to 20th century civil rights leaders. Why didn't more people stand up to this institutionalized racism?
  5. Now ask students to the roles of a 16th century civil rights activists inspired by Las Casas. The first part of their campaign is to appeal directly to the King. Using the provided resources, they should write a letter to Charles V that includes the following elements:
    1. A brief look at the history of Spanish subjugation of non-Spaniards in Spain and the New World.
    2. A short review and condemnation of the terrible treatment of Indians and the caste system currently found in the New World.
    3. Reasons based upon Las Casas's writings (found below) why the indigenous peoples should be treated as equals to the Spanish and why the caste system should be abolished.
    4. Consider Charles V's commitment to Catholicism.
  6. Once finished, select students share to their letters.

Optional Extensions

  1. Instead of writing individual letters, have pairs of students re-enact the historic debate between Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda over the treatment of indigenous people.
  2. Using Myna ( or another podcasting application, record students reading their letters or discussing these issues.
  3. Have a follow-up discussion regarding these social structures in modern times. Do they still exist in Mexico and other parts of Latin America? In what forms? Do they exist in the United States? In more depth than in the main lesson, compare the Civil Rights movement to Las Casas' arguments. Finally, students could act as a modern-day Las Casas and write a letter reflecting current concerns in a Latin American nation or the United States.


Video Clips:
More about Bartolemé de Las Casas's efforts to protect native peoples
More on the Spanish Empire's complex system of ethnic classification in the New World
Discover how the Spanish caste-like system in the New World eventually fell apart
Learn about the vicious inquisition launched by Diego de Landa in the New World
Learn about the mine at Potosi, "the richest mountain in the history of the world"
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