Introducing Latin America

"Latin America" is complex and multi-layered; there are many different definitions of what it means. As an over-simplification, we use this label to refer to all the countries and islands of the Western Hemisphere lying south of the U.S. border. This includes 20 independent countries, ten dependencies (of France, Netherlands, and the U.S.), as well as eight other entities geographically related to Latin America, but not culturally or linguistically Latin.

A common myth is that Latin America begins at the U.S. border. Actually, people of Latin American language, heritage and culture are the largest "minority group" in the U.S., numbering about 45 million, or 15% of the population. The total population of Latin America south of the U.S. border is 575 million. Adding the 45 million people of Latin American heritage in the U.S. brings the number to 620 million - twice as many as the rest of the population of the U.S. and Canada. Around 2015 the population of the Americas will probably reach one billion - more than two-thirds Latin American.

There are four major regions within Latin America: South America, Central America, the Caribbean Islands, and Mexico (which technically is part of North America). Almost two-thirds of Latin Americans (410 million) speak Spanish - at least as a second language along with indigenous languages and dialects. Almost 200 million speak Portuguese (Brazil); another 11 million speak French.

Latin America is more urbanized than the U.S. -- 84% of its people live in urban areas. In fact, 115 million people live in just 15 cities of three million or more; another 82 million people live in 46 smaller cities of between one and three million each. This means almost one-third of Latin Americans live in a city of over one million.

Numbers cannot tell the whole story. Latin America has seen waves of political repression, upheaval, and social injustice. The huge gap between rich and poor both results from and perpetuates economic injustice. Those countries that had a middle class have seen it shrink in recent years due to monetary crises and the global economic downturn. The rate of unemployment and poverty is high. The average age in most Latin American countries is in the 20s -- significantly lower than in the United States and Canada. The drug trade -- cultivation, production, distribution, and use -- is a significant influence throughout the region and contributes to violence and lawlessness.

From colonial times until recently, the Catholic Church was a dominant force throughout Latin America - not the kind of Catholicism we may think of in the United States, but one that is often blended with superstition and folk religion. In recent decades, the Catholic Church has lost much of its power and influence because of the great gap between rich and poor (the Catholic Church has great wealth often surrounded by abject poverty), political alliances with repressive dictatorships, and scandal. In the vacuum, evangelical and charismatic churches have grown significantly -- but so too has spiritism, the occult, and secularism. There is a window of opportunity that must be seized before it closes.

Many people in Latin American need hope and peace. The Good News of Jesus and His Kingdom is the answer to both individuals and communities.

The Latest News from Latin America

Delia Nüesch-Olver
Country leaders of the Free Methodist Church in Latin America…


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