Andrew Clem home

Latin American
Culture, Identity, and Politics

Caveat: This page is an ongoing "work in progress."

Clockwise from top left: Old cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua; Monument to the Heroic Boys at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City; National Theater in San Jose, Costa Rica; Mural in honor of Benito Juarez in Oaxaca, Mexico; Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City; U.S. postage stamp honoring Frida Kahlo; folk musicians in La Paz, Bolivia; Palace of Government in Lima, Peru; and (center) Mayan ruins at Tikal, Guatemala.

Culture & politics: Intro

Lat. Amer. culture montage The phrase "Eternal Eternity" is in part an allusion to the joke that Brazilians often tell each other: "Brazil is the country of the future -- and always will be!" It also borrows from the description of Colombia as "the land of eternal spring." As I have learned from personal experience, patience is one of the highest virtues in Latin America. To even begin to understand Latin America, one must first put him or herself in a poetic, playful state of mind and set aside deadly earnestness. From the results-oriented technocratic perspective of North America, one is often tempted to dismiss the entire region as plagued by an irrational determination to do things its own way, hopelessly lost in a never-ending search to find its own cultural identity. What is the reason for this tortured struggle of Latin Americans to define themselves? At least at a superficial level, this vast region shares a strong sense of common identity based on language and religion. Beneath this facade, however, one finds that except for Argentina and its neghbors in the "southern cone," the ethnic composition of Latin American countries is heavily mixed, the legacy of Spanish conquistadors marrying (or simply dallying) with indigenous women. (Latin American specialists try to minimize use of the contentious term Indian, both because of the mistaken origins of that ethnic term (Columbus was lost) and because it is considered an insult in most of Latin America, with similar connotations to Redskin.) In Brazil, the ethnic issue originated in the mass importation of African slaves to work in sugar cane fields. Racial differences tend to reinforce class differences, which are in some cases as sharp as any you'll find in the Third World: it's the rich versus the poor with only a weak middle class to keep things stable.

Why is Latin America called "Latin" anyway? Contrary to what V.P. Dan Quayle once allegedly said, they DON'T speak Latin down there. Actually, it was a term coined by the French during the 1860s when Emperor Louis Napoleon (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) imposed a Hapsburg monarch ("Emperor Maximilian") to rule Mexico as a puppet on his behalf. (His reign only lasted five years). Ironically, those of Hispanic descent who live in this country and proudly call themselves "Latinos" are perpetuating a terminological trick that was foisted upon their ancestors precisely to justify an imperialist agenda!!! For a splendid cultural history of the region (at least the Spanish parts), see Carlos Fuentes, The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World.

Two countries did not gain full independence until later: Cuba (1934) and the Dominican Republic (1844). There are two remaining colonies: Puerto Rico and French Guyana. As indicated in the map above, Belize is NOT considered part of Latin America; like Jamaica, most of its people speak English, or a dialect thereof. What about French Guyana? Shouldn't that be part of "Latin" America? Perhaps, but it is not an independent country, and in fact in political terms it is considered part of Europe: Just look at the "Euro" currency, which shows a map of Europe plus the overseas departments belonging to France.

This Web site will eventually contain additional special pages on issues pertaining to Latin America overall, and some country pages may include links to "travelogs" of my trips to Latin America. NOTE: For the time being, in most cases I'm not going to worry about accented Spanish characters (other than ñ) on these Web pages.

The most outstanding characteristic of politics in Latin America is that everything depends on personalities and personal connections. There is some debate over this, but most scholarly observers agree that a person's obligations to his or her family takes precedence over all other considerations; this may explain in part why respect for the law is often so low in Latin America. Government and civic institutions are relatively weak, by and large, so policies are often uncoordinated and subject to change based on somebody's whim. Corruption is a big problem in the drug-exporting countries (especially Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia), but an even bigger problem is administrative chaos, which reflects the relative absence of professional standards in the bureaucracy. Presidents and cabinet ministers issue decrees by the boatload and nothing gets done about it. Meanwhile, pay scales for bureaucrats are often quite low (especially since all the budget cutting of the late 1980s and 1990s), so many officials have second jobs to pay the bills.

Regions of Latin America

The twenty nations of Latin America can be grouped, more or less, into five subregional groups, based on geography and cultural affinity. There is some "overlap" among these subregions, however: Venezuela, Panama, and Chile combine aspects of two subregions, while Costa Rica and Paraguay are each rather distinctive in their own right.

Mexico and Central America

Before independence from Spain, the Viceroyalty of New Spain (as Mexico was called) extended through all of Central America with the exception of Panama. Most of the countries in this region bear significant residual influence from the Mayan Indian civilization, which began to decline centuries before Columbus arrived. For the first two decades after independence (1821-1838, roughly), there was a unified Central American Confederation. This broke apart into five countries, however, and this region remained backwards for many decades thereafter.

The Caribbean

The island nations of the Caribbean embody a great variety of cultural influences, reflecting the four European nations that colonized them: Spain, France, Britain, and the Netherlands. A high proportion of people are descended from African slaves.

The Andean Region

Geographically, this region is united by the mountaininous terrain plus the cultural legacy of the Inca Empire. Most of these countries were liberated by Simon Bolivar, who dreamed of creating a vast confederation of Spanish-speaking countries. Although there is a semi-effective regional institution (the Andean Group), lingering jealousy and ancient animosity between the neighbors have prevented the goal of regional political-economic integration from being carried out.


Brazil is nearly as big as the United States in terms of land area, and is by far the most populous country in Latin America, so size alone qualifies it as a separate region. The fact that it is the only Portuguese- speaking country in the Western Hemisphere makes it stand out even more. The country has a vibrant, fun-loving culture, with much more relaxed social norms than in Spanish America, where the Catholic Church tends to have a stronger influence.

The Southern Cone

In terms of both ethnicity and dialect, this southernmost part of Latin America does live up to its claim to be the "most European" part of the region. A large proportion of the population in Argentina and Uruguay are of Italian descent, while Germans and Basques make up a substantial portion of the Chilean population. Ironically, despite all the economic advantages and relative lack of ethnic friction that affects the Andean countries, Mexico, and Central America, the Southern Cone has never lived up to its promise. Quite the contrary, some of the most barbaric violence anywhere in Latin America took place in Chile and Argentina during the "Dirty War" of the 1970s and 1980s.

Latin American Music

Caveat: "work in progress"


The most popular form of music throughout most of Latin America. It is strongest in the Caribbean and northern parts of South America, and has many sub-genres. It is usually dominated by trombone, piano, and cowbells, and the orchestral combos that usually perform salsa yield a rich sound reminiscent of 1940s-era "big band" music. Celia Cruz, the Cuban-born "Queen of Salsa" died in July 2003 after a long battle with brain cancer. There was much emotional outpouring for her in Miami and New York, but the government in Cuba paid only scant notice.


Fast-paced tunes in 2/4 time (oom-pah, OOM-pah, OOM-pah, oom-pah) with a repetitive melody in a minor key. Most popular in the Dominican Republic and Peru.


Slow-paced tunes with a repetitive melody in a minor key, usually featuring an accordion. Most popular in Colombia.


Accordion-based, moody, minor key music invented in Argentina and Uruguay. Carlos Gardel was the undisputed master of this genre during the first half of the 20th century.


The cowboy music of Mexico, featuring trumpets, violins, and guitars of every shape and size. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass popularized this music in the U.S. during the 1960s.

Indigenous folklore

My personal favorite, a synthesis of indigenous music (Inca or Aymara) with Spanish guitars, often reminiscent of "Old Western" cowboy music. The distinctive instruments are the charango (which resembles ukelele, but with five pairs of strings and often using an armadillo shell as the body) and the quena (flute).

Vals (waltz)

Slow, moody, nostalgic tunes in a minor key at 3/4 time, most popular in Peru.


The music of Brazil, associated with carnaval celebrations. (The word refers to persons of African descent.) It features multiple large drums, small guitars, and loud cheerful singing.


Medium-paced, rhythm-heavy music popular in the Caribbean.


Fast-paced, music popular with African origins in the Caribbean.

Latin pop music

Influence from North America and Europe has had mixed results on the Latin music scene. Some of it is quite good, such as Carlos Vives and Juan Cabas (Colombia), and of course Carlos Santana (Mexico). Enrique Iglesias is doing all he can to enrage his father, Julio Iglesias. Hard-edged diva Shakira (Colombia) is certainly creative. Gian Marco is a leading rocker from Peru. Then there is the atrocious fluff such as the duet "Pimpinela" (Argentina). Immigrants to the United States from

Sports in Latin America

Although soccer is by far the most popular sport in Latin America, baseball and other sports are loved by millions as well. Wealthy people enjoy tennis and golf. The highest altitude golf course in the world is located east of La Paz, Bolivia.


¡Go-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-l! For a sport in which scores are few and far between, it's the duty of announcers to make the most of eachand every such precious occasion. To American ears, it's doubly strange to hear Latin Americans talking about "futbol," both because it's a borrowed English word and because it refers to the other "football," the one the rest of the world plays. There are professional soccer leagues in virtually every country in Latin America. By far the two biggest soccer stars from the past are the Brazilian "Pelé" (a.k.a. Edson Arantes do Nascimento), who played from 1956 to 1977, and the Argentinian Diego Maradona, who played from 1976 to 1997. It's interesting to note that every time the World Cup has been held in Latin America, a Latin American team has won.

Latin America in World Cup Soccer
Year Champion Host country Notes
1930 Uruguay Uruguay Amidst regional political-economic crisis.
1950 Uruguay Brazil .
1958 Brazil Sweden During ambitious government of Kubitschek.
1962 Brazil Chile Amidst rising social tensions in Brazil.
1970 Brazil Mexico Amidst social conflict, military governments.
1978 Argentina Argentina Military government used for own benefit, possibly rigged.
1986 Argentina Mexico Amidst debt, hyperinflation crisis; return to democracy.
1994 Brazil United States .
1998 Brazil Japan / South Korea At peak of economic success, before financial crisis.


In much of the Caribbean basin, baseball (or "beisbol" in Spanish) is the number one sport. Baseball was introduced to the region in the the late 19th Century, and became strongly established in several of those countries in the early 20th Century as a collateral effect of U.S. imperial power. Wherever U.S. cultural influence has been strongest, baseball has become more popular in Latin America. Indeed, in many cases baseball was introduced during U.S. military occupation. Fidel Castro is an avid baseball fan and once played himself. (If Fidel Castro had had better luck with his baseball career, the history of the Cold War might have turned out much differently!) It's one of the clearest examples of Latin America's "love-hate" relationship with the "Colossus of the North." Today roughly 30 percent of major league playes come from Latin America, or are descendants of Latino families who grew up in the United States. Many of them supplement their earnings by playing "winter league" ball in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. In the table below, the country names are links to a page in the Baseball section of this Web site that lists many of the teams, stadiums, and most famous players from the respective countries.

Baseball in Latin America
No. of pro teams Public interest Stadium pages
Colombia 0? Weak .
Cuba 0 Strong .
Dominican Republic 6 Very strong .
Mexico 16 Moderate Estadio Monterrey
Nicaragua 4 Moderate Estadio Dennis Martinez
Panama 0? Moderate .
Puerto Rico 6 Strong Hiram Bithorn Stadium
Venezuela 8 Moderate .


Popular in Mexico and Peru.

Horse racing

Popular in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, and Peru.

Bicycle racing

Popular in Colombia, Venezuela, and to some extent Mexico.


Popular in Peru.

Jai Alai

A dangerous version of racketball, played with a long scoop instead of a racket. Popular in the Caribbean basin, including Florida.


Popular in Mexico and the Caribbean basin.

"Pro" wrestling

In Mexico, gaudily costumed, masked "crusaders" provide entertainment and inspiration to millions of urban poor people.