For Hispanic Heritage Month: Seneca’s Notes on Latino Roots

September 16th, 2011 · 11 Comments

Webmaster’s note: This brief discussion is based on Seneca’s personal observations having lived, traveled and worked in Latin America and the Iberian peninsula. They are meant to enable a more cogent and better understanding of the cultural patterns prevalent in Latin America. It also helps to explain the attitudes, origins, values, tastes and preferences of many newly arrived immigrants and native-born US Latinos. The variety of their vibrant and powerful cultural heritage makes for a rich and lively cultural mosaic among US Latinos. Since Hispanic Heritage month began on September 15 and runs until October 15, we wanted to share these observations about the diverse culture.

By Seneca

According to the most recent census, the US Latino population totals 50.5 million. Understanding the diversity of its Ibero-American heritage can be challenging. These differences among the Latino population vary according to national origins rooted in the Western Hemisphere. This heritage stems from the region’s eighteen Spanish-speaking countries and one Portuguese-speaking country. For purposes of this discussion these do not include French-Creole speaking Haiti nor the Anglophone countries such as the US and Canada with thirteen other English-speaking Caribbean nations plus Dutch-speaking Surinam. Also not addressed are the dozen European possessions or overseas affiliates in the Hemisphere like the Cayman Islands, Aruba, Curacao, Martinique, St. Bart’s and the British Virgin Islands.

Each of these Ibero-American national background can denote different ethnic composition with specific linguistic characteristics and social-cultural customs as well as a culinary variety and a range of musical-artistic development. For purposes of better understanding this Latino diversity, one might consider a more practical approach described here. This discussion attempts to examine three basic historic-cultural transnational patterns: the first a ‘coastal-island’ one; the second is a ‘plains-grassland'; and the third is a ‘highland-mountain’ one. This last one is perhaps a more dominant cultural pattern in Latin America. It is often more commonly ascribed to US Latinos with roots in Mexico, Central America and a large part of South America.  Hence, why explaining it involves more details.

The coastal-island culture is basically tropical. The area or regions include the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama and the Caribbean-Atlantic coasts of Central America, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil as well as Mexico’s coastal region of Vera Cruz and Yucatan. On the Pacific coast, the Mexican state of Guerrero, the Colombia and Ecuador coasts and the sugar-growing coastal area of Peru can be included in this cultural pattern. The inhabitants of these lowland coastal or island areas share many characteristics beyond beach or island dwelling. These include: a diet of seafood, pork, tropical fruits (coconut, bananas, mangoes), manioc (yuca), plantains, and yams; an Afro-European-Native American ethnic fusion with an extroverted light-hearted disposition; linguistic characteristics such as a softening of the language and its cadence; Afro-Latin musical rhythms which include cumbia, mambo, rumba, merengue, cha-cha-cha, samba and other similar drum dominated sounds. Hammocks and rum production are common to these tropical regions as is tobacco growing. In these Afro-Latino coastal/island areas, many spiritual practices like voodoo, condomble and macumba are common infused with Catholicism, and in some of these places like Cuba, santeria is practiced combining the worship of Catholic saints with the traditions of the Yoruba faith. In the US, Puerto Ricans, Cuban-Americans and Dominicans are leading examples of this coastal-island cultural affinity.

The second Latino cultural pattern can be defined as plains/grassland (llanuras, mesetas and pampas). These areas or regions of Latin America are less extensive than the tropical one mentioned above. Its elements are unique and readily identifiable: cattle-raising region with cowboys (vaqueros, gauchos and charros). These horse countries include Argentina, Uruguay, southern Brazil and northern Mexican states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, Aguas Calientes and Zacatecas. Ethnically it is a Euro-Native American region but predominantly more European. Pockets can be found in Chile, Colombia and Paraguay. The agriculture and diet also tends to be more European: wheat, grains, beef, goat, dairy products, refined sugars, and a preference for grilling (parillada) and barbecue. Beer and wine are common. Vineyards often dot the country-side of these regions. Other cultural characteristics include the guitar, the violin (fiddle) and the accordion in the playing of the local musical fare: tangos, two-step corridos (ballads), and polkas. The urban areas of these plains tend to be stylish with modern high-rises. Linguistically this cultural region varies from an Italianated Porteño (Buenos Aires) accent to a related Uruguayan provincial sound. Whereas, the throaty dragged-out Mexican norteño accent is associated with cattle/horse-country folksy sounds. The rodeos (round-ups), charreadas and ferias are commonplace in the plains/grassland areas. This ‘plains/grassland’ cultural pattern is more familiar to North Americans in the western US and Canada (Alberta) where rodeos and stampedes abound. Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Montevideo, Monterrey, Porto Alegre, and Sao Paulo as well as the vast plains with traditional horse-cattle and intensive agricultural activities represent this particular cultural heritage.

The third and perhaps major cultural pattern in Latin America may also be the most pervasive; may be more commonly ascribed to US Latinos. This is the highland/mountain heritage. It is descriptive of the conventional images of much of Latin America. Before the European arrival and the conquista, these mountain regions were mostly populated by highly developed indigenous peoples like the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas. These non-nomadic people were intricately organized. They possessed written languages (hieroglyphics), calendars, rich use of dyes in textiles, mathematical concepts, sophisticated architecture, water irrigation systems, developed agricultural practices which included many native varieties of corn, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, nuts, avocados, beans, peppers, and cacao (chocolate). The highland cuisine is based on these hemispheric indigenous products plus wild game. Mexico and Peru are considered to have the most elaborate and creative cooking of the Americas. The highland ethnicity is generally mestizo, a mix of European and Native American, but indigenous physical traits generally dominate the current population. This highland/mountain area stretches from central Mexico through the middle of Central America into highland Colombia and Venezuela, down the Andean ridge which goes through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Worth noting, in the highland mountain regions, the nominally Roman Catholic faith is truly a fusion of indigenous spiritual animism and other native cults which are commonly refered to as brujeria (sorcery).  Like other highland or mountain people of regions such as Appalachia, the Alps and the Caucasus, these folk are frequently characterized as being formal, insular, tribal (strong family ties), suspicious, and often described mistakenly as perhaps passive-aggressive yet formal, loyal, polite, trustworthy and diligent.

While the Latino groups in the US are diverse, the influence of the Iberian peninsula in language, Catholicism and the Spanish and Portuguese colonial experience still create ties that bind to various degrees. But when one considers the different geographic regions and ethnic groups, it becomes apparent that Latinos are not monolithic.


Tags: Latino History · Seneca

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anna // Sep 17, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    No offense, but why are you posting this here? Do you really think we need to be schooled on the fake Latino category?

  • 2 Felipe P. Manteiga // Sep 18, 2011 at 7:21 am

    Like Irons and earlier Toynbee’s challenge and response, Seneca reminds us that geography counts–it shapes and enables the cultural shaping the ethos of “fuzzy logic” bounded societal groups.

    A couple of points. My Caribbean soul feels uneasy with the hammock image. It evokes vignettes of British overlords who, sipping expensive scotch, always complained of the lazy browns (expletives used) who were swinging their machetes at high noon in the sugar cane infernos.

    Do the hard tropics deserve their own space? Perhaps for comprehensiveness and to honor the Mayas in Central America and the ecologically harmonious Amazon cultures. These might not project a long historical shadow on today’s politics, but their descendants engross the migrational waves reaching our shores and form part of “o pais do manha.”

    We are in Seneca’s debt. As his articles normally do, he continues to make signal contributions to our understanding of current Latino’s dynamics. In this case, we should heed his message:: geography counts.

  • 3 webmaster // Sep 18, 2011 at 7:29 am


    I don’t think that normal readers of this site need to be schooled in the diversity of Latino culture, but I know that traditional media and political entities visit this site. The big papers, television stations, etc. might not be as aware of this history. Actually, I know that many often wonder why the big media and others paint us as with a broad brush. Also, there are many Latinos who just don’t have a basic understanding of geography and the influence it has on us. But I’m glad that you know all of the nuances of Latino culture though.

  • 4 india blanca // Sep 18, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    I truly appreciate Seneca’s empirical observations of our diverse Latino origins and cultures. As the product of a mix of European with the plains and the highlands, I am marveled by his on target observations which speak volumes of a first rate brain. I am not sure why anyone would have a virulent reaction to any schooling, for as more we come to know, we should all realize how little in fact we do know. I think this is a great posting for Hispanic Heritage Month, so Anna, please chill out; I am sorry complimentary words for others don’t come easily to you. I do agree with Felipe that the hammock image is one that may be heavily charged with the arrogant attitude of white racism, but then again if the clothes do not fit just don’t wear them. Fact is that hemp weaving is an intrinsic expression of indigenous craft which can be found not only in the coastal region but in the highland areas; for a hammock is still the only type of bed available to many of our indigenous people. Once again, I thank Seneca for taking out the time to analyze us and share the wealth of information acquired through years of experience. I pray more of us will stop by and take a look. Understanding each other could perhaps help to bring us closer together. In the end, unity will prove to be the most effective tool we can acquire to fight for our dignified place in this society and make our journey in this great country more equitable.

  • 5 Anna // Sep 19, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    On another thread I posted film of JFK and Jackie at a LULAC conference in Houston, TX the night before he was assassinated. It got me thinking about LULAC and the fact that we (Mexican-Americans) founded that organization ourselves, and through it successfully litigated a number of civil rights cases, and got Kennedy to campaign for our votes.

    What a difference 50 years makes. Obama addressed some group called the Hispanic Caucus Institute, asking for support for his jobs bill. Sitting in the front row was Princess Cristina of Spain.

    WTF does this person have to do with us or our issues? Nothing!!!!

    We (Mexican-Americans) need to form our own Civil Rights groups again and fund them ourselves. How did we lose control over our own civil rights groups?! I don’t there is one group advocating on behalf of Mexican-Americans, and I don’t mean illegal immigrants. I mean Americans who are of Mexican descent.

    I think the Latino category was created to dilute the political power of Mexican-Americans. Dick Nixon was tricky that way.

  • 6 henry m ramirez // Sep 25, 2011 at 7:28 am

    The formerly unknown History of National Hispanic Heritage Week

    Senator Joseph Montoya, Espanola, NM and Edward Roybal born in Belen, NM enabled the passage of PL 90-498. It was approved September 17, 1968, 90th Congress. It authorized the President to issue annually a proclamation designating the week including September 15 and 16 as “National Hispanic Heritage Week”.

    In 1968 President Lyndon Johnson was too busy packing his Memorabilia for his departure from the White House and did not Proclaim the Week.

    In 1968, New Mexico citizens still traced their direct lineage from some places and families in the land called Hispania. They were Spanish Speaking Europeans. The indigenous had been locked up in Reservations. Ergo, the two legislators felt true to their history by naming it “Hispanic”.

    I, an activist Mexican American from Southern California and a proud Chicano, became deeply aware that Mexican Americans in the 1968’s, and 1971’s were and had been as Dr. Julian Zamora entitled his Collection of Essays, “La Raza Forgotten Americans”.
    And, nationally, we were also Invisible. I had been working at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights as the Chief of the Mexican American Studies Division, conceiving and directing first time ever studies on Mexican American Students in the Southwest.
    Congress did not know who Mexican Americans were and the country did not know us. Our Mexicanness, our Mestizaje, our lineage to many indigenous nations were unknown.

    I could walk anyplace in Washington D.C., New York, Miami, Philadelphia or etc. and not see another Mexican American.

    I realized that a national awareness of who we Mexican Americans were was a big time priority.

    My big opportunity to advance our cause, “El Movimiento”, our Mexican Civil Rights came on August 5, 1971. President Richard M. Nixon appointed me Chairman of his Cabinet Officers. The agency was called “The Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for the Spanish Speaking People.”

    In the last few months of the Administration of Johnson, a White House Memorandum of Understanding created an Interagency Committee on Mexican American Affairs.

    In the first year of the Richard M Nixon Administration a young, no nonsense ex-Jet Fighter Pilot and now an L.A. Trial Lawyer, Martin Castillo, had Congress pass a Law to create an Agency for Mexican American Affairs. The Senators from the Northeast, however, would not approve a new Public Law to enable the Cabinet Committee as an Agency until the name Mexican American was dropped. The new name had Spanish in it.

    On that day of August 5, President Richard M. Nixon invited me to the Oval Office to discuss what we would do to include the Mexican Americans in the Mainstream of American Life. After an hour long overview of goals and objectives, he escorted me to the Cabinet Room to introduce me to his Cabinet Officers whom he lectured on what we all would perform for the Mexican Americans. This meeting was followed by exposure to the White House Press Corps in a Press Conference.

    In the Oval Office, I presented the President five goals for achieving Inclusion of the Mexican Americans. One of the five goals was the creation of a National Awareness of Mexican Americans. I knew the President knew Mexican Americans very well, he was close to us, and wanted badly to do big things for us.His conversation and discussion in the Oval Office affirmed it. I knew he had been raised in East Whittier between two Mexican barrios: The Leffingwell Ranch and the Murphy Ranch. His parents operated a small grocery store and gas station between the two barrios. He got to know us quite well. Please note, no other President has had that experience, while growing up.

    This thought of his illustrates my judgment: Nixon faced me, firmly focused , and proclaimed: “We gringos have established an invisible wall of discrimination against you Mexicans, and you and I are going to knock it down.”

    On September 3, 1971 I wrote a Memo to the President with this Subject: Proposed Action by the President to Commemorate Mexico’s Independence Day of September 16, 1971

    On September 1973 Richard M. Nixon signed the Proclamation of

    A few days later, Vice President Agnew read the Proclamation in the White House in the Presence of the Ambassador from Mexico, Henry M. Ramirez, Congressman Manuel Lujan, Phil Sanchez, OEO Director, Pete Villa, National President of Lulac and Joseph Juarez National Chairman of GI Forum

    Prior to this occasion, I had worked with Martin Castillo, Deputy Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, to the President to order the Census Bureau to count the Mexican Americans for the first time in history in 1970.

    Dear reader, now you know how it happened!

  • 7 webmaster // Sep 26, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    Dr. Ramirez,

    Thank you for taking the time to explain how Nixon proclaimed National Hispanic Heritage Week and your involvement in that effort. I agree that Nixon, having come from Whittier, understood that Mexican Americans had been contributing to this country’s landscape for some time.

  • 8 irma // Sep 28, 2011 at 8:07 am


    this may be off-topic but it is important news for the community. I am proud to relay the news that Richard Tapia who was on the admissions committee at Rice University that admitted me and in the process changed the course of my life has been awarded the National Medal of Science.
    It may the first for a Mexican American.

    See below:
    Dear Irma,

    It is with great pleasure that I write to let you know that Rice’s esteemed mathematician, Richard Tapia, has been chosen by President Barack Obama to receive the National Medal of Science, the country’s highest honor for scientists. In his more than four decades at Rice, Professor Tapia has made great advances in mathematics and, as important, great contributions to opening the doors of higher education in STEM fields to under-served students. He is a wonderful example of a renowned scientific researcher who has also dedicated the time and energy to make broad and enduring social contributions. The news release below provides more information about Richard and the medal. Please join me in thanking Richard for his many contributions to Rice, to higher education and to science, and in extending our sincere congratulations for this extraordinary and well deserved honor.


    David W. Leebron

    Rice’s Richard Tapia to receive National Medal of Science
    Mathematician, champion of diversity earns his second White House honor

    VIDEO for this announcement is available at:

    webmaster note: edited to add link instead of full text of article.

  • 9 Anna // Sep 28, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Here is a more detailed article about Richard Tapia:

  • 10 irma // Oct 3, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    thanks Anna, I was beginning to think that no one in our community cared that a Mexican -American had been awarded the National Medal of Science. For what I do, it is the greatest honor next to a Nobel that a scientist can be awarded. The reponse or lack of it, is testimony to how little our community values
    intellectual achievements.

  • 11 webmaster // Oct 5, 2011 at 10:51 pm


    I think that some of us value intellectual achievements, but sadly, I’m not so sure that folks who get most of their information from the television do… or those who opt to spend time in the mall instead of the library.

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