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.
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.