Latin America: Regions

Puerto Rico Guayama
Figure 1.-- The Caribbean islands are primarily an arc of volcamuc peaks conecting Soiuth America (Venezuela) with Nort America (Florida). This is a scene from Guayama, a small town along the southern coast of Puerto Rico, the beginning of the Greater Antilles. The photograph was taken during the late-1940s. In the background we can see the town hall which presumably faces a plaza and church. A boy is riding a horse carrying what looks like plantains, presumably from the family farm. The boy wears bib-front shorts made from a light cotton cloth.

Latin America (América Latina) is the generally accepted term for the countries located south of the Rio Grande, the birder betweem Mexico and the United States. This is a cultural rather than a geographic term as it includes South America, parts iof North America (Mexico and Central America) and the Carubbean. The term is derived as most of these counties were colonized by Spain and Portugal, countries with Romance languages derived from Latin--thus the term Latin. The region as a whole includes sime 26 independent countries and a number of colonial dependencies. French Guiana is considered to be a part of metropolitan France. While most of the area was colonized by Spain and Portugal. The Caribbean was at first the Spanish Main, but the Spanish were lured to the Mainland by rumors of gold. Several of the Caribbean islands were thus colonized by Britain, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands. Puerto Rico is an American Commonwealth. These islands became very valuable sugar islands and African captives were imported to wirk the plantations. The Carinbean islands are thus in many cases diffeent culturally and ethnically from the rest of the region. Non-Latin islands are such a small part of the region's population that the term Latin America tends to be used as the most usable desription of the region. And for both cultural and geographic reasons, we divide our discussion of Latin America into three sub-regions: South America, Central America, and the Caribbean.


The Caribbean is a very diverse area. Some islands have rain forests and others are near desert. The larger islands have mountaneous teraines. The Caribbean often described as part of Latin America, but in fact many of the islands are former British colonies. European countries began colonizing the islands at a very early point of the European maritime outreach. The first colony was Santo Domingo followed by Cuba and Purto Rico. The Caribbean became the Spanish Main and the Spanish attempted to close it off from other countries. The Spanish attempted to enslave the Native American peoples, but mistreatment and disease essentially wiped out the Native Americans on most of the islands. The islands proved of relatively minor importance and the Spanish focus moved to the mainland. Subsequently sugar emerged as a major crop. Slaves were brought in from Africa and Africans now constitute the bulk of the population on many islands. The Caribbean thus became an important cog in the Atlantic slave trade. Sugar made the islands so emensly valuable that they becane prizes in the wars waged by the great maritime powers (Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Spain). The bulk of the islands are found on the perifery of the Caribbean. The major islands are the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Santo Domingo, Jamaica, and Puero Rico). The islands and their relatively small white populations proved easy targets for raiding naval forces. Even after the decline of Spanish naval power, Spain held on to Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Purto Rico becuse of the relative large populations. The declining value of sugar meant that the islands declined in economic importnce. Some of the islands today are relatively prosepous, benefitting from industries like tourism and offshore banking. Other islands are very poor (Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica). Many if the islands have had difficulty developing suvvessful economies. Cuna has some of the best prospects for economic success, but Castro nd Communism has turned it into one of the poorest countries in the Hemisphere, kept afloat first by Soviet and now Venezuelan assistance.

Central America and Mexico

Central America is a political contruct. Geographically it is part of North America. Culturally, Central America and Mexico are destinct from the rest of North America. Central America and Mexico are former Spanish colonies, with the exception of Belize. Thus the culture is predominately Hispanic, but because of the large Native American populations in most of the counties, it is a hybrid Hispanic-Native American culture. North America on the other evolved from former English colonies. And with the exception of Quebec, the culture is predominately English with the admixture of mostly other European countries and cultures. There area a range of cultural differences, but among them is a Hispanic legal structure that has not yet demonstrated the capability of providing the legal structure for a modern, productive capitalist economy. There are many similarities througout the region, because of climate and similasr cultural elements. Each country, however, has its own decinct character because of largely political differences. Panama is dominated by the Canal. Costa Rica has the most European population. Nicaragua has a political culture that has been truncated by the Sandinistas and Communist revolutionary ideology. El Salvador is the most populace country in the region and was ebgulfed in a bitter civil war. Guatemala has a very large Native American population. Mexico is the largest and dominant country in the region. In the early colonial period, Mexico attempted to gain control of Central America. The country's developent has been significantly impacted by the Revolution which its socialist ideology. As a result, Mexico like much of Central America has been unable to construct a modern economy creating well paying jobs for its people. All the countries are predominately Catholic culturally, but observence is in many cases minimally. Mexicio in particulasr has placed significant limits on the Church.

South America

South America is the continent with the nost extrme climatic variations, from tropical rain forests in the north to winswept, cold Tierra del Fuego in the south. And in between is the vast Amazonian basin, the towering Andes, the Chaco, Pampas and Atacama desert. Such diversity of course affects clothing. The culture of the region is dominated by Native Americans and the Portugese-Spanish colonial era. The cultural mix and more modern influences varied from country to country. The Catholic Churech was a common cultural minfluence. A major factor has been the ecomomic failure of most of the South American countries resulting in poverty which meant that South Americans did not have the disposal income permitting large expendictures for clothing. Here the cause was the colonial system was based on explotation of Native Americans. This basic dymamic was compounded by the chaotic politics after independemce through much of the 19th century and early-and mid-19th century. Desptinctive styles were observable in the various countries through the mid-20th century, although the urban elites dressed basically alike, following European fashiion trends. The infatuation of elites with socialism as the romance of communist Revolution caused further problems. A major problem has been a very weak public education system. Some countries had school uniforms. By the end of the 20th century, democracy combined with free-market capitalist reforms had significantly increased personal income in several countries, most importantly Brazil. The dominant styles throughout the region are American-style casual fashions, the same fashions that have become standard throughout Europe.


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Created: 1:17 PM 7/26/2013
Last updated: 11:19 PM 5/20/2014