What is Latin America?

“Is Puerto Rico part of Latin America?” J. Miguel asked me the other day. “How about Florida, Texas and California?” he wanted to know. “They all have large Latino populations.”

Hmmm. Is Puerto Rico part of Latin America? My initial reaction would be to say “yes,” and “no” to Florida, Texas and California.

“But what makes Puerto Rico different from the others?” J. Miguel asked.

“Because it’s not part of the United States,” I said to him. “Isn’t Latin America Spanish-speaking countries outside of the United States and Europe?”

“But Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory,” he reminded me.

This is true. Puerto Ricans can vote (although their vote is not as influential as a mainland U.S. state) and Puerto Ricans can serve in the Peace Corps, which has the requirement that all volunteers must be U.S. citizens. So I guess if I were to define Latin America as Spanish-speaking countries outside of the United States, Puerto Rico would not be part of the Latin America bloc.

The thing is, I’m hardly an expert on these things. In fact, I don’t even speak Spanish fluently, and I wasn’t raised in a Spanish-speaking household with a Latin upbringing. “You tell me,” I said to J. Miguel, “what defines Latin America?”

“That’s the question,” he said to me slyly with a smile. “What defines Latin America? Is it just language? Is it just culture? Is it a combination of both? Can parts of the United States be considered part of Latin America or is it only a designation for Spanish-speaking countries and cultures that are not part of the United States? Does it include Spanish-speaking territories of the U.S.? What is Latin America?”

Not that Wikipedia should be considered a trusted source on these things, but the web site says: “Latin America consists of twenty sovereign states and several territories and dependencies which cover an area that stretches from the northern border of Mexico to the southern tip of South America, including the Caribbean.”

So by that definition, no mainland U.S. state can be considered part of Latin America, yet Puerto Rico, which is a Caribbean entity, can be. Are you confused yet?

If you read the entire Wikipedia entry linked above, you will see the notion of Latin America is not without some disagreement among academics:

“The concept of Latin America has been criticized by a number of intellectuals. Historian Jaime Eyzaguirre criticizes the term Latin America for ‘disguising’ and ‘diluting’ the Spanish character of a region (e.g. Hispanic America) with the inclusion of nations that according to him do not share the same pattern of conquest and colonization.[24]

The idea may still be up for debate, but I do tend to favor Wikipedia’s definition — at least, that’s how I’ve traditionally defined Latin America. Still, J. Miguel brings up a good question about what truly defines such a concept? Language, culture, politics, history, geography? It’s enough to make your head spin thinking of the various criteria one could use to define such an entity.

J. Miguel and I never did come to a clear agreement on what defines Latin America. The possible qualifications for such a designation are nearly endless. How would you, dear readers, define it?


3 thoughts on “What is Latin America?

  1. Hi! I’m actually from Puerto Rico, so I have a few thoughts about this.

    First off, as a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is legally defined as not being a part of the United States, but instead belonging to it. This, of course, puts us in a very different position than places like Texas or California. Hell, we even think about the U.S. as another country (we say stuff like “voy a vivir en el extranjero” to refer to the U.S.).

    Second, the large Latinx populations of places like Florida and California don’t hold a candle to the fact that virtually everybody in Puerto Rico (except for some immigrants) are Latinx. We control the local government, the media, the culture, everything in ways the Latinxs in these states don’t but that our neighbors in Venezuela or Mexico do. So the comparison you make isn’t very effective. And a lot of people (including myself) would argue that not recognizing Puerto Rico’s status as a nation with its own culture and history is problematic at best.

    Third, almost nobody questions the fact Puerto Ricans are Latinxs. But to be Latinx, you family must originate in a Latin American country. If Puerto Ricans are Latinx, then we must have roots in a Latin American country; obviously Puerto Rico.

    Also, if there is one thing that defines Puertorricanness, it’s the inability to vote for any post at the federal level (president or Congress); I don’t know what you meant when you said Puerto Ricans can vote, but I certainly hope you didn’t mean this.

    This is just my two cents! Hope you have a nice day and continue discussing these issues 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment. I recently saw an article in the NYT outlining Americans’ ignorance on the status of Puerto Rico and its relationship to the United States. Not afraid to admit I am probably among the many who don’t know much about PR. It is fair to say though, that PR has limited voting privileges, correct? PR can participate in the primaries.

      Also, I appreciate your use of “Latinx.” I had to look it up, but it was good because I learned a few new things today!


      1. Hi, no problem! Keep learning 😀

        And yeah we can vote for the presidential primaries, but the fact that a)usually they’re later in the primary season (so our power to determine candidates is low to begin with) and b)we can’t vote for much of anything else at the federal level means that the “second class-citizenship” and “disenfranchised Puerto Rican” things are pretty accurate.

        Have a nice night!


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