Levantine Love of Yerba Mate Tells a 160-Year Trans-Atlantic Tale, Part II

Syria and Lebanon love the iconic South American drink yerba mate as their own. The story behind the Levant’s love of mate is a long saga of political drama and the flow of people across oceans.

Part I of this two-part article tells the story of the Arab migration from Syria and Lebanon to South America. Part II describes the past and current life of Levantines in South America and South Americans in the Levant. The popular herbal drink, Yerba mate (pr. “mah-tay”), serves as a reminder of their intertwined existence.

Settling into South America

The popular narrative, codified in a 1924 book by Beiruti scholar Philip Hitti, is that Arab immigrants to Latin America were all poor Christians fleeing persecution. Hard work, resourcefulness, and intellect garnered them success. This narrative has some truth to it, but it is not the whole story.

In fact, many immigrants enjoyed upper or middle class backgrounds, and were already engaged in commercial trades or educated as doctors, lawyers, or academics. Many were Muslims. Others were poor, and many did not ever achieve success, and were thus forgotten. However, this narrative of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps helped these Arab immigrants gain acceptance in these Christian-majority countries.

For the most part, the Levantine immigrants solidly established themselves in the newer, growing sectors of the economy, particularly in commerce and urban industries. They sold, among other things, food, common goods, and fine textiles, and introduced credit systems. Latin Americans began to stereotype them as “rich, wily merchants.” The romanticization of the Lebanese as descendents of the ancient Phoenicians added credence to the image of them as savvy businessmen.

Despite the fact that Arab immigrants have represented only a small portion of the Latin American population, they have played a big role in the making of modern South America. Today, Latinos of Arab descent own huge telecommunication, textile, and media companies. Argentina, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, and Colombia have all had presidents of Arab descent. Brazil’s current president, Michel Temer, is the son of Maronite Christians from Btaaboura, Lebanon. Colombian pop star Shakira is half Lebanese. The richest person in Mexico, telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim Helu, is also the son of Maronite Lebanese immigrants.

Tacos árabes, now a cherished type of Mexican taco, originated with a Lebanese immigrant family in Mexico City who translated Levantine shawarma into the local gastronomic lexicon.

Gaining social entry to the continent was not simple, however. Most immigrants, no matter the time or place, face pressure from local society and institutions to assimilate and hide their differences. Particularly during the rise of nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s, Arab immigrants in South America tried to mute their cultural distinctions by not speaking Arabic or wearing Levantine clothing, and by converting from Islam or Orthodox Christianity to Catholicism.

Carlos Menem, Argentina’s president from 1989-1999, was born in Argentina to Muslim Syrian parents. To be eligible for office, Menem had to convert to Argentina’s national religion, Catholicism. Christian Arabs were particularly eager to assimilate and less concerned with holding tightly to cultural distinctiveness.

In general, Arab immigrants’ overall successes and willingness to assimilate allowed them to “win acceptance while still retaining their identity,” writes Lamia Oualalou.

Latin American Immigration Policy

These Arab identities held unique spaces in Latin America’s social hierarchies.

In the mid-1850s, political theorist, “Father of the Argentine Constitution,” and overt white supremacist Juan Bautista Alberdi advocated for mass immigration. Argentina’s factories and farmland needed labor, he argued.

However, he was interested only in immigrants from Northern Europe (reminiscent of current attitudes in certain US quarters)–even to the exclusion of his Iberian kin. Much of the Latin American elite at the time sought to “whiten” their populations and erase the presence of “undesirable” Native Americans, Afro-Latinos, and mixed-race people from their newly-independent countries.

Millions of immigrants arrived in Argentina in the following century, but most hailed from Spain, Italy, and, of course, the Levant. In the 1870s, the global demand for Latin American agricultural products called for a labor force that the continent lacked. Immigration policies thus loosened and shed some of their racist filters.

Amongst these scores of Mediterranean immigrants, the Syrians and Lebanese occupied an unfamiliar liminal zone in the eyes of Latin American society. Arabs weren’t considered “white,” but they weren’t black, Asian or Native American either.

They looked something like their Spaniard or Southern Italian neighbors, but they did not “fit any category the elites used to classify race,” writes Paulo Gabriel Hilu da Rocha Pinto, a Brazilian Middle East scholar. Thus, says Pinto, they were “neither excluded nor wanted, and found themselves in limbo.” Later, when Syria and Lebanon were under French rule and Arab immigrants arrived with French passports, locals were even less sure about how to judge them.

Arab-South Americans also orientalized themselves, embracing stereotypes like that which linked their gift for commerce with nomadic merchants of the desert. In São Paulo, the area most thickly settled by Arab immigrants was nicknamed “Saara” (“Sahara” in Portuguese), regardless of the vast distance between the Levant and that desert.

Pinto explains that Arab-South American intellectuals portrayed the Arab world as both “indolent and irrational” and “one of the cultural crucibles of Latin American nations,” due to its influence on the Iberian Peninsula.

They weren’t wrong. Arab-Latino links go much deeper than 19th century Levantine migration to South America. Portugal and Spain, which colonized most of South and Central America, both occupy land once ruled by a series of North African Arab-Amazigh empires. Both nations carry the legacy of that 800-year long era in their cultures and populations today.

They also carried that hybridized, Arab-Iberian culture to the Americas. In 1492, the same year Christopher Columbus landed on the Taino island of Quisqueya, the Spanish Catholic kings expelled the last Arab Muslim empire from the Iberian Peninsula.

The scores of Muslim Iberian Arabs and Sephardic Jews who remained in Spain were banished, murdered, or forced to convert to Catholicism. The descendants of those “conversos” integrated into Spanish society. Many of these Afro-Arab and Sephardic converts migrated to the Americas during the era of Spanish colonization. That blend of Arab, Sephardic and Catholic culture shaped Latin America. (For example, medieval Baghdadi court music, through many twists and turns, helped shape Venezuelan folk music.)

By the 1900s, this history had largely been silenced or forgotten by the Latin Americans who received the Arab immigrants.

Facing Resistance

Although many assimilated relatively quickly, Arab immigrants were not immune to xenophobia. Some Latin Americans thought Arabs were “cannibals because of their taste for raw kibbeh,” writes Oualalou.

While many Japanese laborers immigrated to Brazil alongside Levantine Arabs and Jews, in the 1800s, they tended to work in rural agriculture. The Levantines mostly settled in urban areas and worked as merchants, making them the most visible non-European immigrants and thus subjected to the most xenophobia.

In some cases, tensions raised to a boil. Riots broke out in southern Brazil in 1959 after a Lebanese shopkeeper “refused to give a policeman a receipt for a comb he’d bought.” Rioters looted and destroyed 120 shops, most of which were owned by Arab-Brazilians.

Today, Christian Arab-Latinos have become thoroughly integrated into Latin American society. Muslim Arab-Latinos fare somewhat differently.

Mohammed ElHajji, a Moroccan professor who has lived in Brazil since 1991, told The Nation that Brazilians’ unfamiliarity with his identity allowed him to “circumvent” the racially-biased social hierarchy. But, after 9/11, Brazil followed the example of the U.S. and began to equate being Arab or Muslim with being a “terrorist.”

The growth of Christian evangelism in Brazil has been feeding the rise in Islamophobia. Evangelical caucuses in Brazil’s congress are pushing for sympathy for Israel and antipathy for Arabs and Muslims. The Islamic Organization for Latin America estimates that six million Muslims live in Latin America (just one percent of the population).

Narrow press coverage amplifies the issue. The Shiite Lebanese militia Hezbollah is allegedly laundering money in the riverine region where Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil meet, according to a report published in May 2018. The area is described as a “money-laundering ministate” run by drug cartels and organized crime groups from Latin America, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Russia, “in conjunction with a large Lebanese merchant community.”

Only “a small portion” of the many Lebanese who immigrated to the area after the Lebanese Civil War are thought to support Hezbollah, the report adds. All, however, are feeling the heat.

Building Community

Arab Latinos have weathered the heat, in part, by building sturdy communities. Since the late 1800s, Arab immigrants, faced with inadequate governmental aid, founded social clubs, “mutual aid societies, intellectual circles, business bureaus, heritage associations, charity groups and religious institutions.” They had the dual function of preserving culture and supporting community members, by offering language classes, loans, medical care, and food to new arrivals.

Today, they are still going strong. The Federation of American Arab Entities (FEARAB) encompasses hundreds of such organizations–160 in Argentina alone. In Argentina, there are television and radio shows that cater to Arab Argentines and focus on culture and current events in the Middle East. Chile, which is home to the largest Palestinian community outside of the Middle East, has a major soccer club called Club Deportivo Palestino (Palestinian Sports Club) and a community that surrounds it.

These nearly century-old associations maintain ties to today’s tumultuous Levant. In northern Argentina, the local Centro Sirio Libanés recently made plans to host Syrian refugee families and to help them settle into Argentinian society, find jobs, and learn Spanish. Historian Lily Balloffet writes that these community members are continuing “the same work that they did so many years ago” when their predecessors arrived, fleeing previous calamities in the same region. On a national level, Latin American countries have not been the most welcoming of Syrian refugees, although that may be changing.

Several of these organizations are teaching Arabic to young generations of Arab-Latinos who want to connect to their roots. Some of these youth are retracing their ancestors’ footsteps and going back to the Levant, but not always out of choice. Recently, political turmoil and severe living conditions in Venezuela have spurred Lebanese-Venezuelans, most of whom were born and raised in South America, to flee to Beirut.

Like other returnees before them who brought yerba mate to the Levant, they carry with them Venezuelan culture, cuisine, and a deep love for the South American land they call home. Raghida Naim, a Venezuelan of Lebanese descent, came to Beirut ten years ago and founded a Venezuelan catering business, Doña Arepa.

Other Levantine-rooted South Americans move to the Levant for other reasons. In a string of towns in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, Portuguese is spoken as widely as Arabic, and shops sell Brazilian pastries. The area is an enclave of people known as “Brazilebanese,” drawn from Brazil to join family members and find work.

Back in the late 1800s, the success of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants in South America rippled back to the Levant with remittances and returnees. These remittances stabilized Mount Lebanon’s then-faltering economy. The returnees brought back a new kind of intercontinental Arab identity.

Over time and distance, the mate tradition that they brought with them adapted to its adopted home, itself an immigrant in a new land. Like the Levantine immigrants in South America, it has proved itself a small but significant part of the landscape, shaping new relationships both with far continents and neighbors.

Since the indigenous Guaraní people first brewed mate many centuries ago, mate has been a “drink of friendship.” Whether in the Levant or South America, one drinks mate among friends. Families sit together in the evening to share a mate. Mate is “best enjoyed with guests.” An Aleppo native told BBC Mundo that, when “a close friend visits, we always offer them yerba mate” and drink for hours. Mere acquaintances get coffee.

In the Levant, a land fractured by borders and ideologies, and caught in the middle of many nations’ aspirations for power, mate serves as an unlikely common ground. It is a reminder of a story shared by people on opposite sides of border lines.

Besides Syria and Lebanon, mate also has a presence in Israel, both amongst Israeli Druze and Jewish immigrants from South America, whose ancestors fled there from 19th century pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. In the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, however, Druze families show their allegiance to Damascus by drinking mate out of ceramic mugs emblazoned with Syrian flags.

Today, Syria’s public face is one of sorrow and pain. While the Syrian Civil War has devastated the country and shredded its social fabric, the practice of drinking mate has persisted. The tempestuous history that set the stage for this war is much the same that led yerba mate to fuel its combatants.

International headlines fixate on the brutality of the war being waged between Syrian government troops and rebel fighters. In their down time, however, soldiers on both sides of the conflict sit down and fill their cups with mate.