Miriam Chesner looks at South American cultural highlights

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Miriam Chesner
Miriam Chesner

South America’s massively diverse population has led the continent to enjoy a spectacular level of cultural interest.

Miriam Chesner is a New York University graduate and expert on South American culture. South America spreads over almost 18 million square kilometers and home to nearly half a billion people. South America boasts an incredible cultural landscape. Centered around language, religion, art, music, and cuisine, South American culture, largely influenced by the continent’s indigenous population. It’s also been heavily influenced by the waves of new settlers arriving from around the globe, especially in recent years.




Made up of twelve sovereign states, language is obviously a big part of the culture of the region. From Aymara in Bolivia and Peru, to Dutch and Indonesian in Suriname, there is over 15 different languages spoken on the continent.


Portuguese and Spanish are the primary languages spoken in the continent. Quechua, English, French, and Hindi are all prevalent in different parts of South America. “Around 50% of South Americans speak Portuguese, almost all of whom live in Brazil, South America’s most populous country. Elsewhere, most other South American countries are predominantly Spanish-speaking,” Chesner points out.


Consisting chiefly of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela, Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion in South America. “Around 80% of those living in Hispanic countries are Roman Catholic,” explains Chesner.




In Brazil, the number is slightly lower at around 70%. French Guiana—also largely considered part of South America, along with the Falkland Islands, the ABC islands of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Trinidad and Tobago, and Panama—meanwhile has a large number of Protestants. “Aside from French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname are the two major exceptions,” suggests Chesner, “with Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam being the prevalent religions here.”


Miriam Chesner also goes on to explain that in parts of lowland South America and the Andes, shamanism and animism are also common. “For example, among the Urarina people of Peruvian Amazonia,” she adds.


Art And Music


Of further cultural highlights, Miriam Chesner points toward art and music. “Lots of the region’s art borrows heavily from Spanish, Portuguese, and French Baroque painting, in obvious addition to indigenous art,” she reveals. This European influence, however, has become less pronounced over the course of the last century. “Since the early 1900s, South Americans have begun to lean back more toward indigenous works, acknowledging the unique nature of the art and its cultural significance,” Chesner explains.


Music is also of great cultural significance in South America. The continent boasts great variety, according to Chesner, with famous musical styles including samba, tango, and cumbia. They originate in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, and Colombia respectively.


Lastly, Miriam Chesner touches on cuisine. Because of its ethnic mix, South American cuisine enjoys European, American Indian, and African influences.  Peru, meanwhile, boasts an incredibly diverse mix of influences from right across the globe.


“These culinary influences,” she adds of Peruvian cuisine, wrapping up, “come from as far away as China, Japan, Africa, and Europe, among other places, making for a style of cooking quite unlike anywhere else on earth.”