In 1856, the Chilean essayist Francisco Bilbao first used the term “Latin America” to speak of a region whose countries shared certain traits and which he believed should be united. In a lecture given to the diplomatic community in Paris, Bilbao called for “unifying the soul of America,” an idea that has permeated Latin American thought ever since. Yet, what does it mean to unify the soul of America? And what does this mean for Latinos who live in the US?
Latin America as we know it covers more than seven million square miles beginning at the Rio Grande, on the southern border of the United States, and ends at Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. It comprises twenty countries and territories of the US and France. The people living there speak languages derived from Latin—Spanish, Portuguese, French and Creole—but also hundreds of native languages, such as Náhuatl in central Mexico, Quechua in regions of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, and Mapudungún in Chile and Argentina. It is a land where ancient civilizations flourished, the most well known being the Aztecs, the Mayas, and the Incas.
The countries of Latin America share a painful colonial past, which left an indelible mark on our identity. Among the deepest imprints is the blending of our civilizations. But the culture of the conquerors mixing with that of the natives enriched our architecture, painting, music, food, and even languages, which have accepted terms of indigenous cultures.
During the colonial period the gold and silver extracted from our lands made the Spanish Empire one of the most powerful of that time. Pride in what Latin America produced nourished the hearts of its inhabitants, who decided to put an end to colonial oppression.
Latin America’s independence struggles began with Mexico’s Independence in 1810, and ended when Cuba became sovereign in 1895. During this time, some of our liberators—Simón Bolívar and José Martí among them—began to speak of uniting “the Americas,” as today’s Latin America was then called.
During the second half of the 20th century, the US increased its economic, diplomatic, and military presence in the region. Leftist movements arose in several Latin American countries. These groups strove for Latin American autonomy, allowing Latin Americans to take responsibility of our destiny. The leftists sought a Latin American utopia, but it proved beyond their grasp. Dictatorships were imposed. Paramilitary groups were created in response, and violence spread.
During the 1990s, Latin America experienced unprecedented economic growth. Countries such as Brazil and Mexico were identified as “emerging powers,” foreign investment flowed in, and free trade agreements were signed. But inequality grew and with it came great discontent.
At the turn of the twenty first century, nontraditional candidates came to power. They usually emerged from common beginnings, as did Evo Morales in Bolivia and José Mujica in Uruguay.
Part of the shared history of Latin America has also been immigration to the United States. Waves of immigrants have marked not only the history of the US, but also the countries of Latin America.
Today, Hispanics are the largest minority group in the US. The advocacy organization Latino Donor Collaborative estimates that by 2020, we will be responsible for nearly a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth, representing 12.7 percent of total US GDP.
It is true that the heirs of Latin American cultures are profoundly diverse. But it is also true that we share a history and wounds that have taught us to face adversity. We share a tradition of work and a dream to see a united Latin America. This longing belongs to us all, from the Latin Americans living in far-off Tierra del Fuego to those celebrating Latino pride in this northern corner of the world. This is part of our heritage, and we should celebrate it. Happy Hispanic Heritage Month for all!