The New York Times had a Larry Rohter article yesterday about Chile and how Chile seems to have "lost those essential characteristics" about being Latin American.
While I agree with the economic issues discussed in the article, I have a major disagreements with this "essential characteristics" comment. One thing that has always interested me in Latin America is the diversity you have among people and cultures commonly referred to as Latin American. Argentina is markedly different from Brazil, as Bolivia is very different from Venezuela as Guatemala is very different from Cuba, etc. The notion that there are specific "essential characteristics" beyond speaking either Spanish or Portuguese, frankly borders on stereotyping.
Let's examine a few countries and, please forgive me in advance, let's engage in a few generalizations. Argentineans, for example are often rather broadly characterized as "Europeans who speak Spanish and believe anything we hear in English." It's worth noting, however that according to the excellent book, The Idea of Race in Latin America in an early census in the 19th Century, Buenos Aires population was 25% Afro-Argentinean. Brazil has the largest African community outside of Africa, yet the southern states of Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul are populated with signficant Italian, Ukrainian, Polish, Japanese, Arabic, and German emigre populations. São Paulo state even has a large community of descendants of American Confederate emigres in a city called Americana the most famous of whom is the singer, Rita Lee.
As I've been writing this post I have found it more and more difficult to engage in generalizations about Latin American culture precisely because of its diversity. A samba in Brazil has its roots in Africa, but it is unquestionably Latin. An song by the Chilean group Inti Illimani may have its roots in Amerindian music, but it's also Latin. A tango by Astor Piazzola may have its origins in the yearnings of European emigres in Buenos Aires, but it's most assuredly Latin. All three of them speak to national identities remarkably different from each other, but they are all Latin. That, in my mind, is what I find so fascinating about these cultures.