Trypanosoma cruzi is the protozoan agent of Chagas disease, and the most important parasitic disease in Latin America. Protozoa of the genus Leishmania are global agents of visceral and cutaneous leishmaniasis, fatal and disfiguring diseases. In the 1970s multilocus enzyme electrophoresis demonstrated that T. cruzi is a heterogeneous complex. Six zymodemes were described, corresponding with currently recognized lineages, TcI and TcIIa-e – now defined by multiple genetic markers. Molecular epidemiology has substantially resolved the phylogeography and ecological niches of the T. cruzi lineages. Genetic hybridization has fundamentally influenced T. cruzi evolution and epidemiology of Chagas disease. Genetic exchange of T. cruzi in vitro involves fusion of diploids and genome erosion, producing aneuploid hybrids. Transgenic fluorescent clones are new tools to elucidate molecular genetics and phenotypic variation. We speculate that pericardial sequestration plays a role in pathogenesis. Multilocus sequence typing, microsatellites and, ultimately, comparative genomics are improving understanding of T. cruzi population genetics. Similarly, in Leishmania, genetic groups have been defined, including epidemiologically important hybrids; genetic exchange can occur in the sand fly vector. We describe the profound impact of this parallel research on genetic diversity of T. cruzi and Leishmania, in the context of epidemiology, taxonomy and disease control.