Three words explain why South Americans started coming to the United States in larger numbers after 1950: commercial air travel.
By the end of World War II, commercial flights to the United States had come within the reach of middle-class South Americans. If they could afford a plane ticket, they could come.
They had reason to come because of both economic and political turmoil in their home countries. The continent’s population more than doubled between 1960 and 1990, straining resources.
The U.S. population went up only 39 percent in the same period. After World War II, many nations launched programs to modernize and industrialize their economies. To some extent, the programs succeeded: financed by foreign banks, many South American economies grew at a brisk pace until the 1980s. Petroleum exporting, particularly in Venezuela, became a big business.
But the gap between rich and poor, always great in South America, did not significantly shrink. And with industrialization came new problems.
As agriculture became mechanized, many farmers were thrown out of work. Others sought to escape the age-old hardships of Latin American peasant existence for what they thought would be a better life in the booming cities of the continent.
The result was overcrowded urban areas with many unemployed or barely employed people. Destitute families lived in wretched shantytowns surrounding glittering cities.
Gauchos relax on the pampas of South America. These cattle herders follow a way of life hundreds of years old.
However, as South America’s economies modernize, ranching and agriculture have changed dramatically, and many rural dwellers are forced to move to urban areas and, often, to emigrate.