Cultural Geography of Latin America

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How people relate to their environments is an important part of society. In this lesson, we'll talk about cultural geography as it relates to Latin America, and explore some major cultural regions of this area.

Cultural Geography and Latin America

Where do you live? Do the people who live around you share your cultural values? How does where you live impact your ideas and beliefs? These are the questions asked by those who study cultural geography, a subfield of geography focused on the relationship between cultural production and spatial patterns. Basically, how does culture play out in terms of physical space? It's an interesting question, and one that we can look at all over the world.

For example, one area of cultural geography we can examine is Latin America. Latin America is a physical space (the inhabited landmass of the Western Hemisphere south of the United States) but it is also a space defined by culture. What defines Latin America, and distinguishes it from non-Latin American nations like Canada? Culture. Latin America is foremost recognized as the region colonized by cultures speaking Latin-based languages like Spanish or Portuguese; that's where the name Latin America comes from. Cultural geography presents an interesting way to look at the world, one that can impact our understanding of a place like Latin America as much as any mountain, beach, or jungle.

Latin America
Latin America


Cultural geography is not an exact science. Cultural regions shift and change and concepts about space are fluid. Still, we can look at some areas of common cultural traits to identify specific cultural regions in Latin America. The first region is Mexico. Mexico is a nation-state, defined by political borders and a common culture. It is the northernmost continental nation of Latin America; its people speak Spanish, and predominantly practice Roman Catholicism.

One thing that makes Mexico distinct as a cultural region is its ideas about heritage. Ancestrally, Central Mexico (where Mexico City now lies) was home to the powerful Aztec Empire. Now, Mexico was also home to hundreds of other Amerindian cultures, from Tlaxcaltecas to Mixtecs to Zapotecs, but the nation has elevated the urbanized Aztecs as the bearers of the national past, a title they share with Spanish conquistadors. This makes Mexico distinct as a cultural region.

Central America

While Mexico is a large nation that tends to treat its culture as very distinct, other nations in Central America tend to share a wider identity. While the majority of these groups also speak Spanish, many Amerindian cultures make up larger parts of the population and native languages are still widely spoken. Some Central Americans also claim ancestry from an urbanized civilization called the Maya, but others are descendants of more nomadic groups. The division between various ancestries is one cultural trait that defines various Central American populations to this day, and is reflected in strong distinctions between urban and rural communities across the isthmus.

The Caribbean

Next on our tour of Latin American cultural regions are the islands of the Caribbean. This is an interesting one, because these nations are both widely diverse and still share an identity based on island lifestyles and the realities of life surrounded by water. Not all of the people who live in the Caribbean islands actually speak Spanish or Portuguese. Haitians speak French, and those living in the Bahamas, Jamaica, and other islands colonized by England speak English. Still, island cultures tend to have a lot in common, particularly in terms of heritage. The Caribbean islands share a strong African heritage, and were slave centers for a long time. African traditions, dialects, flavors, and rituals have been infused into many aspects of Caribbean life, each interpreted slightly differently according to the tastes of that island.

Caribbean culture is dominated by the sea - including economic reliance on fishing and tourism

Spanish South America

Finally, we get to South America. South America is a large, heavily populated and ecologically diverse continent, and all of it is part of Latin America. However, it can be divided in a few ways. First, let's look at Spanish-speaking South America. Most South American nations speak Spanish, and fought together against the Spanish Empire for independence. Their heritage tends to reflect a mixture of Spanish and Amerindian influences, which is often concentrated on Peru and the urbanized Inca Empire.

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