Latin American Terminology: Key Terms and Themes



1. Syncretism /sincretismo The process by which various elements from one culture are fused into another culture to form a new cultural unit. Latin American culture and humanities are essentially syncretic.
2. Horror vacui From Latin, meaning "fear of a vacuum/void". The aspects of pre-Columbian humanities that show a tendency to fill up all available space for carving, painting, ritual, etc., demonstrate the notion of horror vacui. Also, Spanish baroque linguistic and visual humanities also demonstrate this characteristic. Therefore, in Latin America, which is a fusion of pre-Columbian and Spanish-American traits, one sees a heightened presence of horror vacui in the humanities.
3. Religio From Latin, meaning "religion". The motivation and process by which Latin-nation European colonizers imposed their own form of Christianity on native-American peoples. This is one of the principle characteristics of the periods of Conquest and Colonization. For the purposes of the course, the term can be extended to the unique encounter between Roman Catholicism and the multiplicity of indigenous religions that predated the introduction of Christianity in Latin America and that, in many cases continue in the present to survive alongside or fused with various forms of Christianity and African religions.
4. Cupio From Latin, meaning "desire". A strong motivation for Latin-European conquest was getting rich and powerful. Cupio involves such a strong desire for possession of valuable things (gold, silver, jewels, land, souls, etc.) among native Americans that it led to a violent lust for them. This is one of the principle characteristics of the periods of Conquest and Colonization.
5. Nominatio From Latin, meaning "naming". The Latin-Europeans who arrived in the New World undertook a thorough process of naming or oftenthough not alwaysrenaming every place they encountered. The naming process is a secondary form of possessing. This is one of the principle characteristics of the periods of Conquest and Colonization.
6. Admiratio From Latin, meaning "wonderment". Early Latin Europeans in the Americas reacted to each and every novelty they encountered with amazement, wonderment, appreciation, admiration, ecstacy. In the 20th century Latin Americans rediscovered this sense of amazement over their own realities. See #18 and #19 below. This is one of the principle characteristics of the periods of Conquest and Colonization. For the purposes of this course, the term can be extended to the unique relationship between the peoples of Latin America and the challenge posed by often dramatic conflicts with geography, nature, and weather.
7. Lingua From Latin, meaning "language." As Spain's great intellectual Antonio de Nebrija told Queen Isabel I la Católica in 1492, "language is the principal weapon of conquest." One of the major processes of Latinization of the Americas was the imposition and spread of their Latin languages: Spanish, Portuguese, French. This is one of the principle characteristics of the periods of Conquest and Colonization.
8. Medieval / Middle Ages In Europe the period between the end of the Roman Empire and 1492. In the Western Hemisphere, in the major power centers (Mayas, Aztecs, Incas), the stage of their civilizations that was interrupted by the Spanish conquests between 1521 and 1533. Medieval traits are: social stratification; community over individualism; theocracy; strong presence in the afterlife; abstraction and sacred themes in the humanities.
9. Renaissance The stage of civilization into which European nations were already evolving when they undertook the exploration, conquest, and colonization of the Western Hemisphere. Renaissance traits are: the beginning monarchical absolutism and personal democratic initiative; individualism; world-centered fame, glory, status; separation of secular and sacred realms of power; rebirth of Greek and Roman knowledge and arts; the beginning of modern science; realism in the humanities; harmony and elegance.
10. Baroque The second phase of the European Renaissance that dominates the 16th century in Latin America. Baroque humanities occur during the first half of the Colonial Period (1600 - 1700). Baroque traits in the humanities: heavy adornment and decoration; pessimism; horror vacui; preoccupation with death; extravagant rhetoric and metaphors (see #20 below).
11. Veras y burlas Veras y burlas roughly translates as "truths and trickeries." The notion refers to stating something that is or seems to be true (that contains real or apparent truth) simultaneously can be or seem a trick; that is, an idea or image that is deceptive or could be taken as a lie. The Spanish verb burlar, however, is not precisely the same as "to lie;" it is more like to joke, seduce, outwit, spoof, taunt, jest, and the like.
12. Colonial / Colonization The Latin American period following the periods of discovery and conquest; principally, 1600 - 1810, which ended with the Latin American wars of independence. Latin America was ruled by viceroys serving European kings' interests and upholding imperial power structures. The humanities are dominated by Eurocentric styles and content, but native American elements continue to fuse (see #1 above) with those of Europe.
13. Encomienda / encomendero The process by which the kings of Spain charged (encomendar = charge with, entrust to) specially chosen Spanish conquistadors and noblemen with exploiting a large tract of land while instituting Spanish patterns of life (urbanization, commerce, farming, mining, religion) in their territory, all the while "protecting" native Americans from death, harm, and falling back into pre-Columbian lifestyles. Essentially, the encomienda process failed to protect the indigenous peoples' legal rights due to lack of effective supervision from the court in Spain. Officially and legally, Indians were not slaves; they had legal rights, and they could not be bought and sold. Notably, they were protected by canon law (i.e., Church law) of the Catholic Church, which was separate from but respected by Spanish civil law.
14. Diversity / multiculturalism The widespread Latin American notion that all aspects of Latin American life and humanities touch on the rich variety (diversity) of cultural features present in the Americas and which, by virtue of such diversity, distinguish Latin America from all other places and nations.
15. Independence The process, usually by means of war, by which Latin American nations became free of European hegemony, control, suzereinty. Various independence movements, especially during the years 1810-1825, provide abundant material for the humanities.
16. Modernismo / Modernism A significant cultural movement in Latin America that is parallel to and similar to European modernism, and that remained sui generis in the Americas. Modernismo's core years were 1875-1916. Features of modernismo are: fusion of early 19th century movements in the arts (romanticism, symbolism, etc.); will to individual style (la voluntad de estilo); art for art's sake (i.e., the power of art to be personally and socially transformative or to be beautiful for beauty's sake); vigorous ("spiritual") pursuit of modern innovations (industry, science, philosophy, art) with the purpose of updating and upgrading Latin American societies and humanities.
17. Revolution / Violence The violent process by which Latin American nations and individuals sought to overcome the oppression, misery, poverty, and subjugation visited on the masses and the intelligentsia by a host of local dictators, especially in the two centuries following the success of various wars of independence. Sadly, violence remains one of the key themes found in the products of Latin American humanities from pre-colonial times to the present. This theme includes conflicts between countries, ethnicities, religions, the sexes, politics, and social classes. These twin themes of revolution and violence are also closely related to emigration and exile.
18. Vanguardismo (avant garde) The early 20th century movement in Latin American humanities that parallels and is similar to, but is not synonymous with European avant garde movements such as surrealism, dadaism, existentialism, futurism, cubism, etc. This movement began as a specific rejection of modernismo, which vanguardistas perceived as being trite and clichéd. Vanguardismo involves experimentation, the rejection of all restraints on expression, form and content; it courts antilogical discourse, the complete autonomy of the humanities, and the exploration of the (Freudian) unconscious mind of the humanist. It asserts the right to rebel, and, in social or political terms, sometimes joins forces with revolutionary movements such as communism. Finally, vanguardismo is characterized by extremely daring metaphors in art and literature.
19. Lo real maravilloso / Magical Realism A movement in Latin American humanities of the second half of the 20th century which features a birthing of cutting edge innovations such as the Novel of the Boom, a fusion of prior aesthetic movements, international recognition for Latin American humanists, experimentation, a rediscovery of the marvellous in Latin American reality, and the like.
20. Lo ctónico (Earth goddess) One of the root ideas of so-called Magical Realism, based on the notion of the original Greek earth modern goddess, Chthon. The notion is that all of Latin American reality and expression in language and the arts arises from and is based on what comes specifically and uniquely from the earth of Latin America.
21. Metaphor The kind of comparative rhetorical device by which one independent image is united to another separate image and fused into a single new unit. Metaphor involves the direct fusion of two (or more) images, whereas simile says one image is merely "like" another. Metaphor is prominent in pre-Columbian pictographs and glyphs, and it is also a prominent feature of baroque aspects of the humanities. Iit becomes a prominent feature again in 20th century Latin America. Metaphor is one of the principal methods deployed in this course for pedagogical purposes. Examples: (1) plumed serpent; (2) ruby lips; (3) "Lucy with diamonds in her eyes".
22. Exile / Diaspora

A diaspora spelled with a lower case 'd' (from Greek > διασπορά , meaning "scattering") is the movement or migration of a noticeably large portion or the whole of an ethnic group away from an original home region to another where they are, for one or more generations foreigners in a new land. Diaspora with a capital "d" refers specifically to the exile and dispersion of the Jewish people in various waves over the past three millennia. The individuals and groups in a diasporic mode tend strongly to retain a hope that they will be able to return to the place from which they have been expelled by force or by prudent decision. Such displaced people may retain or lose their nostalgia (Spanish: añoranza) for their original homeland; consequently, they tend to "re-root" in various resettlements. Concomitantly, a diaspora produces linguistic, humanistic, social, and cultural changes when the exiled person and/or people adapt to a new home. Often, such diasporic people may resist total religious, cultural, and language changes in order to retain, to them, meaningful aspects of their original culture. Such diasporic processes have occurred throughout the pre-history and historic periods of Latin America. Notably, given the tragic frequency of violent conquests, wars, civil wars, and revolutions for the past four millennia, dispora is one of the key themes of Latin American humanities. Among many example, one can cite diasporas caused by the Aztec conquests in Mesoamerica; the Inca conquests in the Andean region; the dispersion of many peoples due to the Spanish, French, and Portuguese conquests; and, in recent times, the "dirty wars" in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and the vast legal and illegal immigration of people from Central America and Mexico to the United States.

23. Postcolonialism / Errancy In the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first century the global analytical concepts of postcolonialism and errancy have often been aptly applied to the study of most fields of Latin American studies including the humanities. The theory of postcolonialism refers not to that which has occurred and/or been produced in Latin America after the European colonial powers—notably, Spain, France, and Portugal—ceased to rule their former colonies, but more narrowly, among other things, to the following areas of study: the implantation of colonial empires in the Americas; the impact of former colonization on all areas of postcolonial life including all of the humanities; feminism in the Americas; agency for and by "marginalized peoples;" applications in the social sciences; and more.
The equally global theory of errancy (from the German philosopher Heidegger's notion of Irre) is applicable throughout Latin American humanities, and, in particular in Caribbean studies. Errancy refers to the products of the humanities that challenge Western dominance or hegemony through the privileging of deeply embedded exoticism in Latin America, cultural, social, and psychological opacity; heterogeneity/syncretism; and cultural rhizomes. Two of the most influential theorists of these notions are the French philosopher Gille Deleuzean (1925-1995) and Edouard Glissant (b. 1928), a major Francophone writer and critique from Martinique.