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Is Latin America Western?

Sunday, April 22th, 2001
Is Latin America Indian?
[Friday, November 15th, 2002]

While surfing the Net recently, I came across a website that posed an interesting question: is Latin America Western or non-Western? Though the site did not give a definite “yes” or “no” to the question, it discussed some of the reasons why people might or might not consider Latin America part of the West.

The term “West” is somewhat ambiguous these days. “West” and “Western” seem to have joined the ranks of words like “Creole,” “humanist,” and “liberal,” whose meaning varies according to where, when and by whom they are being pronounced. Most people would agree that Canada, the United States, Australia, and Western Europe are clearly part of the West. But they might disagree on where to place East Germany, for instance, which until the fall of the Berlin Wall belonged to the Communist Eastern bloc but which has strong linguistic, historical and cultural ties to Western Europe. Latin America’s status as part of the so-called Occident is also shaky. On one hand, a writer for Canada’s National Post Magazine referred to Colombia as the “most dangerous country in the West.” An Ecuadorian friend similarly tells me that of course his country is Western; after all, it was colonized by Europeans long before many areas of the United States were. Others, though, would hesitate to include Latin America in the Western fold. Some leftists, seeking to create a sense of Third World solidarity, lump the region together with Africa, Asia and the Middle East rather than with Europe and North America. Ironically, many right-wingers too would place Latin America outside the Western pale for the same reasons, even if not for the same purpose, not only because the region is not industrialized but because the majority of its inhabitants are not “white” (that is, of unmixed European descent).

My answer to the website’s question is that yes, Latin America is Western. Saying that Latin Americans are not Westerners is, to my mind, a bit like saying that cats are not mammals. In other words, what else could they be? Just as cats possess all the physical features of mammals (hair, the ability to produce milk for their young, and so on), Latin American culture is largely based on that of Western Europe, more specifically Spain’s and, in the case of Brazil, Portugal’s.

The first objection to classifying the Latin American countries as Western is that they are not industrialized, at least not to the same degree as those of Europe and North America are. But industrialization is not the exclusive domain of the West. Japan is one of the most industrialized nations in the world, yet it certainly is not Western. The far less technologically developed Philippines is, due to its three hundred years under Spanish control, far more Westernized than Japan. While the wish to promote solidarity between Latin America and other Third World areas is commendable, those who do so sometimes forget (or prefer to ignore) that culturally — even if not politically or technologically - the former resembles Europe more than it does Asia or Africa, for example.

Another reason often cited for not including Latin America in the West stems from the fact that most of its people are not “white.” However, a “white” population does not a Western country make. Eastern Europe nations such as Lithuania and Estonia, for example, are almost entirely “white,” but they have never been considered part of the Occident, least of all by Lithuanians and Estonians themselves. Others might argue that large portions of Latin America, such as Bolivia and Guatemala, are inhabited by people with no European ancestry whatsoever. But the same thing could be said of Canada, where in the most northerly areas of the country the population is mostly Aboriginal and Inuit.

Moreover, most Latin Americans have at least some European ancestry. The populations of some nations, like Argentina, Uruguay and Costa Rica are over 80% “white,” and many others possess substantial “white” minorities (including some people with no family ties to Spain; my last “white” boyfriend, for instance, was born in Peru to a German-Northern Italian couple). Nonetheless, even setting Latin America’s “white” inhabitants aside, the average mestizo [1] or mulatto [2] has more in common with his or her European forbears than Indian and/or African ones. He or she in all likelihood

  1. speaks a European language — Spanish in most of the region and Portuguese in Brazil — as his or her mother tongue;
  2. practices a religion that while not originally from Europe, took root on that continent more widely than on any other; and
  3. leads a lifestyle similar to that of Spain, Portugal and other Latin countries.

From this standpoint, it’s hard to claim that Latin Americans are any less Western than Americans or Australians. The difference is of course that the latter two groups derive their culture from Britain whereas the former trace theirs to Spain or Portugal.

Undoubtedly Native American and African customs have influenced Latin America. And it’s understandable that countries like Mexico, which broke away forcefully from their “motherland,” Spain, are now stressing their Indian roots over their European ones. Other nations emphasize their “mestizaje” — the term for “racial mixture” in Spanish — in an attempt to recognize their dual (or in the case of places like Brazil with a strong African component, triple) heritages. But the reality is that for most mixed-race Latin Americans — who, by the way, form the majority of the area’s population — their European heritage has played a far greater role in shaping in their world views, social attitudes, and daily lives than has their non-“white” ancestry.

Indeed, the fact that miscegenation — generally involving Europeans and other “races,” though individuals of mixed African and Native American descent also exist — played such a major role in Latin American history is probably the principal reason for that region’s status as part of the West. It’s important to stress that not all Spanish and Portuguese colonies joined the ranks of the Western world. Spanish rule in the Philippines, for example, did not transform the islands into a Latin country. Though Spain did have considerable influence on the Philippines — in converting most of the people to Catholicism, in providing Spanish loan words to the local languages, and in giving the people Spanish first and/or last names — the Filipinos’ pre-colonial Asian culture remained largely intact even after three centuries of Spanish domination — roughly the same amount of time Spain controlled Latin America. Interestingly, miscegenation between Spaniards and Filipinos (or should we say Filipinas, because practically all such unions involved Spanish men and Filipina women) occurred on a fairly limited scale, as very few Spaniards settled in the islands. As historian John Phelan explains, the Philippines failed to become a Latin nation as Mexico did in part because the former lacked a mixed-race population to help Hispanicize the natives and by extension the country.

A friend from Nicaragua, a man of mixed Spanish and Native American descent who would never have passed for “white” in the United States, admitted to me that he felt “at home” on a visit to Italy because Italy is a Latin country, like Spain and Portugal. Obviously Latin America is not a carbon copy of Iberia. [3] But neither is the United States a replica of England. And just as no one would ever classify my three cats as fish, amphibians, reptiles or birds, Latin America cannot be anything but Western.

Notes

1. The term “mestizo,” though it literally means “mixed” in Spanish, in Latin America generally refers to people of mixed European and Native American ancestry.

2. A “mulatto” refers to a person of mixed European and African descent.

3. “Iberia” refers to Spain and Portugal.

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