Story: Latin Americans

Page 1. Immigration history

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First arrivals

Before the 1970s very few Latin Americans (people from Central and South America) came to New Zealand. Yet stereotypes were evident from early on. One account of a mid-19th century South Island sheep run tells of a ‘very hot-blooded’ Mexican worker who sometimes had to be restrained, ‘in case he “got his knife into someone” literally instead of figuratively’. 1

Early Latin Americans probably reached New Zealand on ships that called at South American ports when sailing around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. They also arrived as part of the mid-19th century’s floating population of gold seekers.

In 1874 there were fewer than about 80 Brazilians, Chileans, Mexicans and Peruvians living in New Zealand. The total number of Latin Americans did not rise above 200 until after the First World War. Until 1945, about half were from Argentina and most of the rest were Chileans or Brazilians. Some of those born in Argentina were British; in those years Argentina had close ties to Britain and farming links with New Zealand. New Zealand and Argentinean teams played rugby against each other.

After the Second World War

The number of Latin Americans in New Zealand rose slowly after the Second World War, to about 400 in 1971. In the 1960s New Zealand began selling dairy products to Chile, Peru and Mexico, and diplomatic posts were opened in Lima and Santiago in 1972. However, these new contacts did not lead to greater migration to New Zealand.

An influx of Chileans

Chilean refugees were the first South Americans to arrive in significant numbers. They came after the military coup of 1973, in which President Allende’s democratic government was replaced by General Pinochet’s dictatorship. By 1981, Chileans outnumbered Argentineans in New Zealand. The Chilean community was augmented again in the 1980s by new refugees and those admitted under the family reunification scheme.

But numbers diminished as many moved on to Australia, where the community was 30 times larger. Some Chileans regarded New Zealand as ‘a place of exile, not a new home’, 2 and Chile’s first ‘summer of democracy’ in 1989 prompted some to contemplate returning. Nevertheless, in 2001 Chileans were still New Zealand’s major Latin American group.

A Chilean family adapts to life in New Zealand

Cristina Guerrero and her family came to New Zealand as refugees in 1977. In a personal interview (2003), she described how life became a remarkable blend of two distinct cultures:

‘We kept our Spanish pretty strong until we got outnumbered by our kids, who preferred to speak English. … Now … more often it is Spanglish! Gradually we learned to cook the New Zealand way and now just please ourselves – from pastel de choclo one day, to fish and chips the next ... So with the language and with our food, it is a mixture of both cultures now. Que rico!’

Recent arrivals

In the 2000s there was a significant flow of Brazilians to New Zealand, and by 2006 their numbers had outstripped Chileans. In 2013 Brazilians made up about one-quarter of a 13,000-strong Latin American community. This included Chileans, Argentinians and over 1,100 Colombians.

The flow of refugees had almost ceased by 2001. Latin Americans continued to arrive, some as partners of New Zealanders, others seeking economic opportunities rather than freedom from political repression. Recent numbers remain low, however; between 1997 and 2002, fewer than 200 became residents. The community is strongest in Auckland.

The 2013 census gave the following figures for Latin American-born people resident in New Zealand: 3,588 Brazilians; 2,409 Chileans; 1,701 Argentinians; 1,155 Colombians; 741 Mexicans; 447 Uruguayans; 150 Venezuelans; and 153 Bolivians.

  1. H. Beattie, Early runholding in Otago. Dunedin: Otago Daily Times and Witness Newspapers, 1947, p. 59. › Back
  2. Robert Mannion, ‘Refugees feel Cordillera’s call.’ Dominion Star Times, 9 October 1988, p. 23. › Back
How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Latin Americans - Immigration history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 May 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2015