In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Immigration in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Immigrants and Afro-Descendants
  • Labor Movement
  • International Migration within Latin America

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Latin American Studies Immigration in Latin America
Jose C. Moya
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0075


Immigration is arguably the most distinguishing historical feature of Latin America, and of the Western Hemisphere in general. Although it can be said that every region of the planet outside of East Africa—the cradle of Homo sapiens—is a region of immigrants, that label applies to the Americas in a particular way. The American continent/s (it is perceived as a single continent in Latin America and as two in the United States) has functioned as a receptacle for the population of every other continent. Its aboriginal population could be described as the first (Asian) immigrants, since they arrived not from humanity’s cradle but from northeast Asia, and did so twenty thousand years after much of the rest of the planet had been settled. The Americas are a New World not only in the usage of the term associated with the Eurocentric notion of “discovery” but also in relation to the history of humanity. The other immigrants arrived even more recently. Sixty million Europeans, eleven million Africans, and five million Asians arrived in the Western Hemisphere after 1492, with close to one-third of the Europeans (or 18.5 million), half of the Africans, and one-sixth of the Asians going to Latin America. These transcontinental migrations shaped the ethnic geography of the Americas. The first migrants from Asia settled mainly on the highlands that run along the western side of the hemisphere, particularly what has been called “nuclear America,” or Mesoamerica and the central Andes. These regions contained the vast majority of the Amerindian population before the conquest and continue to do so today. Africans were taken mainly to the tropical and semitropical islands and coastal lowlands of the Americas. Europeans dispersed to a greater degree but nonetheless concentrated, particularly during the postcolonial period, in the temperate regions on the northern and southern ends of the hemisphere. Since other articles in this collection treat the Amerindian and African population, this article will center on immigration from Europe and Asia and on international migrations within Latin America.

General Overviews

Moya 2008 and Mörner and Sims 1985 are the only two overviews of migration to, from, and within Latin America from the colonial period to the present. Klein 1999 offers a briefer but broad take on immigration to Latin America that does not include intraregional international movements but does include a comparison to the United States. Moya 2006 also takes a hemispheric perspective and connects migration to shifts in socioeconomic development. This section also includes an Atlantic perspective that incorporates Argentina and Brazil (Nugent 1995), an overview of western Mediterranean migrations to South America (Carmagnani 1994), and a summary of the Asian presence in Latin America (Hu-deHart and López 2008).

  • Carmagnani, Marcello. Emigración mediterránea y América: Formas y transformaciones, 1860–1930. Colombres, Asturias: Fundación Archivo de Indianos, 1994.

    An analysis of the exodus from Spain, Italy, and, to a lesser degree, Portugal during the period of mass migrations, with the emphasis on demographic, economic, and political transformations in the countries of origin rather than on the adaptation of the emigrants in their destinations.

  • Hu-deHart, Evelyn, and Kathleen López. “Asian Diasporas in Latin America and the Caribbean: An Historical Overview.” Afro-Hispanic Review 27.1 (2008): 9–21.

    Brief overview of Asian presence in colonial Latin America; the mass migration of Chinese “coolies” in the 19th century to Cuba and Peru, and their continuing arrivals as free migrants to those two countries and Mexico; Japanese and South Asian immigration; Asian relations with descendants of Africans in the region; and immigrant culture.

  • Klein, Herb. “Migração internacional na historia das Americas.” In Fazer a América: A imigração em massa para America Latina. Edited by Boris Fausto, 13–32. Sao Paulo: Editorial de la Universidad de São Paulo, 1999.

    Discusses push and pull factors; the colonial development of Latin America, the West Indies, and Anglo North America; postcolonial European emigration to the Western Hemisphere up to 1880, its peak between that date and 1914, its decline in the interwar years, and its resurgence after World War II. A coda addresses immigrant socioeconomic mobility and assimilation.

  • Mörner, Magnus, and Harold Sims. Adventurers and Proletarians: The Story of Migrants in Latin America. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

    Overview of voluntary immigration to Spanish America and Brazil during the colonial period, and particularly during the great inflow between the mid-19th century and the Great Depression, with two final chapters on post-1930 movements into, within, and from Latin America. Emphasis is on policies, politics, demography, and economic structures.

  • Moya, José C. “A Continent of Immigrants: Postcolonial Shifts in the Western Hemisphere.” Hispanic American Historical Review 86.1 (2006): 1–28.

    DOI: 10.1215/00182168-86-1-1

    Discusses the connection between mass migration and modernization during the 19th century and the role of European immigration in the reversal of the regional socioeconomic rank of the Americas, as what had been the poorest and most marginal colonies before 1800 became the most economically developed and socially egalitarian countries or regions.

  • Moya, José C.. “Migration.” In Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture. 2d ed. Edited by Jay Kinsbruner. New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 2008.

    Overview of colonial immigration from Africa and Europe; the process of cultural Iberianization; the mass inflow circa 1850–1930, and its origins, causes, and consequences; the refugee movements into Latin America of the 1930s and 1940s; the revival of immigration in the 1950s and 1960s; and the surge of emigration from Latin America to the United States, Europe, and elsewhere from the 1960s on.

  • Nugent, Walter. Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870–1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

    The book’s three parts cover the general demographic and economic trends of the Atlantic world during the period, the situation in the seven principal regions of emigration, and that of the major four American receivers: the United States, Argentina, Canada, and Brazil.

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