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16.2.22 Latin Americas

Photo Credit: Leon Overweel (

These days you’re as likely to hear the word Latinin relation to geography than you are in relation to the language of the Romans. ‘Are Central and South American Latin? And what does this Latinity consist of’, asked the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in his prison notebooks, identifying with characteristic insight the machinations of U.S. foreign policy in the region, and casting scorn on inflated ideas of European importance in creating a ‘Latin character’ (‘Mere prating’, he notes, ‘of the kind practised by intellectuals and those who have lost their power but will not be persuaded that they do not count for much any more.’) The question of what is Latin about Latin America remains a useful one, however, because it can help reveal the politics of language in everyday life, and the politics of Latin’s journey to Romance. The name Latin America originated in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the empires of France, Spain, and Portugal were looking for names that emphasized their own importance: ‘Latin’ America beat off competition from ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Iberian’ America to become the name that stuck. In this way the name is just one chapter in a much longer story, in which many generations of colonizers and their allies – from Cortez to the Chicago Boys – have pillaged and enriched themselves with terrible consequences for the peoples of the region. But to write the history of Latin America solely from the perspectives of its colonizers is to do their work for them, and to forget about the rich traditions of democracy and resistance that have existed alongside the worst kinds of exploitation. Central and South America remain home to many indigenous languages – like Quechua, Aymara, and Nahuatl – that are spoken by millions of people, so despite the contemporary dominance of Spanish and Portuguese there’s arguably little ‘Latin’ about the region at all. And if the term is used, it’s important to remember that even as the European empires were ‘naming’ the continent in the 1850s and 1860s, others had already adopted the name ‘Latin America’, as they have many times since, to imagine an anti-imperial politics of their own.

In the world-historical language lottery, Latin has been one of the winners, surviving today across the world as a consequence of the Roman empire, containing within it big and small languages, national tongues and endangered dialects. There is nothing superior about Latin, it’s just been historically lucky, and there are so many other languages across the world, past and present, each with their own unique ways of seeing. But I’m interested in the way that Latin is a part of modern life in central and south America, and increasingly so in north America; how the language of the Romans lives on in a human chain that stretches from Chile to California. Just as there’s nothing superior about Latin, there’s nothing superior about Spanish or Portuguese, or any speaker of those languages. But they are a part of the complex history and present-day life of the region. The Spanish spoken in the Yucatán peninsula, for instance, has taken on characteristics of the Maya language that was there long before it, while European forms of dance and music have mixed with indigenous and African forms to produce samba, boléro, tango, cumbia, and so on. When Eduardo Galeano writes about how human history always ‘refuses to shut its mouth’ despite so many attempts to silence it; when Chavela Vargas reinvents traditional song-forms and sings you never taught me how to live without you; when the women of Argentina protesting in the street chant a slogan taken from the poetry of Susana Chávez, which runs ni una mujer menos, ni una muerta más (‘not one woman less, not one more woman dead’): in all of this I can recognize Latin words changed into newer forms, and I want, perhaps naïvely, for these things to be part of the history of Latin too. A complex understanding of Latin America is far beyond the scope of a blog post, and I’m by no means an expert. I don’t want for a second to place Spanish and Portuguese on a pedestal, given their origins in the region as colonizing languages, or to ignore all the regional variation in such a big place. But I do want to search out the moments when the language that I teach – in its broadest sense – is used to speak for creativity, democracy, and the rights and lives of ordinary people, and I think I find them in Latin America.

Further Reading

  • Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (Serpent’s Tail, 2009) trans. C. Belfrage.
  • Michel Gobat, ‘The Invention of Latin America: A Trans-National History of Anti-Imperialism, Democracy, and Race’, The American Historical Review 118: 1345–75 (2003), here.
  • Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, ed. J. A. Buttigieg (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), vol. 2, pp. 11–13.
  • Barbara Pfeiler, ‘Maya and Spanish in Yucatán: An Example of Continuity and Change’, in Salikoko S. Mufwene ed. Iberian Imperialism and Language Evolution in Latin America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).