People and Culture

The people of Latin America are of Indian, white (European), and African ancestry. Mestizos, of mixed Indian and European ancestry, predominate. In Argentina, Costa Rica, and Uruguay the people are chiefly of European origin; in Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, of Indian origin. In the Caribbean region and in Brazil, a high percentage of the people are blacks or mulattoes.

Great extremes of wealth and poverty are typical of most Latin-American countries. Only a few—notably Argentina, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Chile—have a relatively large middle class. Many Indian peasants live at a subsistence level.

Most Latin-American countries contain large estates, many of them dating back to colonial times. Some have begun land reform by breaking up the large estates and distributing the land among peasants.

Throughout Latin America there is a shortage of schools, especially in rural areas. Illiteracy rates are generally high.

Cultural Influences

Native and foreign influences have created a wide variety of cultures in Latin America. While European culture generally prevails in large cities, Indian culture is common in rural areas. The influence of the long period of Spanish control over most of Latin America can be seen in the art, architecture, and way of life of many Latin Americans. Many towns are laid out around a plaza (public square) in the Spanish manner. The dominant language is Spanish; and Roman Catholicism, introduced by Spanish missionaries, is the prevailing religion and a strong force in the lives of many Latin Americans.

After the break with Spain and Portugal, the mother countries, Latin-American leaders took France as a model in philosophy, fashion, and art. This influence was strong with the upper classes throughout the 19th century.

Blacks, brought from Africa as slaves, introduced their art, dance, music, and religious beliefs. The African heritage is most evident in Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti. Among many peasants, native Indian culture never died out, and in some remote areas it has remained virtually unchanged. Many Indians speak native languages and have little or no knowledge of Spanish. In Paraguay, the Guaraní language is as widely used as Spanish.

Latin Americans themselves long considered Indian and African customs to be inferior to European customs. But in the latter part of the 19th century came a growing appreciation of Indian and African arts and skills. There was a revival of Indian crafts, such as metalwork, pottery, and basketry. Music and the other fine arts reflected a new pride in native contributions.


The Latin-American home is usually of traditional Spanish style, built around an enclosed patio for privacy. Roman Catholic cathedrals and government administration buildings dating from the colonial period are generally elaborate and richly decorated in the popular European styles of that period. New public buildings, however, are often of contemporary style. Notable examples of modern architecture in Latin America are the buildings of the University of Mexico and the government buildings in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil.

Art and Music

A unique Latin-American style of art has developed from traditional, native, and contemporary influences. Large mural paintings are a typical form of expression. In Mexico the murals are often in mosaic. Prominent Latin-American artists have included Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco of Mexico; Roberto Matta of Chile; and Wilfredo Lam of Cuba.

Although some Latin American composers have written in a style that has no particular regional identity, many have used folk themes, often showing a strong Indian influence. Outstanding composers have been Heitor Villa-Lobos of Brazil, Carlos Chávez of Mexico, and Alberto Ginastero of Argentina. In Latin America fine arts are generally government-supported.

Recreation and Sports

Bullfighting is popular in nearly all of Latin America, especially Mexico. Other favorite sports include soccer, jai alai, and baseball. Rodeos are popular in Argentina and Chile.