Contrary to the typical American assumption that everything south of the U.S. Mexico border is hot dry and culturally uniform, the developing countries of Middle and South America have developed from a patchwork of European, African, and Native American influences, and each of these cultural influences combined with the diverse physical make up of this vast area of land have created a rich cultural and political landscape. Middle America in particular stands as an example of the rich texture of diversity to be found south of the U.S./Mexico border. Middle America is the area of land that comprises Mexico, Central America, and the islands of the Caribbean. Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama are considered the mainland, but the rimland of Middle America includes the Caribbean Islands as well as the coastline of the mainland along the Caribbean Sea. And both the rimland and mainland lie largely between the equator and the tropic of cancer (George Hepner and Jesse Mckee 329). While Middle America is unified by its location in the world and a common history of colonial exploitation, the rimland and the mainland peoples have developed through distinct cultural, economic, and historical pressures that have led to the differing ways that they live their lives.
The mainland was colonized by emissaries of Spain who intermarried with the native people creating the mestizos that populate this region, but a large population of Native Americans remains. Spain introduced the grid town plan which centered on a main plaza and a catholic church. The grid town plan was largely assimilated into the culture of both those of European descent and the American Indian population. However, the Christianization intended by focusing the towns around the church was only mostly successful. Pockets of animism (native religion) still remain in some areas that are highly populated by native peoples. And although the major language of the region is Spanish several native dialects are still spoken especially in the more remote regions.
These mainland areas were hard to reach by traders, so settlers needed a self-sufficient system to manage the land. Therefore, Spain introduced the hacienda system of agriculture. Settlers were given out large tracts of land that could produce all the food and other products that were needed to survive in an unfamiliar land. Yet, these large haciendas needed many workers to grow the crops and take care of the livestock, so the hacienda owners turned to the native Indians for labor. Many of these haciendas were run by almost exclusively by native workers while the owners lived in more hospitable areas (Hepner and McKee 352). However, the hacienda system only worked in places like Mexico where there were large flat expanses of relatively fertile land. In the less suitable areas such as mountainous terrain or areas of poor soil the tribal people stuck to their traditional ways of farming. They planted corn, beans, and squash together. The corn provided a staple food for the people while it stripped the land of nutrients. But corn stalks are sturdy and they provided good support for beans to grow. The beans reintroduced nutrients into the ground to encourage the continued growth of corn and to add variety to the foods that people ate. The squash was planted to protect the soil from drying out due to the heat from the sun and to keep down soil erosion; plus, the squash added valuable vitamins to the people’s diet. Since Spain relinquished control, the mainland of Middle America has traditionally been on shaky political ground with rampant corruption, military dictatorships, and a myriad of revolutions. However, conditions were vastly different for the creation of the rimland culture.
The rimland culture was started on the islands of the Caribbean. They were colonized by European countries as varied as England, France, Spain and Belgium. Due to living on islands the native populations were packed together densely and had nowhere to go to escape the diseases that were introduced by the European settlers. These were diseases that the settlers had immunities to but were diseases that the natives had never encountered before. Diseases like smallpox, chickenpox, and yellow fever almost entirely wiped out the native population of the islands. With little or no native population left on the islands the settlers had to turn to slavery to find people to work the land. The African slaves and the European settlers intermarried and gave rise to the mulattos who dominate the areas today. Since these islands were well connected to the trade routes, they were ideal for the growing of sugarcane in the plantation system.
The plantation system was an exploitive system where locals worked the fields that grew a single crop. This crop of sugarcane was then processed onsite into sugar that was then transported off the islands. The plantations were owned by rich Europeans who could afford the expensive equipment required to process the sugarcane, and the proceeds from the sale of the sugar was kept by the plantation owner. The locals were left to feed themselves with whatever resources that were not taken over by the plantation. The locals were left to eat fish, coconuts, and whatever rice they could harvest in the land that was not fit for growing sugarcane. Once the bottom dropped out of the sugar market, the island people were left to pick up the pieces on their own. And today an echo of the plantation has taken hold of many of these island nations in the form of the tourism industry. Like the plantation system, the tourism industry is very expensive to operate, so it is owned and managed by foreign corporations that produce only one thing. This product is priced out of the reach of the locals and much of the income is funneled off of the island.
Today both the rimland and the mainland of Middle America are caught in crises both economic and political. And their shared history of European exploitation has at least guided the region to these crises even if the foreign meddling is not wholly at fault for these problems.
Hepner, George F., and Jesse O. McKee. World Regional Geography: A Global Approach. St. Paul: West, 1992.