An accurate historical account of Latin American identity is to be found in the fact that the notion of ‘Latin America’ has changed over time, ultimately adopting a sense of the unity and integration which exists between Latin American nations.
Claudio Chipana Gutierrez
The terms ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latin’ which define this region south of the United States, or at least the greater part of it, owe their origins in large measure to their European inherited languages ( the mainly spoken Romance languages of Spanish and Portuguese) and cultures (e.g Catholicism).
Put another way, Hispanic and Romance or Latin trademark characteristics compete with one another in explaining the Latin American identity. ‘Latinos’ and ‘Hispanics’ are the names given today to Latin American immigrants. But as with all generalisations there is the risk that these names oversimplify the richness and complexity of this whole region: one we know today as ‘Latin America and the Caribbean.’ In addition, there is the danger that Latin American native peoples, who are significant in characterising the many individual nations’ identities, get sidelined in all of this.
Nonetheless, Hispanic and Latinidad (Latin trademark characteristics) together with indigenous peoples’ traditions have been accepted as factors which explain Latin American culture’s heterogeneity and diversity. In truth, the Latin American identity cannot be explained without reference to European, native, black and other influences.
Indeed, some authors have placed emphasis on the diversity and fragmentation of the Latin American culture and have put forward the thesis that Latin American culture is hybrid in nature.
According to Cornejo Polar Latin America is an essentially syncretised and heterogeneous type.
The Peruvian writer, Jose Maria Arguedas, suggested a picture which included all the different races to express the meeting point for native and European cultures in Peruvian society. The anthropologist, Roger Bartra, wishing to highlight the difficulty of defining Mexican identity has proposed the axolotl larva (a type of salamander), as a metaphor of its as yet not fully fledged identity.
Indeed, Bolivar had already stated that Latin Americans are an ‘mid-way species’ between ‘Indians’ and Europeans.
Another recurrent metaphor used to capture the Latin American identity has been that of solitude (e.g. writers Garcia Marquez and Octavio Paz). In the one case this is a transient solitude cut off from the rest of civilization which lacks faith in the outside world; and in the other case it is portrayed as the inevitable consequence of the human condition.
The Mexican philosopher, Vasconcelos, suggested that being of mixed race defined the Latin American identity. He spoke of a cosmic race on a universal scale as an expression of this fusion; a ‘fifth’ race. This mixed race notion continues to capture the imagination of many Latin Americans including immigrants. According to the report ‘No longer visible’ (2011) approximately half of Latin Americans living in London identified themselves as mixed race (mestizos).
The historical veracity of Latin American identity is revealed in the fact that the concept of Latin America has continued to change over time to such a point that it has adopted a sense of the unity and integration which exists between Latin American nations; of the exchange and dialogue which occurs between cultures which coexist in the region.
In addition, Latin America has become a geopolitical regional construct which goes beyond the cultural dimension. As such the title ‘Latin America and the Caribbean’ is currently used when referring to the region south of the Rio Grande. In light of this, the expressions ‘Our America’ (Francisco de Miranda and Jose Marti) and the ‘Great Homeland’ are given meaning: terms popularised and adopted as symbols of Latin American unity.
As a result, Latin America alternates between two concepts which distinguish its character. On the one side a diversity and heterogeneity of ethnicities, popular traditions, languages, nationalities and creeds; and on the other side a common root, a shared history and a common desire for all the nations and peoples who make up the region to integrate.
The adoption by Latin Americans of the very terms thought up for them in Europe, as a result of the struggle between colonialism and emancipation, has given rise to a positive ‘rebranding’ of the Latin American name. They have assumed what was considered foreign and have now made it their own. Latin American identity is hence an identity of identities, a plural and heterogeneous reality which is shared and experienced as something they own.
However, Latin American reality is fraught with differences and disparities, not only cultural ones but above all social and economic ones e.g. with regard to gender inequalities and those experienced by the indigenous peoples.
The disparities are such that it has been said that Latin America is one of the world’s most socially and economically unequal regions.
For their part, Latin American immigrants play an important role in the transformation of Latin American identity since they broaden its horizons and form a bridge between their culture and others. Its immigrants make the conditions for intercultural dialogue in contemporary society possible.