Story: Latin Americans

Immigrants from Chile, Peru, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela and other countries only trickled into New Zealand until the 1970s, when an influx of Chilean refugees swelled numbers. Today, Spanish is widely taught in schools, tango and salsa dancing are increasingly popular, and community radio shows, music and political groups help maintain and share Latin American ways of life.

Story by John Wilson
Main image: A Chilean child takes part in a national commemoration

Story summary

All images & media in this story

Immigration history

Early immigrants from Latin America (Central and South America) were a rarity. Small numbers probably found their way to New Zealand aboard foreign ships that had sailed via South American ports. They also arrived in the 1860s and 1870s as roving gold seekers.

In 1874 there were fewer than 20 each of Brazilians, Chileans, Mexicans and Peruvians living in New Zealand. By the First World War, the total number was only about 200; by 1970 this figure had barely doubled. Most were Argentinean.

The Chilean military coup of 1973 brought a significant influx of refugees escaping General Pinochet’s dictatorship. Some didn’t stay in New Zealand, but moved on to Australia where there were greater numbers of compatriots. In 2001 Chileans were the largest Latin American group in New Zealand – but by 2006, Brazilians had overtaken them, and by 2013 there were 3,588 Brazilians – over one-quarter of a 13,000-strong Latin American community, which included more than 1,700 Argentinians and over 1,100 Colombians.

Central and South American identity in New Zealand

Chileans remain politically active in New Zealand, and use their own experiences to help refugees from other regions.

Latin Americans are particularly known for their music and dancing, partly because they perceived a lack of these in Kiwi culture. Dance classes, clubs and carnivals are popular around the country.

Spanish is taught in schools and has enjoyed increasing popularity in recent years. Although some immigrants may speak ‘Spanglish’ – a mixture of Spanish and English – their own language continues to be an important part of their identity. Communities keep in touch through locally produced Spanish-language radio programmes and literary events.

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Latin Americans', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 March 2015