Immigrants in Latin America

David S. McCahon
Graduate student, political science, UCR

Middle Eastern Immigrants in Latin America
Middle Eastern immigrants have maintained a consistent and influential presence in many Latin American countries for more than a century. From approximately 1880-1930, the first wave of Middle Eastern immigrants arrived in Latin America, as subjects of the crumbling Ottoman Empire (Alfaro-Velcamp 2007; Koram 2007). Subsequent waves of immigration followed World War II and continued throughout most of the 20th century. Middle Eastern immigrants in Latin America arrived from the regions recognized today as Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. Recent literature has focused on the experiences of Middle Eastern immigrants in Mexico, Brazil and Honduras. Most immigrants from the Middle East came to Latin America with the understanding that their stay would be temporary. Immigrants hoped to get rich in Latin America and return home, when the political situation stabilized in their country of origin, but continuing political tensions in the Middle East forced many immigrants to remain in Latin America (Alfaro-Velcamp 2007). Middle Eastern immigrants were initially viewed as the less desirable immigrant, as compared to the European immigrant because of their darker skin and inability to speak the local language. Yet within a few decades, Middle Eastern immigrants achieved both economic and social mobility (Gonzalez 1992; Alfaro-Velcamp 2007; Koram 2007).

From Peddlers to Business Class Elites
Middle Eastern immigrants in Latin America were entrepreneurs and quickly established reputations as cunning business professionals. In Mexico, Lebanese immigrants initially worked as peddlers, selling household goods to poorer residents in rural regions of the country. Lebanese immigrants soon accumulated considerable wealth and established Middle Eastern businesses networks throughout Mexico (Alfaro-Velcamp 2007). Palestinian immigrants in Honduras pursued similar routes to economic prosperity. In the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, Palestinian immigrants currently make up a quarter of the population and own a large share of the cities department stores and factories (Gonzalez, 1992). Lebanese immigrants in Brazil have additionally established themselves amongst the elite class, as they maintain a reputation as successful international brokers of both business and politics. Beyond experiencing economic success, Lebanese immigrants now hold a disproportionately large share of political positions in Brazil and are considered a model minority group. Recent ethnographic and historical work has suggested the rise of the Lebanese immigrant is partially attributable to the Brazilian government’s decision to shift from a protectionist to a neoliberal economy (Karam, 2007).

Italian and Spanish Immigrants in Argentina
The experience of Italian and Spanish immigrants in Argentina is perhaps the most well known. Italians and Spanish immigrants began to arrive in Argentina in 1880 and continued to arrive until the 1930’s. Poor economic conditions in Europe and a demographic shift which reduced the availability of land prompted both Spanish and Italian emigrants to seek opportunities for social mobility in the Americas (Moya 1998; Baily 1999). Transatlantic networks informed Spaniards and Italians, of the economic opportunities in Argentina working in both the commercial and agricultural sectors of the economy. Labor unions and mutual aid societies aided Spanish and Italian immigrants in adjusting to their new environments. While both groups experienced success in Argentina’s labor market, the Spanish immigrants obtained a slight advantage in commerce as a result of language fluency and higher literacy rates (Moya 1998). Though Spanish immigrants were initially viewed with suspicion, because of association with colonial forefathers, by the beginning of the 20th century animosities disappeared. Italian and Spanish immigrants in Argentina transitioned successfully, because European communities abroad, provided adequate institutional structures to assimilate European immigrants arriving at the beginning of the 20th century.

Italian Immigrants in Buenos Aires and New York City
Scholars have agreed that Italian immigrants achieved social mobility, more rapidly in Argentina, than they did in the United States. While there is a foundational agreement, scholars have put forth different explanations, for why immigrants in Argentina experienced a smoother transition, than Italian Immigrants in the United States. One proposed argument is that immigrants in Argentina developed long term economic interests, while immigrants in the United States held only short economic interests (Baily 1999). This argument suggests that Italian immigrants in the United States wished to someday return to Italy, while immigrants in Argentina believed they would stay in Latin America. This argument is supported by the pace of migration from Italy to the destination countries. Migration from Italy to Argentina was steady and occurred over the course of fifty years. Immigration into to the United States occurred mainly between 1900 and 1914. The longer more consistent pace of migration to Argentina allowed earlier immigrants, to establish communities and social networks that aided their transition.

Another argument suggests that Italian immigrants achieved greater social mobility in Argentina as compared to the United States, because greater economic opportunities existed upon their arrival (Klein 1983). The main prospect attracting Italian immigrants to Argentina was the opportunity to own land, this potential was absent for Italian immigrants in the United States who primarily settled in established northeastern cities. Further, because immigrants to the United States were late arrivals lacking linguistic skills or established communities, Italian immigrants faced frequent discrimination and found work in the lowest paying jobs. In contrast, by the early 1900’s Italian immigrants in Argentina owned 25 percent of the land and owned a 38 percent of the businesses in the capital of Buenos Aires (Klein 1983).

Japanese Immigrants in Latin America
In contrast to immigrants from the Middle East and Europe, Japanese immigrants came to Latin America relatively late. Japanese immigrants, primarily young men, fled Japan during the military buildup that followed the Sino Japanese War of 1904-1905 (Masterson and Funada-Classen 2004). Large groups of immigrants began to arrive in Latin America in 1908, as a result of the Gentlemen’s Agreement between the United States and Japan. This agreement stipulated that Japan must restrict emigration to the United States. As a result, Japanese immigrants determined to start a new life outside of Japan, settled in Latin America, the largest populations settled in Peru and Brazil (Masterson and Funada-Classen 2004; Lesser 2007). After 1908 Brazil had the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. Flows of Japanese immigrants into Latin America were constant throughout 20thcentury peaking in 1930 and slowing in1970. Though Japanese immigrants eventually attained social and economic mobility in Latin America, initially they were treated with hostility that lasted throughout the first half of the 20th century. Brazil offered a friendlier environment to Japanese immigrants, in comparison to Peru, where during World War II Japanese Peruvians were frequently deported to internment camps in the United States.

Model Minority and Ethnic Other
Recent work has sought to address questions of identity and acculturation of Japanese immigrants in Latin America. This work has focused on the experience of Japanese immigrants in the city of Sau Palo Brazil, where nearly 750,000 Japanese Brazilians reside. Japanese immigrants have continually expressed the desire to become culturally Brazilian but continue to be referenced as Japanese by the majority (Lesser 2007). Japanese immigrants historically were characterized as hard working and enterprising, these traits prompted them to be referred to by elite Brazilians as “our Japanese”. While Japanese Brazilians have been economically successful they have struggled to achieve cultural acceptance, because they lacked the advantage that European immigrants held of whiteness and Catholicism (Lesser 2007). It has been argued that 2nd generation Japanese Brazilians, in the 1960’s and 70s’ sought to escape ethnic stereotypes by engaging in radical behavior, such as joining banned political parties and training with guerrilla fighters. Such attempts have been viewed as unsuccessful and Japanese Brazilians simultaneously are viewed, economically as the model minority, while culturally as the ethnic other (Lesser 2007).