Definition / Statement Concerning Latin America


I. Geography

            Latin America is situated in the Western Hemisphere. In American terminology, there are Latin American countries or regions in North America, Central America, and South America; i.e., two separate continents, with the middle, or connecting region of Central America.. From the Latin American perspective, the Western Hemisphere comprises only one continent: north, central, and south. In Spanish, this continent is called either América or las Américas. The northern most region is centered on French-speaking regions in Canada. Various regions of the United States are also parts of Latin America, either historically speaking or due to contemporary demographics and immigration. Most countries in Central America and South America are also "Latin American", but a few are not, and for this reason do not comprise material for this course; for example, Jamaica, Belize, Surinam, etc.

II. Language

            Various Latin-based languages have related characteristics that contribute to mutual recognition as being the communicative basis for nations, regions, and personal identities that have fostered parallel national and individual development. The three main languages in Latin America are Spanish, Portuguese, and French. (Other Latin languages such as Italian, Catalan, Romanian, and others, are also spoken by significant numbers of people who live in Latin America--notably Italian in Argentina--but none of these have become so-called "national languages". Be it noted, however, that millions of Latin American people speak other languages as their first, or very significant second, language. There are several hundred other native languages spoken throughout Latin America from northern Québec to the tip of South America. These languages and their speakers are essential to a basic understanding of what Latin America and Latin Americans are. As an academic note for HUM 2461, note that one of the major branches of the humanities is language(s).

III. History

            Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere during the late fifteenth century and throughout the sixteenth century there was no such place as "Latin America". There were hundreds and thousand of Amerindian (native) peoples who lived in tribes and associations of tribes. During the last two centuries before the arrival of European explores (and later, conquistadors and settlers) two large and powerful pre-Columbian empires grew and prospered in ways that rivalled the Roman Empire a millennium earlier. These two empires were the so-called Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica, with its center in what is present-day Mexico City, and the Inca Empire in the Andean region with its center in Perú. Latin America began slowly to arise as a more or less homogeneous region when people principally from Spain, Portugal, and France claimed various regions of the Western Hemisphere as possessions for their countries and monarchs in Europe. Over several centuries the cultures, politics, humanities, religions, social customs, and languages of these European empires either destroyed or dominated completely the pre-Columbian peoples and civilizations that predated them by up to fifteen thousand years. The actual term of "Latin America", however, was not used until the middle of the nineteenth century when a French emperor (Napoleon Bonaparte III) justified a French military invasion of Mexico by noting that France, being a "Latin" country and culture, had as much a right to extend its empire in the Western Hemisphere as the Spanish and Portuguese did. Hence, the short-lived reign of Maximilian (and Carlota) in Mexico during the 1860's. During the twentieth century and now in the early twenty-first century, an on-going debate has been carried about by intellectuals and regular citizens about whether or not such a homogeneous place and people as designated by the term Latin America actually exists. There are solid opinions on both sides of the issue. For the sake of this course, we shall recognize the validity and vitality of the debate, but we shall postulate, for the sake of academic integrity, that enough homogeneity does exist for us to study it as a whole unit. Perhaps the best solution is to simply base our study on the notion of immense diversity within some kind of unity.

IV. Culture

            Several cultural constants unify the search for Latin America. First, the humanities and cultures that were transplanted from Spain, Portugal, and France to the Western Hemisphere have several common characteristics: language base, religion, Mediterranean cultures, societies, and political tendencies. For the first three hundred years, roughly, the conquest (sixteenth century) and colonization (1600 - 1800) implanted and imposed very Latin European hegemonic structures, laws, rules, standards, etc. Pre-Columbian patterns, in many cases, were never completely destroyed, but they were so severely repressed and oppressed, that "Latin" societies became predominant throughout the Latin -based regions of the Americas. Much of what Latin Americans created was in opposition of what predominates in Anglo-American culture, and this opposition repeated patterns of preference and division that predominated in Europe. (Note: ask the professor in class for a clearly illustrative anecdote about this issue.) In the twentieth century and continuing and growing in strength in the twenty-first century, Latin Americans are increasingly conscious of the long-standing role that pre-Columbian peoples and their civilizations have always contributed to the very complex and dynamic reality that nowadays we identify as that which unifies Latin America as a distinctive region and culture.

V. Unifying themes of the humanities

            Throughout this course, from the beginning slide show to the very end, about a dozen (or so) themes will be presented in such a way that will enable us to identify elements that are characteristic of Latin American humanities and that act to distinguish Latin American humanities from those that distinguish humanistic production from other areas such as Asia, Africa, or what is often called Anglo-America. Pay special attention to these themes as they are presented and be ready to apply them to the course materials.