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When it comes to Latin America, the U.S. behaves like a drunken bully. This is kinda hard for me, as I consume American pop culture obsessively. So I might be enjoying me some Parks And Recreation or The Good Wife, when suddenly the show will start cruelly mocking Venezuela. Or I might be watching Friends when, out of nowhere, Phoebe starts to sing about how you can buy a human spleen in the streets of Buenos Aires for a couple bucks. (I've tried; you can't.)
This kind of thing affects more opinions about Latin America than you think, and it's an issue that has stunted the region's growth. It's also an issue that, like a salsa-dancing ouroboros, comes back to bite America in its ass. Let me explain. First, you should know that ...
I live in Uruguay, the nation Homer Simpson once pointed at on a globe and read "U R GAY." Mine is one of the southernmost countries of Latin America, a tiny spot between Argentina, Brazil, and the Atlantic Ocean. It doesn't get much more Latin American than that. But strangely, I'm white. I know, right? A white Latino? Yeah, that's the point.
Latin America is a big fucking place. 645 million people. 19 sovereign states, plus Puerto Rico and a few European "overseas territories" (slang term for "colonies"). There are myriad indigenous tribes. There are white people, black people, brown people, people of Asian descent. Mixed-race people abound -- the local word is mestizos. Brazil is home to the largest Japanese community in the world outside of ... well, Japan. Peru had a president of Japanese descent, Alberto Fujimori. This kind of diversity may seem like a no-brainer when I describe it, but American pop culture's view of Latin America seems to check out when it goes any deeper than Mexican food or Colombian drug lords.
When people think "Latino," they mainly picture the Mexican, Puerto Rican, and/or Dominican people who live in the U.S. Maybe they've sprinkled some Cubans in there after they watched Scarface and, based on Al Pacino's performance, assumed all Cubans sound like they accidentally swallowed a bottle of topical anesthetic. One member of any nation is not representative of the tapestry of its entire culture and its encompassing subcultures. Imagine a foreigner amazed that African-Americans exist because they thought America was only white people of European descent. That's what it feels like. If it helps, imagine the nation you live in and all of its cultural complexities. Now imagine all of that happening in another country that isn't your own. Boom! You just got learned about how other nations can be a vast tapestry of multi-ethnic cultures, just like yours!
The following differences are going to seem somewhat insignificant at first glance. But when you compare them to how your own states function, you'll get a clearer idea of how subtle diversity helps define in Latin America.
For instance, you can drive the West Coast of Latin America beginning in Ushuaia, Argentina (which is so far south that it's marketed as "the end of the world"), and go all the way up till you hit the U.S./Mexico border, and speak only Spanish the entire time. Drive up the East Coast, and soon you'll hit a wall of Portuguese when you get to Brazil. Catholicism has shaped many countries' spirituality and politics alike, but Protestantism is gaining steam across multiple nations. Football (the kicky kind, not the pigskin kind) reigns supreme, but baseball is beloved by some countries. Even basketball is catching on in some places. Tragically, there is no word on badminton yet.
But those are just minor differences, right? Utah is known to many people around the world as "the home of Mormons." Keep driving east, and you'll run into a sea of Christians. Further east, and you'll find more Jewish people. Florida is populated by nothing but Satan worshipers. But here's where the diversity takes a turn on a fundamental communication level:
Each nation has its own celebrated history. Many may share a language, but each nation puts its own spin on it, creating words with specific meanings in one nation that are nonsense in another. A guagua (pronounced "wa-wa," like the American convenience store chain that only shows up when you say its name three times in Maryland) is a "bus" to a Cuban and a "baby" to a Chilean.
In Mexico, a tortillera is a woman who makes tortillas. It's a slang term for "lesbian" pretty much everywhere else. Similarly, in nearly every Spanish-speaking nation, the word bicho means "insect," except in Puerto Rico, where it means "penis." So if you step into Puerto Rico talking about how your hobby is bicho collecting, people will think that you have come to purchase their supply of dong. Imagine taking a trip to Chicago from your hometown in Ohio. You ask a salesman to point you to the winter coat section of the store, and he hands you a baby covered in body paint. In some sections of Latin America, the language differences can be that drastic.
These are clearly some of the dumber examples, but they help illustrate a larger point: Just because we have a lot in common and there is a lot of cultural overlap doesn't mean our issues are exactly the same. Our differences can often be massive, but also almost imperceptibly subtle. Not understanding these differences, these love-hate relationships, is a recipe for disaster, as past U.S. involvement with the continent may tell you.
For instance ...
Pop culture force-feeds the U.S. a metric shit-ton of Latin drug lords. Dozens of action films and TV procedurals list "cartels" as the unknowable, all-powerful bad guys -- gangs that exist solely to ruin Walter White's vibe. Ridley Scott is set to direct a project simply titled The Cartel, with superstar Latino actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Of course, some of it is really subtle and well-thought-out, like Sony's Hunting El Chapo, which will be overseen by none other than Michael Bay, the drug kingpin version of a Hollywood director.
As great as the show is, every villain in Breaking Bad except for the goddamned Nazis is Latino. Sicario is the gut-wrenching tale of a white woman being violently pushed out of her own movie's climax by a Colombian cartel operative. Narcos tells the story of a notorious Colombian cocaine kingpin played by a Brazilian who speaks Colombian Spanish with a Brazilian accent. Need an antagonist for your gritty crime drama? Use the header "Cartel," and then pull the rest of the attributes out of a very small hat.
A whopping 50 percent of Latino immigrant characters on American TV are criminals. My own uncle immigrated to New York in the 1980s. If Hollywood made his story, statistics say he would probably be portrayed as a Latin King in a low-rider instead of the boring wine importer and fully legalized citizen he actually was. Latinos rarely get the chance to be normal onscreen. They have to be criminals.
Mexico does have a very complicated and bloody issue with drug cartels, as did Colombia until fairly recently. But America tends lump every culture south of the U.S. with the same problems they've heard exist in Mexico and Colombia. When crime rose in my city, the popular comment was "We don't wanna turn into Mexico." But Mexico and Colombia aren't as defined by drugs as it would seem. They're fantastic countries, filled with friendly, colorful people who -- and I hope you're sitting down for this -- aren't coked-up monsters.
I understand where this comes from. I only know Chicago from movies and news reports. It sounds terrifying. A war zone where those "Da Bears" guys from SNL live. It's the setting of about a million gangster films, from the original Scarface in the 1930s to The Untouchables in the 1980s to every meandering side plot of Boardwalk Empire in the 2000s. But my wife has traveled there and told me how beautiful it was. She was surprised when I asked about crime, as if I expected her to give me a harrowing war story of dodging bullets through the trenches as she made a desperate final push for deep dish pizza. But there were no bullets and there were no trenches; just lots of delicious, delicious pizza.
There's a rite of passage that all Latin Americans should have: meeting with Latinos from far away. I used to watch the Latin Grammys and think "What the fuck is this? Who listens to this shit? Well evidently I'm not Latino!" I began to be offended by the "Latino" tag. I felt I didn't fit into it, nor did anyone I knew, and resentment toward other Latin American cultures grew in me. "We have nothing in common," I thought. "We are more European." "We are better." A gross, xenophobic version of myself blossomed like a really shitty, hateful flower.
Then last year, I befriended a couple of Mexicans while living in Spain, and these prejudices actually brought us together. Though the Spanish are great and made us feel very welcome, we knew we were outsiders. We shared a profound life experience that made all the differences between us irrelevant -- one the Europeans would never get. And we joked and laughed about it like long-lost siblings.
Football (again, the kicky kind) is crucial in bringing Latinos together. I've learned more about Colombia from Narcos than I have from anywhere else, and I'm not alone there. So when a Uruguayan team plays against a Colombian one, we will find a way to work cocaine and Pablo Escobar into the mix. I found that the more I interact with other Latinos from other countries, the more I realize we've all been led to believe horrible things about each other. We love making fun of other people, but the second we find out someone makes those same kind of jokes about us, we're appalled and disgusted.
I know you guys love to call yourselves "America." And it sounds great when you slap it beside other things: American Crime, American Graffiti, fucking American Pie. Adding the "American" tag raises the status of things, and implies that it's now a story that everyone can somehow relate to because it's identifiably "American." But to everyone else on an entire continent, calling it "America" just sounds ... weird. It's like the American Founding Fathers were too tired to think of a name, so they said, "It's in the Americas, so, like, 'America'? Everyone agree? Good. Let's go get some more false teeth." And in case you're wondering, yes, "South America" was the first one to use the term.
But the Americas (plainly "America" in Spanish) start at Cape Columbia in Canada and end in the Diego Ramirez Islands in Chile. That means that, having been born in Montevideo, Uruguay, I'm as American as the people from Montevideo, Minnesota. Hi, neighbors!
As obvious as that is, sometimes it doesn't feel like we're part of the same landmass. It isn't just a question of language (there isn't such a divide with Brazil), nor of the differences between Northern European and Latin cultures. In Spanish, we usually call you estadounidenses, which translates as "United Statians." When I learned English and started reading and watching movies, I had to get used to hearing "American" and knowing it didn't apply to me. I mean, it technically does, but it really doesn't.
I hated it at first, like one country was trying to impose over the rest. We are all fucking American. I now know it comes from the lack of a proper name, and I've come to tolerate it. But I've still never been able to completely shake off the notion that some Americans do think they're better, and do try to maybe use the idea that they are "Americans" and I am Uruguayan as another way to draw a line between us. I want to tell them to shut up, that we're all Americans, but the truth is that a lot of idiots see it like Animal Farm: We're all Americans, but some are more American than others.
All of this isn't just culturally insensitive. Misjudging a full subcontinent as foreign instead of neighboring, and continuing to take hard stances against it, perpetuates a vicious circle. It's always US and Them. Rather than see us as fellow Americans, cousins who are a part of the same landmass, we're the bad guys. And I can't decide if that's un-American or very American.
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