The Surprisingly Deep Centuries-Old Ties Between the Middle East and Latin America
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The first time I stepped into a Syrian home, I was greeted by a family drinking Argentine yerba mate and watching a popular Mexican soap opera dubbed into Arabic. It was the summer of 1998, and I was in Syria researching Levantine migration to Latin America. Evidence of that migration wasn’t hard to find. As that year’s World Cup got under way, Brazilian flags unfurled from many balconies in Damascus — in honor of relatives who had moved to São Paulo and other Brazilian cities.
Those family ties stretch back as much as 150 years. Arabs have been migrating to Latin America, establishing cultural connections, and contributing to Latin America’s development since the 19th century. Today’s influx of Syrian refugees — while a new source of debate — is only the latest chapter in a long history.
The first wave of Middle Eastern migration to Latin America lasted from the 1860s through 1914, when about 600,000 Arabic speakers from the Levant resettled in the Americas, spurred by socioeconomic and demographic factors that converged with the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Subsequently, the 1948 establishment of Israel, the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990), and related conflicts fueled new waves — particularly to Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
Some migrants later returned to their home countries, bringing back with them traces of Latin America, such as mate and even given names. In Damascus I met a Syrian student named Mario whose brother and sister were Marco and Caro. Later, I discovered that half the inhabitants of Mario’s village had a close family member who lived, or had lived, in Venezuela — drawn there by the country’s oil boom (1950s–1970s).
Returning migrants may have been influenced by early 20th century ethnic tensions that, in some countries, took the form of discriminatory social, legal, and/or immigration practices. In Argentina, for example, the stereotype of the “wily” Levantine immigrant peddler created a lasting association between “turcos” (immigrants from the Ottoman Empire) and corruption. Hence, the corruption scandals of former Argentine President Carlos Menem — the son of Syrian Muslim immigrants who is known as "El Turco" — were blamed by some on his ethnoreligious origins.
Nonetheless, positive associations with Arab immigration to Latin America are forged by figures such as Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim and Colombian superstar Shakira, both of Lebanese extraction. Helping to open the door for today’s Middle East migrants, Shakira has called the current displacement of Syrians “one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time” and summoned the world to action. Building on historical ties, Latin America is well-positioned to respond positively to her plea.
Civantos is a researcher and associate professor of 19th- and 20th-century Spanish American and Arabic literature and culture at the University of Miami.