What Defines Latin America?

Spoken Language

Woman flipping a Spanish sign in a storefront
Credit: alvarez/ Shutterstock

Those living in Latin America all share historical, linguistic, and cultural experiences. It generally refers to an area in the world where Spanish, Portuguese, and French languages are spoken. Latin America includes most of Central and South America, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and several other Caribbean islands. That also means Latin American includes some more unexpected countries like Haiti, where French is the main language. Some smaller Caribbean island nations speak a variety of other European languages, so they might not fall under the umbrella category of Latin America.

Just because these countries share so much, it does not mean they are the same. Latin America is a diverse group of nationalities and cultures. This brief guide will offer an overview of the myriad peoples and cultures in Latin America.

Weather and Climate

Photo of a snowcapped Paine Massif, in the Andes Mountains, at Dawn
Credit: gcoles/ iStock

The regions of the Americas where Latin-based languages are spoken highlight the legacy of the European invaders and colonization of vast areas of the continent. From a geography perspective, Latin America stretches all the way from Mexico to Chile. Located in this region is a dazzling array of different landscapes, each offering its own weather and climate conditions. The most common and notable natural features of this region include rainforests, the Andes Mountains, volcanoes, and grasslands.

The Andes Mountains have snow-capped peaks that reach over 6,000 meters above sea level. Glaciers and active volcanoes can also be found in this dry, cold climate. Indigenous people sustained their lifestyles with farming and the cultivation of crops like peanuts, potatoes, and quinoa.

The Amazon region covers much of the center of South America and is the world’s largest rainforest. It stretches about 2.5 million square miles. A hot, humid climate supports a diverse ecosystem and lush forest.

Central America and Mexico have sweltering climates. Some mountain areas are cooler, and there are areas of dense rainforest. Of particular note are the amazing areas of cloud forests in Panama and Costa Rica. Nicaragua adds to the diversity of this region, which has a large number of active volcanoes.

The Caribbean collectively refers to a group of tropical islands. Though their main industry is tourism, this group of islands was once lauded for its sugar production. The large number of visiting tourists now has some negative effects on fishing and the existing coral reefs.

People and Culture

Women in bright beautiful dresses dancing in unison
Credit: LightCapturedByDamian/ Shutterstock

Latin America comprises a plethora of different cultures. There are certain elements of the culture, which can be found in most areas of the region. These cultural elements distinguish Latin America from English-speaking America.

European invaders from Spain and Portugal arrived in the region to discover a number of thriving indigenous cultures. Unlike the experience of U.S. indigenous people, many Latin American cultures survived invasions to some extent. Many people in this region are able to trace back their ancestry to the original peoples who first inhabited the area. In the current era, many Latin American countries have majority populations called “mestizos” which refers to people of both European and Latin American descent.

Purely indigenous people, who can be found in many countries, still hold traditional culture, language, and values as paramount to their existence. Mestizos tend to embrace more of the trappings of the current culture and era. Roughly 10% of the Latin American populations consider themselves European. This is coupled with the fact that plenty of Latin American countries have significant Afro-Latin populations. This reinforces the significant ancestral differences, which can be found in this area.

Undoubtedly, Latin America is home to many different populations and ethnic groups. However, one unifying factor is the Catholic Church. The majority of the population in Latin America, no matter the ethnicity, is Catholic. The invaders brought this religion with them. This is a significant difference to the English-speaking portions of the Americas.

Too Broad to Define

Aerial photo of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Credit: Yuri de Mesquita Bar/ iStockPhoto

Trying to summarize the culture and character of Latin American people is essentially futile. That is because there are so many diverse ethnic populations and because the region referred to as Latin America is so large. Latin America is home to some of the most diverse ecological areas in the world and boasts the world’s largest rainforest. Cloud forests, active volcanoes, and lush grasslands can all be discovered here. Coupled with the rich, diverse history of its ethnic people, Latin America is one of the richest cultural areas in the world.

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