Latin America: Out with the dictators, in with the smart phones

A region known for its exoticism is now, really, just like the rest of the world

By Orin Starn and Miguel La Serna

The funeral of former Peru President Alan Garcia.

It has long been common to regard Latin America as a region of exotic marvels and strange adventures. Hollywood dished up Carmen Miranda sambaing across Rio’s ballrooms in tropical fruit headdress, while that intrepid boy adventurer, Tin Tin, ran down ancient buried treasures in the Andean heights. The more highbrow magical realism of Nobel-winning writers like Gabriel García Márquez and Miguel Ángel Asturias also portrayed the lands to the south of the border as at once downtrodden and fantastical by contrast to the WASPishly boring north. In their pages, a village boy could be born with a pig’s tail.

The latest news might seem to affirm the same old exoticizing fables about Latin America. A few weeks ago, the former Peruvian president Alan García shot himself in the head rather than face corruption charges, a shocking development even in a country where no fewer than five other ex-presidents are in jail or wanted by the law. Millions of Venezuelans have fled the dystopia of hunger and violence under their “Bolivarian socialist” regime. And that’s not to mention the newest macabre executions by Central American gangs like the M-18 and Mara Salvatrucha.

And yet, Latin America is no longer really such an exotic place at all. Despite ups and downs, the region has enjoyed several decades of economic growth, not anything so poor as it once was. Most countries have substantial middle classes with attendant US-style shopping malls, fast food outlets, and a smart phone in every hand. There are no more jack-booted military dictators, and menacing Marxist insurgencies like Peru’s Shining Path have mostly vanished. Elected civilian governments hold power across the region.

Latin American was once overwhelmingly Catholic in its religious inclinations. As much as Mexicans may still seek Virgin of Guadalupe’s favor, the faithful there are just as likely to be found worshiping these days at a storefront Pentecostal church, a Mormon temple, or maybe a mosque. Evangelicals powered a right-wing Trump doppelganger, Jair Bolsonaro, to victory in Brazil’s elections last year. The habits of church and faith have grown more alike across the Americas north, south, and center than ever before.

Nor do the curses of tropical life seem so unique to Latin America any longer. Bought politicians and flawed elections? Our own would-be sacred democracy feels like a banana republic now — between the Russian trolls and the reality show charades. As affluent dotcommers push by homeless beggars to dine at shiny nouvelle restaurants, we certainly match our southern neighbors for grotesque extremes of wealth and poverty. The expanding cardboard encampments under freeway underpasses are the favelas of our modern-day cities.

It is hardly surprising that the likenesses should be so striking across the hemisphere, including the ugly ones. Modern-day societies everywhere in the Americas branch from the same bloody trunk of conquest and colonization. Whether Virginian planters or Castilian gold-seekers, the arrival of the first Europeans shattered native societies and brought enslaved Africans from across the Atlantic. The making of the new world bequeathed us the hateful hierarchies of color and caste that disfigure life from the United States to Colombia and Brazil to this day.

Even the loveliest spots across our far-flung hemispheric borders bear strong family resemblances. The cliff-hanging ruins of Mesa Verde and Machu Picchu inspire wonder no less than Havana and New Orleans bewitch their visitors with sonorous creole charm. You can get as good a pupusa in Miami — well, almost — as in San Salvador thanks to the great migrations that have stretched Latin America’s borders northwards. The future promises only greater ties, thanks to the powers of digital communication and human movement. We will never be able to wall ourselves off from each other.

The early 20th century Cuban revolutionary José Marti hated the habit of people in the United States describing themselves as Americans. That name belongs to the Havanan, Torontan, and Patagonian alike, Martí insisted. We are one diverse, polyglot people united by Instagram, some dubious presidential choices, and a liking for tacos and hamburgers. The United States would be paralyzed if not for the hard work at poor pay of so many field hands, housecleaners, and construction workers who find themselves rounded up in ICE raids by way of thanks.

It may be time to reset our stories about Latin America. There will always be a place for a good comic book adventure about the search for Eldorado — no matter that the legendary golden city of the Incas never existed in the first place. The best new Latin American films like Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage show off a neorealism where we see the textures of everyday life without illusions. There’s that stunning scene in Roma where Cleo, the Mixtec housemaid, lies back to gaze at the sky with her employer’s little boy. “I like being dead,” she says, before getting back up to hang the wash.

Orin Starn is an anthropologist at Duke University and Miguel La Serna is a historian at UNC-Chapel Hill. They are the authors of The Shining Path: Love, Madness, and Revolution in the Andes (Norton, 2019)