Why Is It Called ‘Latin’ America?

How Latin America got its name is, perhaps unsurprisingly, tied up in the historical colonization of the Americas.
Latin America represented by a shot of the beach in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

Latin America is the name given to a group of countries in North and South America. The term is sometimes confused with Hispanic America (all the countries in the Americas where Spanish is the predominant language) or Ibero-America (all the countries in the Americas where Spanish or Portuguese is the predominant language). Both of these overlap with Latin America, but this specific term refers to all the countries in the Americas where any Romance language is spoken, which are primarily Spanish, Portuguese and French. But where exactly did the name Latin America come from?

The easiest answer is that the Romance languages are descended from Vulgar Latin, so that’s why they would fall under the name Latin America. This in itself isn’t a great mystery. But why this label was created in the first place is not immediately obvious, as Latin American countries are far from homogenous. As it turns out, “Latin America” is a term obscured by history and controversy.

Who First Called It ‘Latin America’?

Like many names for things in the Western Hemisphere, “Latin America” comes from the legacy of colonialism. During the 18th and 19th centuries, various European countries made their land grabs in an attempt to establish their empire. Latin America came from a desire to distinguish French-, Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries from those that spoke English, German or any other language.

Ironically, while Latin America tends to be identified primarily with Spanish, today, Latin America’s origins are closely tied to France. The first reference to a “Latin race” in the United States came in the 1830s from Michel Chevalier, a French economist. A few decades later, “Latin America” appeared in writing for the first time during a conference held in Paris by Chilean politician Francisco Bilbao.

There is some disagreement as to whether “Latin America” was originally used to align with the French, as historian John Leddy Phelan argued, or if it was a rallying cry in South and Central America in the fight against imperialism. While it’s not certain which side of the argument is correct, it is known that French ruler Napoleon III played up the term “Latin America” as a way to show a shared heritage of France and Mexico in the lead-up to his attempted takeover of Mexico in the 1860s.

Which Countries Make Up Latin America?

By some definitions, there are 21 countries that make up Latin America: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. This is the full list of countries south of the United States that speak a Romance language predominantly. All except three speak Spanish: most Brazilians speak Portuguese, and both French Guianese people and Haitians speak French. All together, about 578 million people live in Latin America.

If you were to use a slightly different definition, the countries considered part of Latin American would change. Quebec — though a province rather than a full country — is technically Latin American if you’re defining it by its use of a Romance language alone. And areas of the Caribbean that speak English or other languages are often lumped into Latin America, though that’s not strictly accurate. 

Is The Term Even Necessary?

Since the idea of “Latin America” was created, it has been mired in controversy. It’s a label applied to a group of countries from the outside, and it collapses a number of very different places into a single name. There’s no real reason why these countries are grouped together except for their history of colonization. Today, as the United States continues its meddling in Latin American countries, the term is used as a way to flatten all the countries into a monolith that really doesn’t exist.

“Latin America” isn’t going anywhere, however, and it’s become an important marker of identity. Identifying as Latino, Latina or Latinx — labels used in the United States by people from Latin America and their children — has become an important marker of one’s culture. They’re also a necessary counterpart to “Hispanic,” which is usually used by those from Spain. Especially in the United States, where people are often expected to sort themselves into identity boxes, Latin America — or Latino/Latina/Latinx more specifically — is a useful category.

Deciding how a group of people is labeled can be an emotionally and politically charged process. Often, it’s those in power who get to decide, and this is indeed the case with Latin America. While it was used by some as a way to fight imperialism in the 19th century, it’s inseparable from its history of colonialism. Still, it has been reclaimed by many Latin Americans as a source of identity and pride. “Latin America” is filled with contradiction and is often misunderstood by outsiders, but the term is redeemable.

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