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Latin Americans

by  John Wilson

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.

Immigration history

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.

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

Identity in New Zealand

Political activism

The most visible expression of Latin American identity in New Zealand was the political activism of refugees in the 1970s and 1980s. Chileans in particular dominated the groups who were concerned about political prisoners in their home country. Their activities led to further refugees arriving from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Colombia and Peru. Later, the Auckland Latin American Committee built on the experiences of Chileans to provide support for refugees from other regions.

Cultural groups

Many Latin Americans found New Zealand dull and its people reserved. One Mexican thought Wellington was a ‘ghost town’. 1 Others believed there was no real dancing in New Zealand. Their response was to socialise with other Latin Americans and to stage cultural events.

Latin American dances such as the samba and rumba were taught in New Zealand before there was a large ethnic community. These dances became more popular as the community grew, and today, tango, salsa and ceroc are widely enjoyed. Musical groups which brightened New Zealand’s cultural life included Kantuta in Auckland and Pachamama in Christchurch. Carnivals brought colour and energy to Wellington’s streets.

Language and sport

There is a growing interest in Spanish language classes. By 2002, 4,823 high-school students were learning Spanish; up from 256 in 1991. Access Radio (community-run stations) grew out of a Spanish–English programme in the early 1980s. Later, such radio shows became the main means of communication among Latin Americans in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Even in these cities, there were not enough people in any one Latin American group to establish national clubs, though general Spanish language and Latin American groups flourished.

Football brought some Latin Americans together and fostered connections with other New Zealanders.

Brazilian identity

In the early 21st century some Brazilians, who speak Portuguese, took steps to form an association of Brazilian residents. The Brazilian Culture Education Centre opened in Auckland to teach Portuguese to both children and adults and to promote Brazilian music, folklore and literature.

Staying Chilean

Most Latin American refugees have become New Zealand citizens. But in 1983, five years after arriving as a refugee, one Chilean observed:

‘I doubt there will be a day when I’ll wake up and say “I am a Kiwi”. It doesn’t work like that. … I am different from the Kiwi. … [My national identity] is something I will never lose – and don’t want to lose.’

This persistent sense of difference has underpinned the contribution of Latin Americans to New Zealand life.

Diplomatic and trading ties

The emergence of a Latin American community was matched by the development of closer diplomatic and trading ties between New Zealand and Latin America, especially Chile. A working holiday agreement between New Zealand and Chile fostered people-to-people contacts.

    • Chloe Groser, ‘Heartstrings lead to New Zealand.’ Dominion Post, 15 January 2003. › Back

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in countries of Latin America.


  • 1921 census: 49
  • 1951 census: 103
  • 1976 census: 181
  • 2001 census: 384
  • 2006 census: 909
  • 2013 census: 1,701


  • 1921 census: 24
  • 1951 census: 35
  • 2001 census: 654
  • 2006 census: 1,761
  • 2013 census: 3,588


  • 1921 census: 39
  • 1951 census: 49
  • 1976 census: 273
  • 2001 census: 756
  • 2006 census: 1,377
  • 2013 census: 2,409


  • 2001 census: 216
  • 2006 census: 390
  • 2013 census: 1,155


  • 1921 census: 10
  • 1951 census: 12
  • 2001 census: 246
  • 2006 census: 384
  • 2013 census: 741


  • 1921 census: 15
  • 1951 census: 19
  • 2001 census: 408
  • 2006 census: 498
  • 2013 census: 594

Other Latin American countries

  • 2001 census: 1,065
  • 2006 census: 1,644
  • 2013 census: 1,704

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Latin American: 2,253 (2006); 5,622 (2013)
  • Brazilian: 1,473 (2006); 2,868 (2013)
  • Chilean: 1,053 (2006); 1,686 (2013)

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