(March 2003) Latin America experienced explosive population growth in the middle of the 20th century as two demographic trends converged: high birth rates and rapidly declining death rates. With annual growth reaching 2.8 percent in the 1960s, Latin America’s population was growing faster than that of any other world region except Africa. This unprecedented pace of growth slowed after 1970 as fertility fell with surprising speed, but the number of people added to the population each year continued to expand, and the region’s population tripled between 1950 and 2000. Latin America’s population is young, which generates substantial momentum for further growth well into the 21st century.

While some countries in Latin America welcomed additional population as a way to help tame their sparsely populated hinterlands, most of the growth was concentrated in urban areas. The region’s population was being transformed from being overwhelmingly rural to predominantly urban. As the urban population grew by 4.5 percent per year, it taxed public services and created an expanding need for education and jobs. In 2000, three-fourths of Latin Americans lived in urban areas, with the most vigorous growth among medium-sized cities rather than the older megacities such as Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and Mexico City.

Population change in Latin America is important to the United States as globalization strengthens the hemisphere’s social and economic ties, and because migrant streams have brought more Latin Americans to U.S. communities. Immigration from Latin America contributes significantly to U.S. population growth.

Many North Americans are not aware of the vast ethnic, demographic, and social diversity of Latin America or of the different political and economic structures found in the region. While most Latin Americans speak Spanish, for example, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and several other countries are home to large indigenous populations that speak a variety of native languages, including Quechua, Mixtec, and Kekchi. Brazilians, who make up nearly one-third of the region’s population, speak Portuguese; English, French, and Creole are the predominant languages in some countries of the Caribbean and Central and South America. While most Latin Americans live in urban areas, distinct rural societies persist, especially in countries with large indigenous populations. And while many Latin American countries have a fairly large middle class, the region also faces vast and growing disparities in wealth.

This Population Bulletin examines major demographic trends in Latin America during the second half of the 20th century and highlights the demographic variations among Latin American countries. The Bulletin also considers the relationships between demographic and socioeconomic processes in the region. The Bulletin focuses on 18 Spanish-speaking countries of the Western Hemisphere, plus Brazil and Haiti.

Jorge A. Brea is associate professor of geography at Central Michigan University.