Latin American culture is as diverse as its people. The region is vast: 8 million square miles of land organized into 20 countries, spread across South and Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Centuries of colonization created a rich ethnic mix, combining indigenous peoples with settlers from Europe and slaves from Africa, along with smaller populations of imported workers from Asia and the Middle East. What is now seen as the common culture of the region is the result of generations of adaptation and change.
The traditional music of early indigenous civilizations was mostly lost during the first violent decades of colonization. Early Spanish adventurers noted that the music of Mesoamericans was exclusively for religious ceremony, not for entertainment. They played wind instruments, such as wooden panpipes and a clay flute called the tlapitzalli, or percussion instruments.
The Spanish brought with them stringed instruments and a mature musical style derived from their own multiethnic background. Later, African slaves added their unique vocal rhythms and their instruments—including the marimba, the clave, conga drums, and maracas. Together, these elements were fused into a variety of new and different musical and vocal styles that came to worldwide acclaim in the 20th century.
Music and dance grew together; most popular dance styles carry the same name as their musical styles. Latin dance tends to be highly physical, with steps and patterns drawn from different ethnic and cultural styles.
The tango, for example, developed in the port cities of Argentina in the early 20th century, first as a music form blending several ethnic styles, including the Argentine and Uruguayan milonga, the Cuban habanera, the Slavic polka and mazurka, Italian street music, the Spanish contredanse and flamenco, and African-Uruguary an candombe.
Originally the music of the underclass, the tango became popular in Europe and America in the 1920s, spurred by the Italian-born film star Rudolph Valentino, who had been an exhibition dancer specializing in the tango before he became the first sex symbol of the movies. It was the first in a long line of Latin dance styles to gain popularity both inside and outside their native lands.
Other forms of Latin music and dance include the samba, the rumba, the cha-cha, the paso doble, the mambo, salsa, and merengue, among many others.
From the beginning of the colonial period to the 19th century, Latin American painting was dominated by European styles. Early Latin art was also dominated by Catholic iconography. Local artists learned the techniques of Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, and Flemish masters, frequently interlacing these styles with the themes and traditions of their precolonial world.
With the advent of independence in the early years of the 19th century, Latin American art began to move away from the baroque towards a more simple, neoclassical style, strongly influenced by current French trends. As nations began to build their own identities, artists were on hand to memorialize revolutionary leaders and pivotal events. Spanish and colonial themes were still present, but when it came time to set up their universities and art institutes, it was French institutions that provided the model. Latin art remained focused on portraiture, landscape and decorative art until the 1920s, missing out almost entirely on the Impressionist movement and its offshoots.
Muralism was the first major art movement to bring Latin American artists world acclaim. The movement arose in Mexico in the 1920s, when a group of established artists began using public spaces for huge paintings that usually focused on themes of social justice and equality. Through their work, such artists as Diego Rivera, José Clemente, and David Alfaro Siqueiros became active participants in shaping the political and social movements of the time. Murals were public art, meant to challenge and inspire all citizens. Muralism quickly spread outside of Mexico, inspiring artists from the United States to the Chile.
By 1945 many Latin artists were turning away from nationalistic themes and toward the international avantgarde and modernist movements. In recent decades, artists have focused on the relationship between the modern era and the distant past as well as the national and the international, and mix a variety of media, often drawing from the folk art traditions of indigenous peoples.
Latin American literature began with the conquistadors and missionaries of the 16th century and was dominated by Spanish and Portuguese styles and techniques for generations. Early Latin American writers benefited from the literary movements in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, and elements of French classicism were present by the early 1700s. Mexico City, Lima, Quito, Bogotá, Caracas, and Buenos Aires grew into literary centers on a par with European salons.
With independence in the early 1800s most Latin American writers turned to nation-building as they joined the effort to create a national identity out of the ashes of colonialism. They also had a new form to play with: fiction, a genre long forbidden by the Spanish crown. The first Latin American novel was published in 1816. Politics and literature were closely intertwined throughout the 19th century, with new works not only by essayists and historians but also poets, playwrights, and novelists. Romanticism also struck a deep chord in Latin American art and literature during the period.
Contemporary Latin American literature runs the gamut from cosmopolitan intellectualism to magical realism drawn from traditions of the rural past. Since the 1960s it has taken a prominent place in the international literary world. Poets Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz were awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1945, 1971, and 1990, respectively; Miguel Angel Asturias took the Nobel Prize in literature in 1967, and Gabriel García Márquez won in 1982.
Cinema came to Latin America in the early years of the 20th century, but it took many years for it to spread evenly across the region. Only Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil had the kind of large, stable economies necessary to launch a film industry. Even in these countries, early directors were marginalized by European and American studios that dominated the film distribution systems and monopolized Latin markets. This did not change until the Great Depression and World War II, when financial and political concerns slowed down the flow of foreign films. However, by the mid-1950s, the industry had drifted back toward the prewar status quo.
Latin American film came into its own in the 1960s– 70s, as native-born directors tapped into the new experimental film techniques coming out of Europe and the social and political movements sweeping across their countries to create a unique cinematic voice. The last 25 years have seen an expansion and maturation of Latin American cinema. As in the United States, the industry is constantly trying to find a balance between popular entertainment and more artistic ventures.