The ethnic backgrounds and cultural variations of the people of Latin America are highly diverse. The term “Latin American” refers to individuals from Mexico, Central America, or South America with a Spanish surname or whose primary language is Spanish or Portuguese (Slonim, 1991), and is, strictly speaking, not applicable to all people living in these regions. However, for parsimony’s sake, this chapter will refer to Mexican and Central and South American infants as Latin American.
The majority of inhabitants are at least partially descended from the native Indian population, which encompassed both more primitive hunter-gatherer societies and elaborate civilizations such as were developed by the Inca, Aztec, and Maya Indians. However, mixed heritage is the rule rather than the exception. European immigration has had a significant impact on the region; the Spaniards and Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century, followed by large numbers of Germans and Italians in the late 1800s and early 1900s and Central Europeans after World War II. In addition, the importation of an estimated four million Africans (and perhaps two or three times that number) as slave workers changed the face of the population, particularly in Brazil. More recently, Asians, particularly the Japanese and Chinese, have made parts of South America their home. The original Indian societies were rich and varied, and each group of immigrants has incorporated their unique values and traditions. Clearly, no simple way exists to categorize the people of these countries.
To illustrate the extensive cultural variation of Latin America, a number of South American Indian groups reside in the Amazon Basin, maintaining virtual isolation from the industrialized world and practicing traditional rituals that might be interpreted as mutilation by outsiders; yet at the same time, most Latin American people live in urban areas, working in industrial contexts familiar to most European Americans. In Central America alone,