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Central America


mulattoes, mestizos, Central American countries, Cultural patterns, Belize City

Most of the inhabitants of Central America live on the Pacific side of the isthmus, where they occupy both lowland and highland environments. The rainy, forested Caribbean slope and coast are sparsely settled.


A substantial majority of the people of Central America are Native Americans or mestizos (people of mixed heritage, chiefly of Spanish and Native American descent). Along the narrow Caribbean coast blacks and mulattoes (people of mixed white and black-African backgrounds) predominate. About half of the people of Belize are of black-African or partly black-African ancestry. The great majority of Costa Ricans are of unmixed Spanish background, and approximately 90 percent of the inhabitants of El Salvador and Honduras are of mixed Spanish and Native American descent. About 45 percent of Guatemalans are Native Americans, and mestizos make up most of the rest of the country’s population. About 70 percent of Nicaragua’s and Panama’s inhabitants are mestizos. Panama has a sizable black minority. In general, the Native American element is less apparent in the southern countries of Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.


The population of Central America is concentrated in districts of dense settlement, separated by areas of sparse habitation. Population densities reach more than 385 persons per sq km (more than 1,000 per sq mi) in parts of the Meseta Central of Costa Rica, but vast areas of eastern Honduras and Nicaragua have fewer than 4 persons per sq km (fewer than 10 per sq mi). The rate of population increase in much of Central America is high; in 2008 Nicaragua had an annual growth rate of 1.82 percent; Guatemala, 2.11 percent; Costa Rica, 1.38 percent; and Panama, 1.53 percent. The population increase is principally the result of continuing high birth rates and falling death rates. Increasing political unrest, economic hardship, guerrilla warfare, and military repression have forced many rural residents into urban centers; thousands also decided to begin the long trek to the United States via Mexico.

The people of Central America are becoming increasingly urbanized. In the mid-1990s about 45 percent of the inhabitants of El Salvador and Honduras and about 40 percent of Guatemalans were considered urban, while more than half the people of Panama and nearly two-thirds of Nicaragua’s people lived in urban areas. In each country except Belize the national capital is the largest city; the biggest urban center of Belize is Belize City.

Language and Religion

Spanish is the official language of all Central American countries except Belize, where English is the language of government. Many highland Native Americans use traditional languages, such as Quiché, Mam, and Kekchí in Guatemala, and Chortí in Honduras. Some Native Americans also speak Spanish as well. Roman Catholicism is by far the dominant religion of Central America although Evangelicalism, Methodism, and Mormonism are making increasingly significant inroads in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama.

Cultural Activity

Cultural patterns in Central America are based largely on the heritage of the Maya and other Native Americans and of the Spanish colonial period. Considerable change has occurred in the region’s cities, however, where the mass media and modern cultural institutions have much influence. The countries of Central America have established many educational facilities, but a comparatively large proportion of the children do not attend school. Although the great majority of people aged 15 and over in Costa Rica and Panama are literate, this figure drops to three-quarters in El Salvador and Honduras, about two-thirds in Nicaragua, and just over one-half in Guatemala.

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