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March 31, 2013

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Greek Emigration to Latin America: 1900-1950


"Διασπορά, Σμύρνη Καναδά, μακριά μου έχεις παει ... πονάει"

There are currently about 50,000 Greeks living throughout Latin America, most of whom emigrated after the Second World War (Agapitidis, 1964; Katsomalos 1972). Earlier, emigration from Greece to Latin America, during the first half of the twentieth century, was so small it hardly seems worth the trouble examining. Only a few thousand people left Greece, or the Greek-inhabited regions of the Ottoman empire, and settled in Latin America. By comparison, over the same period almost half a million Greeks emigrated to the United States. Between 1900 and 1945, even Canada witnessed the arrival of many more Greeks than any single Latin American country. Nonetheless, Greek emigration to Latin America, despite its small proportions, offers researchers a chance to test theories about emigration, during the first half of the twentieth century, that have been developed on the basis of the North American experience. For if one is going to come up with an overall understanding of this phenomenon, in this particular era, one does have to take into account the entire spectrum of Greek emigration. Thus, despite its small proportions, Greek movement toward Latin America, before the Second World War, cannot be ignored.


The generally accepted conclusions drawn from studying emigration to the United States in the early twentieth century, can be summed up as follows: the persons emigrating were not the poorest, most were seeking to make money as quickly as possible, and, connected to this, most of them were initially planning on a short tay. The wave of Greek emigration to the United States, which involved roughly 400,000 persons between the 1890s and the early 1920s, was prompted by the collapse of the price of currants, which had become a major export. A blight on French vines was a boon to Greek production, centered mainly in Peloponessos, but when French vines recovered, the price of Greek currants dropped precipitously. Research has shown that the emigrants, primarily from Peloponessos, left Greece in an attempt to find ways to preserve the new, higher standard of living they had achieved during the currant boom of the 1870s-1880s. Several studies have suggested that family-based interests, including keeping up with the high price of dowries, that was a result of the economic boom, propelled many Greeks to emigrate. At any rate, there is a great deal of evidence that shows it was the relatively wealthier inhabitants of rural Greece who were the first to emigrate (Kitroeff, 1999).

Their motivation made the emigrants choose mostly urban occupations that would guarantee high wages, either in manufacturing or in the service sector. Virtually none of them chose to settle in rural areas and pursue farming, which entailed a more long-term commitment in the New World and a much longer wait for financial gains. By the same token, they did not plan to stay longer than a few years in the United States.

Although easy and quick profit was not something all could achieve, the high incidence of return migration, more than 25 percent of the total arrivals in the early twentieth century, confirms that many did not plan to settle permanently across the Atlantic.
"Διασπορά, άξιζε η σπορά ... ναι η ψυχή μου προχωράει ... γελάει"
How does the data on the Greeks emigrating to Latin America confirm the findings that are based on Greek emigration to the United States? First of all, the low numbers of Greeks moving to Latin America were related to the news that quick profits were made in the urban economy of the United States, and, secondly, the view that emigration to Latin America involved working in the agricultural sector, which entailed considerable hardships.


The Numbers Emigrating to Latin America

The Greek state was not able to monitor emigration carefully, and most Latin American countries counted Greeks with Ottoman documents as being indistinguishable from the rest of the "Ottoman" emigrants, known as "Turcos," so the task  of measuring Greek emigration to Latin America accurately is very difficult. The numbers of Greeks involved in transatlantic emigration show very clearly that the United States was by far the most favored destination in the era of mass emigration. According to the Greek statistical service, between 1891 and 1920, out of a total of 386,611 "transatlantic" emigrants from the country, most (368,699) went to the United States and only 17,912 went to Canada and Latin America—the tables do not distinguish between the non-US destinations (ESYE, 1979: 52). The proportions changed after 1920 because the United States restricted emigration, but there was not a large increase of Greek transatlantic emigration to non-US destinations.

Between 1921 and 1940 the total numbers of transatlantic emigrants were 71,338, and of them, 22,083 went to either Australia, Canada or Latin America.

Prior to the wave of mass transatlantic emigration, there was a trickle of Greeks emigrating to Latin America, especially Brazil.

In 1840, there was a small Greek community in Rio de Janeiro made up of persons associated with the major Greek merchant houses, such as the Rallis, Rodocanachis and Petrocokkinos. Among that community was a Calogeras, a nephew of Greece's first governor Capodistrias, whose son, Pandias Kalogeras, became minister of finance of Brazil in 1915.

In the 1880s, small groups of peasants from Peloponessos, in southern Greece, traveled to Brazil and worked on the coffee plantations. The hardships they endured, described in letters published in the Greek press, apparently discouraged greater numbers of emigrants, whose reason for leaving Greece was precisely the wish to avoid the hardships associated with peasant life. The relatively small numbers of Greeks emigrating to South America meant that the "Greeks" rarely appeared in the relevant national statistics. The few instances where one does find the number of Greeks recorded, demonstrate how low the Greek figures were. For example, in the Argentinean province of Santa Fe, in 1875, there were only 13 Greek males compared to the 1,691 Italian males; even so, the Greeks were the tenth largest ethnic group in the province (Kleiner, 1938: 71).
"Ο ένας λάντσα χρόνια στην Αστάρια - ο άλλος καπετάνιος στα βαπόρια - Ελληνάκια σκληραρογυμένα - δούλευαν για σένα και για μένα"
During the period of mass emigration, more Peloponneseans traveled to Brazil around the turn of the century. Letters they sent were published in the local press in Peloponnesos. On the whole, heir experiences were negative;  the Greek Consul in Brazil was reported as having had to cater for 500 Greeks who were "hungry, naked and homeless." This was an item which contrasted with the ebullient tone of one, Petros P. Polyzopoulos, whose letter glowed with enthusiasm about the opportunities available through the cultivation of coffee. Indeed, the newspaper that published both reports commented that Polyzopoulos's account was at odds with most incoming mail from Brazil, which was on the whole negative (Neon Aion, Oct. 7, 15, 16, 1905).

By examining contemporary local press reports one can surmise that there were probably two factors preventing more emigration from Greece to Brazil, which seemed to be the main destination among those choosing to go to South America. One factor was the conditions obtaining in Brazil. Emigrants' accounts stressed that those going to Brazil should be prepared to work in agriculture as well as put up with climatic conditions considered fairly difficult or at least unusual for the Greeks.


Judging by what occupations they pursued in the United States, where they remained within urban areas, the Greek peasants did not see their new future in terms of repeating the work environment they were used to in Greece.

Discouragement by the Greek government was the second factor mitigating against a greater flow of emigrants from Greece to South America. The government's uneasiness about the consequences of emigration, coupled with the negative reports about the experiences of the early emigrants to Brazil, led to official discouragement of Greek emigration to Brazil. Reports of an outbreak of yellow fever in Brazil, in 1905, led to a temporary ban on emigration to Brazil. Protests by prospective emigrants made the Greek government point to a similar ban it claimed the Italian government had placed on emigration to Brazil, according to reports in Greek newspapers (Neon Aion,
July 22 & 23, 1905).
"Ο ένας έφυγε για Αυστραλία - ο άλλος μπάρκαρε μικρός στα πλοία - Τούρκοι κι Έλληνες στη Γερμανία - μέρα νύχτα στη βιομηχανία"
Prospective emigrants were prepared to ignore reports of "yellow fever" in Brazil because they felt conditions in Greece were very bad (Neon Aion, July 28, 1905).

Thus, the numbers of Greeks settling in the Latin American countries were small. The smaller the country, the fewer the Greeks. For example, there were only six Greeks who arrived in Paraguay between 1889 and 1906. There were more who arrived in Uruguay: from 1909 to 1912 there were 54; from 1913 to 1916 there were 8; and from 1921 to 1924, 79 Greeks arrived in Montevideo. The most significant emigration was to Argentina, Brazil and Cuba; unfortunately, because of their relatively small size, compared to other immigrant groups, the Greeks do not appear in the Argentinean statistics. One source mentions that there were 5,716 Greeks in Argentina (Ritacco, 1992, cited in Hasiotis, 1993). These are the numbers for Brazil and Cuba.

The numbers of Greeks arriving in the Latin American countries rose in the 1920s, precisely the time when restrictions began to be imposed on emigration to the United States. However, overall emigration began decreasing from Greece. Not surprisingly, therefore, the numbers of Greeks in Latin America did not grow significantly in the next period, especially after Brazil also introduced restrictions in 1934. The following table shows a drop in the numbers leaving Greece for, what the Greek statistical service described as, "transoceanic" destinations.

Argentinean statistics on immigration in the 1930s, do not include Greeks among the twenty-five nationalities that are recorded as entering the country in the 1930s. Greeks are mentioned only in a table depicting arrivals and departures in 1939, which shows that 330 entered Argentina that year and 344 departed the country. A similar table for 1941 shows 356 Greeks entering the country and 324 departing Argentina, while in 1942 the figures were, respectively, 368 and 315. There were 346 Greeks entering Argentina in 1944, 490 in 1945, 616 in 1946, 715 in 1947, 1,206 in 1948, 1,200 in 1949, and 1,131 in 1950, which was the peak year in this period (Informe Demografico de la Republica Argentina, 1956: 37, 88-89).


The scattered and fragmented information about the geographical dispersion and occupational patterns of the Greeks in Latin America, confirms that for many, immigration was a short-erm plan designed to accumulate as much capital as possible in a brief time. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the Greek settlement in the Latin American countries remained centered around the region's urban centers because so relatively few Greeks chose to work in the agrarian provinces. There are few references to the geographical distribution of Greek immigrants in the Latin American countries; this is due to the relatively small size of the Greek presence in the southern part of the American continent.

In Argentina, according to the 2o Censo de la Republica Argentina, in 1895 there were 313 Greeks (283 males and 30 females) in the country, and almost half their number, 170 (150 males and 20 females) were settled in the city of Buenos Aires.
"Ο ένας λάντσα χρόνια στην Αστάρια - ο άλλος καπετάνιος στα βαπόρια"
Another 69 Greeks (65 males and 4 females) were located around the city in the province of Buenos Aires. The numbers of Greeks in the other Argentinean provinces, according to the same census, were as follows: in Santa Fe, 34; in Entre Rios, 15; in Corrientes, 4; in COrdoba, 1; in Mendoza, 2; in la Rioja, 3; in Tucuman, 7; and in Salta, 1. In 1911, the numbers of Greeks in Argentina had risen to about five thousand, according to the New York-based Atlantis newspaper. That same year the Greek community of Buenos Aires established itself, along with a church, a school, and a hospital. In the 1920s, many Greek immigrants were involved in bilateral trade between Greece and Argentina.

No account of the Greeks in Argentina would be complete without reference to the legendary figure of Aristotle Onassis (1900-1975), considered one of the wealthiest persons in the world during the prime of his career, and certainly the wealthiest Greek.

Onassis's life has attracted a great deal of attention, so much that it is difficult to separate fact from fantasy. Onassis escaped from the destruction of Smyrna in 1922 and traveled to Buenos Aires, where he had some distant relatives. After taking on a number of jobs, including that of telephone operator, he began what was a successful cigarette manufacturing business; his father, who was a tobacco merchant in Smyrna, had also escaped the city's destruction and had resettled in Greece, where he continued his work. The success of his business permitted him to become involved in moves to promote trade between Argentina and Greece, and he traveled to Athens for that purpose. In 1931, the Venizelos government appointed him deputy consul of Greece in Buenos Aires.


But within a few years Onassis came into contact with Greek shipowners in London, and he decided to go into the shipping business, something that took him away from Argentina. Onassis began by purchasing ten old frigates in Canada after the Second World War; he was well on his way to fame by then (Evans, 1986:48-60).

Onassis was unique, of course, but also typical in the sense that he chose to work as a small owner/businessman in order to amass capital as quickly as possible. This was the case with most Greeks in Latin America. For example, in his 1919 study of Greek communities throughout the world, Mihail Dendias, estimates that there were about 500 Greeks in Chile. About 250 of them had settled in the northern port-city of Antofagasta, the country's export center. Dendias reports that most Greeks there, were small store owners or businessmen. With regard to the Greeks in Santiago, Chile's capital, Dendias mentions, approvingly, that they had already managed to accumulate considerable wealth.
"Ελληνάκια σκληραρογυμένα - ξανακτίσανε τα γκρεμισμένα - δούλευαν για σένα και για μένα"
The rates of return migration are the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle that would complete this sketchy picture of Greek emigration to Latin America. Accurate figures are not available. Greek sources suggest that, overall, return migration from all diaspora destinations was very high in the first half of the twentieth century, ranging from over 25 percent to as much as 55 percent in some instances. In his study of the Greek diaspora, Hasiotis, suggests that Greek settlement in Australia and Latin America before the Second World War conformed to the general pattern of high rates of return migration (Hasiotis, 1993: 108).

Greek emigration to Latin America in the first half of the twentieth century, hides no surprises for students of Greek emigration. The overall numbers of emigration were small, but the settlement and occupational patterns, as well as the rates of return migration, all conform to the overall norm of Greek emigration before the Second World War. This goes to show that this period was a transitional phase in the long history of Greek diaspora settlements abroad. The old mercantile diasporas were steadily dissappearing. The new diasporas, formed out of mass emigration in industrialized countries, were taking their place, through a slow and gradual process. Emigrants saw transatlantic travel and settlement as a relatively short-term process and intended to return to Greece wealthier, even though, obviously, not all grew rich and not all were able or wished to return.


The article is a republication from an article that was featured in the JOURNAL OF THE HELLENIC DIASPORA. It was written by Alexander Kitroeff who is a Professor of European History at Haverford College.
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