Middle Eastern Communities in Latin America
Left: Palestinian family in Central America, early 20th century. Courtesy of the Museum of Anthropology and History of San Pedro Sula, Honduras
Right: El-Bounni family, circulating between Mexico and Lebanon since 2005. Photo: Camila Pastor

Middle Eastern Communities in Latin America

May 15 symposium aims to stimulate a broader research project

"We are committed to expanding the knowledge base and comparative perspectives on Middle Eastern communities in the Americas, and this timely symposium will engender further research and teaching"

Migrants from the Middle East have been circulating to the Americas for over a century. Scholarship on the subject, though rich, has often fallen through the cracks of academic geographical divisions. Clearly, this is a topic that merits further scholarly attention and debate, especially in the post-9/11 era.

Middle Eastern migrants to Latin America traveled predominantly from the eastern Mediterranean region variously known as the Arab East, the Levant, or the Mashreq. Part of the Ottoman Empire until the early twentieth century, this area includes modern Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Palestine. Considerable migrant populations have also come from Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq.

Recent migrants from Lebanon settled in Mexico City. Photo by Camila Pastor

Given that this migratory process has been ongoing for a century and a half, the motivations for migrating have varied historically and regionally. Recent scholarship attributes the earliest migrations to economic and political crises affecting the sending region, notably the decline of the nineteenth-century economic boom linked to the silk trade which reshaped class identities and expectations in the Lebanese Mountain; the reorganization of previous patterns of seasonal and labor migration by Beirut's development as a significant port and its eventual economic eclipse of Damascus; and changes in access to wealth brought about by late Ottoman political and administrative reforms. The sharp fluctuation of migration throughout the second half of the twentieth century reflected more recent political and economic commotions, such as the founding of the state of Israel and the Lebanese civil war. Different migrant populations have developed different narratives and collective memories of their motivations for migration.

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The Americas were (and are) conceived of as a land of opportunity: decisions to migrate were usually sparked by the possibility of joining family or townspeople wherever they were located. In the early twentieth century, the booming economies of countries such as Mexico and Argentina provided attractive incentives to stimulate immigration. Official policy during the Porfirio Diaz era in Mexico (1876-1911) sought to populate "empty land" with "productive white foreigners," and Middle Eastern populations qualified. Brazil presented a similar situation. While the United States implemented strict health inspections for incoming migrants by the late 1920s, draconian measures to restrict immigration apparently began in the Caribbean where merchant elites in Haiti, Panama, and Guatemala were trying to protect their monopoly on trade.

Many migrants were intensely mobile: a family that initially settled in Haiti might choose to pursue a lucrative trade opportunity in New York, and later decide to settle in Mexico and establish a banking institution. By the late twentieth century, Middle Eastern migrants were finding Latin American destinations to be less desirable, given the local economic and political crises. The migration continues today, albeit in much reduced numbers, as brides and grooms are brought from towns of origin and the institutional structures generated by the early migrants continue to provide assistance and economic advantages to newcomers.

The Palestinian Kattan family in San Pedro Sula Honduras 1920.Courtesy of the Museum of Anthropology and History of San Pedro Sula, Honduras

The sectarian and regional profile of the migration has always been diverse. However, chain migration dynamics resulted in clustered settlement. Palestinians settled in Central America, Peru, Chile, and northern Mexico (Monterrey). Christians were a majority among Mideast migrants to the United States and Mexico. Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela received large Muslim populations. Current migratory trends have reversed the sectarian proportions and new areas of the globe have emerged as preferred destinations, notably the Arab Gulf states, Australia, and Canada.

Fascinating studies have been done by Jeffrey Lesser analyzing the interaction of nation building and the development of ethnic identities in Brazil. Ignacio Klich has described the negotiations undertaken by Arabic-speaking migrants in Argentina. Excellent research has also been produced by Roberto Grun on Brazil, Gladys Jozami on Argentina, and Roberto Marin Guzman and Zidane Zeraoui on migrations to Central America and Mexico. Nancie L. Gonzalez has documented Palestinian migration to Honduras, and Theresa Velcamp has described the role played by migrants in the fighting during the Mexican Revolution. Many excellent community histories have been produced, such as Liz Hamui de Halabes work on Jewish migration from Aleppo to Mexico, and Martha Diaz de Kuri and Lourdes Macluffs account of the Lebanese in Mexico.

The pioneering work of these scholars has laid solid foundations for further investigation, and there is much that is yet to be explored. Luis Mesa del Monte at the Colegio de Mexico, for example, has begun charting migration to Cuba. Havana was a frequent port of call for transatlantic traffic and many migrant memoirs describe a thriving community of Middle Eastern migrants; their fates and fortunes in the context of the Cuban Revolution and the Castro era remain to be analyzed.

The new mosque in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Photo by Camila Pastor

An emergent aspect that has not yet received focused academic attention is the recent institutionalization of Islam in the region. Most of the Latin American Muslim population consists of local converts, but the roles of early Muslim migrants and of the new ones arriving to organize and staff Muslim places of worship have only been discussed tangentially in the scholarly literature.

UCLA has been a leader in academic research on Middle Eastern migration to the Americas. The Center for Near Eastern Studies pioneered studies on Arab labor migration, Iranian exiles, and Armenian and Israeli immigration to the United States, the subjects of numerous dissertations and publications and a rich library collection recently showcased at the Powell Rotunda.

Union Arabe de Cuba (Havana). Photo by David Hirsch

The Young Research Library (YRL) collection on Arab migration and communities in Latin America is large and diverse, consisting of reference works, memoirs, novels, poetry, social history, academic journals, Muslim, Christian and Jewish community publications, newsletters and magazines of compatriotic organizations, and newspapers in Spanish and Arabic, acquired by librarian David Hirsch during his travels to nearly every country in Latin America and the Caribbean. Some of the many organizations he has visited and whose publications he has collected for YRL include the Fundacion Los Cedros (Buenos Aires), Union Arabe de Cuba (Havana), La Mision Maronita (Montevideo), Club Homs (Sao Paulo), and Centro Libanes (Mexico City). While older publications may have been bilingual or published only in Arabic, recent publications are almost exclusively written in Spanish or Portuguese. Hirsch and his colleague Eudora Loh organized an exhibition of library materials on ethnic communities in Latin America in the early 1990s, highlighting Arab, Armenian, and Jewish communities and their contributions to Latin American society.

YRL's growing Latin America collection is being used by more and more educators and researchers, a number of whom have tapped into these resources to develop their dissertations, including recent graduate Sophia Martos (PhD, History, 2007).

The upcoming symposium on Middle Eastern communities in Latin America aims to initiate a discussion that will lead to the elaboration of a broader research project. Camila Pastor, doctoral candidate in Anthropology, will present a paper on The Mashreq in Mexico: Making Class in the Postcolonial Global. Other speakers include John Tofik Karam from DePaul University (author of Another Arabesque: Syrian-Lebanese Ethnicity in Neoliberal Brazil, 2007) and Christina Civantos from the University of Miami (author of Between Argentines and Arabs: Argentine Orientalism, Arab Immigrants, and the Writing of Identity, 2006).

The symposium is supported by the Latin American Institute and the Center for Near Eastern Studies and their respective directors, Randal Johnson and Susan Slyomovics, who said, "we are committed to expanding the knowledge base and comparative perspectives on Middle Eastern communities in the Americas, and this timely symposium will engender further research and teaching."

The symposium on Middle Eastern Communities in Latin America takes place on Thursday, May 15, from 3:00 to 6:00 pm in 10383 Bunche Hall.