Central America

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Author: Amy N. Sharpton
Editors: Sana Loue and Martha Sajatovic
Date: 2012
Encyclopedia of Immigrant Health
Publisher: Springer
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 375

Central America

Department of Veterans Affairs, Louis Stokes DVA Medical Center Cleveland, Brecksville, OH, USA


Central America is a region of the continent of South America. It is situated between the southern border of Mexico and the northwest border of Colombia. Most often Central America is understood to include the nations between Mexico and Colombia, including Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. There is some disagreement, however, as some geographers classify Central America as a large isthmus, in which case the boundaries include the portion of Mexico that lies east of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, including: the Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo.


The region covers 524,000 km2. Its population was estimated at 41,739,000 as of 2009, with a population density of 77 people/km2. The land mass is recognized as the isthmus of southern North America, with boundaries that can be traced from southern Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec, running southeastward to the Isthmus of Panama, where it connects to the northwestern portion of South America at the Colombian Pacific Lowlands. The furthest reaches of Central America can be seen to the north at the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt and the Gulf of Mexico, to the southwest at the Pacific Ocean, and to the northeast at the Caribbean Sea.

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Central America is active geologically, with periodic volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. For example, in 1976, 23,000 persons were killed when Guatemala was devastated by an earthquake. Nicaragua's capital city, Managua, was the site of two catastrophic earthquakes in 1931 and 1972. Approximately 5,000 perished in the latter quake. Volcanic eruptions are common. As a consequence, fertile soils from weathered volcanic lavas have made it possible to sustain dense populations in the agriculturally productive highland areas.

Central America has many mountain ranges; the longest are the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, the Cordillera Isabelia, and the Cordillera de Talamanca. Fertile valleys lie between the mountain ranges and offer an attractive climate in which much of the population is concentrated. In fact, most of the population of Honduras, Costa Rica, and Guatemala live in valleys. Valleys are suitable also for the production of coffee, beans, and other crops. As part of the Mesoamerican Biodiversity hotspot, Central America holds greater than 7% of the world's biodiversity, featuring many species from the Nearctic and the Neotropic ecozones. The most biodiversity is found in the southern countries of Costa Rica and Panama, followed by the northern countries of Guatemala and Belize.

Recently, deforestation has been a concern for the region of Central America. The UN reports that despite efforts to arrest the decline, Central America had the highest rate of forest loss in Latin America for the decade 2000–2010. Over that same decade, the average annual rate of forest cover loss was 1.19% in Central America, compared to 0.13% globally, while Central America's forested area shrank from 54 million acres in 2000 to 48 million acres in 2010. The chief cause of deforestation in the region is conversion of forest land due to urbanization and agriculture; reportedly 90% of the wood removed in the region is used for fuel. It is reported, however, that a variety of practices are being developed to avoid deforestation, such as emission reduction projects, forest fire control efforts, and improved stoves.


Due to the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century, most of Central America had a similar history – the exception was British Honduras. To the English, the land was called British Honduras; to the Spaniards and Guatemalans, the land was called Belice. In 1973, independence from Great Britain was earned, and the name “Belize” was adopted. From the sixteenth century through 1821, Central America formed the Captaincy General of Guatemala, or the Kingdom of Guatemala – formed by the states of Chiapas (now part of Mexico), Guatemala (including present day Belize), El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Officially, the Captaincy was part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain; however, it was administered not by the viceroy or his deputies, but by an independently appointed Captain General headquartered first in Antigua, Guatemala, and later in Guatemala City.

In 1821 a congress of Central American criollos, persons of Spanish heritage born in Latin America, declared their independence from Spain. Independence was short-lived; however, as on January 5, 1822, the leaders in Guatemala welcomed annexation by the First Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide. When Mexico became a republic in 1823, it acknowledged Central America's right to determine its own destiny. On July 1, 1823, the congress of Central America declared absolute independence from Spain, Mexico, and any other foreign nation, and a republican system of government was established and the nation of Central America was formed.

The Constitution for the Federal Republic of Central America was signed in 1824; the nation was comprised of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, with an additional state – Los Altos – being added in the 1830s. Although Central American liberals hoped the new country would evolve into a modern, democratic nation, the Union dissolved in civil war, beginning when Honduras separated from the federation on November 5, 1838. The federation faced significant obstacles such as strong opposition by conservative factions allied with the Roman Catholic clergy, deficient transportation and communication routes between states, a broad lack of commitment toward the federation, and poverty and extreme political instability.

Although various attempts have been made to reunite Central America, none has succeeded for any length of time. While reunification lacks popularity with the leaders of the individual countries, the concept arises occasionally. Today, all five nations fly Page 377  |  Top of Articleflags that have incorporated the old federal ornamentation of two outer blue bands bounding an inner white stripe.

Demographics and Ethnicity

The Central American population has grown rapidly over the last 60 years, with an estimated population in 2007 at over 40 million, up from 10 million in the early 1950s. On average, the population density is 77.3 inhabitants/km2, though the population is distributed very unevenly across the region.

Spanish, the dominant language of the region, is the official language in six of the nations, while English is the official language of Belize and along much of the Caribbean Coast. Many of the native tribes speak only their native tongue, though some speak Spanish and others speak more than one native language. In some areas of Central America, many indigenous languages still exist; for example, there are 23 different Mayan dialects spoken in Guatemala. In other Central American countries, indigenous languages are now less prevalent.

Central America is comprised of a large percentage, nearly 70%, of persons who are of mixed ancestry. It is estimated that approximately 60% of those with mixed ancestry are of mixed European and American Indian descent; they are called ladinos in Guatemala and mestizos elsewhere; with an additional 5% descended from European and African ancestors, referred to as mulattoes; and 1% descending from a mix of native and Black ancestors. The original indigenous population, Amerindian, comprise 20% of the population. Those of strictly European ancestry make up approximately 12%, with the remainder claiming descendency from Chinese and East Indian indentured servants. The population is distributed unevenly across the region, with one-third in Guatemala, one-sixth in El Salvador, one-sixth in Honduras, one-eighth in Nicaragua, one-tenth in Costa Rica, and one-twelfth in Panama. A very small percentage, less than 1%, resides in Belize.

The native populations were converted to Catholicism during the Colonial Period. Catholicism has remained the majority religion of the region, ranging across Central America from 80% to 90%. The Catholic faith was blended into the religious practices of the native peoples, and their original beliefs and rituals have become a part of the Catholic faith of the region.


Central America has a rich cultural heritage that includes influences from the Maya, Olmec, Teotihuacán, Toltec, Aztec, and other Mexican civilizations. From approximately 2000 BC, the Maya occupied the Yucatán and adjacent parts of Central America. Their greatest achievements included their elaborate calendar, writing, palaces and temple pyramids with vaulted rooms made of limestone, polychrome pottery, stone stelae, and stylized wall paintings and bas-reliefs. Maya architectural styles are found in three regions: the Petén district (Uaxactún and Tikal); the cities of the river valleys, such as Piedras Negras and Palenque; and the cities of central and North Yucatán (Uxmal).

To the west, in the area of Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico, the Olmec civilization developed in the Preclassic period. The finest Olmec art was produced between 800 and 400 BC. The Olmec are noted for the excellence of their stone carving; frequently, they used a motif combining human and jaguar features.

Much to the west of the Olmec and Maya civilizations, dating from the first century AD to 700 AD, the Teotihuacán civilization formed – with the peak of its artistic expression occurring approximately between 300 and 700 AD. The Teotihuacán produced extraordinary architectural achievements including monumental pyramids, temples, and processional roads. The site of Teotihuacán was destroyed by invaders around 700 AD.

The two centuries following the fall of Teotihuacán are characterized by the absence of a single dominant force, with a multitude of warring factions vying for power. Eventually one group, the Toltec, made their capital northwest of Teotihuacán at Tula and reigned approximately from 900 to 1,200. The Toltec dominated much of Mexico until they were defeated in the mid-1100s. During their reign they invaded Maya country, in particular Chichén Itzá. The Toltec's cultural influences are revealed in the pyramids at Tula and Chichén Itzá, with their deep colonnades, their decorative bas-relief, and their many sculptured structural elements.

Following a period of anarchy after the destruction of the Toltec's, the Aztecs rose to power. By 1344, at the site of present-day Mexico City, they had founded Tenochtitlan, their grand capital, which became one Page 378  |  Top of Articleof the architectural wonders of ancient America. Aztec art developed a unique character, drawing on the traditions of conquered areas, but under the influence of the harsh Aztec religion as well. The importance of human sacrifice in the cult of the war god, Huitzilopochtli, permeated life and art, and representations of skulls, hearts, hands, and sacrificial scenes were common.

The Aztecs sculpted magnificent works made of stone; pieces were large and elaborate. One such example is the statue of the earth goddess Coatlicue, which features intertwined serpents and a necklace of human hearts and hands. Less ominous subjects, such as the plumed serpent, Quetzalcoatl, and various animals, were carved in a smooth, compact style. Feather work, jade carving, gold work, extraordinary ceremonial vases, and superb textiles were produced by the artisans of subjugated groups. Aztec power over Central Mexico extended until the arrival of Corte´s in 1519.

Modern Central America is undergoing considerable change – culturally, politically, and economically. With efforts toward cooperation, if not unification, communication between states has increased over recent decades. Four countries, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, are undergoing a process of integration and have formed The Central America Four or CA-4, which has introduced common internal borders. The policy of common internal borders enables the citizens of the four signatory states to freely move across borders, without restrictions or checks. Foreign nationals who enter one of the signatory countries can travel to other signatory states also without having to obtain additional permits or to undergo checks at border checkpoints. The CA-4 Agreement is similar to the Schengen Agreement in Europe in that it establishes a harmonized visa regime for foreign nationals traveling to the area. Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, and Dominican Republic join the CA-4 only in matters of economic integration and regional friendship.


There is significant economic diversity within the Central American countries. Nicaragua is the least developed as reflected in rates of infant mortality, adult literacy, and GDP, common indicators of development. Panama and Costa Rica are more developed. Although Panama has the highest GDP per capita, Costa Rica is considered to be the most developed of the Central American countries due to its relatively high GDP per capita and has the best indicators of the Central American countries for life expectancy at birth, infant mortality rate, and adult literacy rate.

Historically, Central American trade has been highly dependent on two exports – coffee and bananas. In fact, during much of the twentieth century, coffee was the single largest Central American export. The export of bananas has been critical to the economies of Honduras, Panama, and Costa Rica. The United States and Central America have strong trade agreements. The United States was the main importer of Central American products during the twentieth century. In recent decades, Central America has had success in diversifying its exports and is now less dependent on bananas and coffee. Furthermore, the region has sought to diversify its trading partners as well.

At times the countries that comprise Central America have sought to promote mutual economic development. In 1960, with the chief goal of economic growth, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua created the Central American Common Market (CACM). However, CACM suffered from political disagreements, culminating in 1969 in a war between El Salvador and Honduras. The conflict resulted in slowed economic cooperation in all of Central America. In recent years, efforts have been made to increase economic integration among the Central American nations.


As with many developing regions of the world, there are significant disparities in health equity across Central America. Public health campaigns were widely implemented first by the Pan American Sanitary Bureau and the ministers of health of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. They were instrumental in the creation of the Institute of Nutrition in 1946, which was inaugurated formally in September 1949. The Institute orchestrated pioneering clinical and epidemiological studies and interventions. A primary goal was identifying and correcting dietary deficiencies in the region, and the Institute developed some of the first studies on the chemical composition of foods used by the population. Today, the Institute is known as the Instituto de Page 379  |  Top of ArticleNutritión de Centro América y Panamá (INCAP) and serves as a Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)/World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Center.


Central America has experienced high rates of migration for generations, including rural-to-urban and regional migration as well as emigration abroad, predominantly to the United States. Before the 1980s, a decade wrought with armed conflicts in the region, Central America drew little global or hemispheric attention in terms of migration. In this period, however, the region became a geographic bridge to North America as migrants from South America sought to enter the United States. Furthermore, Mexico has become the main transit country for Central Americans headed north.

Emigration abroad has produced a range of profound changes within Central America, including economic dependency on remittances, an exponential increase in the volume of international phone calls, and – from fashion to governance – the importation of outside tastes. While Central America is a junction of numerous migratory flows, migration does not affect the region uniformly. The more conflictive zones and countries in the region, such as the civil strife in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala for example, have experienced significantly higher rates of emigration than rates in the more stable countries of Panama and Costa Rica.

Colonized by the Spaniards in the 1500s, Central America was chiefly a subsistence agricultural zone; that is, any agricultural economy in which the crops and/or animals are used nearly exclusively for local or family consumption. As such, the Kingdom of Guatemala provided far fewer riches than other Spanish colonies. Though independent as of 1821, the region's livelihood did not change substantially until the late nineteenth century when coffee and other export crops were introduced. The reforms at that time privatized communal lands and displaced thousands of peasants. Equally important, however, is that the policies catalyzed a pattern that endures today – oligarchic control of the land and the armed forces, while much of the population fights to overcome perpetual poverty. This combination of agricultural labor needs with people displaced from the land produced seasonal, rural-to-rural migration – a pattern that endured into the second half of the twentieth century.

In the 1960s, several Central American countries attempted industrialization. However, the divided class structure persisted and became the impulsion for revolutionary and civil warfare in the region during the 1970s through the early 1990s. Warfare not only killed thousands and displaced millions, but also institutionalized a migration pattern to the north – a pattern that until this time had been very minor. Massive refugee flows moved through the isthmus into the United States and, to a lesser extent, Mexico, Costa Rica, Canada, and Belize. Until then, Central American emigration had consisted of small numbers of professionals, skilled laborers, and domestics. Internal labor migrations became increasingly dangerous as a result of the region's conflicts. Thus, regional economies suffered, inciting combatants and noncombatants alike to flee. Figures derived largely from the 1990 US census suggest that more than a million Central Americans fled their homelands and sought asylum in the United States during the turbulent decade of the 1980s.

Regional Migration

In 1970, approximately half of all Central American emigrants relocated to other Central American countries, while half moved out of the region. By 1980, however, the proportions had altered dramatically, with 80% leaving the region. In fact, by 1990, 93% of all Central American migrants left the region. Information on extraregional migration flows is much more readily available, although there is some notable research on Nicaraguan migrants emigrating to Costa Rica and, to a lesser degree, migrations of Guatemalans and Salvadorans to Belize. Intraregional migration is an area that calls for further study. For example, there is growing evidence of migrations of Nicaraguans and Hondurans into El Salvador spurred by the late 1990s postwar economic recovery in that country – a rebound financed in large part by remittance dollars from Salvadorans living in the United States. Additionally, the Panamanian economy attracts a modest number of Central American migrants; the number of Central American foreign born rose 11% between 1990 and 2000.

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Related Topics




Suggested Readings

Menjivar, C. (2000). Fragmented ties: Salvadoran immigrant networks in America. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Orozco, M. (2005). Transnationalism and development: Trends and opportunities in Latin America. In S. M. Munzele & D. Ratha (Eds.), Remittances: Development impact and future prospects (pp. 307–329). Washington: The World Bank.

United Nations Development Program (2005). Human development report for El Salvador, Migration Sections.

Suggested Resources

Migration Information Source. For information on Central America from the Migration Information Source. http://www.migrationinformation.org/USFocus/display.cfm?ID=386

OECD. For information on Central America from the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation. http://www.oecd.org

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3707500109