The meaning of the word Latin changes with time. Today it generally refers to the Native + European + African mix of the Americas. However, the origins of Latin culture are the very foundation of Western civilization.
Like the Tree of Life itself, any honest examination of the human story leads away from branches of difference towards shared roots.
Our shared Western heritage is Greek. Greeks started the process of humanizing the gods and empowering the individual. This process continues today in a proverbial “two steps forward, one step back” dance across the ages.
Latin culture begins in Italy. Greek culture wasn’t copied, it was absorbed from Greek migrants in the boot of Italy and the shores of Sicily. Migrants still seek these shores today.
The Romans spread Latin culture around the Mediterranean (27 BC – 476 AD). Romans loved silk. Venice controlled the oriental trade and absorbed oriental influences.
When Rome declined, what is now Spain and Portugal did not decline as badly. French are a Germanic people who remained “Latinized” from their Roman period. The Germanic mind and the Latin heart in the French are an enviable combination when they work together.
For better or sometimes for worse, the Roman Catholic church was for a long time the last pillar of Western Civilization. The church’s influence on life and therefore culture was profound, even as it began dividing into Oriental and Eastern orthodoxy, and later Protestant religions.
The Mediterranean Sea is essentially a big lake. Phoenicians (Lebanese), Greeks, and Jews settled around its shores. Their cultures added important elements to the mix.
The Moorish conquest of Spain between (711 and 1492) and Sicily (827-902) added Islamic influences. When they worked together, Christians, Jews, and Muslims created the most advanced civilization of their time and resurrected the ancient roots of Western Civilization.
The Italian Renaissance (circa 1300s – 1500s) began to bring light back to Europe. The Renaissance is the foundation of contemporary Western civilization.
The Portuguese began exploring the African coast in 1419. They eventually made it to the Orient.
The Ottoman takeover of Constantinople (1453) closed ancient trade routes. This pushed traders to the sea looking for another way to the Orient.
The Spanish Golden Age (1492-1659) brought Europeans, and forced Jews and Africans to the Americas. The conquistadores planted the first orange trees in Florida. The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs (1521), the Incas (1572), and the Maya (1697) folded Native American cultures into the mix.
Cuba was the main port of the Spanish transatlantic trade in plunder and slaves. There African and Spanish mixed into what we now think of as Latin. This culture spread across the Spanish-speaking Americas.
In 1524 Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano discovered New York Bay for a French king.
The first African slaves arrived in what is now New York City in 1626. There was a slave market on the east end of Wall Street. New York slaves came from Cuba.
The French coined the term “Amérique latine” (Latin American) while trying to conquer Mexico in the 1830s. Latin American leaders adopted the term because of its connection to the great military and cultural power of the time.
Colonial power in the Americas led Latin Americans to look to European culture as the best. Colonization left diverse and rich cultural blends. It also left dysfunctional political and economic structures which are still unwinding today.
Jazz became recognizable in African communities at the turn of the 20th century. Jelly Roll Morton’s “Spanish tinge” was Cuban. The ferry ran twice a day between New Orleans and Havana.
The main wave of Italian immigrants to New York City came between 1900-1910. They first settled in East Harlem.
In 1940, Cubans Mario Bauzá and Machito Grillo formed the Machito and his Afro-Cubans orchestra. They created Latin Jazz as we know it and caught the ear of Dizzy Gillespie.
World War II (1939-1945) moved the world’s cultural center from Paris to New York.
In the 1950s Celia Cruz popularized Cuban music across Latin America. Tito Puente and others popularized Cuban music in the United States. Since the 1950s, Latin has meant Latin American, or the countries south of the United States.
The “Great Migration” from Puerto Rico to New York City in the 1950s gave “Latin” a Puerto Rican meaning. East Harlem became known as “Spanish Harlem” or “El Barrio.”
In the 1970s, Cuban music played mostly by New York Puerto Ricans went global out of New York City. It was called Salsa. That music and dance went everywhere and has spawned endless variations.
Latin culture is so popular now that even people who aren’t Latin by birth are part of the culture.
Mexico is the global center of all forms of Spanish-language publishing. Mexican-Americans are the Hispanic majority in the United States. So Latin is beginning to mean Mexican-American.
Most Hispanic immigration to New York City is now coming from the Caribbean (Dominican) and South America (Ecuadorian and Colombian).
Mexico has the world’s largest Spanish-speaking population. The United States is second. Brazil has the largest Portuguese-speaking population. France and Canada are the second and third largest French-speaking countries.
There are large Middle Eastern and Asian communities in Central and South America.
The global icon of New York City, the Statue of Liberty, is French.
So who is Latin? Whatever you are, we are all a little bit Latin.