Italian – South American Migration
Many of us have Italian relatives in Argentina.
Argentina was the preferred destination in the 1870s and 1880s, then equally favored with Brazil until the close of the century, when the U.S. became the favored destination until after World War I, when Argentina resumed the crown.
As the great majority of Italian emigrants were economic migrants, it was the availability of work above all that governed their preferred destinations. Argentina was popular at first because of geography; farm laborers could find work in Argentina to earn extra income during the Northern Hemisphere winter. As the economy there boomed— in per capita terms, it was one of the wealthiest countries in the world at the start of the 20th century, thanks to demand for its agricultural products— there was also work to be had in building and railroad construction. Domingo Sarmiento, president of Argentina 1868-1874, encouraged immigration, although he rather wished for more Northern Europeans, even attempting to subsidize them.
In 1890 Argentina suffered a severe economic downturn, the Baring crisis, which also affected its neighbors and the U.S. But Brazil’s coffee planters were becoming more aggressive in seeking cheap labor. São Paulo state began to subsidize passage and lodging for recent arrivals, and in the 1880s, coffee plantation owners had begun promoting Brazil heavily as a destination. As such, Brazil began attracting a large proportion of Italian emigrants; indeed, in percentage terms, Italians would become a larger part of the Brazilian population than the Argentinian.
Word of ill-treatment of Italian workers in Brazil led to outrage in Italy, and in 1902 the Prinetti Decreeoutlaws subsidized emigration to Brazil. This sharply curtailed the number of Italian immigrants to Brazil, and helped swing the numbers to the United States. In contrast to the situation in South America, the U.S. needed cheap labor for its factories, not farms, and some argue that some Italians deemed the life of a factory worker preferable to that of a farm laborer or ranch hand. So the United States absorbed the lion’s share of Italians until after World War I, when a series of anti-immigration laws all but closed the country to Southern Europeans (among others).