Introduction to Latin America

*We often call Central and South America ‘Latin America.’  What makes Latin America Latin?  Do most people there speak Latin?  No.  However, most of the nations there use Romance languages descended from Latin.  The two most common are Spanish and Portuguese, creating Hispanic America and Luso-America (from Latin Hispania (all of Iberia) and Lusitania (more or less Portugal)). 

*Is there any place in Central or South America that does not speak a Romance Language?  Yes:  Guyana and Belize were both English, Suriname was Dutch, and many islands in the Caribbean also speak English or Dutch, however, we will study these along with Latin America, because they are part of the same physiographic region. 

*Is there anywhere else in the Americas that could, by this definition, be called ‘Latin America?’  Arguably Quebec is Latin, as French is a Romance language, but it is otherwise quite distinct from Central and South America, culturally.  In fact, the French-speaking islands of the Caribbean are also generally thought to be more like the British colonies in that area than like the Hispanic islands.

*Most of Central and South America do have a common culture, sharing music, television shows (especially tellenovelas, or soap operas), and, to a lesser extent, movies, books, and other media.  Nonetheless, there are also big differences between the people of Argentina and Mexico, and even between Argentina and Chile.

*There are 18 primarily Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, 1 Portuguese-speaking country, 1 primarily French-speaking country, 12 primarily English-speaking countries, 1 Dutch-speaking country, and a number of colonies and territories of other nations that still belong to Britain, France, or the United States (although the French territories are technically considered part of France even today.  There are a total of 20 independent countries in Latin America (counting Francophone Haiti), and 33 independent countries in the entire region (counting non-Latin states).

*This is one of the faster-growing parts of the world:  faster than Europe or Anglo-America, but not as fast as Asia or Africa.  The area covers 7,930,845 square miles, or about 16% of the Earth’s land area (or just over 4% of the total surface of the Earth).  It contains about 560 million people, or about 9% of the Earth’s population.

*The people of Latin America are a mixture of Europeans, American Indians, and Africans, although some areas are more mixed than others, or have different proportions of mixtures.  Many of the current and former British and French and Dutch colonies are mostly African in origin, while many of the countries in the Andes Mountains are mostly Indian.  The Southern Cone (Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and parts of Paraguay and Brazil) is the most European part of the region (except Paraguay).  There have also been many Asian immigrants to the region:  in the 1990s, Alberto Fujimori (of Japanese descent) was president of Peru.  This mixture of races is one reason the US Census bureau does not track Hispanic immigrants as a separate ethnic group, although it does count them as a cultural group.

*The most widely-followed religion in the region is Roman Catholicism (86.5%), although there are Protestants (9%), native religions, African religions, other religions, and non-religious people.

*The largest and most populous country is Brazil, which is also the 5th largest country in the world, both in area and population.  It covers 3,286,488 square miles and had 186,112,794 people in 2004.  Next is Mexico (in population), with 107,029,000 people (#11 worldwide) and 761,606 square miles (#14 worldwide).  Argentina is the second largest (1,068,302 square miles, #8 worldwide) and fourth most populous (38,747,000 people, #30 worldwide) nation in Latin America.   All three would be seen as major world powers, or at least fairly significant ones, if they were not overshadowed by the United States (especially in the case of Mexico).

*The smallest mainland nation in the region is El Salvador (8,123 square miles, #149 worldwide); the least populous mainland nation is Suriname (438,144 people, #163 worldwide).  The smallest independent country of all is St Kitts and Nevis, at 100 square miles (#187 worldwide) and with 38,958 people (#186 worldwide).

*The region contains the world’s second longest river, the Amazon (which actually carries far more water than any other river system in the world:  more, in fact, than the first, third, and fourth longest river systems combined).

*The region also contains some of the world’s largest cities.  The Mexico City metropolitan area is the third largest in the world with 22,095,047 people.  The São Paulo area is sixth, with 19,090,000, and the area around Lima has 13,510,000, making it #16, just ahead of Buenos Aires with 13,330,000.  The Rio de Janeiro area, with 11,720,000 is number 20.

*With the exception of Brazil, which has several megacities, many of the countries in the region have a primate city.

This page last updated 3 September, 2006.