People & Culture

There are so many layers to South American culture. Religion is a key component of life on the continent, where Christianity, indigenous beliefs and African religions have all shaped identity. South America is also the birthplace of great music including samba, tango, Andean sounds and countless other regional genres. While religion and music can be a great unifier across the socioeconomic divide, there is still a huge gulf between haves and have-nots in this highly stratified society.


South America boasts astonishing diversity. The continent has been shaped by the original indigenous inhabitants, European colonists and Africans brought over as slaves to toil in the plantations and mines. The level of intermixing varies greatly from country to country, which has led to the relative diversity or homogeneity of the population.

Immigration has also added to the complex ethnic tapestry of the continent. For decades, the US was a major destination for migrants from South America. These days, there's much more migration happening internally (ie between South American countries), with Brazil, Argentina and Chile attracting the largest numbers of migrants, largely from neighboring countries. There are also complicated dynamics at work in each of the continent's 13 countries. Ecuador for instance, with a population of just 16 million, has an estimated two million emigrants, living in the US, Italy and Spain; in the latter, they make up the largest contingent of Latin Americans. On the flipside, Ecuador has seen an influx of refugees (in the 1980s and 1990s) fleeing from conflicts in neighboring Colombia, and opportunity-seeking migrants from Peru.The situation, however, remains quite fluid. Since 2008, with improved job opportunities at home, a growing number of Ecuadorians are choosing to return home.

In the 19th century Brazil and Argentina saw mass immigration from Europe: Spaniards, Italians, Germans and Eastern Europeans were the most common immigrants moving to the Americas. Brazil also welcomed immigrants from Japan, Portugal and the Middle East. They worked in a wide variety of fields, from coffee plantations and farming to heavy industry in the continent's growing cities. The influx of new arrivals continued well into the 20th century, with tumult in Europe causing the flight of Jews fleeing persecution from the Nazis, followed by Nazis looking to avoid being put on trial for war crimes, in addition to Italians and others escaping their ravaged cities in the postwar period.


No matter where you go in South America, you'll likely encounter a yawning divide between rich and poor. Modern-day South Americans inherited a highly stratified society from the slave-owning European colonists, and this dispiriting chasm persists centuries later between the haves and have-nots of both urban and rural society. At the bottom of the heap are those struggling in low-wage jobs in the city, or scraping out a meager existence in the countryside – many are barely able to put food on the table. Those who live in rural areas are practically invisible to the urban middle and upper classes.

The middle and upper class live in comfortable apartments or houses, with all the trappings of the developed world, including good health care in private clinics, cars, vacations away and easy access to the latest gadgets and trends (though iPhones and laptops are pricier here). Owing to low wages, maids are common, even among the middle class. Crime is of high concern, and those that can afford it live in high-security buildings or gated residential complexes.

The divide is greatest in struggling countries like Bolivia, where nearly half the population lives below the poverty line. There many live without running water, electricity and heat, and the threat of illness looms high over children – with the majority of childhood deaths associated with malnutrition and poverty.



The dominant religion in South America is Roman Catholicism, a legacy from the early Spanish and Portuguese colonizers. The number of followers varies by region, with no small degree of complexity from country to country (in Argentina, for instance, 92% of the population call themselves Catholic, though less than 20% practice regularly). On average though, 70% or more of each country's population professes to be Roman Catholic. The ranks are declining from year to year, and many people (particularly in urban areas) merely turn up to church for the basics: baptism, marriage and burial. Nevertheless, the church still has a strong visible presence here. Nearly every city, town or village has a central church or cathedral, and the calendar is loaded with Catholic holidays and celebrations.

Evangelical Christianity, meanwhile, is booming. All across the continent, especially in poor communities where people are most desperate, simple, recently built churches are full of worshippers. The religion has done particularly well here, with converts from Catholicism often citing a more personal relationship with God, as well as receiving more direct guidance in the realm of health, jobs and living a moral life. The firebrand Pentecostal branch attracts many new followers, with its emphasis on divine healing, speaking in tongues and receiving direct messages from God. With the current growth of the Evangelical church, some predict that the majority of South America will be Protestant by 2050.

Indigenous Beliefs

Among indigenous peoples, allegiance to Catholicism was often a clever veneer adopted to disguise traditional beliefs ostensibly forbidden by the church. In parts of the interior, the Amazon and the Andes, shamanism and animism still flourish. There is also a strong belief in powerful spirits that inhabit the natural world – the sky, mountains, lightning and the wind. Some groups, like the Andean Aymara, practice a syncretic religion that pays equal homage to both deities and Catholic saints. They may attend mass, baptisms and saint's day celebrations, while also paying respect to Pachamama (Mother Earth) come harvest time. The old Inca celebration of Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) is celebrated with fervor in some parts of the Andes. It happens on the winter solstice (late June) and commemorates the mythical birth of the Inca.

African Religions

Enslaved peoples brought over ancient African religions to the Americas, which were adapted over the centuries. The best known and most orthodox is Candomblé, which arrived in Brazil via the Nago, Yoruba and Jeje peoples. It later found root in Bahia, where it is still practiced today. Candomblé denotes a dance in honor of the gods, and indeed trancelike dancing is an essential part of the religion. Afro-Brazilian rituals are directed by Candomblé priests, the pai de santo or mãe de santo (literally 'saint's father' or 'saint's mother'), and practiced in a casa de santo or terreiro (house of worship).

The religion centers upon the orixás. Like the gods in Greek mythology, each orixá has a unique personality and history. Although orixás are divided into male and female types, there are some that can switch from one sex to the other, such as Logunedé, the son of two male gods, or Oxumaré, who is male for six months of the year and female for the other six months. (Candomblé, not surprisingly, is much more accepting of homosexuality and bisexuality than other religions.)

Candomblé followers believe that every person has a particular deity watching over them, and followers give food or other offerings to their respective orixá.


South America has given the world a rich musical heritage. This is the birthplace of tango, samba, bossa nova and haunting Andean folk music, but this is just the beginning of the dizzying soundtrack, of wide-ranging rhythms with roots in Europe, Africa and indigenous pre-Columbian villages.


Music plays a key part in festivities across the continent, and it also takes center stage when it comes to nightlife in many cities. The tango is deeply linked to Buenos Aires (though the music also has ties to lesser-known Montevideo in Uruguay). It emerged from the country's bordellos in the late 19th century, though it didn't become mainstream until Carlos Gardel helped popularize the songs in the 1920s and 1930s. Although Gardel was born in France, he was brought by his destitute single mother to Buenos Aires when he was three years old. In his youth he entertained neighbors with his rapturous singing, then went on to establish a successful performing career. He single-handedly helped bring tango out of the tenement and onto the world stage. He died tragically in a plane crash at the height of his career and was mourned around the world.

Another seminal figure in the tango world was Astor Piazzolla, who moved the genre from the dance halls into the concert halls. Tango nueva, as it was called when it emerged in the 1950s, was given a newfound respect, with its blend of jazz and classical elements and new forms of melodic structures. Piazzolla also paved the way for the tango fusion, which emerged in the 1970s and continues to this day with tango electrónico groups such as Gotan Project Bajofondo Tango Club and Tanghetto.

Samba & Bossa Nova

The birth of modern Brazilian music essentially began with the birth of samba, first heard in the early 20th century in a Rio neighborhood near present-day Praça Onze. Here, Bahian immigrants formed a tightly knit community in which traditional African customs thrived – music, dance and the Candomblé religion. Such an atmosphere nurtured the likes of Pixinguinha, one of samba’s founding fathers, as well as Donga, one of the composers of ‘Pelo Telefone,’ the first recorded samba song (1917) and an enormous success at the then-fledgling Carnaval.

Samba continued to evolve in the homes and botequims (neighborhood bars) around Rio. The 1930s are known as the golden age of samba. Sophisticated lyricists such as Dorival Caymmi and Noel Rosa wrote popular songs featuring sentimental lyrics and an emphasis on melody (rather than rhythm), foreshadowing the later advent of cool bossa nova. The 1930s were also the golden age of samba songwriting for Carnaval.

In the 1950s came bossa nova (literally, 'new wave'), sparking a new era of Brazilian music. Bossa nova’s founders – songwriter and composer Antônio Carlos (Tom) Jobim and guitarist João Gilberto, in association with the lyricist-poet Vinícius de Moraes – slowed down and altered the basic samba rhythm to create a more intimate, harmonic style. Bossa nova was also associated with the new class of university-educated Brazilians. Its lyrics reflected the optimistic mood of the middle class in the 1950s, and by the following decade it had become a huge international success.

Andean Sounds

The breathy, mournful songs played by groups across the western half of the continent (from Chile up to Venezuela) are all part of the legacy of Andean folk music. Its roots date back to pre-Inca times when music was largely played during religious ceremonies. It was viewed as a sacred art with connections to the divine world, and it paid homage to the spirits that were believed to inhabit the natural world.

Musical styles vary from region to region (with four-, five-, six- or seven-note scales), but the instruments are often quite similar. Panpipes are a staple: usually made of bamboo, these instruments consist of a single or double row of hollow tubes, and come in a bewildering variety of sizes. These are often accompanied by a smaller flutelike quena, a bass drum and a stringed instrument (an influence adopted from Europe), such as the 10-string charango, which is similar to a mandolin. Prior to the Spaniards, wind and percussion were the dominant sounds – fitting for a region of fiery volcanoes and bone-chilling gales that blow across the highlands.

Feature: Protest Songs

South America went through a dark epoch in the 20th century, when military dictatorships controlled vast swaths of the continent. Crying out against the oppression were a handful of brave singers and songwriters who targeted the atrocities being committed, and led the call for social justice. The socially progressive folk music of nueva canción (literally, 'new song'), which emerged from Latin America in the 1960s, flourished in Chile during the dictatorship of Pinochet and soon spread to other countries. Singer Víctor Jara, who sang of peace and social justice, paid for his activist views with his life, when he was tortured and murdered by the Chilean military in 1973.

In Argentina, singer Mercedes Sosa was one of the leading figures of the protest movement, and became known as 'the voice of the voiceless' for her courageous performances. Antagonized by Argentina's military rulers, she was banished from the country in 1979, and returned in 1982 shortly before the collapse of the military regime.

In Brazil, one of the seminal figures of protest against the military (in power from 1964 to 1984) was Chico Buarque, considered one of the country's finest songwriters. His poetic lyrics were cleverly worded and used cryptic analogies that were often overlooked by military censors. Songs like 'A Pesar de Você' (In Spite of You) became national songs of protest for social justice.

Sidebar: 1

One of the most famous figures from the Amazon is Raoni Metuktire, chief of the Kayapó people. Born in 1930, Chief Raoni was an early advocate for indigenous rights and the preservation of the Amazon, and his hard-fought campaigns have brought worldwide attention to the plight of the rainforest and its inhabitants.

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Dozens of uncontacted indigenous groups still live in the Amazon. In 2007, 89 Metyktire suddenly emerged in a village in Pará, the first time this particular group (feared dead) had been encountered since 1950.

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Of the infinite varieties of music that exist all over Peru, the Afro-Peruvian tunes from the coast are perhaps the grooviest. For an excellent primer, listen to the David Byrne–produced compilation Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru.

Sidebar: 4

Una Mujer Fantástica (2017), directed by the Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, is a powerful film about a transgender woman navigating the deep-seated prejudices of society. It stars Daniela Vega, the first openly transgender person in history to be a presenter at the Academy Awards ceremony.

Sidebar: 5

Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World, by Ruy Castro, is an excellent book that captures the vibrant music and its backdrop of 1950s Rio.

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Cumbia villera is a relatively recent musical phenomenon: a fusion of cumbia and gangsta posturing with a punk edge and reggae overtones. Born of Buenos Aires’ shantytowns, its aggressive lyrics deal with marginalization, poverty, drugs, sex and the Argentine economic crisis.

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It was a Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutiérrez, who first articulated the principles of liberation theology – the theory that links Christian thought to social justice – in 1971. He now teaches in the US.

Get Inspired


  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez Marquez (Love in the Time of Cholera) and Mario Vargas Llosa (War of the End of the World) – Nobel Prize winners and sometime rivals – are considered the continent's modern living writers.
  • Jorge Luis Borges This giant of modern literature is best known for his labyrinthine tales, and playful melding of myth and truth, such as in Ficciones.
  • Jorge Amado Colorful, ribald stories set in Bahia such as the classic Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands.
  • Ernesto Che Guevara Breezy travelogue The Motorcycle Diaries was written by this Argentine-born revolutionary.
  • Bruce Chatwin Poignant and beautifully written travel narrative, In Patagonia, blends fact and fable.


  • África Brasil (Jorge Ben Jor) Celebratory album from the 1970s that blends funk, samba and blues.
  • Amanecer (Bomba Estéreo) A blend of African, indigenous and vibrant dance beats by an inventive Colombian band.
  • Lunático (Gotan Project) Brilliant fusing of tango with electronic grooves.
  • Roots of Chicha (various artists) Wild Peruvian cumbias that channel psychedelic, rock and melodic sounds.
  • Tropicália ou Panis et Circencis A famed Brazilian collaboration between Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa and Tom Zé.