The region's population of 520 million people lives in 33 countries. It includes a mix of Native Americans, Europeans, Africans, and Asians. European colonists settled in areas earlier ruled by Native American empires, only to be overturned through independence movements in all but a few Caribbean island countries. Today indigenous language, religion, art, and lifestyles have been blended with those of Europe and Africa.
Population Patterns Three Native American empiresóthe Maya of Central America, the Aztec of Mexico, and the Inca of the Peruvian highlandsódeveloped sophisticated civilizations in Latin America. The first Europeans settlers, mostly from Spain and Portugal, first arrived in the late 1400s and dominated the future development of Latin American countries. Africans followed in the 1500s as forced laborers to work on plantations in Brazil and the West Indies. Asian immigrants first settled in the 1800s and formed ethnic communities in Mexico, Cuba, Peru, and Brazil. Patterns of human settlement in Latin America vary from sparsely populated Brazilian rain forests and Chilean deserts to the "populated rim" with megacities.
History and Government Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans lived in highly structured civilizations ruled by emperors. Spanish and Portuguese settlers established colonial economies that relied on Native Americans and enslaved Africans to work their plantations, ranches, and mines. Resentment against European rule fueled a drive for independence. Most of Latin America broke free of colonial rule by the mid-1800s, with a few Caribbean island countries remaining under foreign control. In many countries independence ushered in an era of dictatorships, which are slowly giving way to democratically elected governments.
Cultures and Lifestyles While Roman Catholicism has been the dominant religion in Latin America since the colonial era, many Latin Americans have blended indigenous customs with those introduced by Europeans and Africans. Various art forms, including murals and music, also reflect a mixture of Native American, African, and European influences. Latin American life revolves around ties to the community and the extended family. Latin Americans enjoy a variety of leisure activities, including soccer, jai alai, and baseball, and festivals such as Rio de Janeiro's Carnival.