Basques in Latin America

views updated

Basques in Latin America

People from the Basque provinces of Spain (Alva, Guizpúcoa, and Vizcaya) immigrated to the Spanish colonies from the first discoveries through the colonial and national periods. Basques established themselves in every colony and country, and to a lesser extent also in Brazil. During the colonial period Mexico received the largest number, but wherever trading possibilities prevailed these industrious and energetic Spaniards established their import-export, wholesale, retail, and artisanal operations. Some went into mining, others into agriculture. Basques became prominent in all areas of the economy, and they also held high positions in the royal bureaucracy and the clergy.

Basque migrants to Spanish America were almost always either bachelors or husbands who left their wives and families in Spain. Once they set up their businesses they routinely brought other Basques to colony and country to work for them. Intimate relatives or simply men from their hometowns or regions, these men often rose in the business and not infrequently established their own. When married Basques thrived, they usually brought their wives and families to the New World.

Most Basques resided in port towns and the larger interior urban centers. It was there that trading and business opportunities held the most promise for them. A smaller number migrated to rural areas and established agricultural enterprises, and some of these developed into large and influential holdings. Sometimes Basque merchants of prominence purchased landed estates for the social prestige conveyed by land ownership but also to add real property to their portfolios to use as collateral for loans and as tangible wealth to bequeath to their families. In 1767 the Spanish crown sold off the estates of the Jesuits. Some Basque merchants, especially in Chile, purchased their large and highly productive landed properties. Some also purchased titles of Castile, thus becoming nobles.

Basques were also enormously influential through the trading companies they formed to conduct trade between Spain and the colonies under the protection of royal monopolies. The most famous was the Royal Guipuzcoan Company of Caracas, established in 1728 to conduct trade with Venezuela. Because of its success, other trading companies were formed. Wherever they traded in the colonies they established offices and agents and thus further increased the Basque presence in the colonies.

Wherever Basques resided in considerable numbers they formed confraternities that served their religious and social needs. They have continued to form Basque associations through the modern period. In many of the Spanish colonies, Basque merchants and employees introduced their game of pelota, the forerunner of jai alai. After work Basques often took vigorous exercise playing this fast and difficult game.

Compared to Spaniards from other parts of Spain, the Basques were small in number but distinguished in accomplishment. Their greatest relative influence came during the colonial period. The enterprise of empire, with its restrictions on trade and foreign immigration, benefited the Basques. After independence their influence continued, but they were never again so distinctively prominent. One reason for this is that the Basques attempted to secure their place in society by forming large family networks, preferably with other Basque families but sometimes with non-Basques.

See alsoSpain .


Azcona Pastor, José Manuel. Possible Paradises: Basque Emigration to Latin America, translated by Roland Vásquez. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2004.

                                    Jay Kinsbruner