Portuguese in Latin America

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Portuguese in Latin America

The Portuguese have migrated from continental Portugal and the Atlantic Islands (Madeira and Azores) to Latin America from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first century. The political and economic context, however, has changed through the centuries, and the migrants' destinations have varied. Most migrants chose Brazil as their favorite region after the independence of the colony and it was not until the late 1970s that Venezuela would compete as a destination. Recent studies reveal some exceptions to this trend. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Madeiran migrants went mainly to the West Indies (86 percent), and Brazil received only 12 percent of the islanders, far behind British Guiana (Guyana) and even Hawaii.

Research on Portuguese emigration to Brazil in colonial times has just begun under the supervision of Robert Rowland, whose first draft was presented during the XVIIth International Congress of Historical Sciences (Madrid, 1990). Historians have studied Portuguese emigration of the second half of the nineteenth century more thoroughly than that which took place after independence in 1822. We know, however, from official Portuguese reports as well as from the foreigners' registers in Brazil that in this first period the migratory flow was directed toward commercial rather than agricultural activities.

Between 1822 and 1838 the Register Books for Foreigners in the Brazilian National Archive reveal 2,987 Portuguese in Rio de Janeiro, 13.7 percent of whom arrived in 1836. This was a male immigration on the whole: only three women registered. The highest percent of immigrants (54.6 percent) was of young men between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. These figures suggest that they were escaping conscription in the Portuguese army, which began at age fourteen. Of these men, only 10.7 percent were married and most of them traveled alone, leaving their wives in Portugal. Surprisingly, 85.5 percent could sign their name in the register book even if they were not fully literate. These Portuguese declared a great variety of occupations with a predominance of commercial clerks (caixeiros, 56.6 percent), followed by merchants (17.9 percent).

It is difficult sometimes to ascertain the place of birth (naturalidade) because some immigrants indicated it in a vague way: Portugal, northern Portugal, and so forth. We have precise indications that 32.2 percent were born in Oporto and 14 percent in Viana do Castello, towns located in northern Portugal, while 9.7 percent indicated the Atlantic Islands as their place of birth. In response to the question, "Where do you come from?" 59.9 percent answered "Oporto," meaning that they had embarked in this port, even if they lived in other northern towns. It is, however, interesting to notice that 16.1 percent of those who arrived in Rio de Janeiro had embarked in other Brazilian ports. Sometimes these immigrants registered only two or more years after their arrival in Brazil. Between 1822 and 1838, most immigrants arrived without a work contract.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the decline and extinction of the slave trade to Brazil led to a change in Brazilian policies toward immigration. As early as 1835 a deputy named Baptista Caetano de Almeida defended the immigration of Azorean colonists to the southern provinces of the empire; and the Brazilian consuls in Portugal as well as the Azorean merchants actively cooperated in the colonization project. Between 1836 and 1842, 3,681 emigrants left the islands of São Miguel and Faial, and also, though on a smaller scale, from Graciosa and Terceira. Their destinations included Pernambuco, Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro, and not the southern provinces, as Caetano de Almeida had proposed. The immigrants were badly needed in agriculture and Portuguese officials and consuls complained that "white slavery" had begun. In these years, work contracts were mostly verbal. However, a written contract from Pernambuco reveals that one immigrant arrived with a debt of 107,253 réis because of the travel costs. He was bound to a sugar-mill owner, who was going to pay him 100,000 réis per year, and he had to work for him until his debt was fully paid.

In the province of São Paulo, the Portuguese worked in agricultural "colonies" along with immigrants from other European countries. In an official report presented to the Provincial Assembly in 1858, Portuguese individuals and families were working in the following colonies: "Senador Vergueiro" (313 workers); "Cresciumal" (17); "Boa Vista" (74); "Morro Azul" (44); another "Boa Vista" (47); "São João do Morro Grande" (28); "Tatu" (135); "Capitão Diniz" (13); still another "Boa Vista" (22); and "Sítio Novo" (23). Even if this 1858 list is not complete, coffee planters had already imported 716 Portuguese workers, most of them under a special form of contract called de parceria (sharecropping). When the coffee was sold, half of the net amount of money obtained from the sale belonged to the planter and the other half to the colonist.

Agricultural immigration from the Azorean islands and also from mainland Portugal followed the first immigration that was related to commercial activities. However, both coexisted in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the 1880s a systematic policy of subsidies directed the Portuguese migratory flow to the coffee plantations in São Paulo, but even then the Portuguese continued to seek destinations ouside the coffee areas, taking up traditional forms of employment as artisans and merchants. Less related to Brazilian economic cycles, Portuguese immigration continued to spread all over the country; unlike other European immigrations, it did not concentrate exclusively in the southern states.

As the Portuguese immigrants were predominantly male, few studies have concentrated on female immigrants, except those that focus on prostitution and domestic service. Data from the Portuguese consulates in the 1870s reveal that in Rio de Janeiro in 1872, 35,740 men registered and only 4,280 women; in Bahia, in the same year, women represented only 4.2 percent of the registered immigrants. Without giving any specific numbers, the consul in Pará thought that female immigration was only 2 percent of male immigration. The women who emigrated alone in the second half of the nineteenth century were employed as servants or were classified as prostitutes in the consular reports. By the end of the nineteenth century, the number of female immigrants had risen due to increased family immigration and new opportunities for female work in cities such as Rio de Janeiro. According to the 1920 census, the percentage of Portuguese women in Brazil had risen to 32.8 percent of the Portuguese. Most of them were living in the Federal District, the city of Rio de Janeiro (54,734), and in the state of São Paulo (65,283).

Such statistics may be unreliable since Portuguese officials only recorded authorized emigrants, and many Portuguese emigrated illegally through Spain, especially from the port of Vigo in Galicia. Sometimes they traveled with a Spanish passport and were included, on their arrival, in the Spanish group. The discrepancies between the Portuguese and the Brazilian data have been pointed out by June Hahner (1986), who presents a useful table of Portuguese immigrants entering Brazil from 1884 to 1923.

The Portuguese emigration to Venezuela only began in the 1940s, and by the 1980s around 300,000 Portuguese immigrants lived in that country. Most of them resided in Caracas, and most of them participated in commercial affairs.

See alsoPortugal.


Marcelo J. Borges, "Características residenciales de los inmigrantes portugueses en Buenos Aires en la segunda mitad de siglo XIX," in Estudios Migratorios Latino-Americanos 6, no. 18 (1991): 223-247.

Marcelo J. Borges, "Historia y memoria en una comunidad rural de inmigrantes portugueses: Las fuentes orales en los estudios migratorios," in Estudios de Historia Rural 7 (1991): 131-155.

José Guerreiro, "Análise tendencial da emigração portuguesa nos Últimos anos," in Estudos sobre a emigração portuguesa, edited by Maria Beatriz Rocha Trindade (1981).

June E. Hahner, "Jacobinos versus Galegos: Urban Radicals versus Portuguese Immigrants in Rio de Janeiro in the 1890s," in Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 18, no. 2 (1976): 125-154.

Miriam Halpern Pereira, "O rico 'brasileiro' ou o dinheiro dos emigrantes," in Seara Nova 1485 (1969): 242-244.

David Higgs, ed., Portuguese Migration in Global Perspective (1990).

Maria Beatriz Nizza Da Silva, Filantropia e imigração: A Caixa de Socorros D. Pedro V (1990).

Maria Beatriz Nizza Da Silva, Documentos para a história da imigração portuguesa no Brasil, 1850–1938 (1991).

Manuel J. Pinto Dos Santos, "Subsídios para o estudo da emigração açoriana para o Brasil," in Revista da Sociedade Brasileira de Pesquisa Histórica 3 (1986–1987): 47-73.

Maria Beatriz Rocha Trindade, "Refluxos culturais da emigraçáo portuguesa para o Brasil," in Cadernos Luso-Brasileiros 1 (1987): 35-52.

Additional Bibliography

Lobo, Eulália Maria Lahmeyer. Portugueses en Brasil en el siglo XX. Madrid: Editorial MAPFRE, 1994.

                           Maria Beatriz Nizza da Silva