Peoples of European ancestry are unevenly distributed across South America. A majority of the population in some countries, a minority in others, they wield considerable economic and political power throughout South America. Among the countries with the largest number of Europeans, they comprise 97 percent of the population in Argentina; 90 percent in Uruguay; 50 percent in Brazil; 25 percent in Chile; 20 percent in Paraguay, Venezuela, and Colombia; 15 pecent in Ecuador; 14 percent in Bolivia; and 12 percent in Peru. It should be noted, however, that the definition of the term "European" and who is categorized as such are often not clear in the South American context, especially in countries that have large Indian and mestizo populations, such as Peru or Bolivia. European identity is less confused in countries with large populations of African ancestry, such as Brazil, or in countries with small Indian and mestizo popuations, for example, Argentina or Uruguay. In general, a South American is considered European—in contrast to Indian, mestizo, or Afro-South American—if he or she can trace European ancestry through both descent lines or, depending on the social, economic, and political context, if he or she lives a "European" life-style, associates socially with other Europeans, and is defined as such by others.
The first European contact with South Americans occurred in 1498, with the arrival of Columbus's third expedition to the New World. Subsequent explorations, including those led by Cabrai in 1500 to Brazil, Magellan in 1519 through what came to be called the Straits of Magellan, Pizarro in 1531 to Peru, Jiménez de Quesada in 1536 to northwestern South America, Valdivia in 1541 along the southwestern coast, Mendoza in 1535 to Argentina, and Garay in 1580 to Argentina and Uruguay, paved the way for the Spanish and Portuguese colonization of South America. The Spanish gained control of the western one-third of the continent, the Portuguese of the northeast coastal region and what is now eastern Brazil. The interior and the southern portions of what came to be Chile and Argentina were largely ignored during the colonial era. Although Spanish and Portuguese colonial domination officially ended in the early to mid-nineteenth century, numerous European influences are still major factors in modern-day South American culture. These include language (Spanish is the national language in most nations and Portuguese is the national language in Brazil); Roman Catholicism; the political boundaries of South America's modern nations and provinces; the basic social structure; and the economic system, which still emphasizes the export of raw materials and the import of consumer goods.
Under Spanish and Portuguese doctrines, immigration and settlement by other Europeans was forbidden. Thus, settlement by other Europeans began only after South American nations gained national independence beginning in the early 1800s. The first and major period of other than exclusively Iberian immigration was between 1870 and 1930, during which some 11 to 12 million immigrants arrived in South America. Most came from Italy and Portugal and settled mainly in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. Although many eventually returned to Europe, most Europeans in these nations today are descendants of these immigrants. In addition to the large number of Italians and Portuguese, there were also Germans who settled in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil; German Mennonites who settled in Paraguay; British who settled in Chile, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil; and Welsh and Irish who settled in Argentina. Gypsies also began arriving in this period, although little is known about their settlement history or current situation. In general, these European settlers tended to form their own localized communities and often specialized in specific economic activities—for example, the Welsh in ranching, the British in commerce, the Mennonites in farming. Over time, those who remained in their new land became involved in politics and the professions, and individuals identified as Europeans are today key figures in many South American nations. Most early immigrants settled in cities, a pattern that is now changing as their descendants move to rural areas, villages, or towns. Immigration to South America was on a much smaller scale than immigration to North America, mainly because the tropical climate was less appealing, free land was limited in many nations, and political instability created concerns about safety. In addition, return migration was encouraged by government policies that awarded immigrants nearly all rights of citizenship without requiring citizenship and by the opportunity to accumulate wealth for transfer to the immigrants' country of origin.
In the 1930s and 1940s immigration expanded to include larger numbers of central and eastern Europeans, a pattern that continued in the years following World War II. Many of these immigrants settled in Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil. In the early 1990s, in the most recent phase of European immigration, some South American governments (e.g., that of Venezuela) and businesses were actively recruiting workers from eastern Europe to fill a perceived need for engineers and technicians. It is as yet unknown whether they, like guest workers elsewhere in the world, will remain and build their own ethnic communities.
Collier, Simon, Thomas E. Skidmore, and Harold Blakemore, eds. (1992). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Levinson, David (1994). Ethnic Relations. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio.