A Brief Introduction to Latin American Culture, Traditions, and Beliefs
“Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” – Henry Kissinger
That quote from the former US Secretary of State was a way of saying that the European Union was just an abstract idea. In a way, he had a point. At the time Kissinger said it, European institutions were not as developed as they are today. Something similar happens with Latin America that makes us wonder: Where is the defining center of this culture?
Or in other words, who do you call if you want to call Latin America?
The idea of a Latin American culture has been controversial since its inception and some even argue that’s just a social construct. However, in reality, we know Latin American cultural expressions when we see them.
Today, I’m going to take you on a journey of exploration through the origins of the Latin American idea, its history, defining cultural elements and interesting facts. Are you ready?
Does a “Latin American Culture” Even Exist?
According to one school of thought, the existence of a single, definable Latin American culture is debatable. This view argues that the concept of “Latin America” is just an arbitrary geographic expression rather than a distinctive cultural construct with shared values and worldviews.
Their point is that the region we call Latin America is so vast that trying to put all that territory into one single idea seems impossible, if not absurd. Due to the fact that the countries of Latin America differ substantially from one to another, it’s controversial to assume that they belong to the same cultural identity.
While this argument exposes the diversity of cultural norms within Latin America, the truth is that this “diversified continent of twenty nations” does indeed exist—but is that enough to call it a culture?
What Makes a Culture (or a Civilization)?
In 1996, Samuel P. Huntington published his famous essay “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order.” In it Huntington argues that the conflicts of the future will be of a cultural nature, and he identified 8 major civilizations in the world:
- Sinic (Chinese)
- Latin American
The essay made Huntington famous in academic circles, but it was also a surprise for scholars living in Latin American regions who never viewed it as a single culture. In their minds, the cultural elements of language, history, religion, customs, and institutions were not shared among the separate countries of Latin America.
What is Latin America?
French economist Michel Chevalier first used the term “Latin America” in the 19th Century to differentiate the “Latin” from the “Anglo-Saxon” peoples of the Americas.
The name caught on and now exists as living proof of how language can create a geographic distinction.
Nowadays, what we understand as Latin America extends over 26 countries in 2 different continents divided into 4 geographical areas:
- North America
- Central America
- South America
- The Caribbean
Under this definition, each country and dependent nation that had been colonized by a European nation whose official language was a Romance language (Spanish, Portuguese, or French) qualifies as “Latin American.”
Latin American Countries and Dependencies
- El Salvador
- Costa Rica
- Dominican Republic
- French Guiana
- Puerto Rico
- Saint Barthémely
- Saint Martin
Brief History of Latin America
The history of Latin American culture is extraordinarily rich, complex, and diverse with many historical features, countries, peoples, and languages existing inside its borders.
Despite this diversity, there are common historical circumstances and events shared by most Latin American nations. Some of them include:
- A Pre-Columbian history that goes back for as long as 3,000 years.
- Colonization by European powers shortly after the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Americas in 1492.
- Achieving independence in the 19th Century.
- Recent development of democracy in the region.
- Catholicism as an official religion of most countries, and
- Mestizaje, or the act of mixing races and cultural identities.
Elements that Define Latin American Culture
1. Romance Languages
Latin, or “Romance” languages are the reason for the “Latin” label in Latin America. The word “romance” in this case has nothing to do with romanticism, but with Romans, whose Latin roots branched and evolved into Romance languages. While these languages were once confined to Europe, they later spread to the Americas during the European colonization of the region.
The Romance languages include:
- Other minor languages and dialects spoken in Spain and Italy are also Romance languages.
Of all these languages, the most influential linguistic forces in Latin America are Spanish, Portuguese, and French.
Interestingly, the francophone (French-speaking) countries and dependencies don’t consider themselves to be part of Latin American culture, due to the continued domination of French culture within them.
To complicate matters further, Latin American culture includes up to 560 other languages that embody their own unique cultural identities.
This gives you an idea of how big the region is, and how difficult it is to try to define it as a uniform whole.
Some researchers think that the Roman Catholic faith is the crucial cultural element that defines Latin America. Brought by the Conquistadors, Catholicism blended with indigenous beliefs in a process of syncretism (meaning, the blending of religious beliefs) that’s been taking place for the past 500 years.
In this way, strong elements of the Catholic faith—such as the sect dedicated to the mother of Jesus—gained popularity in the region as the indigenous peoples adopted religious characters who aligned with their original beliefs.
For instance, one of the most characteristic symbols of Latin American culture, the Virgin of Guadalupe, had similar aspects to the ancient Aztec goddess Tonantzin.
3. Indigenous Cultures
Indigenous cultures have inhabited the land of what is today called “Latin America” since around 1,200 BCE, and have influenced the development of this culture perhaps more than anything else.
From the Aztecs in Central Mexico, to the Mayans in Central America, and the Incas in Peru, these cultures’ belief systems and traditions evolved and survived through mestizaje (the mixing of different ethnic and cultural groups).
Despite the horrific fact that the Conquistadors destroyed and exterminated most of these cultures, they also mixed with them and created a new and distinct culture in the process.
4. A Corn-based Gastronomy
From Mexican tacos, to Guatemalan chuchitos and Venezuelan arepas, the whole tortilla culture in Latin America has one solid similarity and that’s corn. The indigenous cultures had creation myths about their origins as hombres de maíz (men of corn) and their societies used to function around the natural rhythm of the corn harvest.
5. Hispanic, Latino, Latinx?
This delicate subject of how people choose to define themselves is an ongoing controversy that defines another aspect of Latin American culture.
In the 1970s, the US Census Bureau introduced the term “Hispanic” to identify people who came to the U.S. from Spanish-speaking countries.
Latino, on the other hand, is a term that refers to people who live in the United States with ethnic and cultural backgrounds from a Latin American country. This also includes Brazilians.
Finally, the term “Latinx” is more recent and offers a way to express the idea of “Latinhood,” without the constraints of gender identity. The ongoing debate about this word revolves around the fact that Hispanics or Latinos see it as an attempt to anglicize their Spanish language.
More Interesting Facts About Latin American Culture
Here’s a list of some interesting details about Latin American culture:
- It has a population of more than 600 million people.
- Around 10% of the population consider themselves to be of fully European descent.
- Endemic species of animals unique to Latin America include: jaguars, toucans, manatees, and river dolphins.
- It’s home to the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon.
- It’s the most urbanized continent in the world with 80% of its population living in cities.
- If Latin America were a country, its economy would be the third in the world by GDP.
I find it amazing how big and important this region could be if it ever decided to put its internal differences aside and formed an united entity similar to that of the European Union.
Final Thoughts on Latin America
Latin America is an amazing place. While it’s hard to define, it’s easy to enjoy. The extraordinary diversity found inside its borders has been the source of so many spectacular social and cultural expressions along the years. One could say that’s also the source of its many contradictions.
Now you know that from Tijuana in the North, and all the way to Patagonia in the South, there’s an invisible line that unites everything around. A line supported by the Spanish and Portuguese languages, a fervent Catholic faith, a delicious corn-based gastronomy, and the ancient wisdom of indigenous cultures.
What is your favorite thing about Latin America? Leave us a comment and join the conversation!
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