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Cultural overview: Latin America Cultural overview: Latin America
by Joseph Gatt
2020-02-15 11:09:19
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Latin America and the Caribbean comprise 39 states and territories depending on how you count. Sweeping generalizations about cultural traits in those Hispanic and Portuguese nations and territories.

Generalities

I think everyone did this as a teenager. During the summer, you flesh out a weekly plan where every single minute is counted, you set up a schedule for every day of the week, even schedule breaks and toilet breaks. Then uncle Fred comes visit with cousin Jim, then your parents unexpectedly suggest to take you out to the swimming pool, then there's that exhibition game on TV that you don't want to miss, then your friend Jane suggest you chat online. Soon enough, your weekly plan is completely useless.

That's kind of how things work in Latin America and the Caribbean. Lots of planning, but very little gets done. A lot of times companies will have rules that gradually get broken, couples will start savings plans they won't stick to, friends set up rules that no one follows.

Problem is, every now and then they will try to stick to those rules and plans, and the rules and plans can be debilitating. Other problem is most Latin Americans and people in the Caribbean can't work without a plan in mind.

In sum, whatever you do, set up vague guidelines, and don't expect anyone to stick to the plan. But if you're the kind of person that likes structure, clear rules and clear goals, you're going to face huge difficulties in Latin America. I suggest you laugh out the fact that no one stuck to the rules, rather than make a huge deal about the whole thing.

Language

lat01_400You'll get by with French in Haiti, English in Jamaica and Guyana, Dutch in Surinam, Spanish in all the Spanish-Speaking countries and Portuguese in Brazil. Most other islands either use French, Dutch or English, and Belize uses English.

Note that in Brazil and Spanish-speaking countries English is not a luxury, and many people will be shy when speaking it, some can refuse to speak it. You'll gain considerable advantage by speaking to them in Spanish or Portuguese.

I tend to differentiate between the “polite” countries and the “crazy” ones. You can judge me for that. In most of Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay, the tendency is formality and politeness. In Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay the tendency is friendship, informality, and sometimes, yes, craziness. As in people calling you at 3 AM, or business partners asking you to help them as they're trying to hook up with a girl. That level of informality.

Stereotypes they have about foreigners

First thing you'll notice is that there aren't that many expats in Latin America and the Caribbean. There are no major recent migration waves, the last migration waves dated from the 1960s and 1970s and were mostly East Asians and Eastern Europeans. A lot of the long-term expats are completely assimilated, and being a foreigner in Latin America is nothing to be too proud of. Naturalization is often very easy, reside two or three years and you will be naturalized in most cases.

Greeting

Most times, most countries in Latin American and the Caribbean will kiss members of the opposite sex on the left cheek, just one kiss. They greet each other like that when meeting and when parting, even when the meeting lasts 3 minutes.

At work or at school, women-women and men-women who are close friends greet each other by kissing on the left cheek, and this is an important ritual in many countries. However men-men tend to be sloppy in their greeting, and could either use a back slap or no greeting at all.

Greet everyone, everywhere (with “buenos dias” for example) including taxi drivers, people at shops etc. If you want to ask for directions or anything else, always start by greeting. When making phone calls, greet and ask how they are doing before you say anything. Note that many forms of touching tend to be acceptable, especially when dealing with members of the opposite sex. Many men will hold a woman's hand, when they are not a couple. 

Small talk

Men of course love discussing football and relationships with women. However, among the elites, you may want to discuss more sophisticated topics such as travel, arts and literature. As the elites open up, they might start discussing football and women as well.

Women spend a great deal of time exchanging recipes, even at the workplace. Otherwise women discuss television programs such as soap operas, and like to chit-chat and gossip about the people they meet here and there.

In all cases, jobs and work opportunities are always a welcome topic. The more you know about other companies and their work environment, or about freelance work opportunities, the better.

Meals

Latin America and the Caribbean are the food blogger's black hole. Culinary art or gastronomy isn't a big thing. Most meals will be “modest” by Western standards, but I don't mind as long as we're having good conversation.

Meals often involve rice and fish, or rice and meat, or some kind of meat barbecue, or some kind of salad. No fancy meal that you could put on a food blog.

Of course Mexico is the big exception, but even in Mexico you will quickly get used to eating tacos or tamales pretty much every day. No effort is made to surprise guests with a fantastic meal. You are expected to enjoy the meal nonetheless.

Of course all the energy goes into the conversation. The meal always tastes better with good conversation. So you want the conversation to be light-hearted, to throw in a few jokes, and to enjoy the experience. 

At home

Parties are very common and you will be invited for birthday parties, wedding anniversaries or other parties which tend to be held home. The atmosphere tends to be fun and jovial, but don't expect a lot of people to introduce you properly, and you will tend to skip self-introductions and get straight to business when chatting.

In the Caribbean people try to get to know you on a personal level, but in Latin America there is no “I did this” or “I did that” and conversation tends to center around football and current events. Either way there tend to be no formalities at home, and you are allowed to suggest activities. Many middle-class and upper class people in Latin America and the Caribbean have billiards tables at home, some even have swimming pools and bars, and feel free to suggest that you move to the bar, play darts, play soccer in the backyard (ask if your host allows that) or jump into the swimming pool.

But, if there are disputes or heated arguments, never ever take sides. Disputes and arguments often involve politics, but can reach a personal level. Either leave, or act like you are not hearing anything of what is being discussed. If you take sides, you'll lose both friends.

Everyday life (hospitals, banks, the post office, pharmacies)

As in many places, you have good doctors and terrible doctors. Doctors love their titles and diplomas, and people will respect the “friendly” doctors, but “friendly” doctors are not always the most efficient. So be careful if people suggest you check in with their friend of family member. Either way, doctors can start procedures that cost a lot of money but that are unnecessary, just for the money. So if you need a big procedure, you want to check home to see if it's absolutely necessary. Other than that a lot of hospitals are rather clean and modern in big cities.

Banks are modern by all means, but inflation is the norm and local currency won't be very stable. Most will send their paycheck home if they can. Note that some of your friends could ask you to open a bank account for them in your home country so they can stack foreign currency, and I suggest you use a lame excuse like “I'm only allowed to have one bank account” or “I have so much debt I'm banned from opening new bank accounts.”

The post-office and pharmacies are also rather modern. Most medication is the same you'll find in North America, and ridiculously lower prices. The post-office can be unreliable, and there are private individuals who deliver parcels around the city, you can rely on those. For long-distance parcels or international parcels, you probably want to use DHL or UPS.

Shopping

Most Latin American large cities have nice, modern shopping centers where all major international brands are represented. Note that unlike most countries, in many Latin American countries, big brands actually allow you to negotiate the price, especially for clothing.

I don't know about recently, but 5-10 years ago, you could go to H&M or Zara and shop, and they would allow negotiating. That is you start off by looking at the price, and the shop assistant will be like “cuesta 25 pero se lo dejo a 20” which means “it costs 25 but I'll make it 20 for you.” That's when the negotiating starts, and negotiating is largely a matter of personality. Myself being a not-so-handsome boy, women usually give me better discounts than men. If you're a female bombshell, men will give you incredible discounts, and in some cases gifts, and if you turn them on, in some rare quirky cases, they'll let you take your merchandise for free.

Supermarkets import a lot of stuff from the US or Canada, so you'll find pretty much everything you need, at reasonable prices. Most big restaurant chains have branches in Latin America, along with most big brands in general.

Final note: if you shop at a small store, most small stores allow you to shop “on credit” meaning that they keep the tabs and you pay at the end of the month. Note however that some stores will surprise you with “interest rates” out of the blue, and also note that they don't always keep the tabs properly and sometimes write down numbers which are higher than your actual purchases were.

Asking favors

A small lesson in politeness in Latin America. When you see someone, anywhere, at any time, always start with “buenos dias” before you say anything else. You come home to the wife, you say “buenos dias.” Your colleague comes to work in the morning and you say “buenos dias.” A couple of hours later you want to ask your colleague something and again you say “buenos dias.” A more informal way of saying “buenos dias” is “que hubo” (what's up) or “todo bien?” (how are you) or for close friends “oye chino” (dude!) or “boludo” (also meaning dude!).

Before you ask a favor in formal situations, however small, always start by asking “puedo mandarle un favor?” which means “can I ask you a favor?” So for example you want to borrow a pencil. You say “puedo mandarle un favor” first, then you ask for the pencil. Asking for the pencil directly comes off as incredibly rude.

Now you need to know that Latin Americans love to share food and money, and in some cases housing. So always be prepared to pick up the tab, always be prepared to loan small sums of money, always be prepared to pay for that cup of coffee. And in Latin America some people go to the café, order coffee, drink it, and then start asking random clients to pay for it. True story!

In sum, most favors will involve money, or sharing your food (everyone will take a bite off that sandwich of yours!) or sharing a room. 

Bragging

Latin Americans tend to love to brag about three things: the women they are able to pick up, their football skills, and their knowledge about political affairs.

So a lot of Latin Americans will try to date women just to show their male friends what kind of women they can pick up, only to ditch the women very quickly. Now I once called a Chilean friend on that, telling him there was more to life than using women, and he gave me a killer stare ever since.

Latin Americans also love to brag about their football skills, and many will claim that they could have beeen professional but chose a different path instead. Many claim that had they been professionals they would have been Messi or Ronaldo or Zidane or Maradona or Pelé. Don't call them on that, even is some of them have two left feet really.

Finally, many Latin Americans will love to brag about their knowledge of current events or global football news, and for some of them, their knowledge is actually rock solid. I was able to discuss Algerian soccer with a Brazilian friend, and that Brazilian friend knew about half a dozen Algerian clubs and could name a couple dozen Algerian players. Now discussing the JSK and MCA clubs with a Brazilian friend, that felt weird!

Dating

I've discussed how men love to pick women up and date them just to get positive gossip reviews before they ditch the girl. Men will also try to date the prettiest ones, and show them off around the office or school, before they ditch them.

But Latin American women are not less angels. A lot of Latin American women will look around to see which men are faithful or in committed relationships, and will aim for those men! So stories about married men who were seduced by single women, the single women hoping the married man will be faithful to her abound.

So if you're in Latin America with your wife at a pub and that a woman joins the conversation and starts hitting on you, don't be shocked.

Also, as men are desperate to impress their buddies by dating bombshells, if you're a pretty girl walking down the street and that a man harasses you into dating him, don't be shocked. What a lot of women do is they'll enter a store or shop, and ask the shop assistants to help them get rid of the stalker, or lose the stalker by asking for the emergency exit.

Marriage

To start off, divorce rates in Latin America are so huge that Chile downright banned divorce (once married, always married) and Mexico tried to experiment with 5-year marriage contracts, renewable of course, but the National Assembly voted down that law.

But in Latin America, marriage is really the triumph of hope over experience. Weddings tend to be lavish affairs, and hundreds of people will be invited to the wedding. Because of high divorce rates, there are all kinds of superstitions surrounding weddings. In some countries the bride's feet should be covered (because if the feet show that signals she will run away) and in other countries children should stand by and sleep at the door of the bride-groom's room on the wedding night (to symbolize that the couple will have many children) with a ton of other superstitions. It's common for brides to freak out and to look out for signals this will be a failed marriage.

Singing, dancing, and all kinds of games are played at most weddings. And of course men look around to see if they can pick up any chicks they can impress their friends with.

How they treat children

Children often have a laaaaaaarge degree of autonomy in Latin American countries. Starting around the age of 13, they tend to be pretty much emancipated adults. Before the age of 13, they tend to be free to do what they want, minus going out late into the night.

Parents tend not to limit much of anything, be it food intake, or time spent playing video games. But children are expected to be polite, and are expected to ask their parents permission if they bring someone home. Alcohol consumption tends to start at a relatively young age, and parents don't mind their teenage boys or girls smoking cigarettes at home. Kids as young as 13 or 14 smoke freely, and occasionally have beer or wine with their parents. Bringing a boyfriend or girlfriend home is also not considered taboo, nor is changing boyfriends or girlfriends frequently. Parents actually tend to encourage their boys and girls to bring lovers home.

Pets and animals

I don't have the exact statistics, but I think Latin America would top the world in percentage of movies dedicated to pets. Cats and dogs in Latin America are family members, almost human, and many Latin Americans actually talk to their pets as if they were human beings. So if invited to a Latin American home, you can shower the pet with affection. And if the pet likes your presence, your host family will view that as a very favorable sign.

Driving

Now there are lots of good drivers out there. But some drivers have this habit of never letting go of the accelerator. That is some drivers need to be constantly moving otherwise they get anxious. Watch out for guys who are speeding, and watch out for guys who don't slow down at turns.

Notice that when in a car, you will be constantly stopped by beggars asking for money or cleaning your windshield for money or something. Keep a stash of coins in the car, because if you refuse the give money, they will smash your window, or blow your tires up, or something. If any beggar asks for money, always, always, give two, three or four coins.

Religion

Now I'm going to have to excuse my French here, because what I'm about to say is the truth, but politically incorrect. What Latin Americans usually tell me is something like “somos Catolicos de la chupa y de la concha” which translates to, sorry, “we are Catholics, the kind that loves blowjobs and pussy.”

So yes, Latin Americans are mostly Catholic, although a lot of Latin Americans are evangelical Christians or Pentacoastal Christians. Yes Latin Americans will be very solemn at Church, and will take Church and the Catholic faith very seriously. Yes, Latin Americans tend to have a cross at home and a portrait of the Pope.

But, when sin comes to sin, they won't mind stealing, lying, or having erratic sex lives. A Latin American friend told me this “if a girl claims to be a Catholic, don't let that deter you, she'll still sleep with you, then on Sunday she'll pray for her sin to be forgiven.”

Smoking, alcohol and recreational (legal and illegal) drugs

As I said kids as young as 13 freely smoke in front of their parents and their parents tend not to give a damn. Although technically you have to be 18 to purchase cigarettes, every kid under the age of 18 knows where to purchase cigarettes freely. Non-smokers however are respected and admired.

Alcohol is a free game. You have “cerveceros” which basically means “people who go to work, then go home and drink beer all day after work.” You have “vinoceras” which is “women who go to work, then go home and down a bottle of wine.” Drinking alcohol is commonly referred to as “la chupeta” (chupar means “sucking” but in slang you “suck alcohol”) and many Latin Americans proudly drink every single day.

Now with drugs you are entering gangster territory. As much as alcohol and cigarettes are considered normal, marijuana is a bit of an evil I would say. If you like to smoke spliffs, do so discreetly. Other drugs are widely available, but are illegal, and either way, any illegal drug, including marijuana, can lead to complicated problems with the mafia (such as extortion, kidnappings or other stuff). So be careful.

Death and funerals

Funerals tend to be held at a Church, where a ceremony is held and prayers are recited. Black attire is strongly encouraged for the occasion. Avoid smiling or laughing, and don' talk too much during the funeral. No gifts other than flowers tend to be expected. In some cases, a guest condolence book is signed and collected.

Burial is also a very sad event, and mourners are not expected to talk during the burial. Eulogies are an important part of funerals and burials, and usually include information on what the deceased could have done or should have done were he or she to live longer.

Social gatherings (conferences, cocktail parties etc.)

Social gatherings tend to be few and far between and tend to dislike formality. Most people tend to fall asleep during conference talks, and many will stick to their closest friends and will only accept to be introduced to “powerful people.” That is if you're a student or young research or young businessman, they could refuse to introduce you around the other people.

So if you're at an international conference and someone's sleeping in the audience, there's a big chance the person has Latin American roots. Also note that the tone at most conferences and cocktail parties is cynical, kind of “everything's backwards, everything's going wrong.” that kind of Nihilism. So don't try to bring your American optimism with you (Latin Americans think North Americans are naive by being optimistic) and if you're European or North American, avoid lecturing them on economic development at all costs (many Latin Americans believe Europe and North America is colonizing the rest of the world.)

K12 education system

Discipline. That's the key word. Parents tend to be very permissive, schools tend to be very militarized. A lot of times on Monday mornings, in some cases each morning before class, the national flag is raised and the national anthem is sung. Television broadcasts also tend to have mandatory national anthem playing at 6 AM and 6 PM, in some cases midnight and mid-day as well.

Before going to the first class in the morning, students are expected to stay in line grouped by class and to wait for the teacher to come pick them up. Teachers tend to hand in all kinds of punishments to the students, ranging from “warnings” to “suspension” to “fines” to “detention” to everything else.

Most schools have an “oficina de diciplina” or “discipline office” which is a very powerful office. You have to go there if you were late for class, you have to go there if you were absent, you have to go there if your teacher sends you there.

But class content is unfortunately very sketchy a lot of times, and teachers tend to lecture on morality, discipline, patriotism, life lessons rather than the topic at hand. Most teachers tend to be very permissive (as in you can stand up and walk around the classroom, you can change seats, you can interrupt the teacher etc.) but if you cross the line you get sent to the office of discipline. At the end of the day, students tend to be expected to stand in line grouped by classroom, bring the flag down and sign the national anthem, carefully fold the flag, then go home in perfect order.

University education system

Universities in Latin America tend to a breeding ground for political ideas rather than anything else. That is yes, there are classes, yes, some classes are taught very well, but most professors will discuss the local political situation with their students.

Some professors are more of the authoritarian type while others enjoy casual conversation with their students. Some professor grade very harshly, others very generously. Drop out rates are rather high, but talented students tend to be respected.

How their elites behave

Latin American elites tend to believe in refined conversation, in keeping things polite, and keeping things intellectual. In most, if not all Latin American nations, money tends to be coupled with intellect. That is if you're rich, you had better say smart things.

Now there has been a trend in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil and elsewhere where “popular” politicians are elected, the kind of politicians who do away with intellect and speak straight to people's problems. Now those politicians may say a lot of nice things about solving people's problems, truth is, in fact, most times, they make people's problems even worse.

Entertainment

Women tend to love their soap operas and men tend to love their sports. There are plenty of cinemas in Latin America, and action movies tend to be preferred over romantic comedies.

Cultural activities tend not to be very popular and many Latin Americans will stand outside sipping coffee if they are “forced” to attend plays or expositions or some event at the museum.

Music and dancing are of course extremely popular, and both men and women love concerts and going out dancing. Concerts tend to sell out very quickly when the band is popular, and watch out for the stampedes. Note that Latin Americans like to play music everywhere, and like to dance everywhere, including at school or at work.

Technology

Most, if not all Latin American countries are very, very, very, very low-tech. When cable television started in the 1990s, many Latin Americans did away with cable television. When satellite television started in the 2000s many Latin Americans did away with satellite television. And the Internet only picked up around 2007 or 2008, when the Internet was a must.

Many Latin Americans did away with cell phones, many do away with PowerPoint presentations or anything too technologically sophisticated. Computers and video game stations were often not highly regarded, and in this day and age many do without the smartphone or tablet.

BUT most Latin American government agencies and newspapers had websites in the mid-1990s, when many Europeans did not have those websites. And in terms of social media use, Latin Americans are among the world champions. Still note that many Latin Americans are passive social media users, and platforms like YouTube, while popular, are not as popular as in other places. Point is, many Latin Americans find technology confusing more than anything else, and many Latin Americans prefer connecting with people directly.

Intellectual conversation

What I love about Latin Americans is they don't just steal quotes and publish them. They usually publish huge portraits of the author of the quote and the quote in bold letters along with the name.

Latin Americans love their public intellectuals, and funny enough, many actors, singers and entertainers will try their luck at becoming writers or public intellectuals when they are no longer in demand in the entertainment business.

But Latin America also likes to persecute its intellectuals, and, as of today, most of Venezuela, Bolivia and Peru's public intellectuals are in exile in the US or Spain. Other countries also often don't make their intellectuals feel safe. Even Gabriel Garcia Marquez had to spend his entire career in exile in Mexico, simply for satirizing the Colombian army and politicians.

How to deal with money

Latin Americans tend to value friendship over money, so you will need to set your priorities straight in Latin America. First be a good friend, then discuss deals. If you're not being a good friend, disaster could strike somewhere further down the road.

So you will need to maintain good relations with your network throughout your business phase in Latin America. Bribes are so common that there's no shame in asking for them, and they're really part of the deal. While in Africa or the Middle East people will use charades when discussing bribes, in Latin America, they'll tell you straight out they want a million dollars in their account for the deal to go through. And as your business grows, there will be people asking for their piece of the cake. That's why you want to be friends with several generals and coronels and politicians, and you will want to watch out, because on a bad day they could ask you to empty your bank account.

The legal system

Minor problems tend to be dealt with in the justice system, such as unpaid overtime or unfair dismissal or something. But big problems are always dealt with amicably.

Theft and assaults are so common that the police will tend to dismiss those. Of course if your jewelry or gold or money disappears, you want to call the police. Sometimes they will find the burglars, but a lot of times, you'll be wasting your time dealing with the police, and the police won't even start looking for the culprit. In sum, the police and justice system tends to be a lazy system, and only reacts when it has to.

Farewells and before you leave the country

Farewell parties will be thrown in your honor and people will want to have long chats with you before you leave. Nothing too emotional, and people rarely stay in touch after you leave. If you're a guy, girls will try to contact you when you get home, often hoping you can marry them and they can settle in your country. So if you're a guy, expect quite a few Facebook messages or emails from single girls when you go back home.


     
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