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date: 18 April 2024

Immigration and National Identity in Latin America, 1870–1930free

Immigration and National Identity in Latin America, 1870–1930free

  • Michael GoebelMichael GoebelDepartment of History and Cultural Studies, Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut, Freie Universität Berlin


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.


  • 1889–1910
  • 1910–1945
  • Cultural History
  • International History
  • Social History

The Reasons for Mass Migration

The widespread notion of Latin America as a world region shaped by a long-term history of mestizaje (“racial mixing”), which gained currency in the early 20th century, also implies that it has been a region of immigration. Indeed, given the well-known arrival of Spanish conquistadors and of African slaves during colonial times, Latin America had always been a region of significant “immigration,” long before most of its countries gained independence from the Iberian motherlands in the early 19th century. Yet, in terms of numbers, it was the period ranging from 1870 to 1930 during which immigration reached truly massive proportions. According to José Moya’s calculation, in the course of the year 1910 alone, more Spaniards (131,000) arrived at the port of Buenos Aires than did during more than three centuries of colonial rule all over the Americas.1 This inflow of people in the six decades after 1870 was thus quantitatively unprecedented, embedded in a wider set of global movements of peoples.2 As opposed to the migrations of other world regions, the vast majority, although not all, of those who crossed the Atlantic toward the Americas hailed from Europe.

In the Americas, far more migrants headed to the United States than to Latin America, as Table 1 shows. Some historians have taken this difference as evidence of the greater attractiveness of North America over Latin America, alleging that the latter region remained mired in political instability, poverty, and “xenophobia” during the 19th century as a legacy of Catholicism and Iberian colonialism.3 If one measures the numbers of arrivals against the pre-existing population of the respective receiving countries—which is what one would have to do in order to say something about relative attractiveness—it turns out that in Argentina and Uruguay the ratio of newcomers to residents surpassed that of the United States and Canada during much of the second half of the 19th century. Uruguay’s population grew sevenfold in the second half of the 19th century, and Argentina’s quadrupled, owing in good part to immigration.4 The composition of the flow of migrants to Latin America, meanwhile, was less diverse than the one to the United States. Italy, Spain, and Portugal—in that order—furnished the largest numbers by far, together providing well over two thirds of the entirety of immigrants to Latin America between 1870 and 1930.5

Table 1 European Immigrants to American Countries, ca. 1820–1932

















Source: Moya, Cousins and Strangers, 46.

Within Latin America, the preferred destinations of overseas migrants were unevenly distributed (Table 1). Only Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Uruguay drew significant numbers of overseas immigrants. Another one of Moya’s calculations brings the steep discrepancies into sharp relief: “Peru attracted in one hundred years [after independence] fewer European immigrants than did Argentina in one month and the United States in one week.”6 The absolute figures given in Table 1, moreover, were not only heavily concentrated in the period from 1870 to 1930, they would look even more skewed toward certain destinations if the various countries’ pre-existing populations were taken into account. The entire Argentine territory, for example, hosted only 1,877,490 inhabitants according to the census of 1869,7 but then drew 840,000 immigrants in the 1880s and another 1.76 million in the first decade of the 20th century.8 This article deals with this uneven spread by focusing primarily on the countries within Latin America where the vast majority of migrants were headed.

This asymmetric distribution casts doubt on traditional explanations that have attributed these vast demographic movements to the racism of Latin American elites, which from the middle of the 19th century onward pledged to “whiten” their countries’ “racial stock” by encouraging European immigration.9 Virtually all white Latin American elites nurtured such racial fantasies of “whitening” their allegedly “backward” populations. Mexican president Porfirio Díaz (1884–1911), for example, desperately tried to lure (ideally English) settlers to Mexico, whereas a few decades later the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo yearned for Europeans to ward off what he perceived as the threat emanating from the neighboring republic, Haiti. Although Mexico drew a steady trickle of Chinese and Arab immigrants in the early 20th century and Trujillo managed to persuade 750 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to come to the Dominican Republic in 1937, none of this came remotely close to fulfilling the grand dreams of demographic engineering formulated by countless statesmen in favor of large-scale European settlement for the imagined purpose of “civilizational improvement.”10 In 1935, the Dominican Republic had 52,000 Haitian-born residents, 9,000 British West Indians, yet only 3,000 Europeans.11 In short, while the elites’ wish for “whiter” populations varied little across Latin America, its realization differed massively between countries. The racism of Latin American elites is a poor explanation for transatlantic migrations.

Likewise, the capacity of states either to attract or to curb immigration should not be overestimated. European states and politics in the mid-19th century, to be sure, mattered insofar as the rise of liberalism removed legal obstacles to emigration. Apart from the Dominican settlement scheme for Jews, there were also a few other state-sponsored programs contributing to encouraging immigration—most notably the one adopted by the state of São Paulo in the 1890s, which managed to draw significant numbers of Venetian families to work on the state’s coffee fazendas in replacement of slave labor.12 But when Italy forbade Brazilian recruitment through subsidized fares and contracts in 1902, citing the exploitative conditions on the fazendas, a largely self-sustained stream of other migrants, many of them still Italians, replaced the state-sponsored settlers. The relative success of the São Paulo scheme in fact stemmed partly from the simultaneous economic crisis in the Rio de la Plata, which diverted to Brazil migrants who previously had headed further south. By contrast, Uruguay, which until the 1870s had the highest ratio of immigrants to resident population in Latin America, had hardly any official policy of attracting immigrants, which at any rate would have been undermined by the country’s endemic political instability and a weak state. When Uruguay did adopt a law trying to encourage immigration in 1890, the number of arrivals in fact dropped due to the economic crisis.13 In order to kindle migration, states thus had to remove barriers—as most did. But beyond this, their power to really channel, and particularly to attract, large-scale immigration was limited.

For the same reason, from a social-history perspective it makes little sense to categorize migration to Latin America according to the receiving nation-states. Migrants constantly crossed boundaries within Latin America, with the Rio de la Plata countries especially integrated. An Italian diplomat in the 1890s doubted that Uruguay was “anything more than a bridge between the ocean and Argentina.”14 In 1907/08, 18,600 Argentine citizens and 27,800 Brazilians lived in Uruguay, while roughly 100,000 Uruguayans (almost a tenth of the country’s population) lived in Argentina—though most of these people’s parents had been born in Europe.15 Italian sources did not differentiate between the River Plate countries until after the unification of Italy. German emigration records summarily referenced Südamerika in a single rubric.16 Although scholars are accustomed to using national statistics and to framing their research objects nationally, rural Uruguay and southern Brazil had much more in common—economically, culturally, socially—than Rio Grande do Sul and Rio de Janeiro. Likewise, the similarities between the cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo were greater than those between the Argentine provinces of Buenos Aires and Catamarca.

Although racist precepts percolated into legislation, law enforcement remained weak and labor needs strong. Uruguay’s 1890 law, for example, stipulated that “Africans, Asians, and Gypsies” be barred entry into the country, but there were few migrants to test the seriousness of this provision. Following the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, many Latin American states followed suit in the hysteria over the “yellow peril” and outlawed Chinese migration, but border controls were as yet all but nonexistent, while short-term labor demands at any rate trumped racial fears.17 In the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands and rimlands, where racial anxieties were no less pronounced than in South America, black West Indians provided an indispensable workforce for U.S. companies and the state expansion of infrastructure in the early decades of the 20th century.18 In the course of the Amazonian rubber boom, a multinational workforce including laborers from various Asian and British-Caribbean countries flocked to the Brazilian interior for infrastructure projects.19 Non-Europeans stepped in for Europeans where the latter were not available—racist rhetoric about “whitening” notwithstanding.

To explain the gist of mass migration to Latin America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one has to look for “mightier laws than those produced in national legislatures.”20 The usual candidates for explanation remain the most compelling. As mortality fell more quickly than birth rates, population growth created economic pressures in large parts of Europe. Industrialization and urbanization had produced an additional population that needed to be fed, something partly provided for by the Americas, which in turn required laborers. As trade between Europe and the Americas intensified, infrastructures improved (partly fueled by British capital), communications redoubled, shipping times dropped, and costs were cut, migration became an ever more viable option for increasing numbers of people. Networks of information and kinship spread so as to connect specific places of origin with particular destinations. Wage differentials or the opportunity to buy land often undergirded these migration systems.21 Finally, with steamships allowing, the option of returning home—earnings in hand—lowered the psychological barrier to emigration. In fact, the majority of emigrants who went to Latin America between 1870 and 1930 probably did not leave with the intention to stay abroad. Contrary to conventional public perceptions of migration as definite movement from one place to another, about half of the European migrants to Latin America eventually returned home.

Accommodation, Exclusion, and National Identity

From a bird’s-eye perspective, scholars have sometimes contrasted the increasingly nativist United States of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to Latin American receiving societies that were allegedly more welcoming. Eduardo Míguez has argued that “it is likely that the integration of immigrants into the local society was faster and more successful in many of the migrant flows that arrived in Spanish and Portuguese America than in their North American counterparts.”22 Comparisons of the social mobility and various yardsticks of “assimilation”—such as residential segregation and marriage patterns—of Italians in the Rio de la Plata and the United States have confirmed this impression.23 The relatively short cultural and religious distance that separated Italy from Latin America may account for a part of the divergence between North and South America, but labor market development and, above all, the timing of the migratory process played a more crucial role. While Italians in the United States were latecomers who had to squeeze into a fully fledged industrial society, in the River Plate they had long influenced trade, bought land, and contributed to nation-building more broadly. Therefore, Spaniards, who were culturally even closer to Argentines and Uruguayans, but on average arrived later than Italians, typically in-married more often, clustered more residentially, and owned less property than Italians.24

Though perhaps true for the comparative experience of southern Europeans, it is mistaken to contrast a uniformly xenophobic United States to a steadfast xenophilic Latin America. For the treatment meted out to immigrants in Latin America, elites’ “whitening” ideologies and nationalism did matter very much. Race—or more broadly, origin—crucially shaped migrants’ experience, as elite templates for idealized national identities had been tailored for some migrants and not others. Nonwhites on the whole were treated far worse. Afro-Caribbeans, in particular, encountered vicious racist hostility, punctuated with violence on occasion, in most of the countries they went to.25 Contrary to Europeans, in the early 1930s the overwhelming majority of West Indian migrant laborers either voluntarily returned or were forcefully expelled from the various host countries in which they had worked.26 Anti-black sentiment reached its tragic apogee in the Dominican Republic in 1937, when national troops and local officials engineered the killing of several thousand ethnic Haitians.27 Sinophobic campaigns in turn had victimized the Chinese in 19th-century Cuba and in revolutionary Mexico.28

European immigrants were not always well received either, although they rarely encountered the same degree of hostility as nonwhites. Popular xenophobia in revolutionary Mexico targeted not only Chinese traders but also the Spanish, pejoratively called gachupines, who suffered both harassment and expulsion.29 On a broader scale, the same elites that earlier had advocated European immigration grew skeptical over its benefits once this immigration was actually forthcoming in large numbers. Thus, Argentina’s champion of “civilization” and immigration, the writer-statesman Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, railed against his country’s “Italianization” by the 1880s.30 Just like in the United States, relative latecomers perceived to be culturally more different bore the brunt of discrimination. Thus, southern Italians, who on average arrived later and settled more often in cities, felt less welcome than northern Italians, who had come earlier and headed to the countryside more often. As early as 1878, the Italian consul in Montevideo claimed that “the epithet Neapolitan was a synonym for criminal and evildoer in the eyes of police.”31

After the late 19th century, Argentine nationalism, increasingly centered on the exaltation of the rural pre-immigration archetype of the gaucho, developed in good measure in opposition to mass immigration.32 As Catholicism gradually became an ingredient of right-wing nationalism, so did anti-Semitism, which erupted in serious ethnic violence during the so-called “tragic week” in 1919.33 States also grew more hostile to immigration over time. Against the background of anarchist political activities, the Argentine government of Julio A. Roca passed a residency law in 1902 allowing for the easier expulsion of foreigners.34 In the context of World War I, political anxieties also entailed measures against Germans who had settled in large numbers in southern Brazil and were suspected of creating a “fifth column” for the German Empire.35 By the 1930s, when the Depression fueled a global rise of xenophobia, many Latin American governments enacted laws to curb the entry of migrants. The authoritarian regime of Brazil led by Getúlio Vargas was a case in point, trying to “Brazilianize” immigrants already in the country, for example, by closing down foreign-language schools and outlawing “foreign” organizations, such as Zionist political associations.36 Latin American nationalisms, in short, became more intolerant of immigration over time. In spite of the 19th-century rhetoric about “civilizing” and “whitening,” these nationalisms also targeted European immigrants.

Compared to U.S. nativist campaigns against southern and eastern Europeans, Latin American anti-immigrant nationalisms stemmed less from elitist prejudice against downtrodden aliens inasmuch as (European) immigrants in Latin America were not normally poorer than the native population. Later arrivals who stayed in cities typically suffered a clearer exclusion from rising national imaginaries, but they were not the most marginalized socio-economically. Contrary to the United States, in South America it tended to be a long-term socio-economic advantage to have settled in a city, since these were typically the more dynamic nodal points of outward-looking economies. Whereas in the United States ethnic discrimination coincided with socio-economic disadvantages, no such straightforward link existed in Latin America. Thus, the figure of the gaucho that opponents of mass immigration evoked in Argentina not only symbolized a rural idyll but also stood for the poor social outcast who had been dispossessed by the pitiless encroachment of capitalist modernity that European settlers had brought to the pampas. Mexican Hispano- and Sinophobia in the revolutionary years likewise was part and parcel of a popular nationalism that identified foreignness with unwarranted privilege, wealth, and power.37 Latin American anti-immigrant nationalisms, in other words, could be as much a popular as an elite affair.

One reason for this had to do with the long-term colonial tradition of thoroughly Europeanized—i.e., somewhat “foreign”—elites in Latin America, which endured well after the independence wars of the early 19th century. British and Irish mercenaries played an important role in bringing about the independence of several South American republics and began occupying influential positions thereafter.38 One of Argentina’s foremost independence heroes, Manuel Belgrano, was the son of a Ligurian trader, whose compatriots almost monopolized shipping in the Rio de la Plata throughout the 19th century and enjoyed excellent ties to the emerging national political elite, from which in fact they gradually became indistinguishable even before the mass arrival of poor Italian laborers in the last decades of the century.39 These intimate links to Europe of large parts of Latin American elites partly account for the rise of “whitening” ideologies from 1850 onward and for the positive prejudice with which many early immigrants from Europe were met. In contrast to common understandings of nationalism in Europe and the United States today, this nation-building brand of Latin American nationalism was indeed xenophilic rather than xenophobic. Only after World War I were national identities in Latin America construed in contradistinction to immigrants and to Europe.

In the countries of mass immigration, the imaginary boundaries that new forms of nationalism drew often became internalized, as the later sociological literature on “internal colonialism” made clearer.40 Since mass European immigration alongside economic integration into the Atlantic economy had profoundly transformed the demographic composition of the population and deepened socio-economic rifts between poor rural backlands and industrialized urban centers, new dividing lines emerged. São Paulo elites, for example, contrasted their state’s supposed “modernity” and “whiteness” with Brazil’s allegedly “backward” northeast.41 Even in Argentina, where European immigration had been much more spatially comprehensive than in Brazil, a sort of bi-culturalism emerged. Although not necessarily tied to immigration in explicit terms from 1930 onwards, Argentine nationalists continue to this day to contrast an allegedly “authentic” gaucho and mestizo interior to the liberal-cosmopolitan city of Buenos Aires, which they depict as a bridgehead of Europeanness and of “imperialist” intrusion. Divisions between the national and the foreign, thus, were internalized inasmuch as the very capital was perceived as external to the nation.42

While immigration to Latin America interacted in complicated ways with the local construction of national identities, it also did so in relation to the migrants’ societies of origin, which in many cases were not clearly defined nation-states either. Emigrants from Ottoman lands, who went to virtually all countries of the Americas, were a case in point. Summarily called “Turks” (turcos), they included Arab Christians and (fewer) Muslims from today’s Lebanon and Syria, Jews from across the Ottoman Empire, as well as Armenians, but hardly any people who today or in historical settings other than Latin America would be labeled Turks. It was only upon emigration that, depending on their place of origin and ethnic and religious factors, they gradually began to “acquire” other identities: Armenians unsurprisingly disentangled themselves from the term turco, as did many Jews, especially after the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, while Arab Christians and Muslims became “Syrian-Lebanese” in Argentina and Brazil, “Palestinians” in Honduras, and “Lebanese” in Mexico and Ecuador.43

Turcos may have been especially illustrative of the shifting nature of national identities, but they were not isolated cases. In Brazil and Peru many “Japanese” came from Okinawa, which had been colonized by the Meiji Empire only in 1879, to undergo a forced “Japanization” from 1890 onward. This process perhaps helped to fuel emigration but was itself undertaken by the authorities partly with an interest in how overseas Okinawans could help Japan’s wider geopolitical ambitions.44 Many of Argentina’s “Germans,” especially in the province of Entre Ríos, in fact hailed from the lower Volga area of Russia, where they had settled since the late 18th century.45 The “nationality” of the few thousand Cape Verdeans who went to Argentina between the 1920s and 1940s was hard to establish for immigration officials, too, even if their passports unmistakably identified them as Portuguese.46 West Indians officially migrated to Central America as British subjects, as did the roughly 12,000 Irish who settled permanently in Argentina during the 19th century. Argentines eventually resorted to calling them “English” (ingleses).47

The larger migratory groups also came from areas whose national identity was subject to various kinds of dispute. Before 1861 and 1871, respectively, “Italians” and “Germans” did not arrive as such, but as Ligurians or Calabrians, Prussians or Swabians. The “French” who from 1850 onward went to Argentina and Uruguay came chiefly from the Basque Country. If marriage practices in Uruguay are anything to go by, they typically socialized with other Basques, from both sides of the Franco-Spanish border—which as a consequence mattered much less for social life in the Rio de la Plata than the difference between Spanish Basques and other Spaniards.48 The “Spanish” who went to Argentina, Uruguay, and Cuba in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were in fact mainly Galicians (around 65 percent of the total), whose “Spanishness” was as questionable as the solution proposed by the receiving societies, which for reasons of simplicity accustomed themselves to call all Spaniards gallegos. Then again, some of these migrants officially never crossed any national boundary, for until 1898 Cuba was still a Spanish colony.49

Finally, the high incidence of return migration among most groups that had gone to Latin America ensured that diasporic identity constructions fed back into homeland nationalisms. To an extent, it was in the Americas that many Ligurians or Calabrians really became “Italians.” This becoming national in the diaspora was frequently kindled through external events, such as World War I, but could also emerge from more mundane issues. The local context of origin—or campanilismo, to use the pejorative Italian term for emotional attachment to the local bell tower—mattered less as the very process of movement forced migrants to interact ever more with the representatives and legal intricacies of nation-states, be they consuls or immigration officials. Immigrant associationism, although often based on regional or village origin, reinforced this nationalization in the diaspora. The myriad of Basque or Galician associations in 19th-century Buenos Aires, for example, formed the bedrock for the emergence of a more unified “Spanish” associationist culture.50 In other cases, for example, among immigrants from Syria and Lebanon, limited political freedoms at home made the diaspora the most propitious terrain for nationalist politics.51 In summary, contrary to common perceptions of migration as crossing fixed nation-state boundaries, migration to Latin America and the global spread of nation-states were processes that were intimately interwoven.

Discussion of the Literature

Although the major population movements to Latin America between 1870 and 1930 are reasonably well known, they remain understudied when compared to the parallel experience of the United States. As a consequence of this and of the global power of Anglo-American academe, Latin American migratory histories have had a limited impact on the building of theory compared to those of the United States. Scholarship on migration to Latin America has traditionally been as nationally focused as the historiography on the United States. Recent years have seen major strides in attempts at overcoming this nation-centered approach to migration, in particular through the rise of comparative studies.52 Much of this scholarship is comparative in the sense of edited volumes or special journal issues, which typically provide limited comparability between the cases studied therein.53 Monographs that are in themselves explicitly comparative remain rare.54 The study of several “groups” within one national setting, in turn, is even less common, especially in English.55 Doubly transnational studies—that is, works that examine the links existing between migrants in different receiving countries—are all but nonnexistent, in spite of much anecdotal evidence that such connections were very strong. Numerically, at any rate, the vast majority of studies continue to concentrate on one “ethnic” or “national” group within one receiving nation-state, owing to a lack of funds for cross-national research in Latin American universities and the ongoing weight of methodological nationalism.

Naturally, the degree of scholarly interest in historical immigration differs among Latin American countries, depending less on real numbers than on the centrality that (European) immigration has had in the national imaginary. Hence, Argentine and foreign sociologists and historians have long had an interest in the country’s immigrant past, which has produced sophisticated and thorough social-history monographs.56 In spite of the relatively limited number of migrants who went to Chile, there has been a thriving literature on them, too. Scholarship on migration to Brazil, in turn, has usually treated its subject matter as a regional, rather than national, affair. Hence, apart from Jeffrey Lesser’s works, which disproportionately deal with small non-European groups and the discourse about them,57 historians have chiefly concentrated on individual groups either in São Paulo or in southern Brazil. There have been remarkably few studies on the Cuban case, even though the Caribbean island was the third most important recipient of European immigrants between 1870 and 1930. Although there are several studies of Chinese-Cubans, there is hardly any reliable scholarship in English on the many Spaniards who came to the island.58 The main reason for these continent-wide mismatches is the extent to which any given country has fashioned a Europeanized national identity for itself, or not.

The nation-focused approach more generally owes much to the long-term predominance of concerns over the extent to which any given migrant group “fits” into receiving nation-states. This was further reinforced by the sway of the Chicago School of Sociology, with its characteristic preoccupation about the degree and speed with which immigrants “assimilated” into a host society implicitly understood as possessing a pre-existing and stable national identity. With some notable exceptions,59 this brand of scholarship has had little interest in the shifting nature of the nationalisms of the receiving societies—a field generally ceded to specialists of “nationalism,” who tended to have other theoretical points of reference than the social history of migration.60 It remains for future historians to integrate these two fields of inquiry more fully and grant due attention to how migration and nation-state formation have interacted with one another.

Primary Sources

The most relevant primary sources for such a vast field of inquiry will inevitably depend heavily on any individual researcher’s particular topical and methodological preferences. Public archives on average function less smoothly in Latin America than they do in Europe and the United States, although there are notable exceptions in Brazil, Chile, and Mexico. The archives of the foreign ministries of sending countries—such as Germany, Italy, or Spain—can therefore provide interesting general overviews for specific groups, as sending nations typically maintained an interest in the representation of “their” diasporas, often trying to harness them for geopolitical purposes. Consular reports ending up with the foreign-ministry files of European countries also allow interesting insights into the everyday lives of migrants on many occasions. National libraries in Madrid or Rome, as well as in other places, also often hold an impressive amount of monographic contemporaneous literature on immigrants and their reception in Latin America.

Archival options in Latin America itself vary widely, yet rarely have the paper trails of public ministries proven the most fruitful entry. Apart from published censuses, scholars have typically resorted as a first point of call to the documentation of immigrant associations: mutual aid societies, social clubs, ethnic medical insurances, trade unions, and the like. This method has sometimes yielded fascinating serial data on immigrant social life, but it has three drawbacks: the material is frequently almost impossible to trace, it is usually in a precarious and incomplete state, and it captures only “affiliated ethnics,” leaving out immigrants less active in official community life. Ecclesiastical (parish) records, census manuscript schedules, arrival records, and civil registry files are therefore often still preferable in order to collect meaningful series. The Centro de Estudios Migratorios Latinoamericanos in Buenos Aires and the Museu da Imigração do Estado de São Paulo are among the most useful institutions to provide initial guidance. In a second step, documentation in municipal archives will sometimes prove more rewarding than national ones.

Accessing intellectual-history sources giving insights into the discourses and official politics of immigration and national identity is a great deal easier, which is perhaps why so many scholars have contented themselves with doing exactly that. Many such sources are likely to be published ones, in the form of either books or periodicals. The historical immigrant press of many Latin American countries is perhaps more readily accessible in the United States, although the hemerotecas of National Libraries in Latin America itself also hold a good amount of material. Much the same can be said of the nonimmigrant press, of which ever more is being digitalized—with the Spanish National Library as a pioneer for Spanish-speaking countries. Published books in Spanish and Portuguese in many cases are also easier to find in major U.S. university libraries than within Latin America itself. Published censuses, parliamentary debates, and the yearbooks of public agencies—for example, port authorities—on the other hand, are usually best searched in the National Archives of Latin American countries. Serious scholarly studies will therefore almost always have to rely on primary-source material from various countries at once.

Further Reading

  • Baily, Samuel L. Immigrants in the Lands of Promise: Italians in Buenos Aires and New York City, 1870–1914. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.
  • Baily, Samuel L., and Eduardo José Míguez, eds. Mass Migration to Modern Latin America. Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 2003.
  • Fausto, Boris, ed. Fazer a América: A imigração em massa para a América Latina. São Paulo: Editora da Universidade de São Paulo, 1999.
  • Foote, Nicola, and Michael Goebel, eds. Immigration and National Identities in Latin America. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014.
  • Goebel, Michael. “Gauchos, Gringos and Gallegos: The Assimilation of Italian and Spanish Immigrants in the Making of Modern Uruguay.” Past and Present 208 (2010): 191–229.
  • Goebel, Michael. Overlapping Geographies of Belonging: Migrations, Regions, and Nations in the Western South Atlantic. Washington, DC: American Historical Association, 2013.
  • Lesser, Jeffrey. Immigration, Ethnicity, and National Identity in Brazil, 1808 to the Present. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • López, Kathleen. Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
  • Masterson, Daniel M., and Sayaka Funada-Classen. The Japanese in Latin America. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
  • Moya, José C. Cousins and Strangers: Spanish Immigrants in Buenos Aires, 1850–1930. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  • Moya, José C. “A Continent of Immigrants: Postcolonial Shifts in the Western Hemisphere.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 86.1 (2006): 1–28.
  • Nugent, Walter. Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870–1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
  • Putnam, Lara. Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
  • Weinstein, Barbara. The Color of Modernity: São Paulo and the Making of Race and Nation in Brazil. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.


  • 1. José C. Moya, Cousins and Strangers: Spanish Immigrants in Buenos Aires, 1850–1930 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 123.

  • 2. For a concise overview, see Adam McKeown, “Global Migration, 1846–1940,” Journal of World History 15.2 (2004): 155–189. A useful survey of the height of migrations from Europe to the Americas is found in Walter Nugent, Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870–1914 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).

  • 3. David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (New York: Norton, 1998), 310–334.

  • 4. Figures always vary widely. For an overview, see Nicolás Sánchez Albornoz, “The Population of Latin America, 1850–1930,” in The Cambridge History of Latin America, ed. Leslie Bethell, vol. 4, c. 1870 to 1930 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 121–156, esp. 130, who probably overstates the numbers. Moya, Cousins and Strangers, 46 gives higher figures about the destination of European emigrants, but these exclude return migration.

  • 5. Concise overviews can be found in José C. Moya, “A Continent of Immigrants: Postcolonial Shifts in the Western Hemisphere,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 86.1 (2006): 1–28; and Michael Goebel, “Reconceptualizing Diasporas and National Identities in Latin America and the Caribbean,” in Immigration and National Identities in Latin America, 1850–1950, eds. Nicola Foote and Michael Goebel (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014), 1–27.

  • 6. Moya, Cousins and Strangers, 50–51.

  • 7. Primer Censo de la Nación Argentina 1869 (Buenos Aires: Imprenta del Porvenir, 1872).

  • 8. Samuel L. Baily, Immigrants in the Lands of Promise: Italians in Buenos Aires and New York City, 1870 to 1914 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), 54.

  • 9. For example, Jeffrey Lesser, Immigration, Ethnicity, and National Identity in Brazil, 1808 to the Present (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 12–16; and May E. Bletz, Immigration and Acculturation in Brazil and Argentina, 1890–1929 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 12–56, both open their accounts with surveys of such “whitening” ideologies.

  • 10. Jürgen Buchenau, “The Limits of the Cosmic Race: Immigrant and Nation in Mexico, 1850–1950,” in Immigration and National Identities, Foote and Goebel, 66–90, here 75; Allen Wells, Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sosúa (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009). On blanqueamiento in the Dominican Republic, see April Mayes, The Mulatto Republic: Class, Race, and Dominican National Identity (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014), esp. 61–77.

  • 11. Lara Putnam, “Migrants, Nations, and Empires in Transition: Native Claims in the Greater Caribbean, 1850–1950,” in Immigration and National Identities, Foote and Goebel, 31–66, here 40.

  • 12. Thomas Holloway, Immigrants on the Land: Coffee and Society in São Paulo, 1886–1934 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980).

  • 13. Michael Goebel, “Gauchos, Gringos and Gallegos: The Assimilation of Italian and Spanish Immigrants in the Making of Modern Uruguay,” Past and Present 208 (2010): 191–229, here 197.

  • 14. Cited in Juan Antonio Oddone, “La politica e le immagini dell’emigrazione italiana in Uruguay, 1830–1930,” in L’emigrazione italiana e la formazione dell’Uruguay moderno, eds. Fernando J. Devoto et al. (Turin: Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli, 1993), 77–119, here 98. Guy Bourdé, Urbanisation et immigration en Amérique latine: Buenos Aires XIXe et XXe siècles (Paris: Montaigne, 1974), 162 estimates that about 17 percent of the approximately 7.6 million European arrivals to Buenos Aires between 1857 and 1930 (of whom many left again) came from Montevideo.

  • 15. Milton Vanger, The Model Country: José Batlle y Ordóñez or Uruguay, 1907–1915 (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1980), 17.

  • 16. Fernando Devoto, “Un caso di migrazione precoce: gli italiani in Uruguay nel secolo XIX,” in L’emigrazione italiana, ed. Devoto et al., 1–36, here 15; also, Nugent, Crossings, 66.

  • 17. Adam McKeown, Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and Globalization of Borders (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 324–341.

  • 18. Lara Putnam, Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

  • 19. Sidney M. Greenfield, “Barbadians in the Brazilian Amazon,” Luso-Brazilian Review 20.1 (1983): 44–64.

  • 20. Moya, “A Continent of Immigrants,” 3.

  • 21. More broadly on globalization and Latin America, Michael Goebel, “Globalization and Nationalism in Latin America, c. 1750–1950,” New Global Studies 3.3 (2010).

  • 22. Eduardo José Míguez, “Introduction: Foreign Mass Migration to Latin America in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries—An Overview,” in Mass Migration, Baily and Míguez, xiii–xxv, esp. xxii.

  • 23. Herbert Klein, “The Integration of Italian Immigrants into the United States and Argentina: A Comparative Analysis,” The American Historical Review 88.2 (1983): 306–329; and Baily, Immigrants in the Lands of Promise.

  • 24. Goebel, “Gauchos, Gringos and Gallegos.”

  • 25. Nicola Foote, “British Caribbean Migration and the Racialization of Latin American Nationalisms,” in Immigration and National Identities, Foote and Goebel, 205–234.

  • 26. Barry Carr, “Identity, Class, and Nation: Black Immigrant Workers, Cuban Communism, and the Sugar Insurgency, 1925–1934,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 78.1 (1998): 83–116; and Marc C. McLeod, “Undesirable Aliens: Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in the Comparison of Haitian and British West Indian Immigrant Workers in Cuba, 1912–1939,” Journal of Social History 31.3 (1998): 599–623.

  • 27. Richard Lee Turits, “A World Destroyed, a Nation Imposed: The 1937 Haitian Massacre in the Dominican Republic,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 82.3 (2002): 589–635.

  • 28. Kathleen López, Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 144–162; and Robert Chao Romero, The Chinese in Mexico, 1882–1940 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010), 145–190.

  • 29. Pablo Yankelevich, “Hispanofobia y revolución: españoles expulsados de México, 1910–1940,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 86.1 (2006): 29–59.

  • 30. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Conflicto y armonía de las razas en América (Mexico City: UNAM, 1978 [1882]).

  • 31. Cited in Juan Antonio Oddone, Una perspectiva europea del Uruguay: los informes diplomáticos y consulares italianos, 1862–1914 (Montevideo: Universidad de la República, 1965), 83.

  • 32. Lilia Ana Bertoni, Patriotas, cosmopolitas y nacionalistas: la construcción de la nacionalidad argentina a fines del siglo XIX (Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2001); and Jeane DeLaney, “Immigration, Identity, and Nationalism in Argentina, 1850–1950,” in Immigration and National Identities, Foote and Goebel, 91–114.

  • 33. See Daniel Lvovich, Nacionalismo y antisemitismo en la Argentina (Barcelona: Javier Vergara, 2003), chap. 3.

  • 34. Gabriela Costanzo, Los indeseables: las Leyes de Residencia y Defensa Social (Buenos Aires: Madreselva, 2009).

  • 35. Stefan Rinke, “The Reconstruction of National Identity: German Minorities in Latin America During the First World War,” in Immigration and National Identities, Foote and Goebel, 160–181.

  • 36. See, e.g., René Gertz, O perigo alemão (Porto Alegre: Editora da Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, 1991); and Jeffrey Lesser, Welcoming the Undesirables: Brazil and the Jewish Question (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 105.

  • 37. Buchenau, “The Limits,” 79–88.

  • 38. Matthew Brown, Adventuring Through Spanish Colonies: Simón Bolívar, Foreign Mercenaries and the Birth of New Nations (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006).

  • 39. Tulio Halperín Donghi, El enigma Belgrano: un héroe para nuestro tiempo (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2014).

  • 40. Pablo González Casanova, “Internal Colonialism and National Development,” Studies in Comparative International Development 1.4 (1965): 27–37.

  • 41. Barbara Weinstein, The Color of Modernity: São Paulo and the Making of Race and Nation in Modern Brazil (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).

  • 42. Michael Goebel, Argentina’s Partisan Past: Nationalism and the Politics of History (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011).

  • 43. Ignacio Klich and Jeffrey Lesser, “‘Turco’ Immigrants in Latin America,” The Americas 53.1 (1996): 1–14.

  • 44. Koichi Mori, “Identity Transformations among Okinawans and Their Descendants in Brazil,” in Searching for Home Abroad: Japanese Brazilians and Transnationalism, ed. Jeffrey Lesser (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 47–66. On the role of Okinawa in Meiji constructions of “Japaneseness,” see Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Re-Inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998), esp. 26–34.

  • 45. Beatriz Bosch, “La colonización de los alemanes del Volga en Entre Ríos, 1878–1888,” Investigaciones y Ensayos 23 (1977): 295–310; and Christophe Albaladejo, “Les descendants des Allemands de la Volga dans la Pampa: la résistance comme culture,” in Une pampa en mosaïque: des communautés locales à l’épreuve de l’ajustement en Argentine, eds. Jean-Christian Tulet et. al. (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2001), 113–144.

  • 46. Marta Maffia, “La migración caboverdeana hacia la Argentina: análisis de una alternativa,” Trabalhos de Antropologia e Etnologia 26 (1986): 191–207; McLeod, “Undesirable Aliens.”

  • 47. Helen Kelly, Irish “Ingleses”: The Irish Immigrant Experience in Argentina, 1840–1920 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009).

  • 48. Goebel, “Reconceptualizing,” 25.

  • 49. For an overview see José C. Moya, “Spanish Emigration to Cuba and Argentina,” in Mass Migration, Baily and Míguez, 9–28.

  • 50. Moya, Cousins and Strangers, 277–331.

  • 51. Steven Hyland Jr., “‘The Summit of Civilization’: Nationalisms Among the Arabic-Speaking Colonies in Latin America,” in Immigration and National Identities, Foote and Goebel, 256–280.

  • 52. Two English-language examples that offer reasonably broad coverage are: Samuel Baily and Eduardo José Míguez, eds., Mass Migration to Modern Latin America (Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 2003); and Nicola Foote and Michael Goebel, eds., Immigration and National Identities (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014). An important precursor to these works was the short survey by Magnus Mörner, Adventurers and Proletarians: The Story of Migrants in Latin America (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985).

  • 53. See, e.g., Ignacio Klich and Jeffrey Lesser, eds., Arab and Jewish Immigrants in Latin America: Images and Realities (London: Frank Cass, 1998); Wanni W. Anderson and Robert G. Lee, eds., Displacements and Diasporas: Asians in the Americas (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005); Jeffrey Lesser and Raanan Rein, eds., Rethinking Jewish Latin Americans (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008); and the special issues of The Americas 53.1 (1996) on Middle Easterners; Caribbean Studies 31.3 (2003) on Garveyism in the Hispanic Caribbean; Latin American Perspectives 31.3 (2004) on East Asians; The Hispanic American Historical Review 86.1 (2006) on various groups in various countries; and Portuguese Studies Review 14.2 (2006) on the Portuguese.

  • 54. The most important are: Samuel L. Baily, Immigrants in the Lands of Promise: Italians in Buenos Aires and New York City, 1870 to 1914 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999); Emilio Franzina, L’America gringa: storie italiane d’immigrazione tra Argentina e Brasile (Reggio Emilia, Italy: Diabasis, 2008); Daniel M. Masterson and Sayaka Funada-Classen, The Japanese in Latin America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); and Putnam, Radical Moves.

  • 55. For examples, see Jeffrey Lesser, Negotiating National Identity: Immigrants, Minorities, and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999); and Goebel, “Gauchos, Gringos and Gallegos.”

  • 56. Above all the widely acclaimed Moya, Cousins and Strangers.

  • 57. Lesser, Immigration, Ethnicity, and National Identity.

  • 58. Moya, “Spanish Emigration,” implicitly shows the dearth of previous scholarship.

  • 59. Esp. Lesser, Immigration, Ethnicity, and National Identity; also, Foote and Goebel, Immigration and National Identities.

  • 60. See, e.g., Nicola Miller, In the Shadow of the State: Intellectuals and the Quest for National Identity in Twentieth-Century Spanish America (London: Verso, 1999).