In This Article The Arab Diaspora in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Religion and the Arab Diaspora in Latin America
  • Edited Volumes and Anthologies
  • The Concept of Diaspora and the Arab Diasporas
  • Transnational Moments and the Impact on the Sending Countries
  • Chile
  • Mexico
  • Central America and the Caribbean Area
  • South America: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela

Latin American Studies The Arab Diaspora in Latin America
by
Tobias Boos
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0193

Introduction

The contemporary Arab diaspora in Latin America has its main basis in migration from the last decades of the 19th until the middle of the 20th century. The migrants came mainly from the present-day countries of Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, which, before the end of World War I, formed part of the Ottoman Empire. Syrians and Lebanese mostly migrated to Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, while Palestinians settled in Chile and Central American countries where most of their descendants still live. Arab migration to Latin America almost completely stopped after World War II before starting again at a comparatively low rate in the 1990s. While, during the former period, the vast majority of migrants were Arab Christians, in recent decades they have generally belonged to various Muslim confessions. Arabs in Latin America share a common narrative of the successful rise of Arab merchants from a state of poverty to being millionaires. This story still influences the contemporary image of an Arab community that is well integrated despite maintaining specific ethnic identities. However, they also suffer discrimination. Arabs are called “turcos” (Turks) all over Latin America, which they regard as insulting. Consequently, the most frequently addressed topics by scholars working on the Arab diaspora in Latin America are discrimination and adaptation to the host society, as well as the history of the formation of Arab communities. While most academics do not use the specific term “Arab diaspora,” these topics generally fall within the diaspora studies research field. But there are also differences in these investigations’ focus depending on the region of origin of the specific group of Arabs examined. For example, while writings on the Lebanese and Syrian diaspora focus on economic and cultural matters, those related to the Palestinian diaspora have always had political overtones. One important emerging topic in studies on Arab migration to Latin America from the beginning of the 21st century has been the global connectedness of the Arab migrant communities in different dimensions—social, communicative, economic, etc.—known in diaspora studies as the “transnational moment.” Nonetheless, most studies continue to take a national perspective on Arab communities because most statistical data is available only on the national level and because the question of national loyalty of the Arab population in Latin American countries has increased in relevance again due to the events of 9/11 and recent political instability and social unrest in Arab countries.

General Overviews

There are only a few books that provide a general overview of the Arab diaspora in Latin America, perhaps due to the diversity of both the region and the Arab migrant groups. The majority can be found in edited volumes, where they mainly take the form of an introductory chapter; see Edited Volumes and Anthologies. An excellent starting point is the article Klich and Lesser 1996, which presents a short and nuanced introduction to this field of research. As do most other authors’ works, it focuses on the historical development of Arab migration to Latin America and the adaptation of the various Arab groups to their host societies. Of special interest are their explanations of the means of self-identification employed by different groups originating in the Middle East; for example, some parts of the Lebanese population and their descendants view themselves as Phoenicians rather than Arabs, which is an important detail often confirmed by case studies. Furthermore, they point out that, as well as different national identities, religion is an important identity marker. Special importance is given to national identity by Baeza 2014, which focuses on the Palestinians and their descendants in Latin America. The author points out that the maintenance of the Palestinian national identity is a result of discrimination at different levels and transnational connections between states and people. Yet at the same time, the experience of discrimination and global connections are also means for establishing global social orders such as diaspora communities. Brégain 2008 presents a detailed historical study focusing on the crucial period of the formation of Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian national identities from 1918 to 1945. In this period, different national and regional identities—Ottoman, Syrian, Lebanese, Syrian-Lebanese, Arab, etc.—were promoted in Latin American countries, influencing the politics of identity of the Arab population of the region into the early 21st century. A good introduction to the types of works and spatial settlement patterns of Arab migrants is the article Glade 1983. The author attributes the formation of these typical socio-spatial patterns to the type of migration, which, in the case of the Arab migration to Latin America, was mainly chain migration. This description is canonical in the early 21st century and reaffirmed by many specific case studies. For further readings, see the section “Arabs” in the separate Oxford Bibliographies article in Latin American Studies “Immigration in Latin America.”

  • Baeza, Cecilia. “Palestinians in Latin America: Between Assimilation and Long-Distance Nationalism.” Journal of Palestine Studies 43.2 (2014): 59–72.

    DOI: 10.1525/jps.2014.43.2.59E-mail Citation »

    This presents a refined historical overview of the development of Palestinian communities in Latin America, and especially Chile. The article describes the political dynamics and resulting transnational formations connecting Palestinian communities in Latin America to other Palestinian communities around the world, and advocates a transnational perspective for the investigation of communities with global ties.

  • Brégain, Gildas. Syriens et libanais d’amérique du sud (1918–1945). Paris: L’Harmattan, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is the most detailed book focusing on the important role of the French government in the formation of national identities among Syrians and Lebanese living in Latin America after the end of the Ottoman Empire. At this time, Lebanon and Syria were under a French mandate that tried to promote Syrian and Lebanese identities, and this heavily influenced the later development of the Arab communities in Latin America.

  • Glade, William. “The Levantines in Latin America.” American Economic Review 73.2 (1983): 118–122.

    E-mail Citation »

    This short article examines the economic contexts of Latin America and the Levant in which the Arab migrations of the 19th and early 20th century took place. It gives valuable explanations of the Arab immigrants’ general patterns of settlement in Latin America and entrepreneurial behavior. Additionally, it summarizes the economic push factors leading to the early period of emigration. Available online by subscription.

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

    DOI: 10.2307/1007471E-mail Citation »

    The authors give a general overview of the various means by which Arab immigrants and their descendants adapted to Latin American societies, exploring the politics of identity formation in various Arab communities in a nuanced way. This introduction to a special issue on Arab migration to Latin America is available online by subscription.

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