All About the Guianas: Why Suriname Isn’t Part of Latin America
Even though they are located on the South American continent, Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana are countries and territories that are not considered part of Latin America. What?! Surprisingly, this means that you can live in South America without being considered latinoamericano.
To be more specific, if you are from Suriname, Guyana, or French Guiana, then you are a South American but not Latino, or Latin American.
Confused yet? You’re not alone. Let’s unpack this.
First of All, What Are the Guianas?
Collectively known as “The Guianas,” these three places are located in northeastern South America:
- Suriname – A country that gained independence in 1954 from The Netherlands; Dutch is still spoken here.
- Guyana – This nation gained independence in 1970 from Britain and their official language is English.
- French Guiana – This is the only place on mainland South America that is still owned by a foreign land. The language of this territory of France is (you guessed it!) French.
Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana exist on the South American continent and share the Amazon rainforest with many other countries.This massive jungle extends into nine countries—Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.
The confusion remains: if they are on the South American continent, then why aren’t people from Suriname, Guyana, or French Guiana considered Latin American or Hispanic like their neighbors? Let’s look at the differences between these two terms.
Latino vs. Hispanic
Latino, (a.k.a. Latinx as a gender neutral term, or Latina for females) refers to people specifically from Latin America who speak Spanish or Portuguese, but does not include Spain. Some Latinos dislike the term “Hispanic” because it does encompass Spain and can be thus associated with the conquistadors, who changed the landscape forever through violence and manipulation.
“Hispanic” is a more inclusive word that encompasses people from Latin America and Spain. Yet there are deviations to every rule, just like there are exceptions to conjugated Spanish verbs. This leaves three countries in their own category: Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana.
- All Latinos are Hispanic, but not every Hispanic is considered Latino.
- Somebody from Spain is Hispanic but not Latino.
- Somebody from Brazil is Latino but not Hispanic.
- Somebody from Mexico is both Hispanic and Latino.
- Somebody from Suriname, Guyana, or French Guiana is South American but not Latin American, Latino, or Hispanic.
Oversimplification in the United States
To make matters more convoluted, the US Census Bureau defines Latin American as ALL people from Central America and South America. This is an oversimplification since we know that Latin America refers to countries and territories in the Americas and Caribbean where Spanish or Portuguese are predominantly spoken.
So, why do Suriname, Guyana or French Guiana stand out among the others? Is it perhaps due to a 1.7 billion year old geological formation? Let’s find out.
Anomalies in the Northeast
Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana speak a language other than Spanish or Portuguese, yet it could also be a result of geographical isolation due to the Guiana Shield.
The Isolation of Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana: The Guiana Shield
Suriname, Guyana, or French Guiana are coastal countries located relatively close to the Caribbean Sea, and due to the Tepui Mountains and the lush Amazon rainforest, it is difficult to access mainland South America.
The image below depicts the Guiana Shield, which completely walls off these three places from the rest of South America. The Guiana Shield also extends into small parts of Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela, but unlike their neighbors, they are not completely encompassed with this landmass. These Tepui formations are ancient high sandstone tabletop plateaus which make up the northwestern region of the Amazon rainforest. With exceptional biodiversity that only the Amazon can claim, the area plays a key role in the fight against climate change since it contains more than a billion tons of carbon dioxide in its soil and vegetation.
Due to the geography of this region, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana are separated from the rest of mainland South America, and perhaps this is the reason the Guianas has been excluded from Latin America.
Or, perhaps it was because of Pope Alexander VI?
The Pope’s Line of Demarcation in 1493
Another theory as to why the Guianas are not part of Latin America could be due to papal orders. To help resolve the continuous conflict between the Spaniards and Portuguese over who owned the ‘New World’, Pope Alexander VI stepped in to solve the contention. Thus, a line of demarcation was created via the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494. Refer to the red lines in the photograph below to see the agreed-upon division, and what areas were controlled by Portugal versus Spain. This gave Spain and Portugal clearer guidelines of what areas they could seek to control. Of course the conquistadors didn’t follow this completely, since the Portugese conquered Brazil in 1500. Yet, it did deter the Spaniards from further pursuing present-day Guianas.
The true reason people from the Guianas are not considered Latin American remains unclear, but these beautiful places, bordered by the Amazon rainforest and Atlantic Ocean, are worthy of visiting and exploring.
¿Ha Visitado la Amazona o Escudo de Guyana?
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Want to learn more about Latin American culture? Check these out!
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I began studying Spanish at age 11 and have been interested in language and culture ever since! While at university, I studied abroad in Spain and Costa Rica and got a B.A. in Environmental Economics with a minor in Spanish. After spending over a decade in corporate America, I now enjoy the simpler things in life. ¡Pura Vida!
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