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US Myths of Latin America Often Ignorant, Inaccurate

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Many objected when Secretary of State John Kerry referred to Latin America as "the backyard" of the United States last April. While his statement may have been intended as an innocuous comment on geography, the implications of his words represent an all too common attitude about our Southerly neighbors that is not only ignorant, but often inaccurate. Even a quick second glance at the region reveals that the mainstream U.S. media and government perspectives on Latin America are based on ethnocentric myths rather than fact. Let's debunk a few:

Myth # 1: All of Latin America is the same, and/or Mexico.

Even the most liberal politicians in our government and media outlets are alarmingly quick to characterize Latin America as a homogenous blur of violence, instability and poverty. After all, Dora the Explorer has no specific nationality and is just a "general" Latin American, or Latina, girl. However, Latin America -- referring to Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean -- is composed of 20 separate countries, and there are only sombreros in one of them. Contrary to popular belief, not all of the Latin America is the same, linguistically, culturally or politically.

Though nearly 60 percent of Latin America is made up of Spanish speakers, just like in English, each country has its own way of speaking. Like the difference between a southern drawl and an East coast accent, there are regional dialects in Latin America too - the Spanish spoken in Chile is hardly recognizable next to Argentina or Peru. And also, Argentina and Brazil, though large and neighboring, do not speak the same language -- kind of like how India and China are large and neighboring, but no one would ever think to confuse them. It's also important to remember than Spanish and Portuguese are not the only languages of Latin America, and that many others speak Quechua, Guaraní, Haitian Creole, and even Dutch, to name a few.

Myth #2: All of Latin America is dangerous.

Some generalizations of Latin America are harmless enough -- such as thinking that spicy food is popular all over Latin America and not primarily only in Mexico -- others do more harm in discounting these countries' rich identities, and make us look ignorant. While not discounting the tragic loss of thousands of lives due to narcotrafficking, this issue is far more complicated that the media's portrayal.

Compared to the subtleties we seem able to apply to our own country and Europe, such as the ability to say that neighborhoods within a single city are dangerous are not, it seems rather shortsighted to not be able to recognize that Montevideo and Ciudad Juarez may have the exact same level of crime and violence. In fact, it is more likely you will be murdered in Washington, D.C. than in Mexico City.

Making blanket statements about levels of instability in Latin America is about as uninformed as saying a corn field in Iowa and Central Park are the same because they both have foliage.

Myth #3: The U.S. values democracy more than Latin America.

I recently saw a parody article that aimed to describe the United States in as few words as possible. "United States = freedom" with an asterisk: "terms and conditions may apply." But while we are quick enough to criticize our own government, American exceptionalism prevails in the international arena. But while many Latin American governments have certainly not enjoyed long-time or stable democratic freedom, our independence from colonial control is older, stronger and has never faced the kinds of challenges Latin American countries have, many of which have been perpetrated by the U.S. government itself.

The U.S. government's dubious, but usually unmentioned involvement in perpetuating anti-democratic regimes has continued even after the Cold War. For example, the attempted coup of democratically elected, but strategically controversial Chavez government in 2002 and support of the Fujimori regime, the highly-documented human rights abuser and president of Peru until the year 2000. The cooling of the Brazilian-U.S. allyship in light of the uncovering of U.S. government spying on the Brazilian government this past year shows that despite our staunch hold on the moral high ground, corruption and lack of government transparency is not unique to Latin America.

Despite the circumstances, democracy in Latin America has shown remarkable progress and strength. In fact, 87 percent of Venezuelans reported being "strong supporters" of democracy, according to Chile-based pollster Latinobarómetro. Latin American appreciation for democratic values is by no means lesser than that of the U.S. So maybe John Kerry should think twice next time before setting up lawn chairs and wiretaps in his Latin American backyard.

Myth #4: Latin America is way behind the United States.

Government power and initiatives have also disproved the idea that Latin America is behind the U.S. While the U.S. has never had a female president or even vice president, four Latin American countries have female leaders: Brazil's Dilma Roussef, Costa Rica's Laura Chinchilla, Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Chile's Michelle Bachelet. Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay have all legalized gay marriage, and Uruguay, the Economist's 2013 Country of the Year, became the first in the Western Hemisphere to legalize marijuana this year, while Mexico is in talks. Argentina has produced the most progressive pope in history, and Uruguayan President Jose Mújica donates 90 percent of his salary to good causes. And according to the Happy Planet Index, many Latin American countries including Mexico and Costa Rica are happier than the United States.

Despite widely accepted notions that Latin America is a violent, crime-ridden and corrupt collection of homogenous developing nations even among liberal American minds, it is important to recognize that many of these ideas are based on myth, not fact. A closer look reveals that maybe the "backyard" ain't a bad place to be.