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9: Middle and South America

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    Re-framing Middle and South America

    The Americas are often framed within the context of “European Discovery” of a “New World”. This terminology contradicts the archeological evidence and historical records that have long depicted the region as thoroughly populated prior to European colonization. Great Indigenous civilizations serve as a testament that the Americas before Europeans was just another old world filled with stories of human ingenuity. The domestication of corn dates Mesoamerican agriculture to be among the earliest in human history. It enabled the rise of great urban centers comparable in architecture and population size as any of the greatest cities in the Pre-Columbian world. Evidence suggests that even the Amazon rainforest, a place still erroneously imagined as an empty jungle, Indigenous peoples cultivated lands and mastered a livelihood that supported populations in the millions. This is worth noting, since the European “age of exploration” was never a product of inconsequential curiosity. The colonization of the Americas caused the biggest demographic collapse in recorded history and the largest forced migration in human history. No other world region experienced such extensive depopulation and repopulation.

    Middle and South America are often referred to as “Latin America and the Caribbean”. The term ‘Latin’ accentuates the Iberian colonial heritage and the Latin roots of Spanish and Portuguese. It is true that the region has more speakers of both Spanish and Portuguese than in Europe or anywhere else in the world, and that these are the predominantly spoken languages and cohesive cultural factors in the region. It is also true that the Iberian heritage made most places in the region predominantly Catholic. However, describing Middle and South America as “Latin” dismisses the ethnolinguistic diversity and the strong African and Indigenous character of many parts of Middle and South America. It can be a form of erasure of millions of Indigenous peoples and millions of Afro-descendants. In the Caribbean, English speaking peoples would further be excluded by the “Latin” generalization. Unlearning the label “Latin America” is not a mere vocabulary exercise. It is based on a reflection of the accuracy and point of view of our chosen terminology.

    As a chapter written for US students, many who might have family ties to Middle or South America, it is important to point to the flawed notion of latitinidad, or the idea of a unified Latinness sweeping the Americas south of the US-Mexico border. People in Middle and South America tend to not primarily identify as Latinos, Latinas, or Latinx. Instead, they are more likely to primarily identify with their ethnoracial groups or nationalities. Often, a Latin identity develops for those who migrate to other parts of the world and find greater similarities with others from Middle and South America than the mainstream culture of their host countries. In other words, Mexicans, Brazilians, Peruvians, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans might relate with each other based on cultural similarities but still have distinctive music, foods, customs, religion, language and/or ways of speaking, etc. Despite their cultural uniqueness, all these identities are aggregated as “Latin” in the United States. Lastly, many Latin (umbrella term for people from the region) and Hispanic (Spanish-speaking) peoples in the United States have difficulty with American ethnoracial identifications, not knowing exactly how to fit in the boxes of the US Census. Most people in Middle and South America are of mixed ethnic/racial backgrounds.

    In consideration of the great diversity within Middle and South America, geographers tend to regionalize it in various ways. Depending on the criteria used, Mexico could be either part of North America or Middle America. Mexico is geologically part of the North American plate and holds strong economic ties with the United States and Canada. The American Southwest also has a strong Spanish and Mexican heritage, and many counties a Hispanic-majority population. Nonetheless, Mexico’s colonial and neocolonial heritage creates greater similarities with Spanish-speaking Mesoamerican countries of the south than with the English-speaking Anglo superpower of the north. Thus, we include Mexico with all the countries south of the US-Mexico border, as most geographers do. The Caribbean is often its own region, given its unique geography and diverse history of colonization. South America, too, could be its own chapter, and even further regionalized into smaller units. In other words, while the region has strong cultural and historical ties, it is a region with many realities (and sub-regions). Putting everything south of the US-Mexico border in a region is a broad stroke, but we can make sense of it with a thematic approach. In these chapter sections, we will highlight different geographical contexts in a selection of topics that should stimulate a greater understanding of the geographies of Middle and South America.

    The World Geographies Atlas: Navigate each world region through maps

    For each of the world regions, our original atlas provides detailed maps to help you navigate the places discussed in this book. These maps are meant to be explored before and during the reading of this chapter. These maps are best enjoyed enlarged. Click on each map for an enlarged view, and zoom in to see the prominent biomes, physical features, and population centers of Middle and South America. We recommend that you download these for reference as you read this chapter's content and hope that you enjoy this original compilation.

    Biome and physical features map of Middle and South America
    Countries, capitals, and population sizes map of Middle and South America
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): [left] This physical map shows the geographic distribution of biomes in Middle and South America and prominent physical features, like peaks, rivers, lakes, oceans, plateaus, mountains, and tectonic boundaries (CC BY-NC-SA; Wallace via Flickr). [right] This map depicts internationally recognized countries, capitals, major cities, and population distributions of Middle and South America (CC BY-NC-SA; Sellers via Flickr).

    9: Middle and South America is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Aline Gregorio.

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