Loathe the term Latino? Blame it on the French

The word ‘Latino’ may conjure up style and swagger (Latino Life, of course, equalling all things cool). But having been created as a tool in Europe’s colonial tussle for territory, is the word really cool or has Latin America come to signify relegated America? Being an introspective and thoughtful lot at Latinolife, we decided to throw the spanner in the works and, risking being our own worst critics, question the word Latino itself.
Mark Maughan

Long documented is our disdain of the French and its language. And so, as economic competitors wake up to the booming ‘Latin’ economy of Brazil, music conglomerates and Hollywood woo the entertainment market with virile ‘Latino’ studs and divas, we have another thing to blame the French for: that tricky term ‘Latin America’.

Latino, Latin American...the contradictions

So what IS this term, ‘Latin America’? Although it is a clunky neologism, with no clearly demarcated boundaries and borders, it is an exceptionally influential concept that has been readily accepted for quite some years.

At closer inspection, the supposedly simple task of mapping ‘Latin America’ presents enough incongruities for us to recognise that it is wrought with uncertainty. More simple is to pull down the posters that once adorned our geography classrooms. They, the geographers, traditionally divide the area of the Americas into four parts: North America, South America, Central America and the Caribbean. That makes two continents and two sub-regions – simple enough. It is deciding what constitutes ‘Latin America’ that is more problematic.

If the French were the ones who coined the term, why were territories of France located in the Caribbean, like Guadeloupe or Martinique, not ‘Latin American’. Perhaps because they already officially ‘belonged’ to France, no nominal presence was necessary. What about Canada, or areas of North America like New Orleans? French is a neo-Latin language, so why are these areas not ‘Latin American’? Moving south, the three Guianas (French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana) are not considered as members despite being adjacent to many others that are. Brazil, considered by many as an influential economic power nowadays, does not recognise itself as ‘Latin American’ when the term is spoken in Portuguese.

Before we tie ourselves in any more knots – Belize and Puerto Rico to name but two – it would be worth mentioning the argument that is normally used to define the countries that are part of ‘Latin America’.

A linguistic stamp of ownership in a colonial struggle

Historically, Latin America is said to constitute the countries that were originally ‘claimed’ by Spain and Portugal, and where these languages are the predominant ones. Although the French promoting a term that is now associated with the Spanish seemingly adds to our list of contradictions, historically it makes a lot of sense. When Columbus sailed the Oceans Blue, it was in both Spain and France’s interest that the term was introduced.

It was coined by the French engineer, Michel Chevalier, who, according to the critic Mignolo, was in Mexico during the early 1830s when he first spoke of a ‘Latin race’: a natural ally of ‘Latin Europe’, who struggled against ‘Teutonic Europe’, ‘Anglo-Saxon America’ and ‘Slavic Europe’.

Effectively, this notion appealed to everyone involved: to the Spanish who had so monumentally lost control of their former colonies as an opportunity to hang onto the coat-tails of another; to the French in their battle for worldwide colonial control as a way of asserting their linguistic tie as a fellow Romance descendent; and to the eventual ‘Latin Americans’ who were trying to differentiate themselves from their Anglo-American neighbours to the north.

The French pushed ‘Latin America’ with the same determination you might expect aphasia language therapy is conducted. Their motivation for doing so, predictably, was not that noble. As Napoleon III began his rise to power he implemented the Second French Empire, a heavy handed colonial project of worldwide expansion. It was also around this time, in 1867, when Archduke Maximilan – French, naturally – did not quite become the Emperor of Mexico as he had hoped.

At the turn of the century, when cultural movements were being fervently discussed – such as modernity or ‘Latinity’ – many future ‘Latinos’ began to look to the French rather than the Spanish for guidance. Although political essays like Ariel by the Uruguayan essayist Rodo harked back to a utopian Greco-Roman era, the disdained figures were the North Americans and Spanish rather than the French. This probably has a lot to do with why the term could become so widespread.

Colonial label, colonial mentality?


The twentieth century saw the term solidified. The celebrated Pan-American Conferences spoke of ‘Latin America’ in the 1920s, and the Economic Commission for Latin America was founded in 1948 by the UN, signalling the mainstream use of the term.

So far, it would seem that the cruel truth behind the term ‘Latin America’ is one of colonial greed – rather than an empowering unification of ‘Latin’ countries – as some might have imagined. Argentine businessman Ralph Haiek claims that it continues to be a term of convenience set by the north like any other:

In the business world, the term only exists to produce statistics. For me, there is no such thing as a Latin American business profile. As far as I am concerned, the term is a reaction against the word ‘America’. We were defined, and have defined ourselves, negatively, just like the other labels they stick onto that same word: south, lower, foreign, the back garden . . .

Evidently Haiek shares a common resentment felt almost unanimously – that the term ‘America’ is reserved for those states that expanded out of thirteen colonies along a more northerly western coast. Yet he also expresses a profound pain. The lack of common attributes between ‘Latin American’ companies causes us to reflect on the various names that have been given to these continents – Spanish America, Hispanic America, Ibero America, the Americas – and how the source naming them has always been a European one.

Although the terms used to group these countries derive from Europe, as various countries went about colonial projects and rigid cartography, the onus has not always only lied with them. Attempts to take on this term, and redefine it, have existed for quite some time.

Unbeknown to many, the term was also used by the Colombian poet Jose Maria Torres Caicedo in his 1856 poem Las dos Americas (The Two Americas). In it, he uses the term ‘Latin America’, and reappropriates it, to offer his own definition of the countries grouped under this umbrella term. Unlike the French, his employment of the term was celebratory, and cruel towards his European counterparts:

El mundo yace entre tinieblas hondas:

En Europa domina el despotismo,

De América en el Norte, el egoísmo,

Sed de oro e hipócrita piedad.

The world lies in profound darkness,

 In Europe despotism dominates,

From North America comes egotism,

Thirst for gold and hypocritical piety.


Latinos Unidos: an oxymoron?

In his poem, Torres Caicedo, like the Liberator Simon Bolivar before him, grapples for a unity that could bring together the countries that now make up ‘Latin America’, or to use his own words, the ‘second’ America. He seeks his own understanding of what ‘Latin America’ is, whilst also defining what it should be like. Like Haiek, he dislikes the insinuation that theirs is the relegated America, and his warrior-like call to greatness for his whole continent echoes the truth that could not be more relevant today – the world is scared of the potential of ‘Latin America’.

Hegel’s statement that the future lies with America has often been misinterpreted. What he does claim is that there will be a ‘fight’ between the North and the South to determine this future. Whilst he never specifies what type of fight, the implication of a future tension is more than enough for us to relate it to current happenings.

The shape this ‘fight’ might take, whether economic or physical, and who will take sides with whom, is yet to become clear. If deconstructing the term ‘Latin America’ is more than enough to induce a headache, trying to predict future allies, coalitions and fracases – both on this side of the Atlantic and the other – is beyond anyone’s capabilities. As Colombia suspiciously eyes Venezuela, Honduras bleeds in a hushed-up civil war and Mexico fights a losing battle with the traffickers and the US’ DEA, it is safe to say that internal battles are rife across the two continents.

However, what can be taken from Hegel’s statement, and from undoing this complex term, is that the continents that make up ‘Latin America’ are undergoing a drastic redefinition which will eventually take its effect.

For that is what they are – two continents that have been grouped under a misleading, outdated and foreign term. Casual references to ‘Latin’ temperament, or dancing, or attitude to life, group together five hundred and ninety million people, often completely ignoring the internal complexities of such a gigantic area.

This is not a case of political correctness gone mad, but a need to recognise that the term was, is, imposed. It was used by an opportunistic French regime that sought to expand their influence on the world stage. As trade with ‘Latin America’ increases in volume, and their own internal, strategic groupings continue to form, the need to smash up our perceived notions of this imagined collective will become increasingly clear; that is, unless they beat us to it.