Latin America is a region with a huge variety of ethnic groups. According to Anthony Smith, the word ethnicity “serves to describe a group that shares the same idea about their ancestors, a common cultural identity and a link with a certain homeland.” Thus, we could define ethnicity as a group of people who maintain a subjective belief in a common origin.
This belief can be based on similarities in outward appearance, customs, language, religion or memory of historical events such as migrations. With this in mind, in this article we are going to talk about the variety of ethnic groups in Latin America.
The origin of man in America, an isolated continent
Modern humans, or whether the Homo sapiens sapiens emerged in sub – Saharan Africa will be about 200,000 years. From there, 65,000 years ago, it began to migrate until it expanded throughout the planet.
The expansion, firstly, was carried out by the African, European and Asian continents. America was not populated until 40,000 years ago. The American settlement occurred through different migratory movements from Asia. How was it possible for humans to come to America if this is an isolated continent?
Migrations could be made through the Bering Strait. At that time, a new glacial period affected the planet. This contributed to the formation of large masses of ice on the polar caps, causing the withdrawal of water from the oceans and a corresponding drop in sea level.
In this way, a passable corridor was formed in the Bering Strait that for a long period of time allowed the continuous passage of humans and animals in both directions.
Around the year 8000 BC, with the beginning of the interglacial period in which we find ourselves today, the earth’s temperature increased and the poles began to melt. This led to a rise in sea level and the consequent closure of the passage through the strait.
Since then, until the year 1492, the continent and its inhabitants, later known as Amerindians or American Indians, will be isolated from the rest of the planet. There are various theories of contacts prior to 1492 of Polynesian or Viking populations, although these were sporadic.
Ethnic groups in Latin America after the conquest
With the arrival in 1492 of Christopher Columbus’s expedition to American soil, the isolation ended and a continuous movement of population began to be generated between the old and the new world. This intensification of the mobility of people that began in the 15th century has forged the great ethnic diversity that exists today in America.
The American continent is characterized by being multi-ethnic and multicultural. A great variety of ethnic groups coexist in it: indigenous peoples or Amerindians, Afro-descendants, European descendants, mixed-race groups and other groups originating from migratory movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Chinese and Japanese, for example. Let’s talk a little about them.
Indigenous or Amerindian peoples
In Latin America, Brazil and the Caribbean, indigenous peoples have a population of approximately 50 million people and reach around 8-10% of the population. On the other hand, an estimated four million other people live in the United States.
From Mexico to Argentina we can count more than 700 indigenous peoples. The linguistic wealth is incalculable, since more than 500 different languages are spoken in the region. A quarter of these languages are cross-border, that is, they are used in two or more countries. In the following table we can see the number of indigenous peoples in the different countries of Latin America.
The areas inhabited by these peoples are very diverse, from Patagonia, the Expanded Chaco, the Amazon, Orinoquia, the Andes, the Pacific coastal plain, the continental Caribbean, Lower Central America, Mesoamerica, North America, to the Arctic region. In Latin America, 87% of indigenous people reside in Mexico, Bolivia, Guatemala, Peru and Colombia. Brazil is the country with the most diversity.
Ethnic groups in Latin America: Afro-descendants
It is well known that after the process of conquest and colonization of America, the slave trade from Africa was essential to sustain the colonial economy. This meant the forced and massive arrival of the African population to the American continent.
Although many Latin American countries have tried to make the presence of the Afro-descendant population invisible, this has been difficult because in the region, the Afro-descendant population is estimated to be around 120 million people. This, without counting the United States, whose Afro-descendant population represents 16% of the total population of this country.
The descendants of Europeans
European emigration to the American continent was an intense phenomenon that began during the time of Hispanic colonial rule. It is estimated that during those 300 years, between 500,000 and a million Portuguese moved to the territory that today belongs to Brazil.
On the other hand, in the territory of Castilian domain it is estimated that approximately 750,000 people emigrated. The main territories of arrival of these migrants were the territories that today are Colombia, Mexico and Peru. About 10% of these migrants returned to the Iberian Peninsula and another 10% only moved as stationary workers.
European emigration in the 19th and 20th centuries
In the 19th and 20th centuries there was an unprecedented European migratory phenomenon to the American continent. It was a massive movement of people fleeing poverty or political persecution. The United States was the main recipient of immigrants, but in Latin America the entry of Europeans was very important.
The main receiving countries of European immigrants in Latin America were Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and Mexico. Today, these countries are home to many children and grandchildren of these migrants. In Argentina the arrival of Italians and Spaniards was especially prominent. Approximately 6.5 million people arrived, of which four settled permanently.
Approximately one million people arrived in Uruguay, of which only 60% stayed. Brazil was another of the main recipient countries. Around five million Europeans arrived between 1860 and 1920. In Cuba, it is estimated that the settlement of Europeans was about 600,000 people.
The most important immigrant communities are the Italian, the Spanish and the Portuguese. Migrants of other European nationalities moved to Latin America were Poles, French, English, Germans, among others, but they did so in fewer numbers than those mentioned above.
Immigrants from other parts of the globe
Europeans were not the only ones who saw in Latin America the possibility of forming a new home. Immigrants also arrived from other places. An example is the Japanese and Chinese migrations. According to data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, from 1899 to 1979, the countries that received the most migrants were Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia.
On the other hand, in the 19th century a movement of Chinese inhabitants began who were commercialized as workers, the coolies. Many of the American infrastructures were made with this labor, for example, the railroads in the United States or the famous Panama Canal.
Currently, the Chinese population continues to migrate and Latin America is one of its destinations. In Brazil, it is estimated that Chinese immigration is 23,000 people; in Argentina, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there are 14,000 people, although the country’s censuses estimate that it is much higher.
Mestizos, another of the ethnic groups of Latin America
It is undeniable that in the coexistence of this great variety of ethnic groups they produced and produced unions among themselves. These unions generate what in the social sciences are called mestizo populations, that is, populations that have combined their different cultures.
During the colony, miscegenation generated a hierarchical classification in racial terms, which was dominated as a caste system. It is very interesting to see the caste paintings where this hierarchy was represented, in the Museum of America in Madrid you have the opportunity to see some examples.
There are countries that build their national identity on the mestizo citizen, others that do so through the European origin of their ancestors. What we cannot deny is that Latin America is a territory with enormous ethnic diversity where, unfortunately on many occasions, the discrimination and hierarchy that was built during the colonial era can still be perceived.