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A Brief History of Peruvian Immigration to the United States

The first Peruvian immigrant communities in the United States were established in New York and New Jersey during the first wave of immigration in the 1910s and 1920s.  The development of the textile industry in the northeastern US attracted the attention of Peruvian companies that produced popular alpaca-wool and other textiles.  The first group of Peruvian laborers came to the New York and New Jersey area to exploit reduced production costs in US factories, and this began the process of immigration that has been sustained for over eighty years.  Today, Paterson, NJ remains the effective “capital” of the Peruvian Diaspora in the United States.

Post-World War II, tremendous economic growth in the US attracted many Peruvian immigrants and the US quickly became the most popular destination for Peruvian migrants, taking the place of European nations.  During the 1970s, the third phase of immigration saw primarily upper and middle class residents flee the military government that had begun to nationalize Peruvian industry.  The threat to the economic prosperity of these residents caused many to immigrate to the US—the old destination of working class Peruvian migrants.  In addition, during the 1970s many students fled the country following the opening of relations with the communist bloc.

The fourth wave of immigration during the 1980s was in response to governmental changes amid violence and economic crisis.  During this time period the number of Peruvians in the US increased by approximately 200,000 to 500,000 in 1992.   Emigration slowed in the 1990s following the restoration of democracy and the end to the economic crisis.

Immigration scholar Teofilo Altamirano identifies three primary motives behind Peruvian emigration: socioeconomic, political, and social factors.  The socioeconomic motivation is common to the experience of many immigrants who come to the US seeking employment and better wages than are available at home.  Propelled in particular by economic crises that left Peru with high levels of unemployment, Peruvian laborers throughout the twentieth century sought expanded job opportunities in the United States.

The political motivations of Peruvian immigration during the latter half of the twentieth century resulted in a demographically different population arriving in the US.  That is, rather than typical middle to working class laborers, the upper classes of Peruvian society arrived fleeing a nationalistic government that threatened their power as members of the national elite.  The experience of Peruvians escaping political turmoil is markedly different from those simply seeking economic opportunity, and this dynamic has shaped Peruvian diasporic relations within the US.

Finally, cultural reasons have also been a motivating factor in Peruvian emigration—first to Europe in the earlier part of the century and later to the United States.  The association of North America culture with unlimited opportunity for social and economic advancement, whether accurate or not, has influenced immigrants for generations.  The concept of the “American Dream” sets the US apart as the ideal destination to start over and fulfill one’s potential while simultaneously reinforcing the notion that one’s own nation is inferior to this land of opportunity.  While these perceptions of the US may not be entirely accurate and may not have fulfilled the expectations of Peruvian immigrants, there is no denying their influence on the decision of Peruvians to immigrate to the US.

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