In honor of the month celebrating Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, let’s look at the history of immigrants from the Far East to South America. The story has many facets, the histories of several countries in Asia intertwined with a good number of countries in South America. Countries like Brazil, Peru and Argentina show the largest numbers of Asian immigrants in their census data. Let’s start with the largest country with the largest population.
Currently, a million people of Japanese descent live in Brazil. In my mid-twenties when I studied Brazilian Portuguese, I conversed with many brasileras (Brazilian women). At that time, my ignorance of Brazilian immigration history left me surprised when I met my first Japanese-Brazilian friend. Before knowing her I had encountered only Brazilians with African, Portuguese, or mixed Afro-Portuguese heritage.
However, I found her ethnicity was not unique in Brazil. Sao Paulo has the second largest Japanese population outside Tokyo! During Portuguese colonial times, Japan was completely isolated and let no citizens depart from 1637 to 1868. Once restrictions loosened, many Japanese workers set out in the early 1900s to do agricultural work on coffee plantations near Sao Paulo. 32,626 Japanese immigrants arrived in Brazil between 1908 and 1923. By 1941, more than 188,000 people from Japan emigrated to Brazil.
An annual celebration of Japanese migration to Brazil occurs every 18 June, to commemorate when the Japanese ship Kasato-Maru arrived near Sao Paulo in 1908, carrying the first 781 immigrants.
More than 200,000 Chinese made Brazil their home. A celebration is held each August in their honor.
In Peru, the first work force of men from the Canton region of China came in 1849 for contracts of 5 to 8 years in the haciendas. Unfortunately, the agreements took advantage of the fact that most could not read. The work agreements they signed made them closer to slaves than indentured servants. Just like the terrible middle passage conditions, on the boats from China to Peru 1/4 or 1/5 of the people did not survive the trip. Finally, two men escaped from the María Luz ship to tell the tale in 1874 which prompted a diplomatic agreement between Peru and China to improve the situation. Today Perú has 60,000 Chinese-Peruvian citizens.
The first Japanese immigrants to South America arrived in Peru in 1899; 790 men to work sugarcane and cotton fields. By 1923, they came as immigrants rather than indentured laborers. In 1934 there were 21,100 Japanese in Peru, 7,000 of whom were in good paying jobs. Unlike the Chinese immigrants, the Japanese men most often brought their wives from Japan after working for a few years.
During World War II and in several periods afterwards, the community was very restricted, not even allowed citizenship cards. Over the years, the Shinto and Buddhist religions have syncretized with Roman Catholicism; it’s common for Japanese descendants to have a corner of their homes dedicated to the memory of their ancestors. Perú now has 100,000 people of Japanese descent, called Nikkei.
I wish I had a more personal example of a Nikkei person, or one with a happy ending. In the 1990s, a President emerged from the Japanese community, Alberto Fujimori. He is remembered for his iron fist and his corruption. That’s history.
Argentina received over 100,000 Chinese immigrants. 40,000 people of Japanese descent live there, and about 15,000 North and South Koreans. However, the largest group of Asian people emigrated from Syria and Lebanon, over a million. Former President Carlos Menem is of Lebanese descent, but he lived under the same ill-fated star as Fujimori. I’ll turn to a happier, personal story.
When Evan and I were in Buenos Aires, I was looking at my paper plan of the city and notes I’d made about restaurants. We’d spent a fun day sightseeing and were looking for a unique dinner. I couldn’t believe my eyes; food from Lebanon. That sounded wonderful to both of us and the Syrian Lebanese Club was nearby. They had an elegant dining room on the third floor of a graceful, colonial building. We were the only customers. The server was very attentive and the hummus, shish kabobs and pita were great. Too bad, the restaurant is closed for a time, I’ve looked at the Club Siro Libanés website. I hope that it will open again soon. We’d love to return.
Have you traveled to South America? What was your experience with ethnic diversity?
Gracias for reading and commenting on Fake Flamenco! ¡Olé! –Rebecca
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