Definition & Location – What is Latin America?: Latin American Countries – History, Geography and Language Overview

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Latin America

The geographical region known as Latin America is defined by more than just its location. The Princeton University “Wordnet” website defines Latin America as “the parts of North America and South America to the south of the United States where Romance languages are spoken”.

Similarly, the Webster’s New World College Dictionary (2009) definition of Latin America is “that part of the Western Hemisphere south of the U.S., in Mexico, Central America, the West Indies, & South America, where Spanish, Portuguese, & French are the official languages”.

It is evident from these two definitions of Latin America that language and geography are inextricably linked. To complete the definition of Latin America another factor needs to be considered: history. Here are the three defining elements of Latin America.

What is Latin America? – Historical Definition

Without the arrival of European explorers in the New World, Latin America would arguably not exist as a concept. The voyages of discovery by Christopher Columbus in the 1490s made Europe aware of the Americas. European powers began a push towards colonization which would radically change the face of the New World.

The Spanish Conquistadores conquered and colonized much of the territory today known as Latin America, particularly the western half of South America and Central America. Portuguese settlers colonized present day Brazil. To a lesser extent, French settlements were founded on the northern coast of South America and in the Caribbean.

Latin America can today be defined by the territories settled hundreds of years ago by these European nations, principally the Spanish and Portuguese Empires. However, this definition is not complete without paying heed to language.

Latin America Defined by Language

Robert B. Kent, in Latin America: Regions and People, when defining Latin America as a cultural region, states that “Language is perhaps the single most important trait”. The languages introduced to the New World by European settlers – Spanish, Portuguese and French – can be seen to define what Latin America is today.

In this respect, Latin America is made up of all the countries in the Americas where a language derived from Latin (a Romance language) is spoken. As such, territories north of Mexico (the USA and Canada) are not deemed part of Latin America as they are predominantly English speaking nations. Despite the continued usage of Native American, or Amerindian, languages in Latin America the predominance of Latin derived languages has served to give the region its name.

Latin America is sometimes more broadly defined as all the territories of the Americas south of the USA. This would include English-speaking countries such as Jamaica in the Caribbean and Belize in Central America.

Where is Latin America? – Location & Latin American Countries

Broadly defined, Latin America consists of South America, Central America, Mexico and parts of the Caribbean. As a region, it is vast. According to William R Shepherd, in Latin America, “The twenty republics of Latin America stretch over an area of nine million square miles, or approximately three times that of the United States”.

These twenty republics are (alphabetically) Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Puerto Rico is often included as part of Latin America, as are the islands of the West Indies where Latin-derived languages are spoken. Further still, Guyana, French Guiana, Belize and Suriname are at times included in the list of Latin American countries.

The Nations of Latin America – Definition Overview

Overall, Latin America is both a geographical and cultural concept. The countries in Latin America are linked by both their position on the globe as well as the Latin-derived languages that they speak. However, it is their shared history which has fundamentally led them to be deemed the nations of Latin America.

Sources:

  1. William R Shepherd – Latin America, BiblioLife LLC, 2009, ISBN 1110684126
  2. Robert B. Kent – Latin America: Regions and People, Guilford Press, 2006, ISBN 1572309091