Though many countries in Latin America have been shaped by their immigrant populations, Paraguay is unusual in that most of its immigrants have settled in rural agricultural colonies that have been homogeneous ethnic, religious, or ideological enclaves. This pattern was established as early as 1855, when Francisco Solano López, son of the Paraguayan president, arranged for the transport of 400 French colonists to the Gran Chaco region directly across from Asunción. There they expected to receive government help in founding a farming community to be called Nueva Burdeos. In fact, little help was forthcoming, and the colonization effort was abandoned almost at the moment it began.
The War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870) brought a significant demographic dislocation in Paraguay. Some sources claim the country lost nearly half its population of 400,000, and perhaps as much as 80 percent of its men. Responding to this population loss, in 1881 the Paraguayan government enacted comprehensive legislation to promote immigration. This law authorized the establishment of new agricultural colonies, with grants of land to each colonist, free passage from the point of embarkation, and maintenance for a maximum of one year.
The new legislation brought an immediate response from German colonists, who came in considerable numbers to found a colony at San Bernardino, on the shores of Lake Ypacaraí. The success of San Bernardino attracted immigrants to other areas of Paraguay. New groups of Germans, as well as Italians, French, Swedes, and, in one case, a group of Australian utopian socialists, soon established colonies in various parts of eastern Paraguay.
By far the most successful colonists in Paraguay were German-speaking Mennonites from Canada and Russia who began arriving in 1926. Attracted by government promises to grant them perpetual exemption from military service, the Mennonites founded three colonies—Menno, Fernheim, and Neuland—in some of the most inaccessible areas of the Chaco. These settlements had a combined initial population of 6,143 colonists. Despite the terrible odds against them, the Mennonites managed to tame the harsh environment and created a sizable agricultural and dairy complex in the Chaco. They soon founded new Mennonite colonies in eastern Paraguay. Today the various Mennonite communities are home to thousands of people who still proudly claim a lifestyle and language different from their Paraguayan neighbors.
In addition to the Mennonites, the twentieth century saw the arrival of colonists from many other countries, including Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia, and Japan, and, after World War II, a new influx of German refugees. It was estimated in 1958 that Paraguay contained 75,000 immigrants out of a total population of 1.8 million, and the number has grown decidedly since then, swollen not only by natural increases but also by the appearance of new immigrants who came individually from Taiwan, Brazil, South Korea, Vietnam, and, since 1990, from the former Soviet Union.
Joseph Winfield Fretz, Immigrant Group Settlements in Paraguay: A Study in the Sociology of Colonization (1962).
R. Andrew Nickson, "Brazilian Colonization of the Eastern Border Region of Paraguay," in Journal of Latin American Studies 13 (1981): 111-131.
Harris Gaylord Warren, Rebirth of the Paraguayan Republic: The First Colorado Era, 1878–1904 (1985), pp. 243-271.
Fischer, Sara, Tomás Palau, Noemia Pérez. Inmigración y emigración en el Paraguay 1870–1960. Asunción, Paraguay: BASE, Investigaciones Sociales, 1997.
Thomas L. Whigham