The initiative Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA explores Latin American and Latino arts and culture through exhibitions and events in Southern California in fall and winter 2017–18. As part of the curatorial team for one of the Getty exhibitions, we’ve been asked several times: where is Latin America? What is “Latinx?” Is Spanish the only spoken language in all of Latin America? For anyone wondering the same things, we’ve compiled a guide to the many facets of Latin American and Latino identity.

Defining Latin America

To begin, where is Latin America? Geographically, the term refers to a set of nations belonging to the regions of North America, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Culturally and linguistically, Latin America is defined as nations in the Americas and the Caribbean whose residents predominantly speak Spanish or Portuguese—two of the many languages descended from Latin.

The first use of the term “Latin America” can be traced back to the 1850s in the writings of Michel Chevalier (1806–1879), who employed the term as a way to differentiate the “Latin” peoples from the “Anglo-Saxon” peoples of the Americas, using language to create a geographic distinction.(1)

This definition has proven to be difficult, as there are many nations that are not considered part of Latin America despite their geographic locales. The Guianas, for example, are geographically part of Latin America yet were never occupied by Portugal or Spain, but rather France (French Guiana), the Dutch Empire (Suriname), or the United Kingdom (Guyana). Likewise, many of these nations do not predominantly speak Spanish or Portuguese. There are also other nations that are geographically and culturally related to Latin America, but that are political territories of other nations—such as Puerto Rico, which remains a territory of the United States.

Sepia and color map of Mexico and the southwestern US showing Mexican influence

Mapa de los Estados Unidos de Méjico: segun lo organizado y definido por las varias actas del congreso de dicha républica y construido por las mejores autoridades, John Disturnell. New York: J. Disturnell, 1847. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, Washington, D.C. 20540-4650

By Chevalier’s definition, all American nations that speak a language of “Latin” origin should be defined as “Latin American.” However, the United States, where Spanish is and was one of the dominant languages, is not technically considered part of Latin America, even though in 1847, Mexico encompassed territories as far north as Oregon and as far east as Utah.

“Latin America” came into wide use only in the middle of the twentieth century. Indigenous peoples inhabited the Americas for thousands of years before the European conquest, and likely did not think of themselves as part of a single geographic entity.

What we consider today as Latin America has been shaped by hundreds of years of European imperialist rule, battles for independence from colonial powers, civil and world wars, and both voluntary and involuntary migration. (The effects of urbanization under colonial rule and after independence are explored in detail in the exhibition The Metropolis in Latin America, 1830–1930, which focuses on the rise and development of six capital cities in Latin America.)

Hispanic, Latin American, Latina/o, Latino@, Latinx…Oh My!

According to the US Census Bureau, the US Hispanic population reached approximately 57 million in 2015. California had the largest Hispanic population of any state (15.2 million), and Los Angeles County had the largest Hispanic population of any county (4.9 million). But what does the term “Hispanic” mean, and whom exactly does the term represent?

The term Hispanic was first introduced by the US Census Bureau in 1970, after groups such as the National Council of La Raza advocated for the category as an alternative to classifying Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican immigrants as “white.” Today Hispanic covers people of a variety of ethnic identities who have origins in Spanish-speaking countries—basically Spain and all of Latin America (minus Brazil, where the official language is Portuguese). The US Census Bureau now counts both Hispanics and Latinos in the same category.

US Postal Service first-issue letter with a stamp celebrating Hispanic Americans

US Postal Service Stamp: “Hispanic Americans, A Proud Heritage.” 1st Day Issue. US Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections, Solomon Bogard Collection (COLL/45). Digital image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license (CC BY 2.0). Source: USMC Archives on Flickr

Latin America has a rich and diverse history of indigenous cultures, European colonization, African slavery, and global immigration that makes it complex and difficult to describe its people with a single ethnic category or identifier. People in the US who have origins in a Latin American country occasionally self-identify or are referred to as Latin American, but many prefer the term Latino/a (for Latino, masculine, or Latina, feminine).

Text graphic: Latin American, Latino, Latina, Latin@, Latinx

Courtesy of Marissa Del Toro

What’s the difference between Hispanic and Latino/a? Primarily, the reference to Spain. Hispanic refers to linguistic origins from a Spanish-speaking country, in particular Spain. Latino/a refers to people living in the USA who have ethnic and cultural origins from a country in Latin America.

To add nuance, the terms Latino and Latina are gender-identified. So a male-identifying individual with direct or ancestral origins from Latin America may identify as Latino, while a female-identifying individual would be Latina. However, for individuals who fall outside the gender binary of male/female, Latino/Latina, the term Latinx is an additional option to express gender identity that exist outside the constraints of the binary.

Hispanic, Latin American, Latino/a, and Latinx are not considered racial terms or descriptors of race; these terms are used only to describe ethnic and cultural origins. For example, these umbrella terms encompass indigenous Latinas, Afro-Hispanics, Asian Latin Americans, and white Latinxs. Even so, some individuals choose not to self-identify by any of these terms and prefer to use other descriptors that more appropriately represent their personal identity. For some, the terms Boricua (of Puerto Rican descent), Chicanx (of Mexican Descent), Bicho/a (of Salvadoran descent), or Blaxican (of Black and Mexican descent) better describe who they are.

Because Latin American identity can be complex and contradictory at times, it’s no surprise that Latin American art is, too. Hispanic, Latin American, Latino/a, and Latinx are threads of color that intersect at various points to create an elaborate and intricate pattern of identities.

Horizontal strip of five brightly colored first-class US stamps depicting Latin musicians and singers

US Postal Service commemorative stamps honoring “Latin Music Legends” was released March 16, 2011, Release No. 11-024. © United States Postal Service. All rights reserved

1,750 Ways to Say Hello

Schematic map of Central and South America with countries in orange, green, or blue depending on their dominant language

Modern linguistic map of Latin America. Green denotes Spanish-speaking countries; orange denotes Portuguese, and blue French. Map by Fossum. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Schematic map of Mexico with color-coding showing indigenous languages spoken in various regions

Map of Mexico showing the approximate geographic locales of twenty-three indigenous languages. Source: 68 See this graphic larger.

Outside of Brazil, where the predominant language is Portuguese, Spanish is the dominant language spoken throughout Latin America. Both of these Latin-derived languages are recent imports to the Americas. Latin America is home to hundreds of indigenous languages; before the European conquests, it is estimated that there were as many as 1,750 of them. As with geography and culture, language in Latin America is remarkably varied.

In Mexico alone, 68 distinct indigenous languages are spoken; they can be further broken down into 364 dialects. The Mayan language family consists of 28 languages, and as of 2006, several million people speak it as a first language throughout Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, and Honduras.(2). Nearly 4 million people in Peru today still speak Quechua, the language spoken by the Incas.

The indigenous languages of the Americas have contributed many words to modern English and Spanish. Many common English words come from the native language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, which today is spoken by 1.5 million people in central Mexico. The word avocado comes from that Nahuatl word ahuacatl (literally, “testicle”) and cacao from the word cacahuatl. Jerky comes from the Quechua word ch’arki (literally, “dried flesh”). Shark comes from the Mayan word xook (pronounced “shok”).

Text graphic showing the Nahuatl, Spanish, and English names for chocolate, tomato, and avocado

Samples of common words borrowed into Spanish and English from the indigenous Aztec language Nahuatl. Source: Mexicolore

Indigenous languages of the Americas are still spoken today, although in many cases they are critically endangered. Thanks to efforts by indigenous communities and scholars of native languages and to advancements in technology, indigenous languages have a greater chance of staying alive. This year, Peru made history by launching the first-ever Quechua news broadcast, Ñoqanchik. A recent initiative called 68 voces (68 Voices) supported by the Mexican government’s Fund for the Culture and Arts (FONCA) created a series of animated shorts that highlight fifteen native languages from Mexico. Colombian rappers Brayan and Dario Tascón have amassed a following by rapping in one of the indigenous tongues of Colombia, Emberá, which is spoken by 80,000 Colombians and Panamanians today.

Los Angeles County today is home to roughly 3.7 million Spanish speakers, but some 1,205 other indigenous languages are also spoken here, including Aztecan, Mayan, Arawakian, Quechua, and Tupi-Guarani. Institutions such as UCLA and the Semillas Community Schools help keep some of these indigenous languages alive by offering courses in Quechua, Nahuatl, Mayan, and Zapotec.

African Diasporas in Latin America

The African diaspora in Brazil and throughout the Americas is one of the “five great African diasporas” connected to the transatlantic slave trade.(3) From the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, Africans—primarily from the central and western parts of Africa—were captured, traded, and sold into slavery and brought to the New World as forced labor for the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch trading nations.

Black and white photo of women and men in head coverings picking beans from large coffee plants

Picking Coffee Beans, ca. 1885, Marc Ferrez. The Getty Research Institute, Gilberto Ferrez collection of photographs of nineteenth-century Brazil, 92-F242. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

There is and was a broad diversity of black experience in the Americas. During the colonial period, some free black people and “mulattos” (a colonial term to describe people of interracial parentage) opposed the Spanish imperialist rule, while others participated in various ways in the European conquest. Some of these individuals also worked in Andean chácaras (ranches), owned mule-skinning businesses, ran cacao plantations in Santiago de Guatemala, or worked as farmers and cowboys on Mexico’s Pacific coast, among many other roles.

Three men with dark skin stand carrying spears and wearing nose and ear ornaments and colorful robes

Portrait of Don Francisco de Arobe and His Sons Don Pedro and Don Domingo, 1599, Andrés Sánchez Gallque. Oil on canvas. Madrid, Museo de América (MAM 00069) and the Museo del Prado (PO4778). Image © Museo Nacional del Prado / Art Resource, NY

According to data by the Pew Research Center, about 130 million people of African descent live in Latin America. Currently, Brazil has the largest African diasporic community in Latin America, and the world. Numerous other countries and communities throughout Latin America have deep African roots, including Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Mexico.

The presence of African heritage in Latin American culture is visible in the arts and music of many regions. For instance, reggaetón was invented by black Panamanians in the 1980s, inspired by black Jamaican dancehall music by way of Puerto Rico. However, Afro-Latin-American and Afro-Latinx identity has not always been visible or respected in mainstream Latin American and US culture. Only in 2015, for example, did Mexico begin to count individuals of African descent in their own separate category, as black or Afro-Mexican, for their general census. This 2015 census showed that 1,381,853 individuals identify as being of African descent, representing 1.2% of Mexico’s population.(4) Currently, there is a movement of individuals creating communities, festivals, and literature to address their Afro-Latinx identity and culture. The Afro-Latino Fest in New York City this past July, for example, celebrated and shone a light on the existence of African heritage in Latin America.

Much like Latin American and Latinx identity inside and outside of Latin America, the Afro-Latinx experience and diasporic history is a complex one that can’t be characterized through generalizations or homogenous categories. Being Afro-Latina/o comes in “many different shades,” said M. Tony Peralta, contemporary artist and owner of the Peralta Project. “People need to show the spectrum of Afro-Latinas. Show the beautiful rainbow of what it means to be Afro-Latino.”

One of the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions specifically addressing Afro-Latinx identity is Axé Bahia: The Power of Art in an Afro-Brazilian Metropolis at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, which explores how artists have responded to Afro-Brazilian identity in Bahia.

Stereograph (double image) with painted color of children in a deserted street gathered around a small pile of firewood

Children Gathering Firewood in Street, Panama, about 1900, unknown maker. Stereograph. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XC.870.741. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

East Asian Diasporas in Latin America

There are 6,000 Chinese restaurants (called chifas) in Peru. Havana is home to one of the oldest Chinatowns in Latin America. There is a flourishing Japanese community in Brazil. Almost 1% of the population of Latin America, over four million people, is of Asian descent. Yet the history of this East Asian diaspora is not well known outside of Latin America.

Exterior of a modest restaurant with stucco walls and a bright yellow and red sign reading "chifa"

A chifa (Chinese-Peruvian restaurant) in Chiclayo, Peru. Photo: Dtarazona. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The so-called “abolition” of the transatlantic African slave trade in 1807 created a vacuum in the free labor force, leading the Portuguese, Spanish, and British Empires to seek new low-wage laborers in East and South Asia. Citizens of these nations were kidnapped, deceived, or sold into indentured servitude, which was equal to slavery in all regards except in name. Laborers from East and South Asia were dispersed throughout Latin America. Laborers of East Asian descent were primarily sent to the Caribbean and Latin America to work on sugar cane, cotton, and coffee plantations, alongside an existing population of African slaves. In Peru, Chinese laborers were integral to the construction of the Andean railroad and worked in the silver mines.

Navy blue and gold poster showing a Japanese man holding a farming implement and pointing at a map of Brazil

A poster used in early 20th-century Japan to attract immigrants to Brazil. It reads: “Let’s go to South America with families.” Source: Wikimedia Commons

After the abolition of the African slave trade, the owners of Brazil’s numerous coffee plantations were in need of a new labor force. The Japanese government encouraged Japanese laborers to migrate to Brazil and Peru. Although many of these laborers voluntarily agreed to work for a contracted number of years, they became entrapped in the indentured labor system and suffered harsh labor conditions. The subsequent world wars led to more waves of Japanese immigration to Brazil, as did the U.S. exclusion of Asian immigration in 1924, which led many East Asian refugees to seek a home in Latin America. Between 1908 and 1961, approximately 237,000 Japanese people immigrated to Brazil. In Brazil today, 1.3 million people are of Japanese descent—the largest diaspora of Japanese people in the world.

In the early twentieth century, Havana had one of the largest and most vibrant Chinese communities in Latin America. Chinese indentured laborers were brought to work in the sugar and tobacco fields alongside the existing population of African indentured laborers. Chinese laborers fought in Cuba’s Ten Years’ War (1868–78) and were essential in the battle for independence from Spanish rule.(5) Today there are fewer than 150 native Chinese people still living in Cuba, but their traditions still live on. Traditional Chinese opera is still performed, and a reed instrument originating from China, called the corneta china in Cuba, remains a staple of Cuban music.

Color photo of a Chinese-style concrete gate spanning a two-lane public street in Havana

Chinatown Gate in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Kaldari. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Many of the diasporic populations of both African and Asian descent in Latin America have embraced their dual heritages. Despite the persistence of racism, systemic discrimination, and forced assimilation, many of the Afro and Asian Latinx communities within and outside Latin America continue to celebrate and discover their multilayered heritages.

A New Definition of Latin America

To sum up, the heritage of Latin America blends indigenous, European, African, and Asian peoples, languages, and cultural traditions. There is no one Latin America, or Latino or Latin American culture—rather, it is all these things.

Many modern and contemporary artists have addressed issues of Latin American identity in their work—to discover more, we encourage you to explore the group of Pacific Standard Time exhibitions examining themes of exile, migration, immigration, and borders.


1. Thomas H. Holloway, A Companion to Latin American History (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 4.

2. Robert J. Sharer and Loa P. Traxler, The Ancient Maya, 6th ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 23.

3. Matthew Restall and Jane Landers, “The African Experience in Early Spanish America” The Americas 57, no. 2 (2000), 167.

4. Perfil sociodemográfico de la población afrodescendiente en México (Aguascalientes: Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, 2017).

5. Mauro García Triana, Pedro Eng Herrera, and Gregor Benton, The Chinese in Cuba: 1847–Now. (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009).