Immigration: Latin America as a Point of Destination in the early 20th Century

By Katie Lloyd

In present day political discourse on immigration, Latin America is characterized by its high levels of emigration to other countries, but it was once a destination that many migrants turned to. The turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century was marked by mass migration into Latin America. While this period was between 1870 and 1930, the highest rates occurred from 1900 to 1914 (Sánchez-Alonso, 2018). 

In terms of voluntary migration, Europeans had the highest rate of immigration to Latin America.  Migration patterns of the period show that those from countries that spoke romantic languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.) were more likely to emigrate to South America and those who spoke English to North America. The bulk of European emigrates to Latin America travelled to Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, or Uruguay. They were mostly males traveling alone, although the presence of families was not rare (Sánchez-Alonso, 2018). Chile, Mexico, and Paraguay also received a large number of migrants, but not to the same degree (Sánchez Alonso, 2007). 

In the 1870s, most of Latin America remained an exporter of raw materials, but these places where immigration was the highest had changed economically (Moya, 2018 and Kittleson et al, 2021). Free trade was embraced by Latin American elites, and foreign manufacturers started opening their doors in the region. Along with these job opportunities, European countries provided investments into surrounding infrastructure. The adoption of technology was increased, making work and growth more efficient. With the addition of Latin America to the emerging world economy, potential migrants now saw it as a viable place to go to (Kittleson et al, 2021).  

This immigration was not limited to European migrants. Asian emigrates made their way to Peru, countries in Central America, and the Caribbean, but not at the same rate (Sánchez-Alonso, 2018). In the same vein, hundreds of thousands of migrants came from the Middle East, mostly to Argentina and Brazil. (Moya, 2018). 

From 1888 to 1930, Brazil subsidized transport for almost fifty eight percent of immigrants to the country, pulling more people who were potentially on the edge. Italians and Spaniards were the main recipients of this arrangement (Sánchez-Alonso, 2018). These subsidies were extended to family units, which led the country to attract more families with children than any other Latin American country (Sánchez Alonso, 2007).  

Europeans migrants were entering locations with a strong historical tie to racial hierarchies, making them more privileged than any other group. The Europeans from the humblest of origins had a position of superiority over other immigrant groups and even people of color who had existed in those spaces for years (Moya, 2018).  In fact, immigration by Europeans was highly encouraged, several Latin American governments thought they would aid in modernization efforts with their supposed cultural superiority (Sánchez Alonso, 2007).  

Furthermore, state policies actively pursed Europeans in order for their populations to become whiter (also known as the process of blanqueamiento) (Hernández, 2012 and dos Santos & Hallewell, 2002). In the case of Brazil, specific laws were created and enacted to subsidize the travels of white people and attempted to prohibit the entry of nonwhites. In their eyes, the mass immigration of Europeans would ensure the future of the country and reduce the population of people of color (dos Santos & Hallewell, 2002). Brazil was not alone in this sentiment, as many other Latin American countries had similar policies and practices (Hernández, 2012).  

More research must be conducted on the immigration to Latin America during the 1870s and 1930s. Most has been focused on immigration to the United States, putting a U.S.-centric focus to immigration at time. In order to understand more about how this immigration affected Latin America and in turn the world, more research has to be done into this topic.  



dos Santos, S., & Hallewell, L. (2002). Historical Roots of the “Whitening” of Brazil. Latin American Perspectives, 29(1), 61–82. 


Hernández, T. (2012). Spanish America Whitening the Race – the Un(written) Laws of Blanqueamiento and Mestizaje. In Racial Subordination in Latin America: The Role of the State, Customary Law, and the New Civil Rights Response (pp. 19-46). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139176125.003 


Kittleson, R. A., Lockhart, James and Bushnell, David. (2021, August 31). history of Latin America. Encyclopedia Britannica. 


Moya, J. (2018). Migration and the historical formation of Latin America in a global perspective. Sociologias, 20(49), 24–68. 


Sánchez Alonso, B. (2007). The Other Europeans: Immigration into Latin America and the International Labour Market (1870–1930). Revista De Historia Económica / Journal of Iberian and Latin American Economic History,25(3), 395-426. doi:10.1017/S0212610900000185 


Sánchez-Alonso, B. (2018). The age of mass migration in Latin America. The Economic History Review, 72(1), 3–31. 


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