Although on a lesser scale than the United States, southern South America became a major receiving region during the period of mass transatlantic migration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even as the white elites of most Latin American countries favored European immigration in the late 19th century, since in their eyes it would “civilize” their countries, it was the temperate areas closely tied into the Atlantic economy as exporters of primary products that received the bulk of European laborers. Previously scarcely populated lands like Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil thus witnessed massive population growth and in some ways turned into societies resembling those of other immigration countries, such as the United States and Canada. This article concentrates on lands where the overwhelming majority of migrants headed, although it also briefly deals with Latin American nations that received significantly fewer newcomers, such as Mexico. This mass migration lastingly modified identity narratives within Latin America. First, as the majority of Europeans headed to sparsely populated former colonial peripheries that promised economic betterment, migration shifted prevalent notions about the region’s racial composition. The former colonial heartlands of Mexico, Peru, and northeastern Brazil were increasingly regarded as nonwhite, poor, and “backward,” whereas coastal Argentina, São Paulo, and Costa Rica were associated with whiteness, wealth, and “progress.” Second, mass migration was capable of both solidifying and challenging notions of national identity. Rather than crossing over well-established and undisputed boundaries of national identities and territories, migration thus contributed decisively to making them.
The lives of Latin American Japanese were disrupted during World War II, when their civil and human rights were suspended. National security and continental defense were the main reasons given by the American countries consenting to their uprooting. More than 2,000 ethnic Japanese from Peru, Panama, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, and Nicaragua were transferred as “illegal aliens” to internment camps in the United States. Initially, US and Latin American agencies arrested and deported male ethnic Japanese, regardless of their citizenship status. During the second stage, women and children joined their relatives in the United States. Most forced migration originated in Peru. Brazil and Mexico established similar displacement programs, ordering the population of Japanese descent to leave the coastal zones, and in the case of Mexico the border areas. In both countries, ethnic Japanese were under strict monitoring and lost property, employment, and family and friend relationships, losses that affected their health and the opportunity to support themselves in many cases. Latin American Japanese in the United States remained in camps operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the army for the duration of the war and were among the last internees leaving the detention facilities, in 1946. At the conclusion of World War II, the Latin American countries that had agreed to the expulsion of ethnic Japanese limited greatly their return. Some 800 internees were deported to Japan from the United States by the closure of the camps. Those who remained in North America were allowed to leave the camps to work in a fresh produce farm in Seabrook, New Jersey, without residency or citizenship rights. In 1952, immigration restrictions for former Latin American internees were lifted. Latin American governments have not apologized for the uprooting of the ethnic Japanese, while the US government has recognized it as a mistake. In 1988, the United States offered a symbolic compensation to all surviving victims of the internment camps in the amount of $20,000. In contrast, in 1991, Latin American Japanese survivors were granted only $5,000.
Japanese immigration to Brazil started in 1908 as a replacement for European immigrants to work for the state of São Paulo’s expanding coffee industry. It peaked in the late 1920s and early 1930s, in the face of growing anti-Japanese sentiment in Brazil. The Japanese migrated to Brazil in mandatory family units and formed their own agricultural settlements once they competed their colono labor contracts and became independent farmers. Under Getúlio Vargas’s nationalistic policies, a 1934 immigration law severely limited the entry of the Japanese. Strict legal restrictions were also imposed on them during Vargas’s Estado Novo (1937–1945). Japanese immigration was eventually terminated in 1942. Then the number of Japanese immigrants reached 188,986. At the end of the war, the Japanese were sharply divided among themselves over the defeat of Japan, and Sindō Renmei’s attacks on other Japanese factions terrified the nation of Brazil. Having given up their hope of returning to their homeland, the Japanese and their descendants began to migrate on a large scale to the cities, especially São Paulo City. Japanese immigration resumed in 1953 and peaked in 1959–1960. A total of 53,657 postwar immigrants, including many single adult men, arrived in Brazil before 1993. By 1980, the majority of Japanese Brazilians had joined the urban middle class, and many were already mixed racially. In the mid-1980s, Japanese Brazilians’ “return” labor migrations to Japan began on a large scale, due to Brazil’s troubled national economy. More than 310,000 Brazilian citizens were residing in Japan in June 2008, when the centenary of Japanese immigration was widely celebrated in Brazil. But the story does not end there: the global recession soon forced unemployed Brazilians and their Japanese-born children to return to Brazil.