Return to SCE Homepage
Return to Session Program
Return to MLA Page

Writing Empires II:
Writing Histories and Theories

2007 MLA Convention
27-30 December 2008
Chicago, Illinois


Amy L. Sellin
Fort Lewis College

Constructing the Citizen-Subject on Paper:
Nineteenth-Century Venezuelan Textbooks


Do not cite without permission of the author.

Venezuela was the first former Spanish colony to declare its independence from Spain in 1810.  In an attempt to legitimize the new Venezuelan government, all national histories produced in Venezuela in the nineteenth century consider it the territory that benefited the least from Spain’s long rule, especially in terms of education.  In addition, these history texts often attribute the Independence movement to the leadership and initiative of individuals like the “Liberator” Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) and the “Precursor” Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816), often downplaying other important social, cultural, and geographic influences.  How was it that Venezuela became the first former colony to declare its independence from Spain?  Perhaps it was the feeling of having been the neglected, forgotten child that Spain had turned its back on for so long, because of its relative (in comparison with other territories in Spanish America) lack of wealth and the absence of a great Pre-Columbian civilization.  The emphasis on its former status as the lowliest colony of the Spanish Empire served to quite positively differentiate this new nation’s previous horizon of possibilities from its future.  These texts demonstrate that, in the process of nation-building, Venezuela had nowhere to go but up.

Part of establishing an affective notion of the nationwas to clearly delineate its borders, outlines and topography on paper, so as to create a new semantic association between the idea of the nation and its spatial dimensions.  In nineteenth-century Venezuela, constitutions, national geographies, and the subsequent publication of textbooks explaining these important documents served to establish a semantic connection to the idea of Venezuela as a nation, no longer a Spanish colony.  Delineating the nation on paper, thus producing a visual and intellectual association to the patria, permitted the process of affective attachment to it.  For this reason we find enthusiastic endorsements of such textbooks for their patriotism and for fostering a love for the nation.  The writers of these textbooks were, in effect, writing the nation in their histories and geographies, and additionally writing the citizen.  Within the confines of these educational texts, the citizen begins to take shape: the semantics of the colony is established as a dialectic of the monarchy and its association with subjugation and ignorance, with its flip side of independence, liberty and enlightenment (through education).
Philippe Ariès, in his Centuries of Childhood, mentions the very nineteenth-century trend of viewing education as a mode of preparing the child for adulthood.  When education freed itself from Scholastic influence, children were no longer considered as weak beings that needed to be humiliated.  Rather, education began to be viewed as a mode of “awakening in the child an adult sense of responsibility and dignity” (264).  This change in orientation corresponds to the great debates underway in Venezuela and in Latin America, following Independence, on the distinctions between and the different roles of education and instruction.  Linked to Ariès’ idea of preparing the child for adulthood, education was also thought to ready the child for social life, and in the particular context of the newly-independent nations, for citizenship.

                The privileging of education over instruction is of particular relevance to our discussion of the notions of citizenship.  Children, of course, represented future citizens, and part of the function of education was to prepare students to participate in civic society.  Many of the history textbooks published in nineteenth-century Venezuela were instrumental in creating a negative image of the former colonial self and juxtaposing it with that of the newly independent citizen.  This project of forming citizens entailed educating the student on the nation’s history and geography as well as providing models of conduct.  The various types of children’s manuals and catechisms attempted to fashion the ideal citizen and locate him or her in a historical and geographical context.

                In the early twentieth century, two prominent Venezuelan intellectuals and educators, José Gil Fortoul and Rómulo Gallegos, would revisit the semantics of the terms “education” and “instruction,” defining the former as the function of the home, the school, society and the individual, while the latter indicated the cultivation of knowledge through constant effort.  Education acts on one’s character and forms the person, while instruction works on one’s intellectual capacities and produces “culture.”  I will argue that children’s catechisms on national history and national geography sought to both instruct and to educate.  The Venezuelan manuals and catechisms served as ideological tools, in which la patria existed as both a political and ethical entity, and in which the nation, the family and the school became fused into one.  The prologues to various nineteenth-century Venezuelan history textbooks indicate a desire to create in their readers a love for the nation, a respect for its laws, and a sense of duty and service to their country.  While the function of many of these textbooks was to provide the child-student with instruction on national history, the more far-reaching goal was to educate him or her as a future citizen.

One of the earliest textbooks to appear in post-Independence Venezuela, Feliciano Montenegro Colón’s Geografía general para el uso de la juventud de Venezuela [General Geography for Venezuelan Youth] (1833)1 attempts to locate the new Venezuelan citizen along a scale of barbarity and civilization.  The first volume of his geography sets out to define what nations are, how they could be characterized, and how they were governed.  In Article 31, “De los estados o naciones” (“On states or nations”), Montenegro establishes the differences between “civilized,” “barbarous,” and “savage” nations.  He never openly states where Venezuela and the other Spanish American states fall in this hierarchy of civilization, yet in the section on religion, he indicates that the Christian nations are among the most civilized.  Perhaps the Venezuelan citizen-subject presented an as yet unfixed, still shifting identity, not quite ready to be assigned a specific position in this spectrum of degrees of civilization.  The presentation of examples of civilization and barbarity, then, provided models for a citizen that was still taking shape in these various texts.

                Montenegro, with his Historia de Venezuela, sought to rewrite the history of his nation, a history that had been done poorly and inaccurately by peninsular writers.  This work was also an attempt to reconfigure the Venezuelan national character, so deformed in Spanish writings.  The colonial subject, politically and socially, was always a far second to the peninsular.  In this text, Montenegro tries to depict the Venezuelan as a sovereign being, not as the child-like colonial subservient to the Crown.  In his preface, he notes that one of his objectives was to oppose the
multitude of falsities with which the Spanish writer D. Mariano Torrente has tried to tarnish the conduct of Americans, always imbeciles in his way of thinking, and sanguinary and evil, as maliciously and traitorously he has assured us in his history of the revolutions [wars of independence] in this New World … Perhaps the Spaniards found in this author a pen that would incite the king himself to again make an attempt against a country he was no longer able to enslave.  (92)

In 1870, the year he is first elected president, Guzmán Blanco passed the first of his numerous laws regarding public instruction, declaring it free and obligatory.  His Ministry of Instruction oversaw the publication of textbooks for use in the national public schools.  All of these textbooks, of course, had to be approved by the Ministry before they could be published.  This era then, witnessed the increased politicization of textbooks.  While still maintaining the objective of showing life under Spanish rule as one of stagnation and ignorance, the texts published during the Guzmán era suggest dramatic societal changes, all of which were associated with his transformative enterprise.
A representative children’s history textbook from the Guzmán era is Socorro González Guinán’s Historia de Venezuela para niños [History of Venezuela for Children] from 1883.  One of the prefatory documents to her text includes a section entitled “To the Children,” in which she expresses this desire: “I hope that your reading [of the textbook] will instill in you a love for the land where you first set your eyes, and in emulating the great deeds of our heroes, you may become useful citizens” (np).  While one may critique González Guinán’s style, her organization of information, the lacunae, or her dogmatic tone, her text illustrates a number of important principles guiding Venezuelan national pedagogy at this time.  She clearly indicates the learning objective of her text:  to link the understanding of one’s national history to a full appreciation of and participation in civil life.  She also receives the necessary commendations from academic and political personnel (from the Ministry of Instruction). 

                Perhaps what is most important about González Guinán’s text is not what makes it stand out from other history catechisms in use in this era, but rather what it shares with its counterparts.  In addition to the organizational style (either the question-answer format of the catechism or the numbered paragraphs that defy narrative transitions and fluidity), these histories all devote space to describing, in somewhat meta-pedagogical fashion, the lack of educational opportunities and inadequate teaching methods during Venezuela’s colonial era.  González Guinán states that the colonial Venezuelan “vegetated rather than lived, with that lethargy of enslaved peoples” (45).  Such messages attest to an important aspect of President Guzmán Blanco’s educational project: to rewrite the legacy of Spanish colonialism in what was long considered to be one of its most forgotten and least important provinces, and to be remembered for doing so.

                Such statements on the backwardness of colonial education in Venezuela may be found reflected in writings of other Spanish American nationals on the faults of the colonial government in their respective countries.  The Venezuelans, however, artfully used the guise of their inescapable colonial atavism to create a stark contrast in their being the first territory to declare independence from Spain.  Such ideas, found in the harangues of these nineteenth-century pedagogues, continued to echo in the writings of Venezuela’s foremost twentieth-century historians and literary and cultural critics, notably Manuel Vicente Magallanes, Mariano Picón Salas and Arturo Uslar Pietri.  Socorro González Guinán’s text also places emphasis on how Venezuelans had more to overcome than their colonial counterparts, being so much more cut off from and deprived of adequate educational opportunities: “1. Isolation and ignorance had impeded the Venezuelans’ formulating a type of government more in line with their interests, notwithstanding the number of illustrious men who may have imagined a free country” (47-8).  Not only were there prominent individuals able to emerge from this backwater, Venezuela indeed sparked the independence movements throughout Spanish America.  “11. Such an example did Venezuela offer to the other colonies.  She being the poorest and least populated, did not fear being the first to break the bonds that tied her to the mother country, showing the world the heroic valor with which her children were blessed” (55).

Her text emphasizes the heroicness of Venezuela’s endeavor in the context of the Independence Movements throughout Latin America, both by highlighting the region’s backwardness, in comparison with other regions under Spanish rule, and its supreme accomplishment in being the first to break free of the onerous colonial bondage.  She further states the idea that what Venezuela accomplished and what it could still attain had no relation whatsoever to its colonial past; everything good that happened came about in spite of Spain; Spain left no political, cultural, or intellectual legacy that enabled this series of events to unfold during the Independence movements.

A contemporary of González Guinán, Antonia Esteller also published a national history textbook, Catecismo de Historia de Venezuela, in 1886.  Esteller’s format follows that of the religious catechism, with the entire text written in question-answer format.  This format is consistent with the pedagogy of memorization, of both the questions and the answers, and repetition.  It seems most fitting, then, that in her prefatory comment, “Two Words,” she should highlight her desire to record in the child’s memory the most salient details of national history.  She notes the difficulty of finding age-appropriate teaching materials, and continues, “I had been seeking for some time for the most appropriate medium by which to record on the memory of my disciples the great deeds of our forefathers” (np).  She also expresses the desire to “contribute in some way to the intellectual advancement of the nation and to perpetuate the memory of those that honored the Colombian2 man and gave us a nation” (np).  The short, simple answers provided to often provocative questions truly underscore the indoctrination process at work in these textbooks.  Of particular interest are those meta-pedagogical comments that denigrate Church influence and the role of the Crown in Venezuelan education.  The incomplete or faulty education available, the lack of access to educational institutions in the province, and most importantly, the Crown’s purposeful intention of keeping Venezuela isolated and ignorant, all of this is directly related to the subjugation of the colonial to the mother country.  Esteller relates ignorance and isolation to other impediments to progress.

                Similar messages appear in the third edition (1895) of Felipe Tejera’s Manual de historia de Venezuela, first published in 1873, which confirms the importance of letters of approvalduring the Guzmán era.  The letters in this edition fill many pages and include glowing comments attesting to the patriotic value of the book’s content.  The letters are addressed by various teachers and administrators at different federal primary schools.  Various writers comment on the “patriotic enthusiasm” of the work, and its “patriotic thought.” Others note that its treatment of national history is “as fair as it is patriotic,” and that by using it “one acquires or learns a love for the Nation,” and also that it “wakens in youth an enthusiasm for National  History”.3   One writer also comments on the usefulness of this text in the indoctrination process: “Very insightful is the book’s structure […] I consider it a great resource to fix in one’s memory the chronology of events from our interesting history.”4   The idea of fixing (fijar), recording (grabar), and imprinting (imprimir) on the child’s memory appears in all of the textbooks from this era.  Such words reflect both the style of teaching, or the expected use of these texts – dictation aloud, repetition, and memorization --, and the structure of the texts themselves.  Another letter includes a curious comment, one that differs from the patriotic praises above, that Tejera’s text “fills an increasingly noticeable gap.”  This writer alludes not only the lack of appropriate history texts for children, but to a greater impediment to the development of a patriotic spirit: “it is known that our youth is more familiar with the history of France and Spain than with national history.”5   And this only a decade or so before the one-hundredth anniversary of Venezuela’s independence from Spain.

                Yet another author from this era highlights the positive changes wrought during Guzmán’s leadership.  Amenodoro Urdaneta authored various books for children, including a a conduct manual and a collection of Venezuelan fables.  He also produced a textbook entitled Catecismo republicano, o sea La constitución política de Venezuela, adaptada al uso de las escuelas primarias [Republican Catechism, or the Political Constitution of Venezuela, adapted for use in primary schools] (1877).  Urdaneta’s text sets out to define the word constitution, to differentiate between types of government, and to demonstrate why Venezuela’s constitution and form of government are the most ideal.  After categorizing all existing forms of government as monarchical, aristocratic, and republican, Urdaneta’s question-answer format established which of these is the best:

Q. What is the best form of Government?
A. That which most tends to promote justice and public welfare.
Q Which of the three mentioned is best adapted to these ends?
A. The Republic; because it requires the public good to depend on itself, such that justice may disseminate from its true source, which is the freedom of all associated with it.  All have equal rights and responsibilities before the law; and for this reason all are equally interested in its conservation and purity.
Q. And on what depends the conservation and purity of the law?
A. On the intelligence and morality of the people, circumstances necessary to ensure freedom and justice, which only flourish under wise laws, guaranteed by the rectitude of the Magistrate and by the respect and vigilance of the people. Popular instruction is the first guarantor of welfare in a free country.

With this, Urdaneta manages to uphold republican ideals and also to demonstrate why public instruction is necessary.  In a section entitled “Guarantees of the Venezuelans,” one of these includes “Freedom of instruction, which will be protected to the utmost degree.  Public authority is obligated to establish free primary- and vocational education” (16).  It is interesting that a textbook on the Constitution should also mention the importance of free, obligatory education. Perhaps this was inserted of necessity in order to receive the letters of approval required of all texts used in President Guzmán’s federal schools.

These texts demonize Spain, with particular regard to the desultory state of educational institutions and instructors during the colonial era.  In each of these texts, the development of education in all areas and in every context is faulty in the colony and marked by progress in independent Venezuela.  The authors seem well aware of the meta-pedagogical nature of their reporting on the evolution of Venezuelan instruction.  Toward the end of the century, however, the primary objective of these manuals and catechisms, to form citizens, became intertwined with the personal political aspirations of the President.  Referring to the state of instruction in 1725, Esteller writes that there were few schools, as colonies were not to excel in education, especially those under “despotic governments” whose colonies “should be maintained in obscurity” (32).  The text continues: “Question: Was the colonial government good? Answer: No, and for this reason the country was unpopulated, witout communication routes, ignorant, and divided in [socio-economic] classes” (33). Esteller here echoes the three main tenets of President Guzmán Blanco’s political platform: to increase immigration, to improve communication routes, and to improve education.  González Guinán establishes a similar contrast between colonial and independent Venezuela, highlighting material and intellectual advances in the post-independence state, such as the creation of the Academy for Mathematics in 1830, the first published history (1837) and geography (1841) of Venezuela6 , and the first national newspaper in 1812.  Such benchmarks of progress took place well before Guzmán’s reign, yet these texts aim to establish a timeline inching toward progress, one he hoped would be remembered as having been achieved under his watch. 

These nineteenth-century textbooks demonstrate an attempt to define and write the nation.  In their attempt to replace the affective attachments to the mother countrywith a love for freedom and independence, they reflect a common goal in nineteenth-century Latin American writing: to rewrite the colonial subject as a free, independent citizen.  Yet in this exercise in fostering patriotic fervor, it becomes readily apparent that these books needed to also foster a love for the nation Guzmán was trying to build.



Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood.  A Social History of Family Life. Trans. Robert Baldick.  New York:  Vintage Books, 1962.

Baralt, Rafael María.  Resumen de la historia de Venezuela.  2 vols.  Paris: Imprenta de H. Fournier y Ca., 1841.

Codazzi, Agustín.  Catecismo de la geografía de Venezuela.  Caracas:  Imprenta de T. Antero, 1861.

Codazzi, Agustín.  Catecismo de la geografía de Venezuela. Obras escogidas. Vol. II.  Caracas:  Biblioteca venezolana de cultura, 1960.  47-102.  2 vols. 

Contreras, Álvaro.  “Manuales, literatura y legalidades del siglo XIX venezolano.”  Revista de crítica literaria latinoamericana XXVI.52 (2000): 47-62.

Esteller, Antonia.  Catecismo de historia de Venezuela. Desde su descubrimiento hasta la muerte del libertador.  Caracas:  Tipografía de “El Cojo”, 1886.

Fortoul, José Gil.  “Cartas a Pascual.”  Páginas de ayer (Obra póstuma).  Vol. VIII of Obras completas   Caracas:  Ministerio de Educación, Dirección de Cultura y Bellas Artes, 1957.  227-72.  8 vols. 

---.  Discursos y palabras, 1910-1915.  Caracas:  Imprenta nacional, 1915.

---.  “Evolución intelectual.”  Obras completas Vol. II.  Caracas:  Ministerio de Educación, Dirección de Cultura y Bellas Artes, 1954.  137-49.  8 vols. 

---.  “Previsiones y conjeturas.”  Filosofía Constitucional.  Vol. IV of Obras completas.  Caracas:  Ministerio de Educación, Dirección de Cultura y Bellas Artes, 1955. 419-29.  8 vols.

Gallegos, Rómulo.  “El factor educación.”  Una posición en la vida.  La Alborada 3 (1909); 4 (1909); 6 (1909); 7 (1909); 8 (1909).  Mexico City:  Ediciones Humanismo, 1954.  58-81. 

---.  “Necesidad de valores culturales.” in Una posición en la vidaEl Cojo Ilustrado, XXI: 496.  Mexico City:  Ediciones Humanismo, 1954.  82-109.

---.  “Revista de instrucción pública.”  Una posición en la vida.  Mexico City:  Ediciones Humanismo, 1954.  23-6.

González Guinán, Socorro.  Historia de Venezuela para niños.  Valencia, Venezuela:  Imprenta de “La Voz Pública”, 1883.

Montenegro Colón, Feliciano.  Geografía general para el uso de la juventud de Venezuela.  4 vols.  Caracas: Imprenta de Damiron y Dupouy, 1833-1837.

---.  Historia de Venezuela.  Vol. I.  Ed. Alfredo Boulton.  Caracas: Academia Nacional de la Historia, 1960.  2 vols. 

Tejera, Felipe.  Manual de historia de Venezuela para el uso de las escuelas y colegios.  Caracas:  Tipografía de “El Cojo”, 1895.

Urdaneta, Amenodoro.  Catecismo republicano, o sea La constitución política de Venezuela, adaptada al uso de las escuelas primarias.  Caracas:  Imprenta federal, 1877.

Watters, Mary.  “A Venezuelan Educator: Don Feliciano Montenegro Colon.” The Americas 3.3 (1947): 277-94.


1. Watters states, “This work was designed for use as a textbook in the schools of the country and was adopted as the text in the national colegios and in the University.  It was continued as a text in some schools down to the administration of Guzmán Blanco [first elected in 1870] and perhaps even later” (1947 285).

2. She refers to the inhabitant of Gran Colombia, encompassing the territory of modern-day Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela before the separation of these into three distinct nations.

3. Quoted from letters by Juan J. Aguerrevere, A. Aveledo, Miguel Villavicencio, Ricardo Ovidio Limardo, and M. Paéz Pumar. No pagination.

4. Written by Juan J. Aguerrevere, no pagination.

5. Written by P. Manrique.

6. Rafael María Baralt’s Resumen de la historia de Venezuela and Agustín Codazzi’s Catecismo de la geografía de Venezuela.




Return to Top of Page

Return to SCE Homepage
Return to Session Program
Return to MLA Page