It's estimated that 385 million people live in South America. The population is extremely diverse, and it would be difficult to generalize about the cultural makeup of the continent. But it is safe to say that of all the different people who live here, a large majority can trace their roots back to Spain, Portugal, Africa, or South America itself. Because of the Spanish and Portuguese influence, mestizos (people of both Amerindian and either Spanish or Portuguese ancestry) are also in the majority. From the late 19th century through 1930, the look of South Americans began to gradually change. Millions of Italians immigrated mainly to Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. Significant numbers of Germans, Poles, Syrians, Lebanese, and Japanese began to settle here as well.
The Cultural Makeup Of South America
Argentina -- To understand how Argentina's European heritage impacts its South American identity, you must identify its distinct culture. Tango is the quintessential example: The sensual dance originated in the suspect corners of Buenos Aires's San Telmo neighborhood, was legitimized in the ballrooms of France, and was then reexported to Argentina to become this nation's great art form. Each journey you take, whether into a tango salon, an Argentine cafe, or a meat-only parrilla, will bring you closer to the country's true character.
But beyond the borders of Argentina's capital and largest city, you will find a land of vibrant extremes -- from the Northwest's desert plateau to the flat grasslands of the pampas. The land's geographic diversity is reflected in its people; witness the contrast between the capital's largely immigrant population and the indigenous people of the northwest. Greater Buenos Aires, in which a third of Argentines live, is separated from the rest of Argentina both culturally and economically. Considerable suspicion exists between Porteños, as the people of Buenos Aires are called, and the rest of the Argentines. Residents of the fast-paced metropolis who consider themselves more European than South American share little in common with the indigenous people of the northwest, for example, who trace their roots to the Incas and take pride in a slower country life.
Bolivia -- Bolivia has the highest percentage of indigenous people in all of South America. The country is twice as big as France, but its population is roughly 9 million (about the same as New York City's). And because of the country's rugged vastness, its indigenous groups have remained isolated and have been able to hold onto their traditions. In the rural highlands, lifestyles still revolve around agriculture and traditional weaving. It is also common to see people all over the country chewing coca leaves, a thousands-year-old tradition that is believed to give people energy. The customs of the indigenous people are in full flower not only in rural areas but in cities such as La Paz as well. It is a testament to the tenacity of Bolivian traditions that millions of Bolivians still speak Aymara, a language that predates not only the Spanish conquest of Bolivia but also the Inca conquest. Millions more speak Quechua, the language of the Incas. In fact, only half the population speaks Spanish as their first language. Of course, in the cities there are many mestizos, and most people speak Spanish.
Almost all Bolivians today are Roman Catholic, though traditional indigenous rituals are still practiced, even by devout Catholics. In the 18th and 19th centuries, a distinct "Mestizo Baroque" movement developed, where mestizo artists used indigenous techniques to create religious art. Even today, the mixture of the two influences is evident throughout Bolivian society. In Copacabana, where the Virgin of the Candelaria is one of the most revered Catholic symbols in all of South America, you can climb Calvario, the hill that looms over the cathedral, and receive blessings or have your coca leaves read by traditional Andean priests.
Brazil -- Modern Brazil's diverse population is a melting pot of three main ethnic groups: the indigenous inhabitants of Brazil, the European settlers, and the descendants of black slaves from Africa. Within Brazil the blending of various cultures and ethnic groups varies from region to region. Rio de Janeiro's population is composed largely of people of mixed European and African heritage. In Salvador, more than any other area of Brazil, the people are mostly of African descent. Many of the freed slaves settled in this area, and the African influence is reflected in the food, religion, and music. In the Amazon, the cities are populated by migrants from other parts of Brazil, while the forest is predominantly populated by caboclos (a mixture of European and Indian ethnicities) and indigenous tribes, many of which maintain their traditional culture, dress, and lifestyle. European immigrants mostly settled the south of Brazil, with a few notable exceptions, such as the large Japanese and Middle Eastern communities of São Paulo.
Brazil remains the largest Roman Catholic country in the world, though Catholicism is perhaps stronger as a cultural influence than a religious force; many Brazilian Catholics see the inside of a church only once a year. Meanwhile, evangelical Protestant churches are growing fast, and African religious practices such as Candomblé remain important, particularly in northern cities such as Salvador.
Brazil is well known for its music. The cultural center of Brazil is São Paulo, and its rich theater and film scene is begrudgingly envied even by Cariocas (Rio residents). Rio remains the center of Brazil's sizable television industry.
Chile -- About 95% of Chile's population is mestizo, a mix of indigenous and European blood that includes Spanish, German (in the Lake District), and Croatian (in southern Patagonia). Other nationalities, such as Italian, Russian, and English, have contributed a smaller influence. Indigenous groups, such as the Aymara in the northern desert and the Mapuche in the Lake District, still exist in large numbers, although fewer than before the Spanish conquest. It is estimated that there are more than a half-million Mapuches, many of whom live on poverty-stricken reducciones, literally "reductions," where they continue to use their language and carry on their customs. In southern Chile and Tierra del Fuego, indigenous groups such as Alacalufe and Yagan have been diminished to only a few remaining representatives, and some, such as the Patagonian Ona, have been completely extinguished. One-third of Chile's almost 17 million residents live in the Santiago metropolis alone.
Until the late 1800s, the Roman Catholic Church exerted a heavy influence over all political, educational, and social spheres of society. Today, although more than 85% of the population claims faith in the Catholic religion, only a fraction attends Mass regularly. The church has lost much of its sway over government, but it still is the dominant influence when the government deals with issues such as abortion and divorce. It is estimated that less than 10% of Chileans are Protestants, mostly Anglican and Lutheran descendants of British and German immigrants, and fewer are Pentecostal. The remaining percentage belongs to tiny communities of Jewish, Mormon, and Muslim faiths.
Chile is a country whose rich cultural tapestry reflects its wide-ranging topography. Despite an artistically sterile period during the Pinochet regime, when any form of art deemed "suspicious" or "offensive" (meaning nothing beyond safe, traditional entertainment) was censored, modern art has begun to bloom, and even folkloric art and music are finding a fresh voice. Chile is also known for theater, and visitors to Santiago will find dozens of excellent productions to choose from. The national Chilean dance is the cueca, a courtship dance between couples that is said to imitate the mating ritual between chickens! The cueca is danced by couples who perform a one-two stomp while flitting and twirling a handkerchief.
Colombia -- Colombia's 45 million people live mostly on the high Andean triangle made up of Medellín, Bogotá, and Cali, as well as along the Caribbean Coast. Colombia is a country of incredible diversity: 58% of its citizens are mestizo (a mix of European and indigenous blood), 20% is of mostly European descent, and yet another 20% traces its ancestry to Africa. Moreover, 2% of the population is classified as indigenous, Arab, or "other."
About 90% of Colombians consider themselves Roman Catholic, although there is a growing Protestant and Evangelical movement, and numbers of Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists and Pentecostals are on the rise. There is also a small but significant Jewish population, mostly in Bogotá, Medellín, and Barranquilla.
Colombia has a rich musical, artistic, and literary tradition. Some of the country's most well-known exports are Fernando Botero, one of the world's highest-paid artists; Nobel-prize-winning writer Gabriel García Márquez; Latin Grammy winners Shakira and Juanes; and actor John Leguizamo.
Ecuador -- About 25% of the Ecuadorian population is indigenous. There are 11 indigenous groups, each with its own language and customs. The largest is the Andean Quichua, over two million strong. Still, more than 65% of the population is considered mestizo. Just 3% of Ecuadorians are Afro-Ecuadorian, descendants of African slaves who were forced to work in the coastal areas. Caucasian, Asian, and Middle Eastern immigrants account for the remaining population. The population is about equally divided between the central highlands and the low-lying coastal region. Over the last few decades there has been a steady migration toward the cities, and today 60% of Ecuadorians reside in urban areas. El Oriente (the eastern, Amazon basin region of Ecuador) remains the least populated area in the entire country; only 3% of the population lives here.
In the highland areas, the local people have managed to hold on to their traditional culture. It's very common to see people still celebrating ancient holidays such as Inti Raymi -- a festival welcoming the summer solstice. In Otavalo, in the northern highlands, the people still wear traditional clothing, and they have also kept their artisan traditions alive. The finest handicrafts in the country can be found here.
Because of the Amazon basin's isolated location, the locals here were able to escape domination by the Spanish and managed to maintain thousand-year-old rituals and customs. Some groups never had contact with "the outside world" until the 1960s and 1970s. Visitors to the Ecuadorian jungle who are taken to Amazonian villages will find that people here live very much as their ancestors did thousands of years ago.
Much of the art you will see in Ecuador is folk art and crafts. When it comes to modern art, one name reigns supreme -- Osvaldo Guayasamín. Renowned throughout Latin America and beyond, many of Guayasamín's most famous pieces are expressions of outrage at the military governments in South America in the 1970s.
Paraguay -- Paraguay's population of 6.8 million is 95% mestizo -- a mixture of Spanish and Guaraní Indian. Approximately 50% live in urban areas and many exist on subsistence farming. There are approximately 10,000 indigenous Indians living in the north of the country, along with small communities of Mennonites. Some Japanese and Korean immigrants have settled in the south.
Despite the strong Guaraní presence, Paraguayan culture has a distinct European flavor, the legacy of Spanish colonial rule and the Jesuit missions. This is most evident in traditional Paraguayan music.
Peru -- Peru's nearly 30 million people are predominantly mestizo and Andean Indian, but there are also significant minority groups of Afro-Peruvians (descendants of African slaves, confined mainly to a coastal area south of Lima), immigrant Japanese and Chinese populations that are among the largest on the continent, and smaller groups of European immigrants, including Italians and Germans. Their religion is mainly Roman Catholic, though many people still practice pre-Columbian religious rituals inherited from the Incas.
Peru has, after Bolivia and Guatemala, the largest population, by percentage, of Amerindians in Latin America. Perhaps half the country lives in the sierra, or highlands, and most of these people, commonly called campesinos (peasants), live in either small villages or rural areas. Descendants of Peru's many Andean indigenous groups who live in remote rural areas continue to speak the native languages Quechua (made an official language in 1975) and Aymara or other Amerindian tongues, and for the most part they adhere to traditional regional dress. However, massive peasant migration to cities from rural highland villages has contributed to a dramatic weakening of indigenous traditions and culture across Peru.
Indigenous Amazonian tribes in Peru's jungle are dwindling in number -- today, the population is less than two million. Still, many traditions and languages have yet to be extinguished, especially deep in the jungle -- though most visitors are unlikely to come into contact with groups of unadulterated, non-Spanish-speaking native peoples.
Peru has one of the richest handicrafts traditions in the Americas. Many ancient traditions, such as the drop spindle (weaving done with a stick and spinning wooden wheel) are still employed in many regions. Terrific alpaca wool sweaters, ponchos, and shawls; tightly woven and brilliantly colored blankets and tapestries; and many other items of great quality are on display throughout Peru.
Uruguay -- There are 3.4 million Uruguayans, 93% of whom are of European descent. About 5% of the population is of African descent, and 1% is mestizo. The majority of Uruguayans are Roman Catholic. Most live in the capital or one of only 20 other significant towns. Uruguay enjoys high literacy, long life expectancy, and a relatively high standard of living. Despite some economic uncertainty, it remains largely sheltered from the pervasive poverty and extreme socioeconomic differences characterizing much of Latin America.
Uruguay has a rich artistic heritage. Among the country's notable artists are the sculptor José Belloni and the painter Joaquín Torres-García, founder of Uruguay's Constructivist movement.
Venezuela -- Venezuela has a population of approximately 27 million people, some 80% of whom live in a narrow urban belt running along the Caribbean coast and slightly inland. Venezuela is a young country, with an estimated half the population under 20 and around 70% under 35. Almost 70% of the population is mestizo. Another 19% are considered white, and 10% are black. While indigenous peoples make up only about 1% of the population, their influence and presence are noticeable. Venezuela has more than 20 different indigenous tribes totaling some 200,000 people. The principal tribes are the Guajiro, found north of Maracaibo; the Pémon, Piaroa, Yekuana, and Yanomami, who live in the Amazon and Gran Sabana regions; and the Warao of the Orinoco Delta.
More than 90% of the population claims to be Roman Catholic, although church attendance is relatively low and Venezuelans are not considered the most devout of followers on the continent. There is a growing influx of U.S.-style Protestant denominational churches, as well as small Jewish and Muslim populations. The country's indigenous peoples were an early target of Catholic missionary fervor, although their traditional beliefs and faith do survive. One of the most interesting religious phenomena in the country is the cult of María Lionza, a unique syncretic sect that combines elements of Roman Catholicism, African voodoo, and indigenous rites.
Although Venezuela has its fair share of European-influenced colonial and religious art, its most important art, literature, and music are almost all modern. Jesús Soto is perhaps the country's most famous artist. A pioneer and leading figure of the kinetic art movement, Soto has major and prominent works in public spaces around Caracas.
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