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    Common Characteristics Among Latin American Countries

    By Eduardo Morales, Ph.D.–

    Latin America consists of 20 countries and 14 dependent territories that cover an area stretching from Mexico to the north and Tierra del Fuego at South America’s southernmost tip. Much of the Caribbean is included in Latin America as well. Despite the vast span, many characteristics are shared throughout this sizable portion of the Americas and those with Latin American heritage.

    Some of the similarities center on language, as most Latin Americans speak Spanish or Portuguese, including local sets of dialects within these languages. In Brazil, for example, most speak Brazilian Portuguese. Mexico, on the other hand, is the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world and the second biggest country in Latin America. While Belize is the least populous, its official language is English, yet many speak Spanish.

    Latinxs represent a wide variety of nations and races, making them multicultural and multiracial as well as cross-cultural and multilingual. Although many Latinxs may share the same language, all types of races and ethnicities are found among the different Latinx nations including Black, Asian, Native American or American Indian, Caucasian, and multiple combinations including mulatto or of mixed African Black and European-Caucasian heritage; and mestizo, meaning to have mixed American Indian and European-Caucasian heritage.

    While most Latinxs are considered Christian, numerous religions are actually practiced in Latin America. By and large, religious Christian holidays are officially observed. For example, Lent is a time for reflection and preparation for holy week and Easter. Advent and Christmas are also observed, incorporating family gatherings.

    For Latinxs, gender role identity is part of an overall philosophy of life and is defined by secular society and religion. An exceptionally strong emphasis on gender dichotomy in a binary manner is evident throughout Latinx societies and belief systems. Most emphatically, it is central to the Spanish language. Gender is assigned not only to living beings but also to inanimate objects in the world, so that everything is essentially divided as males or females. Hence, one’s whole universe is binary and partitioned into being masculine or feminine. This fosters a binary gendered way of perceiving and thinking that is internalized by individuals growing up in the culture.

    Despite larger cultural differences among various Latinx countries, commonalities pertaining to language and traditional value systems again do exist. Researchers have found various common characteristics and cultural values with the following terms: familismo, machismo, marianismo, simpatía, personalismo, respeto, and saludos.

    Familismo refers to the importance of the family as the primary social unit and entails the very active involvement of the extended family as a source of instrumental support in the forms of financial assistance and childcare.

    Machismo refers to the responsibility of a man to provide, protect, and defend his family. His loyalty and sense of responsibility to family, friends, and community make him a good man.  The Anglo-American definition of macho tends to refer to someone who is sexist, or exhibits male chauvinist behavior. This is radically different from the original Latinx meaning of machismo, which conveys the notion of being an honorable and responsible man.

    Marianismo refers to the responsibility of a woman to provide, protect, and nurture her family and to strongly value motherhood. The term marianismo comes from a biblical figure, the Virgin Mary or María, and refers to her purity and sanctity in relation to the family while maintaining high moral and ethical standards. Being self‑sacrificing and dedicated to the family and motherhood are viewed with great esteem and are expected among Latinxs.

    Simpatía refers to empathy and to the importance of smooth social relations and social politeness. Confrontation and persistence are viewed as offensive. Consequently, it is common that there is an avoidance of disagreement and confrontation. Hence, the Latinx listener may appear to agree with the speaker in a conversation as a sign of respect. For example, a Latinx person may refrain from disagreeing with an authority figure, as a sign of respect and being polite.

    Personalismo refers to a preference by Latinxs for forming personal relationships with others. This is based on a strong sense of trust, cooperation, mutual help-giving, and inclusion rather than exclusion. 

    Respeto refers to the need for respect, especially for authority figures. There is the expectation for persons to be treated with dignity. This is especially true for honoring the dignity of older citizens by addressing them formally and using the title “Don” or “Doña” before their names.

    Saludos refers to the importance of greeting others, touching, and expressing affection, with proper ways of addressing them. Introducing people and using correct social protocol are preferred for expressing simpatía and respeto. For instance, when latecomers arrive at a meeting, they are formally greeted, while in the U.S., latecomers sit quietly without interrupting the meeting at hand.

    Eduardo Morales, PhD, is one of the founders of AGUILAS, where he serves as Executive Director. He is also a retired Distinguished Professor at Alliant International University and is the current Past President of the National Latinx Psychological Association.

    Published on March 10, 2022