The Arab Diaspora in Central and South America
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
In previous postings, we described Arabs who were part of the diaspora to North America. These included immigrants, to the U.S. and also immigrants to Canada. In this piece, we look at Arab immigration to South and Central America. Since there are large numbers of immigrants to countries of Latin America, we present two posts, this one on the general movement of Arabs to the region, followed by another on individual countries where immigrants have found a home, some in significant numbers. In each, we’ll look at the contributions they’ve made to their respective societies.
Arab immigration to Latin America
Arab migration to Latin America, as in the case of the Arab Canadians, began in the last decades of the 19th century until about the 1950s. They mainly came from Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. In the pre and post-Ottoman period of World War I, in the early 20th century, Syrians and Lebanese emigrated to Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, while Palestinians tended to come to gravitate to Chile and countries and Central America. Most of these immigrants were of the Christian faith. More recently, in the post 9/11 period, most immigrants to Latin Americans have been Muslims.
Estimates of Arab migration to Latin America are fluid and, if anything, may be exaggerated. The following is one version, by country:
Today, Arabs in South America or North America or, for that matter, wherever they are in the world, are globally interconnected through the internet and satellite TV—bringing them together socially, culturally, religiously, and economically. They are part of so-called “diaspora studies” in a broad transnational context. For this post we give an overall, regional view, while for the following post we take a national perspective, to review Arab immigrant adaptations to the culture and politics of each country where they reside. Generally speaking, Arab immigrants in the pre-9/11 era were accepted as “hard-working merchants,” while in the recent, post-9/11 era, they’ve been viewed more suspiciously, either as “refugees” or even worse, as “terrorists.”Arabs have typically integrated with some ease into Latin American countries, often through the niche of the merchant. However, there is a false narrative of Arab immigrants moving from a condition of poverty to the status of a millionaire, jumping over several steps on the socioeconomic ladder. At the same time, Arabs are seen as maintaining their ethnic identity. On the other hand, there are narratives of discrimination against Arabs, including their designation in Spanish as “Turcos” or Turks–a negative connotation dating to the Ottoman period. While Lebanese and Syrians were described for their cultural and economic contributions, Palestinians tended to be seen more in a context of political issues, namely in light of their rights to a homeland in Palestine.
Who They Are
Early Arab immigrants to Latin America came more because of the “push” factor of Middle East politics. This was a result of economic crises caused by the British and French occupations of their countries. Thus, rather than moving abroad to fill manual labor jobs on plantations, Arabs came to work as traders and merchants in the city centers. One example is Lebanese immigrants, who self-described as descendants of Phoenician traders, who took up positions as merchants whose motive was to do business.
Thus have Arabs settled as merchants in the Sao Paulo, Brazil quarter of ‘Rua de 25 Marco.’ In Peru, many settled in the commercial capital, Arequipa, in San Pedro Sula in Honduras, and in Quito and Guayaquil in Ecuador. In some countries Arabs are well known as owners of famous stores in the cities of San Jose, Costa Rica; Havana, Cuba, and Managua, Nicaragua.
In some countries, Arab immigrants have risen to high levels of society. A case in point is the recent elevation of Lebanese Arab Michel Temer to the presidency of Brazil following the removal of Dilma Rousseff. While in Brazil, this was viewed as a coup d’état, in Lebanon it was described as a “glorious achievement.” Temer has now been replaced following a recent national election for the presidency. The rise of Arab immigrants to positions of national leadership seems almost unexceptional, as seen in the following list of country leaders:
Carlos Menem, Argentina, 1989–99
Abdalá Bucaram, Ecuador, 1996–97
Jamil Mahuad, El Salvador, 1998–2000
Elías Antonio Saca, Honduras, 2004–9
Julio César Turbay, Colombia, 1978–82
These leaders and many of their Arab followers have effectively integrated into Latin American polity and society. At first, Arab immigrants were seen as non-Europeans; however, they were not forced into the stigmatized racial categories of “black” or “yellow.” Often they arrived with European passports. Arab immigrants were typically credited with introducing modern commercial finance methods, including credit systems.
Not everything, however, has been rosy for the Arabs in Latin America. For example, the negative pushback has been that many immigrants halted the teaching of Arabic to their children–in order to melt into the larger Hispanic population. Also, many Christians felt pressure and thus moved from Orthodoxy to Catholicism and, more extreme, Muslims converted to Christianity.
Maintaining their Identity
Arab immigrants have accommodated quite well in their new home of Latin America. They have profited materially as well as contributed to their new societies. At the same time, they’ve been able to retain their ethnic and cultural identity. Cultural prejudices launched against Arabs usually include such notions as sensual, belly-dancing women or the Arab reputation for making good monetary deals for themselves in commerce. The Arabs have generally turned such prejudices towards their own advantage. One seemingly sad loss from the Arab cultural inventory is that of language—many Arabs have lost their capacity to speak Arabic. Some, on the other hand, have benefitted from Arabic language programs on satellite TV and on the internet. On the plus side, Arab cuisine is famous for its consumption in the home and in restaurants all over the Continent.
Anti-Arab prejudices have snuck back into Latin American societies following the event of 9/11, in which extremist Arabs took down the World Trade Center buildings by crashing planes into them. Since then, some of the rhetoric has purposely confused Arabs with terrorists and has purposely distorted the image of Islam as a terrorist-supporting, fundamentalist religion. U.S. authorities have not helped in this matter, in their designation of smugglers occupying the tri-border of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay as terrorists and confounding them with Arabs and Muslims.
Brazilian anthropologist Fernando Rabossi has studied Islamophobia rhetoric in his country reported that the government had rejected it. However, he says this is not the case for the Argentina and Paraguay governments, where people of Arab origin have been arbitrarily detained. Rabossi indicates that today Islamophobia is endemic across the Continent. Veiled women, in particular, have drawn criticism and even physical attacks. Such Islamophobia is related to more and more powerful Evangelicals arising in Latin America, especially in Brazil. The Evangelicals have also pushed for a more pro-Israel stance of their governments.
We have just touched the surface of describing Arabs in Latin America. In a subsequent posting, we’ll review in more detail how Arabs have adapted to specific countries and economic and political conditions.
(References: Tobias Roos, “The Arab Diaspora in Latin America,” September, 2017; Lamia Oualalou, “The Arabs of Latin America,” The Nation, July 12, 2017; Oxford Bibliographies, “Immigration in Latin America,” in Latin American Studies, September 27, 2017; Arab American Institute, “Demographics” (no date); Theresa Alfaro-Velcamp, So Far From Allah, So Close to Mexico, University of Texas Press, 2007; Fernando Rabossi, “Smuggling Realities: On numbers, borders, and performances,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 8, no. 1-2, Spring/Autumn 2018.)
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.