Latin America Travel & Tour Information
There is a typical rhetorical question to try to answer: What does an Argentinean gaucho have to do with a Brazilian freed African slave, a Maya speaking Guatemalan or a Mexican mariachi?
The problem is trying to identify a commonality for 20 countries spread over a 21,069,501 km² area which includes lush rain forests, deserts, snowcapped mountains, glaciers and tropical islands and where over 100 different languages are spoken. To have a term of comparison: Europe including Russia has 48 countries and an area of 10,180,000 km². To look for a commonality we should look deep into the regions cultural history.
The name is actually based on a rather forgotten opposition: Latin America and Anglo-Saxon America. Due to the political, economical and cultural preeminence of the United States of America, America now means the US territory and ?Latin? is the word we add to mean whatever is south of the US border. And yet, many Latin Americans consider it insulting using ?American? to mean only US citizens. Some hundred years ago the separation of territories was obvious: the territories occupied by the British Empire on one hand and the ones occupied by Spain, Portugal and France on the other. The Latin part of America has to do with the fact that French, Spanish and Portuguese were languages that came from the official language of the Roman Empire. The opposition is also fueled by another strong religious difference in the colonial states, Latin American colonies were Catholic whereas Anglo-Saxon American colonies were mainly Protestant.
So far we have Anglo-Saxon Protestant North America and Latin Catholic Central and South America. Although thinking of it in these terms creates a bit of a trouble because nothing was black or white back then, nor is now: 1) Central and South America included French, British and Dutch colonies, e.g., Haiti, Belize, Jamaica and Surinam. 2) North America included French colonies such as Louisiana and Quebec. Furthermore, the Pope had drawn a line on the map, known as the Tordesillas Treaty, which stated that the newly found lands discovered by the Genovese sailor Christopher Columbus where to be divided in two between the Catholic Portuguese and Spanish realms. The treaty left about one third of what we now know as Brazil to the Portuguese and all the rest to the Spanish. The French, Dutch and British were cut out of the deal. But the authority of the Pope over Europe was being undermined since Luther?s Protestant Reformation. Summarizing, every state in Europe wanted a stake of the New World and they all tried to grab as much as they could. The resulting map was quite changing and unstable and the opposition Anglo-Saxon America/Latin America was not issued until the end of the 19th century. There were also other Americas being argued at the time: Hispanic America (that is all territories which belonged to the Spanish Crown), Ibero- America (all former Spanish and Portuguese colonies), Luso-America (Portuguese colonies only, later regrouped into the Brazilian Empire and subsequently Brazil). These names are still used among Latin Americans to stress out several cultural differences.
Of course, names like these can barely describe the complex identities of the European colonies in the Americas. Let us assume that Latin America means all countries and territories south of the US border down to the Chilean-Argentinean island of Tierra del Fuego in Patagonia. A cliché states that Latin American are a ?hot? culture, opposed to the ?cold? Anglo-Saxon and French cultures of the US and Canada. Just the same way as it happens in Europe between Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece compared to Germany, England, Poland or Scandinavia. As you see this is quite a naïve statement but you get the point. According to the same cliché, Latin America features petty dictators who rule banana republics, oppress the poor Catholic mestizo population, and are fought by brave and romantic freedom fighters and rebels. These same banana republics were once gold rich colonies ruled by greedy Spanish governors who fought dreadlocked blood-thirsty pirates who looted on the cursed Indian gold. The colonies, as well their banana republic avatar, kept hidden stone cities from exotic and extinguished Amerindian cultures. You can also add vicious drug-lords and colonial aristocratic mansions filled with choppers and machine-guns.
Nowadays no one would take the cliché very seriously but it has left an easy-to-identify taste when it comes to the word Latin before America: Heat, passion, violence, poverty and lush vegetation. The cliché is an actual part of Latin American culture indeed, a tiny bit of it. There were real banana republic?s and petty dictators did rule ruthlessly over the fate of a vast poor majority. There are huge tropical forests throughout Central and South America. And there are indeed massive ruins of ancient civilizations. Narcotics production and smuggling is a serious issue in many countries in the area. But lucky enough for travelers there?s more to it than meets the eye.
Some basic cultural information
Latin Americans still acknowledge themselves as: 1) Mainly Catholic and of mixed ethnicity, opposed to Canada and the US, which they inaccurately assume Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and ?more European like?. 2) They consider Latin America all countries between Mexico and Argentina/Chile. But if you ask them why, it is very difficult to get a clear and similar answer.
There are many interesting facts that visitors might find useful to travel around. These are just the arguable basics on Latin America culture. The region has three main racial differentiations which might sound politically incorrect but are widely used:
1) Blanco or Criollo (Portuguese Branco or Crioulo) which means not only white but someone of predominantly European descent; Gringo means many things: a) US citizen, b) pale and blonde or northern European, c) Italian.
2) Indio, indígena, aborigen or nativo americano describes people of predominantly Native American descent who still keep strong cultural bonds with traditional cultures.
3) Negro which is used to describe black people of African descent.
Gringo, Indio and Negro may sometimes be used offensively.
The main religion, though definitively not the only one, is Catholicism. In many areas co-exists with Native American or African-slave descent religious beliefs, and they are usually combined with the Catholic creed.
The three largest civilizations the Europeans found were the Aztecs in the Mexican highlands, the Mayas throughout Central America and the Incas in the Andes mountain range. Their cultures are still very alive in the areas and their languages are still widely spoken. There were many other cultures very diverse from each other.
Brazil and Mexico are the economic hubs of Latin America, boasting huge cities with over 20 million people, and are among the largest emerging markets along with India, China and Russia. Smaller countries such as Argentina, Colombia and Chile are considered mid-income countries somewhat behind New Zealand or South Africa. Two small countries, Costa Rica and Uruguay, are amongst the oldest and most progressive democracies in the world.
Are you ready for a dive in the incredible diverse world of Latin America?