The conservative Beirut newspaper An-Nahar ran this headline last September: “Lebanese migrants’ son Michel Temer becomes Brazilian president.” The story didn’t mention the forced removal of Dilma Rousseff, the country’s former head of state, in favor of her vice president, nor that it was done so irregularly that millions of Brazilians viewed it as a coup. An-Nahar focused instead on the glorious achievements of Temer, the son of two peasants from Btaaboura, a town 70 kilometers north of Beirut, who had settled in São Paulo in 1925. The main street of Btaaboura (population 300) had already been renamed in Temer’s honor when he was vice president, so all the town’s mayor (who happened to be Temer’s cousin) had to do was paint out the word “vice” on the street sign in Portuguese and Arabic.
In South America, the son of Arab immigrants rising to become a national leader is nothing new. There are precedents in Argentina (Carlos Menem, 1989–99), Ecuador (Abdalá Bucaram, 1996–97, and Jamil Mahuad, 1998–2000), El Salvador (Elías Antonio Saca, 2004–9), Honduras (Carlos Flores Facussé, 1998–2002), and Colombia (Julio César Turbay, 1978–82). People of Arab descent are well represented across the political spectrum, and they’re prominent in other fields as well: for example, the Brazilian writers Raduan Nassar and Milton Hatoum, the Argentinian actor Ricardo Darín, and the Colombian singer Shakira. When Donald Trump, newly elected as president of the United States, resumed his belligerent remarks about Mexico, Carlos Slim—the son of Lebanese immigrants and the sixth-wealthiest person in the world, according to Forbes—held a press conference to reassure his compatriots.
According to the official version of history south of the Rio Bravo, Latin America’s Arab immigrants have been fully integrated. The Arabs who began arriving in the late 19th century came mainly from the Levant rather than North Africa, and they were known as “Syro-Lebanese” (in Argentina and Brazil), “Lebanese” (Ecuador), and “Palestinian” (Honduras and Chile), or continent-wide as “Turks”—a reference to the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled the regions they came from. “There were relatively few of them,” says Paulo Gabriel Hilu da Rocha Pinto, a Middle East specialist at Fluminense Federal University in Niterói, near Rio de Janeiro. “One hundred and sixty thousand came to Brazil, for example—fewer than [went] to Argentina, and half as many as went to the US.”
Pinto’s archival research disproves the prevailing notion that there are more than 8 million people of Middle Eastern descent in Latin America today. “Arabs are the seventh-largest immigrant group in Brazil, after the Europeans,” he says. “But here, as elsewhere in Latin America, the overall immigration rate is low, so each of these populations has a significant impact.” Some of those who left Beirut or Tripoli had hoped to settle in the United States, but were duped by shipping companies that deposited them in Rio de Janeiro, Santos, Buenos Aires, or Veracruz. (They were still in the Americas, after all.)
Unlike other waves of migration organized by states in need of labor, the Middle Eastern immigrants came spontaneously, impelled by economic crises and the British and French occupations in their home countries. In Brazil, the newcomers weren’t sent to the coffee estates, where workers were treated like slaves; most went into trade in the city centers. In Mexico, “the idea took hold…that the Lebanese, as the descendants of the Phoenician merchants of 6,000 years ago, had a special talent for making a profit,” says Theresa Alfaro-Velcamp, who teaches history at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of So Far From Allah, So Close to Mexico (University of Texas Press, 2007). Of the Arab immigrants who registered in Mexico between 1926 and 1951, 45 percent gave their occupation as “trader.”