In Spanish speaking countries, a hacienda is a large estate, often covering a huge amount of land. The term is also used to refer to the house of the owner, which is often built on a large scale designed to impress and awe visitors. The hacienda system was widespread throughout the Spanish colonies at one point, and its legacy can be felt by many modern day residents. Many cultures have an equivalent to the hacienda system, although these equivalents are known by different names. In most cases, the true hacienda has disappeared, although some people do live in large houses on modest estates which could be considered a modern day hacienda.
The origins of the hacienda can be found in the Age of Discovery, when many Europeans were exploring the New World. As an incentive, the Spanish government granted large tracts of land to members of the minor nobility. These haciendas were huge; some of the land grants exceeded the size of modern Mexican states. Along with the land grant went rights to all the natural resources on the land, and the power of life and death over the inhabitants.
The foundation of most haciendas was livestock and agriculture. The owner of the hacienda had a large staff consisting mainly of native people. Although the members of the staff were technically free to live their lives, in reality, many of them lived as virtual slaves. The owner of the hacienda kept the staff permanently in debt, forcing people to work the land and turn the bulk of their labors over to the estate. The staff included low-level peons, peasants, and ranch hands, much like feudal estates in England.
A hacienda could generate immense amounts of wealth for the owner, especially if there was a mine on the premises. It also served as a mark of status for the elite, and would have been largely self sustaining. Remnants of the class system established on haciendas can be clearly seen in modern society, even after most haciendas were broken up during wars for independence.
When illustrating the problems with colonialism, the granting of haciendas in the Spanish colonies is often brought up, along with the brutal systems of discipline employed on some haciendas. Most of the staff would have lived difficult lives, struggling to farm enough food to turn over to the owner of the ranch while keeping back enough to eat. The unequal system was heavily criticized by people in the lower classes, and served as a rallying point for revolutionary organizations.