Latin America includes those countries in South, Central and North America where Spanish or Portuguese is the official or most common language. Although the term is sometimes used in the United States to refer to the entire region of the Americas to the south, it is more properly a cultural or linguistic term. It is not precisely defined, but does not include the United States of America (except Puerto Rico), Canada, or Caribbean islands where English and/or local languages are dominant. (French-speaking nations are sometimes included, as the language is Latin-based, but this isn't the usual sense of the term.) The term was made popular by emperor Napoleon III's government to justify their intervention in "Latin" Mexico.
The term "Latin America" dates to propaganda efforts by French Emperor Napoleon III (reigned 1848-1870; the first few years as President) to exert French influence in the Americas on the basis of Spanish and Portuguese being languages derived from Latin just as French was. While this effort was an embarrassing failure for France (Their would-be puppet Emperor Maximilian of Mexico first refused to be a puppet and later wound up executed by republican Mexicans), the term did replace the earlier term "Iberoamerica" almost entirely and is now in use in most languages, including Latin American Spanish. With this of course comes the problem that the term is clear as mud. While most US citizens will consider everything South of the Rio Grande with the possible exception of the Caribbean and the Falkland Islands "Latin America", Francophones might include Quebec or Haiti on account of French being derived from Latin and others yet might exclude Suriname due to its Dutch language heritage. The term is of course not coextensive with the term South America and most of Mexico is actually part of North America proper even if one considers Central America a separate geographic entity (most geologists see it as part of North America).
- This is intended as a short overview of general historic themes shared by most of Latin America and not as detailed coverage of individual countries' particulars. For that see the country guides or Wikipedia
Much of Latin America was conquered by Spanish or Portuguese adventurers, soldiers and missionaries in the years and decades following 1492, but the Mapuche in what is now Chile actually held out until after independence and actual colonial governance took centuries to penetrate deeper into all facets of live, pre-contact languages and in some cases even social structures enduring or thriving until independence in some cases. Some more outlying areas that were hard to reach and seemed of little value were later claimed and settled by European powers outside the Iberian peninsula, which caused their history to diverge. Here the mainland areas of "the Guyanas", French Guiana, Guyana (former British colony), Suriname (former Dutch colony) as well as Central American Belize (British colony until 1980) and most of the Caribbean have markedly different histories from the rest of the region, which causes controversy for almost all of them whether they can properly be considered part of "Latin America".
During the 19th century most former Spanish colonies achieved their independence with independence movements mostly led by the criollo (people of European descent born in the colonies) elite. Slavery was either abolished upon independence or put on a course of ultimate extinction, unlike in the United States or Brazil which clung to it until 1865 and 1888 respectively, and the black and native populations were at least in theory granted full citizenship rights on independence (which did not happen in the United States until 1964). Spain maintained control of a few particularly lucrative island colonies such as Cuba and Puerto Rico before losing them to the US in the Spanish American war of 1898. The US would grant nominal independence to Cuba in 1902 (but retaining strong de facto control until 1959), while Puerto Rico remains a US territory, albeit with Spanish instead of English being the dominant language. While the new constitutions were ostensibly color-blind, the criollo elite mostly took power for itself only slowly integrating a select few mestizo (of mixed European and Amerindian descent) families into the governing elite. Similarly native culture was often ignored or even persecuted and the introduction of stronger bureaucracy, public schools and more direct administration of far-flung areas created a continuing pressure on indigenous languages which only a few languages survived in a truly healthy state.
Social inequality introduced in the colonial era but sometimes predating it, is one of many causes of a tumultuous and fractious political history throughout much of the 19th and into the 20th century. Often a caudillo, a charismatic military leader would rise from outside the governing elite and challenge it with populist policies and the support of the vast economic underclasses only to turn into a dictator who clung to power. With the passage of the Monroe Doctrine, the USA began to assert its influence over the region and the US continue to be an important trading partner, hated loved and feared to various extents across the political spectrum. During the 1850s, private US citizens, so-called "Filibusters" tried to conquer Latin American nations and convert them into puppets of mostly southern slaver interests and by the end of the 19th century business interests, especially in bananas had many countries firmly in their grip giving rise to the term "banana Republic". The US would often intervene to ensure stable regimes loyal to them, which naturally caused resentment on the losing side of those political battles. During the Cold War this tendency dating at least to the Woodrow Wilson era was exacerbated by the accusation of any leftist movement of being a puppet of the Soviet Union and the natural inclination of such movements to accept Soviet (or later Cuban) aid.
Coca is native to the Andes and as such Cocaine production naturally happens in Latin America and all aspects of the production, trade and consumption of this and other substances illegal under US law have had a large and sometimes controversial influence. While there have been plans to entirely eradicate the Coca plant on US suggestion and a "law and order" approach with "super mano dura" (super hard hand) still enjoys some popularity, countries such as Uruguay have since experimented with the legalization of cannabis and others propose even further ratcheting down of the "war on drugs". Regardless, criminal enterprises fueled partially or entirely by the drug trade have had a large influence on many parts of Latin America.
After 1990, several Latin American countries elected left leaning presidents in a trend sometimes called "pink tide" which recalibrated the political compass of many areas. While most of those leftists ruled constitutionally and were willing to let at least some foreign investment untouched, the rules of Chavez in Venezuela (1999 to his death) Ortega in Nicaragua (2006 to date after a first stint in the 1980s) as well as Chavez's successor Maduro have garnered international controversy and accusations of US meddling on one hand and dictatorial tendencies on the other. The Odebrecht corruption scandal has implicated high ranking political figures in virtually all Latin American countries and left no side of the political spectrum untouched.
Naturally according to (almost) all definitions at least one Romance language will be spoken by a large portion of the population. In most cases this will be Spanish and in Brazil this will be Portuguese. Both Spanish and Portuguese diverged significantly from their "metropole" varieties spoken in Europe and slang terms in particular as well as some aspects of pronunciation can trip up the uninitiated. However, besides some snickering at an innocently used word that has a different (slang) meaning this should not pose too big a challenge. Foreign language proficiency outside of language border regions or relatively small young urban populations tends to be poor but varies widely even between neighboring countries such as Nicaragua and Costa Rica. While the common cliche would have it that native American languages died out the second a Spaniard (or Portuguese) set foot in the respective area, languages such as Nahuatl (Mexico) Maya languages (southern Mexico and northern Central America), Quechua and Aymara (Andes) remain in widespread usage and show even some tentative signs of revitalization. In Paraguay most of the population - even those with no indigenous heritage - are bilingual with Spanish and Guaraní in part due to Jesuit missionaries making extensive use of the language.
Cuisines vary widely between countries, and in many cases between different regions of a single country as well. See the individual country articles for information about their cuisines. Keep in mind that the same names are often used to refer to very different dishes in different countries, and to add to the confusion, many Spanish and Portuguese dishes have the same name but are vastly different from their respective Latin American counterparts. For instance, tamal refers to related, but very different dishes in Mexico and Colombia, while Colombian empanadas are very different from their Argentinian counterparts, as are Spanish tortillas from their Mexican counterparts. The drink known as horchata differs significantly between different Latin American countries, all of which are significantly different from the Spanish version of the drink. You might have a cliche in your hand of all Latin American cuisines being spicy and this indeed true for large parts of Mexico and northern central America and the chili pepper is native to the Americas, but several other Latin American countries have virtually no capsaicin influence in their cuisine. See the country articles for more details.
American soft drinks are of course omnipresent in Latin America safe for really off the beaten path destinations. Tap water ranges in quality from better than at some US localities to not fit for human consumption and while there is a certain amount of "getting used to the local bugs in the water" anything serious will affect locals and tourists in equal measure. Bottled water is usually widely available if overpriced - getting a larger container often saves considerable amounts of money.
As for alcoholic beverages, large parts of Latin America never get cold enough to brew certain types of beer without artificial refrigeration. As it was a german who first perfected this technology for large scale use, naturally many breweries have german roots. From the Costa Rican "imperial" whose name and large eagle shaped logo makes it hard for Germans to not think of the war to some excellent craft breweries, there are some countries that have an acceptable brewing offer if not the five century old tradition in every second village found in much of Europe.
Much of Latin America is climatically unsuited for viticulture and thus most wine is imported and expensive except for some perfectly drinkable Argentinean and Chilean wines that surprisingly see more export to Europe and North America than to neighboring countries.
Corn is a local staple food in many countries and has been turned into booze for centuries. Nowadays some beers contain corn but there are also other maize based drinks - even alcohol free ones.
Sugar cane was among the crops Columbus and his crew brought to the Americas personally and as such they were and in some cases continue to be a cash crop of many countries many of which also make some sugar cane derived liquor, be it rum, cachaça or generic "aguardiente".
While most of Latin America is nominally Catholic, actual religiosity varies widely. As many common swearwords are technically blasphemous, you should tread with caution using even mild swearing around religious or conservative people. Different from the European situation where Catholicism tends to be the most conservative brand of Christianity and most leftists are also secularists, there are numerous Catholic priests and even bishops that adhere to a much more "left wing" interpretation of religion called "liberation theology" which while condemned by the pope is still often invoked in politics. On the other hand 20th and 21st century US missionaries have brought their brand of charismatic evangelical fundamentalist Christianity which tends to be much more strict, much more socially conservative and taken much more earnestly by its believers than many "submarine Catholics" who only "surface" in church during high holidays.
While you won't have a problem just because of your nationality even if you are American and the attitude of Latin America to the five hundred pound gorilla up North is highly ambiguous and at times contradictory (Nicaragua, a country that greatly suffered from 1980s US imperialism is also a country that greatly enjoys "Walker, Texas Ranger") avoid any comments on politics that come off as condescending. Chances are, the average Latin American can rattle off encyclopedic knowledge of invasions, interventions, underhand dealings and injustices the US or European countries perpetrated against their country that you haven't even heard of. You can talk politics and will find enthusiastic and opinionated conversation partners, but the wiser course of action is to listen and ask rather than to opine and preach.
Another thing, partially caused by language and cultural differences is the usage of the term "America". Both Portuguese and Spanish tend to see the entire landmass between Tierra del Fuego and Alaska as one big continent "America" rather than the two or even three "Americas" the anglophone world tends to see them as. Hence all who live in said landmass are "Americans". The United States is referred to as Estados Unidos in Spanish, and never as America. Spanish also contains the word estadounidense ("United Statesian") as a neutral and common term for citizens of the US and Latin Americans tend to cringe at the common shorthand americano for things related (only) to the US. Try to avoid it unless you particularly enjoy lectures on how the term "America" belongs to "the entire continent" rather than one - albeit large - country.