“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.“
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?