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A DXer's Introduction to Latin America

By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the February, 1990 issue of The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association in the Latin Destinations column.


Bienvenidos amigos! Welcome to the Latin American section of Destinations. In each column we will take a look at some aspect of Latin American culture, or a particular country or region, and see how it relates to the shortwave broadcasting scene. Hopefully this will help all NASWA members better understand and appreciate our southern neighbors and their radio broadcasters.

Among the world's various regions, Latin America is very homogenous - at least at first glance. It's a huge area, bigger than the USA & Canada combined, with a population more than twice that of our two countries. Most of the population speaks the same language, Spanish, or the closely related language of Portuguese in the case of Brazil. These countries share a common Iberian colonial heritage, and are predominantly Roman Catholic. For the moment, we're going to ignore Brazil and the small pockets of Dutch, English, and French speakers, and concentrate on the Spanish-speaking nations.

Perhaps because of the surface similarities, those of us in Anglo-America easily make generalizations about Latin America. The region is often pictured as a sort of "greater Mexico". Yet, each country and group of countries are very distinct from one another. Food is a good example - after all, who doesn't like a plate of spicy enchiladas? But try to find some in South America. Mexican food is as foreign in Quito or Buenos Aires as weinershcntizel; corn tortillas are unheard of, except as a specialty item. In fact, anywhere in South America if you ask for a tortilla you will be served an omelet. Each country and region has its own distinct cuisine. The hot spiciness we associate with Latin American food is in reality only found in Mexico, Bolivia, and southern Peru.

Latin American culture is a mosaic. One of the most important keys to understanding the pieces of this mosaic is to understand the different ethnic groups. Enthnologists divide Latin America into four groups: Euro-America, Afro-America, Indo-America, and Meztizo-America. Certain countries and parts of countries fit into each category. Let's look at these one by one.

Euro-America consists of Costa Rica, plus South America's so-called "Southern Cone" of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. There were few Indians in these countries, and the early explorers found no gold or silver, only fertile soil and vast grazing lands. Spanish farmers and ranchers settled these countries. Later, from the mid-1800s to early 1900s, when millions of Europeans were immigrating to the US and Canada, equal numbers were moving to another land of milk and honey, South America's Southern Cone. Today, Yugoslavs, Basques, Italians, Germans, Poles, Czechs, even British - they are all found throughout the region. Some have done quite well, as these names of some former Southern Cone presidents attest; Montt, Frondizi, Galtieri, O'Higgins, Frei, Bordaberry, and Sanguinetti.

Afro-America is the smallest of Latin America's ethno-regions. For the most part, Indian peasants formed the backbone of Spanish colonial labor. African slavery was only widely used in the Caribbean. Today only the island nations of Cuba and the Dominican Republic are predominantly African in heritage. However, all the countries bordering the Caribbean have large Black populations in their coastal region - even extending down to Ecuador's Pacific coast.

The predominant ethnic groups in Latin America, and the most important for the DXer to distinguish, are Meztizo-America and Indo- America. These are what make Latin-America unique from any other place in the world.

Meztizo-America refers to people of mixed race, usually Indian and European. Today in Latin America, October 12 is celebrated as a national holiday in most countries. But it is not to honor Columbus, instead it is called Dia de la Raza (Day of the Race) to commemerate the founding of the Meztizo race. When the Spanish conquered Latin America, far more men came from Europe than women. Most of the men, especially among the lower classes, took Indian women as their brides or concubines. Indian and Iberian blood mixed, forming the Meztizo race. In Venezuela, Colombia, Paraguay, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, the populations are mainly Meztizo. However, the definitive Meztizo country is Mexico, where the ideal of the new Meztizo race is an important part of the national identity. Yet, in Mexico the process never completed. Pure-blooded Indians remain the inhabitants of much of southern Mexico, stretching from Oaxaca to the Yucatan.

Finally, we come to four countries of primary interest to DXers. Each is usually classified as Indo-America, although in reality, each has both a large Indian and Meztizo population. First, let's look at the three South American countries of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. The Andes Mountains in these countries formed the heart of the ancient Inca empire. When the Spanish came, the Indians had a strong common culture; the colonial feudal system could not destroy it.

Today the Indians remain the the main inhabitants of the Andes, from Ecuador, through Peru, Bolivia, and even into northern Argentina and Chile. The Spanish did leave their mark, however. Meztizos are the dominant population of the coastal plains and large mountain cities such as Quito and La Paz. More importantly, it is they who control the governments and economies. Meanwhile, a new melting pot is forming east of the Andes as new roads are allowing poor Meztizo and Indian peasants to carve new farms out of the previously unpopulated Amazon lowlands.

The last Indo-America country is Guatemala. As with the Incas, the Spanish found the Mayan Indian culture to tough to destroy. Although the southern, eastern, and northern lowlands are predominantly Meztizo, Guatemala's western highlands and Verapaz region remain firmly Mayan.

To the DXer, this background knowledge about Latin America's ethnic makeup explains a lot about the Latin American shortwave scene. First, there's location. The towns and cities in the Andes Mountains have always been hotbeds of shortwave activity. This region is very underdeveloped economically, the terrain is rough, and the rural Indian population is very spread out. Shortwave is necessary to reach all the potential listeners. Meanwhile, the Meztizo dominated coastal plains are more urban and more developed. There, a radio station can get along quite fine with only AM and FM. This is not to say that no coastal stations use SW, and all mountain ones do. But a perusal of the WRTH will show that that is the overall trend. Similarly, Indian Guatemala has almost as many active SW stations as the rest of Central America combined.

The music we hear on Latin America's SW stations also follow regional-ethnic trends. The Andean music we associate with Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia is the music of the Indian peasant people. Especially in the mornings, when the peasants are more likely to be listening, that is the music we usually hear from stations in the mountain towns. However, stations broadcasting to the Meztizos of the coastal plain and new Amazon settlements will play the Meztizos' favorite style of music - hot tropical rythmns. Likewise, tropical music is popular with the meztizos of Colombia, Venezuela, and Central America, while the Guatemalan Indians like their own typical marimba music. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, some stations in coastal cities like, Lima and Guayaquil, play Andean music for the Indians who have moved to the city in search of jobs. But again, that doesn't alter the overall pattern.

Understanding how the pieces of the Latin American cultural mosiac fit together should make it easier to appreciate what is heard, as well as to make tentative identifications of stations heard, even if you speak no Spanish.

Before I sign off for this time, one quick listening tip. Carnival this year falls on Tuesday, February 27. Carnival, and the several days leading up to it, are a good time to tune the tropical bands looking for Latin American stations. Even if you don't hear any new stations, you are guaranteed a lot of festive high-spirited programming. Hasta la proxima!


This article is copyright 1990 by Don Moore. It may not be printed in any publication without written permission. Permission is granted for all interested readers to share and pass on the ASCII text file of this article or to print it out for personal use. In such case, your comments on the article would be appreciated.

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