The first Arab conquest of the Iberian Peninsula established the Muslim state, Al-Andalus, in Spain and Portugal. The Christian Europeans never quit a centuries-long struggle for independence, but they were occupied and ruled for over 700 years from the 8th century until the final expulsion in 1492. All those generations of racial mixing darkened the Spanish and Portuguese profiles forever, which is why very few of the whitest Latinos have blond hair or blue eyes.
The Arab tradition in Latin America doesn’t only stem from the Moorish occupation of Iberia. Millions of Arabs have immigrated to South America, the vast majority Christians fleeing religious persecution. At 9 million strong, Brazil’s Arab community is significantly larger than their counterparts in the United States and France combined. Of the top ten Arab diasporas in the world, six are in Latin America: (in order) Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Chile, and Colombia. Some of the most famous Latin Americans are of Arab descent, including the world’s richest man, Latin America’s most successful female singer, and the region’s most famous actress.
One of the most damning periods in the history of the Catholic Church is the Spanish Inquisition. Suspected heretics and non-believers were subjected to interrogations, and tortured if they didn’t pass the faith test. Many people today would conclude the Church is guilty of, at best, gross intolerance and, at worst, a penchant for torture. However, the historical context can’t be overlooked.
The Inquisition began after 700 years of being occupied by Muslims. To not expect a backlash is counterintuitive. Columbus discovered the Americas the same year the Spaniards finally expelled the Moors. Cortez slaughtered the Aztecs in 1521 and Pizarro conquered the Incas in 1532 – just a generation later. The Inquisition grew along with the colonization of Spanish America. Lima has a Museum of the Inquisition next to Congress. See pics from the Museum of the Inquisition on the Expat Chronicles FB page. During the Inquisition, Jews and Protestants were converted en masse to Catholicism. Jesuits also bore the brunt of the purge.
Lima, whose architecture has the Moorish influence from what I’ve seen in Latin America, was founded in 1535. The huge archways seem like they should be somewhere in an Arab desert. You would think Church Bolognesi in La Punta del Callao were a mosque if it weren’t for the cross on top.
Odder than the architecture was the tapada limeña, or burqa veils which revealed only one eye that Lima women wore in the earliest colonial days.
The Inca population was subjugated to slave labor in the provinces. Colonial Lima was inhabited only by wealthy Spanish and Creoles. Those women chose to wear these masks despite King Charles III banning them during the Inquisition. Lima authorities never enforced the ban. The veils were popular with women because they couldn’t be recognized by family or social networks while going about the city.
“Moro” in Peruvian Slang
When I first arrived to Arequipa, Peru in 2008, I was in the honeymoon phase where you befriend every single taxi driver. I met a friendly Indian who was definitely a native Quechua or Aymara from Puno or some tiny pueblo, but I wouldn’t have known that then.
We were talking about whatever and he told me that the indigenous community has a derogatory term for some upper-class Peruvians: Moros (Moors). He explained what they were. Most Peruvians have a racial mix of Indian and Spanish blood. The richest Peruvians are pure Spanish. The taxista told me that many upper-class Peruvians look mestizo or mixed, but they’re not. They’re pure Spanish with dark skin and curly hair (like an Arab). Peruvian Indians call these Peruvians, who could pass for cholo blood, “moros.”
I immediately thought of one of my basketball mates. He’s my height, tinted brownish with a huge nose and curly hair. He’s the most natural athlete on the team, the only one who I’ve seen dunk. I’ve been to his house and have an idea what his father does for work, and both are Peruvian elite.
Arab Blood in South America
The Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce, which represents the world’s largest Arab diaspora, was established over sixty years ago. Kibbeh and Sfiha are to Brazil as tacos are to the United States, or curry to England. The current governor of Sao Paolo is of Arab descent, as are a big club of other notable Brazilians.
The Triple Frontier area between Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, home to the Iguazu Falls, was a major destination for 20th century immigration, of the Muslim persuasion, from Syria and Lebanon. The US and Paraguayan governments claim there is Hamas and Hezbollah activity, and they suspect links to Al-Qaeda.
From Persecuted to Assimilated
In the United States, there is a politically-correct trend to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Secularists are trying to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, and “In God We Trust” from the dollar. There is no such trend in Latin America. Nativity scenes can be found in all the important public squares around Christmas. There is no Spanish equivalent for “Happy Holidays.” In most government offices, including where I was married, you’re being watched by a bloody Jesus hanging from a crucifix on the wall. Religious diversity in Latin America is comprised of the overwhelming Catholic majority and the smal Protestant minority. The Arab-Latin history probably plays a role in the continent’s commitment to Christianity.
Helmi Nasr, head of the Arabic Studies Center at the University of Sao Paulo, says most Arabs thought they were fleeing the Ottoman Empire for the United States. They only realized they had boarded ships to Latin America after arriving. Today, all the notable Arab-Latinos identify themselves first by their nationality – Brazilian, Colombian, Mexican, etc. The Arab-Latin legacy is an immigrant success story.