Latin America’s Moorish and Arab Influence

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.

Spanish Inquisition

Condemned heathen.
Condemned heathen.

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.

Moorish Lima

punta callao lima peru church bolognesi
Bolognesi Church in Callao, Lima

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.

Tapada Limeña

Tapada limeña
Tapada limeña
Painting from Bar Queirola.
Painting from Bar Queirolo.
Credit: Juan Luis Orrego Penagos
Credit: Juan Luis Orrego Penagos

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.

Argentina’s population of Arab descent is estimated at a whopping 9%, and includes former President Carlos Menem. The Palestinian community in Chile is so large it has its own soccer club, Palestino.

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.



  1. Hear hear….you maybe back in the U.S. but keep the fire burning. I visit this blog every few days parcero! Great work!


  2. 1) Here in Bogota lots of people say “felices fiestas” instead of “Feliz Navidad”.

    2) In Colombia the term “mono” or “mona” meaning blond comes directly from Arabic, where it means the same thing. In Arabic (and in Hebrew for that matter) it also means “beautiful”.


  3. Awesome article, im Colombian but always get confused for being Arab

    You should write an article about your transition to America or the immigration you guys are going through


  4. The cocaine route to Europe goes through Venezuela to West Africa (Guinea Bissau) and then onto Spain. Lots of Lebanese expats in all those countries.


  5. It’s odd, but while I was in El Salvador, and even in the USA, while speaking with Salvadorans, I was told from time to time that there are no black people living in El Salvador. However, I have also seen locals who were straight up black and I have seen very many people who would pass as black in any black community in the USA. Basically, you can tell that some people have significant black ancestry, only people in the local community either fail to perceive it or choose to ignore it, for whatever reason. I’m not knocking blacks or Salvadorans. In fact, the most successful country in Central America is likely to be Panama, which has the largest black population.


  6. It is interesting that the origin of the term “Arab” is misused and its black African roots are always ignored. The Arabic language originated in Nubia or present day Sudan and the original “Arabs” were a black skinned, kinky haired people who invaded Spain and spread Islam into Iraq and Iran, thus causing the “Aryanization of Islam.” Under the virus of racism, many tend to imagine that the term “Arab” suggests the light-skinned, hooked nosed people who migrated into North Africa from Europe. Black Africans, or Moors, ruled Spain for eight hundred years and the so-called Spanish “race” is heavily mixed with black African blood. There were also many black people living in South America prior to the coming of the Spanish and Portugese slave ships. Many writers and academics are still in a state of historical denial and distortion.


  7. A small correction of historical facts. The Arabs only continually ruled a small portion of what is now southern Spain Al Andalus for 800 years. Initially in the early 8th century the Arabs invaded and occupied a large section of the Iberian peninsula but they were pushed back over the centuries by what is referred to as the Reconquista gradually losing most of the occupied territory except for Al Andalus. Some historians have argued that the Arab presence on the European main land coincided with the dark ages as they choked ports and commerce and culture and raided towns and enslaved captives. And their final defeat in 1492 coincided with the end of the dark ages. Interestingly enough , 1492 marked the launch of the greatest era of expansion for Spain world wide including the discovery of the American Continents.


  8. Stop publishing total bullshit. The Spanish inquisition was solely based on the extreme dangers of Islamic invasion into the region. It was not based on some ‘Christian extremism’ seeking to convert other people. They checked the religion to exterminate Islam. Islam through 1400 years has been EXACTLY what you see with Boko Haram, ISIS, al-Qaeda and other devout book-dedicated Muslims. And THAT is what the inquisition tried to get rid off. They were HEROES and freedom fighters and nothing to condemn.


  9. great stuff colin! i have lived in portugal, spain and brazil over the last decade and noticed this VERY important yet thoroughly undernoted cultural dynamic.

    i imagine it like this: 700 years of Arab rule over a majority of Iberia. I imagine this had to have had an effect on ways of governing and doing business.

    how else could the more recent middle eastern immigrants integrate so easily, whether aesthetically or in their way of thinking?!

    this influence is candidly brought out in the book “O Portugues que nos pariu” by Angela Dutra Menezes.

    some notes: the term reconquista was not used until AFTER the reconquista – retrospectively. the majority of Iberia was very much Muslim-ruled. There were many small kingdoms, some Christian and some Muslim, and conflicts were not religious, with commerce, alliances, mercenary services and marriage taking place between religions.

    the average percentage of jewish and “moorish” dna in iberians even today, is substantial, and varies from the north to the south of the peninsula (35% jewish in the Algarve for eg) and lets remember that a much larger dna heritage would have been carried by those emigrating/fleeing to S.America. A fascintaing portrayal of this time can be read in the fantastically named book “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean”!

    I`m afraid the Inquisition was not a reaction against radical Islam, although its techniques might well have been influenced by the Middle East. A primary target of the Inquisition were the Jews, who were expelled from Iberia over 100 years before the Muslims!!! I feel the influence of this persecution lingers today in the strong desire for conformism and limits on free thinking and speech (although this last one would also have Mideastern influence hehe).

    what is of note is that dear old colin here is one of very few to have commented on this strong underlying link.


  10. Somebody has already mentioned it but in Mexico we tend to say “Felices Fiestas” which is pretty much happy Holidays !!


  11. Found this passage in The Argentine trough English Eyes, published in 1916:

    Argentine family life, especially of the better class, retains many of the habits of the Spaniards and something of the customs of the Arabs…

    It is to be borne in mind, however, that this refers chiefly to the old families, who affect to despise the motley rabble of newcomers; and while profiting enormously by the industry and enterprise of the Gringo, — who has developed and exploited the riches of their country, making them rich in the process, — do not wish to be vulgarised by intercourse with the merely money-making element of the population. The exclusiveness of such families is notorious, and maintaining as they do the ancient patriarchal relationships, they are sufficient unto themselves, so that any foreigner who seeks to force himself into their small and narrow-minded circle is an ill-advised mortal who will surely be snubbed for his pains…

    We have really to go farther back than Spanish origins to trace the influences that have moulded the Argentine criollo into what we find him… [W]e find among these people of South America features that are more Moorish than Spanish. In the later centuries, while the Spaniards have been ridding themselves of most traces of the old Moorish dominion, those who settled in their American colonies retained customs and habits of thought which were disappearing in the home country, and owing to the isolated and circumscribed colonial life, tendencies towards exclusiveness became emphasised to the point of exaggeration. Thus, in certain directions, the dusky hand of the Moor is even more noticeable in South America to-day than in Spain itself. This is a point of view which few Argentine writers would be willing to endorse, as it is the claim of the Argentine that his civilisation is purely European, though distinctive in its individuality. The fact remains, however, that the position of the womenkind, legally and socially, though now showing signs of rapid change, conforms more to Moorish notions than to European ideals; the very arrangement of the house is Moorish, disguised, it is true, by progression through Spanish and French styles; the tribal dignity of the head of the family is nearer to Arabic life than to anything still surviving in European civilisation.


  12. I just got back from Nicaragua where I saw a big rally about violence against women. My guess is that the way women are treated in the Islamic countries has been imported to Latin America where it is called “machismo”. Almost every one of the top 10 or 15 countries of the world most dangerous for women has either a large Muslim population or is Latin American. Does anyone else see that link?


  13. Here in Mexico, you grow accsutomed to see a relatively wide rage of phenotypes, and as one learns a bit of antropometry, and history, one starts to figure out.
    I’d say there are moorish decendants (both mixed and not) in all parts of Mexico I know, in different proportions of course (i’d say Mexico City, south west and north is were you’ll see more the middle eastern-north african phenotype).
    The majority don’t know about their descent ( like many other mexicans either).
    Those who know are from relatively recent generations.
    The colonial influx, carried both crypto moors and crypto jewish (as you know, conversos were the N-ew Christiabs of the time and were persecuted by royal authorities). It was a matter of survival to hide their identity, and as generations passed, most of them forgot their origins.

    The 2-century long secular tradition in the form of a Federal laicisit goverment, is an expresion that this isn’t a merely Catholic/guadalupano country as officialy is perceived. It’s mixed, and i can’t give you percetages, because for that we’d need a deep study but one can perceive what i just wrote about.


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