Mexico is a western culture

Latin America

Anika Oettler

To person

Dr., is a sociologist and has worked as a research assistant at the GIGA Institute for Latin American Studies since 2003. Among other things, she deals with social structures, the dynamics of violence and social movements.

Contact: [email protected]

Peter Peetz

To person

Peter Peetz, M.A., is a political scientist and has worked as a research assistant at the GIGA Institute for Latin American Studies since 2006. He mainly deals with violence and crime in Central America.

Contact: [email protected]

Bert Hoffmann

To person

Dr. Bert Hoffmann, born in 1966, is a political scientist and deputy director of the GIGA Institute for Latin American Studies in Hamburg. Before that he worked at the Latin America Institute of the Free University of Berlin. His research interests include the political and economic transformation process in Cuba, the political implications of the Internet in Latin America and the growing importance of migrants as political actors in both the home and host countries.

Contact: [email protected]

Latin America is rich in ethnicities, cultures and religions and enjoys immense importance in literature, music and sports. But broad, socially disadvantaged population groups remain without educational opportunities.

La Paz, Bolivia: An 11-year-old boy stows his tools with which he shines the shoes of passers-by. UNICEF estimates that around 800,000 children work in Bolivia. (& copy AP)

The Latin American population

From Anika Oettler

At present (2007) there are 6,671 million people on earth. Latin America and the Caribbean account for 572 million, or 8.6 percent of the world's population. The demographic growth rates have been falling continuously since the 1960s, but the absolute population numbers are increasing. It is estimated that 775 million people will be living in Latin America by 2050. Nevertheless, there can be no talk of a "typical developing country" population explosion. While the public perception is shaped by the image of a youthful "continent of the future", the increasing aging of the Latin American population is at the center of debates in population science and politics.

The population development basically depends on the fertility rate, the average number of children that are born. Basically, the times of the baby boom are over. While Latin American women had an average of 5.04 children in the period 1970-1975, this number is estimated at 2.37 for 2005-2010. There are strong national differences. The fertility rate is very low in Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago with an average of 1.6 children, and very high in Guatemala with an average of 4.6 children. There are serious differences in the countries themselves, which primarily reflect social inequalities and disadvantages. As a rule, indigenous women from rural regions give birth to significantly more children than women belonging to the upper classes.

Maternal mortality has decreased significantly over the past few decades, but remains a serious health problem in some countries and remote areas. Haiti, the region's "poor house", has the highest maternal mortality rate at 600/100,000. In some countries (Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru) maternal mortality is a consequence of a lack of access to the health system, in others (e.g. in El Salvador and the Dominican Republic) it is more an expression of the poor quality of the health sector. A number of factors contribute to maternal mortality across the continent, which are often closely linked to machismo - the exaggerated expression of dominant male heterosexuality. These include rape, unwanted pregnancies and physical violence against pregnant women. Due to the low distribution and acceptance of contraceptives, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are among the countries in which the highest number of underage pregnancies are registered. At the same time, Nicaragua and El Salvador, along with Chile, are the countries in which a total ban on abortion is in force.

This situation offers targets for the immunodeficiency disease HIV / AIDS. The Caribbean is the second most affected region of the world. AIDS is the leading killer of adults between the ages of 15 and 44 and claimed an estimated 27,000 lives in 2005.

Of the 39 million people infected with HIV worldwide, around 1.6 million live in Latin American countries (excluding the Caribbean). Although the region is not one of the focal points of the epidemic, it is definitely an area in which the disease is spreading more and more. While in some countries (including Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica) significant measures have been taken to contain the epidemic and create treatment options, state initiatives in the Andean region and in the poorer Central American countries have largely failed to materialize to date.

The most populous countries are Brazil (2007: 191 million) and Mexico (110 million), the poorest in population - and also the smallest in terms of area - include, along with most of the Caribbean and Central American countries, Paraguay (6.4 million) and Uruguay (3, 5 million). Four Latin American cities have long passed the 10 million mark and are therefore more populous than many of the latter countries: Buenos Aires (13.8 million), Mexico City (19.3 million), Rio de Janeiro (15.4 million) and São Paulo (17.9 million) are among the world's mega-cities.

While Latin America was still one of the regions of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this trend has clearly reversed in the second half of the 20th century. For economic and political reasons, many Latin Americans migrate mainly to the USA, but also to Europe and Asia. The most recent estimates of the US census (2007) put the population of Latin American origin at 45.5 million. The migration movements between Mexico and the USA are of great importance. The World Bank estimates that 11.5 million people - or 10.7 percent of the Mexican population - left the country for a limited time or with an open end.

The relative weight of migration varies greatly from country to country. While the 250,628 Surinamese who seek their well-being abroad make up 56 percent of the Surinamese population, the 1,135,060 Brazilian migrants make up 0.6 percent of the population. The extent to which Latin American societies are culturally and socially influenced by migration also fluctuates. On the one hand, this is a loss - around 89 percent of Surinamese with tertiary education migrate abroad - and, on the other hand, an enrichment in terms of integration into global cultural areas.

All Latin American societies are more or less multicultural, although there are clear differences in the population structure, which can be traced back to the different historical development of the individual regions and countries. A decisive course was set by the colonial rule, which in the various regions was associated with a different degree of extermination of the pre-Hispanic population and the "import" of African slaves. In the period that followed, the requirements of the plantation, mining, coffee and livestock economies, but also political struggles, resulted in a population structure that differs from country to country and from region to region. While the northeast of Brazil, for example, as a former slave-holding society, is characterized by an Afro-Brazilian majority population, the Argentine population development was characterized by European emigration.

For the economic and political elites of most countries, the American way of life and a sometimes imaginary "European" past are formative. Overall, Christian religions and the Spanish language are among the dominant cultural features of Latin America, while the Caribbean, as a former British colonial area, is English-speaking and the Brazilian population has developed into the most important language carriers of Portuguese worldwide. In addition, Latin America has a great variety of indigenous languages, religious affiliations and cultural traditions. Jewish, Islamic and Asian influences have also found their way into the stock of norms and cultural traditions.

At least since the conquest by the Spanish conquistadors, Latin American societies have been characterized by relationships of power that are also, but not exclusively, based on ethnic characteristics. When "mulattos", "mestizos" and "Indians" are mentioned in Latin America, they are traditional population categories from the arsenal of racial ideology. Accordingly, "mulattos" arise from one white and one black parent and "mestizo" from indigenous peoples and whites. At the beginning of the 21st century, these terms, like the term "Indios", have come down in the German-speaking world. The term "Indios", perceived as pejorative in Latin America, has been replaced by "Indigenous" (indígenas) in the past few decades. In addition to the terms indígenas and originarios, indigenous political activists also use the term indio, which they use, however, in a critical reference to the power relations they want to overcome.

Source text

Indigenous population

[...] The terms Indio and Indígena (German: Indian) come from the colonial ideology of domination. They are not a precise designation for certain cultures, but rather characterize a political and social construct on the part of the European conquerors, with which they legally and ideologically grouped the subjugated peoples on the subcontinent and classified them in the strict social hierarchy that created a division between the European colonial rulers or their descendants on the one hand and the conquered on the other. The indigenous rural population was assigned the lowest status. [...]

In practice, they remained third class citizens. In most countries, the indigenous population was subject to a separate legal status that placed them at a disadvantage on all levels of society. Until well into the 20th century, illiterate people - and thus a large part of the indigenous rural population - were excluded from the right to vote in numerous countries. In the country there were hardly any schools, many oppressed landlords and churches forcibly initiated initiatives by the Indians. In order to legitimize the disadvantage, social exclusion and exploitation, the Indians were ascribed a biological and social inferiority with racist arguments. [...]
The indigenous population of Latin America comprises around eight to twelve percent, which corresponds to around 40 to 50 million people. There are over 400 ethnic groups and peoples and 917 indigenous languages ​​spoken, a sign of great cultural diversity. The number of the indigenous population is increasing noticeably. However, numerous small communities, especially in ecologically sensitive regions with valuable natural resources, are threatened with extinction because their livelihoods are being destroyed. [...]
Poverty and extreme poverty characterize the living conditions of the majority of the indigenous peoples of Latin America, as studies, e.g. by the Inter-American Development Bank, show. This applies to the urban, and even more so to the rural population. Moreover, poverty cannot only be measured in terms of income. It also means a lack of school education and health care, and extensive exclusion from social participation in decisions about the distribution and use of resources. The respective national societies have so far done little for the fundamental, real improvement of living conditions - despite legal reforms that several states passed in the 1980s for the benefit of the indigenous population. [...]
In various countries, local, regional and national associations mobilize to protest marches, organize blockades of strategic roads or occupations of oil or gas drilling sites and major dam projects. With the support of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), they publicly denounce environmental degradation, the social consequences of large-scale projects, illegal logging or biopiracy, and the complicity of state institutions in such undertakings. They are calling for land and food security, agricultural reforms, access to education and medical care, and self-governing territories. The demand for autonomy in the sense of the right to self-determined development based on one's own cultural values ​​("desarrollo con identidad") is increasing. This includes its own education, legal and health systems as well as economic development. In doing so, the indigenous peoples refer to Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) on "Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples", which was signed by 13 Latin American countries but hardly implemented. [...]
In the last decade, the range of their activities, which are fully geared to the practical needs of the population and carried out independently or with the support of external partners - churches, NGOs or development agencies - has expanded further and further. It ranges from educational programs of bilingual intercultural education, culturally adapted health care or sustainable agriculture to legal aid, support programs that are specifically aimed at women, or projects to maintain one's own cultural heritage, such as the village museums. It is always about two goals: On the one hand, you want to preserve your own cultural knowledge and pass it on in the community in order to make sure of your own roots within the national society and to strengthen self-confidence - your own identity. On the other hand, it is about organizing self-help. [...]

Juliana Ströbele-Gregor, "Indigenous Emancipation Movements in Latin America", in: From Politics and Contemporary History 51-52 / 2006 of December 18, 2006



The number of indigenous languages ​​spoken in Latin America is estimated to be over 900, with Aymara, Guaraní, Quechua, and Nahuatl being some of the most widely spoken. In Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru, the proportion of the indigenous population is very high at 30 to 80 percent, although the estimates vary widely depending on the defining feature (mother tongue, self-identification) and source (state / non-state institutions). In other countries, the indigenous population is far less visible: it is numerically less important and / or lives primarily in individual regions of the country. For example, the Kuna settle in an autonomous region of Panama on the Atlantic coast, the Kuna Yala. Numerous indigenous peoples (Nuahua, Maya, Zapoteco, Mixteco, Otamí) are at home in Mexico's southern parts of the country. But the non-indigenous peoples make up an estimated 85 percent of the population and dominate both the rulers and the culture of the country. The Amazon region is characterized by great cultural diversity, with over 170 indigenous language groups registered in Brazil alone.

Overall, Latin America is rich in cultures and ethnic identities, there is a mixture of cultural attributions that arise in cooperation with other groups and change over time. In the second half of the 20th century in some countries (Peru, Guatemala, Mexico / Chiapas) ethnic demarcation played an important role in the interpretation of political conflicts, but overall political violence is more likely to be seen in the context of political-ideological disputes and social inequalities exercised.