A Short Guide to Talking About Latin America

It’s human nature to use generalizations. We compartmentalize information about the world as we view it through our own tinted lenses of experiences and interactions. And if we’re not careful, that compartmentalization can shape what we think about a group of people into a singular story.
“It’s easy to latch on to one particular thing about a community or country and define its essence accordingly.”
Much like the singular stories about the United States and Africa that Amber talks about, the cultural generalizations made about Latin America are crafted from our limited connections, assumptions and the media.
A Short Guide to Talking About Latin America
We are a country of immigrants. Mexico borders four of our states, we have a complex relationship with Cuba, Puerto Rico is U.S. territory, and we have more Spanish speakers in our country than any other demographic. In many ways, we feel culturally and geographically close to Latin America because of those few neighboring countries and the presence of Latinos in the U.S.
We’re so close, that it’s easy to assume we “get” Latin America and Latin Americans. We’ve all been guilty of this, including me. And I am realizing there is damage that can be done when we think we understand a diverse region with many races and cultures.
I am fairly new to Compassion (coming up on my year anniversary, to be exact), but working here supporting communications for our Latin American and Caribbean Region has greatly expanded my own understanding and perspective of Latin America. Having done graduate work in Latin American studies, I’ve had a passion for the people and cultures of Central and South America for a while, but I’m still learning that there is greater depth to each country than I could have imagined.
So, let’s dig a little deeper and change the way we talk about Latin America together.

When talking about Latin America, here’s a short guide of tips to remember:

1. Each country is unique!

There are different foods, cultural traditions, slang terms, musical genres, dances, geography, languages … you name it. From the wide stretch of salt flats that reflect the sky in Salar de Uyuni, to the penguins waddling in “el fin del mundo,” Ushuaia, to the turquoise-colored water and white sand beaches of Buzios, to the lush vegetation of Costa Rica’s rainforests, to Volcán de Agua peeking out from colorful storefronts and cobblestone streets in Antigua, Latin America is overflowing with extraordinary habitats.
And let’s not forget about language. For example, in Guatemala, one of the countries where we have child development centers, there are more than 24 official languages! And so far, I have found more than 11 different Spanish words for “straw.”

2. Identifiers can be misleading or incorrect.

“Spanish music” means music from Spain, while “music in Spanish” refers to music in that language. Or why don’t we challenge ourselves to get specific with terms like bachata, salsa or merengue? Likewise, let’s remember that the word “America” includes North, Central and South America and “Americans” are people from all three of those regions. Being specific with identifiers, especially someone’s country of origin, will help us avoid cultural misunderstandings around labels that may have a sensitive history.

3. Acknowledge the complexities of poverty and wealth within each country.

Many countries in Latin America have large metropolitan cities offering upscale cuisine, exceptional museums, beautiful architecture, advanced infrastructure and innovative technology. At the same time, there is huge income inequality – affecting both the rural and urban areas. And according to the World Economic Forum, Latin America is still the most unequal region in the world.

4. Countries are more than their tourist attractions.

Traveling is a must to gain deeper insight and understanding about a place or people! But tourist experiences (honeymooning in Cancun or hiking Machu Picchu with friends) do not define an entire city, country or region nor do they make us experts.

5. Read!

I’ll be honest … I’m still trying to finish Gabriel García Marquez’s Cien Años de Soledad. But this TED Talk by Ann Morgan, who read a book from every country in the world, has inspired me to improve in this area. I’m looking forward to reading the lyrical poems of Gabriela Mistral and about the courageous life of Rigoberta Menchú. I have also enjoyed Pablo Neruda’s melancholic poems of love and loss.
Let’s acknowledge that although we may be neighbors with parts of Latin America, we still have a lot to learn. Being more intentional about avoiding stereotypes and misplaced assumptions will not only make us sound more intelligent, but will also show that we value and respect the many cultures and identities of Central and South America.
And if the child you sponsor is from a country in Latin America, have some fun researching the country and asking them about their community and culture in your next letter.
What countries in Central or South America are you planning on visiting? Any books you would recommend? Did I miss any tips you’d suggest? Share them below in the comments!

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