Global True Lithuania Lithuanian communities and heritage worldwide

Latin America

Statistics on the number of Lithuanians in Latin America vary wildly, putting the number anywhere between 60 000 to 1 000 000. It depends on who is to be considered Lithuanian as there is generally less participation in Lithuanian activities than in the USA or Western Europe. Many people of Lithuanian descent are now assimilated as in many cases they did not form ethnic enclaves and spread across large territories.

There have been Lithuanians in Latin America as early as the start of 19th century participating in the independence movements. Ignatas Domeika (also known in Polish as Ignacy Domeyko and in Spanish as Ignacio Domeyko) has a mountain named after him in Chile.

The real birth of Latin America's Lithuanian community was the interwar period (1920s - 1930s). In 1908 USA curbed immigration and Lithuanians opted for Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay instead. Argentina and Uruguay were as rich as Western Europe at the time and not far behind the USA. Brazil was poorer but had jobs in its extensive plantations.

60% of all 1926-1940 Lithuanian emigrants emigrated to these three countries. They published Lithuanian newspapers and created institutions. In general, they were poorer than Lithuanians in the USA and had less civil rights. Some used South America as a trampoline to the USA.

Latin America of the early 20th century still had vast unpopulated spaces so Lithuanians also participated in the establishment of new towns, e.g. Ijui (Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil) and Esquel (Chubut, Argentina). In the cities, they established Lithuanians were soon outnumbered by other immigrant communities. Lithuanian culture survived better in the region's metropolises (Buenos Aires, Rosario). There is a Lithuanian district in Sao Paulo, Brazil (Villa Zelina) centered around a Lithuanian church. Lithuanian parishes, dance troupes, and clubs exist in multiple Argentine and Uruguayan cities.

The last sizeable Lithuanian migration to Latin America was that of refugees in late 1940s who established the Lithuanian communities in Colombia and Venezuela. Never numbering more than 2000 they were nevertheless influential as most of their members were elite (artists, professionals). Antanas Mockus, a university professor, former mayor of Bogota and presidential candidate is a Lithuanian Colombian.

In the same era, J. Stalin invited interwar Lithuanian emigrants to return (for propaganda purposes), falsely promising riches. Some returned; those who could then left again for South America soon but this option was not possible to everyone.

After 1950s Lithuanian Latin Americans were never replenished by new immigrants. In 1945-1990 emigration was banned by occupational Soviet authorities. After 1990 Latin America was already relatively poor and Lithuanians favored the USA, Western Europe, and Australia as their new foreign homes. Intermarriage in the older communities triggered assimilation but some did marry within the community and there are 4th generation Lithuanians who still speak Lithuanian at home. The final Lithuanian newspaper in Latin America "Argentinos lietuvio balsas" ceased publishing in 2001.

There has been upsurge in interest in Lithuanian roots after Lithuania joined the European Union as the Lithuanian passport now provides a possibility to work in Western Europe.

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Argentina

While Lithuanians started to imigrate to Argentine before WW1 (~5000 entered) the main influx (~30 000) took place in the interbellum after USA limited imigration. At the time most of the industrialized world has been ravaged by war while the neutral Argentina was rich like never before or after. 20% of all Lithuanian interwar emigrants left for Argentina.

Main cities of Argentina - Lithuanian heritage

In Buenos Aires (one of world's top 20 largest cities) one can still breath the grandeur of the era while watching its art nouveau architecture and wide streets. This megalopolis still has the largest Lithuanian community. Since 1929 the Lithuanian-Argentine center operates in Villa Lugano neighborhood (Tabaré 6950 1439). Open in Suaturdays it has a bar and ethnic dance troupe.

Lithuanian-Argentine center adorned by a large Columns of Gediminas symbol. Google Street View.

The main Lithuanian district in Buenos Aires is however Avellaneda (pop. 25 000). It has a Lithuanian church with the image of the famous Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius above its door (Mendoza 2280, est. 1942). Lithuanian mass is celebrated once a month now and most masses are in Spanish, although various Lithuanian details remain.

Lithuanian church of Buenos Aires. Google Street View.

Official institutions in Avellaneda include Lithuanian-Argentine Community, Union of Lithuanian Argentines (Av. San Martin 3175 in Lanus Oeste near Avellaneda) and Lithuanian Chamber of Commerce.

Union of Lithuanian Argentines. Google Street View.

There is a 4 km long Lithuania (Lituania) Street and a much shorter Lithuania alley (Pje Lituania). By the way Lituania street also exists in the city of Cordoba. The practice of naming streets after foreign sources of immigrants has been common in Argentina. But a massive Lituania street (formerly Chicago street) has been named so in a well-publicized event and was believed to mean Argentine support for Lithuanian freedom cause.

In 2002 the Lithuania's only embassy in South America has been relocated from Caracas (Venezuela) to Argentine due to a larger Lithuanian community there. It used to host cultural events which had rejuvenated Lituanity (according to the local Lithuanian community). However the embassy has been closed in 2013 as a cost-saving measure and replaced by a consulate-general in Sao Paulo (Brazil).

Over the time some Lithuanians moved from Buenos Aires to other main cities (while others used Argentina as a stop before emigrating to the USA). Lithuanian parish of St. Casimir also exists in Rosario. The white building (address: Av. Ntra Sre del Rosario 1552) is adorned by a bas-relief of Vytis as well as a copy of famous Lithuanian Divine Mercy painting on the outside.

Lithuanian church of Rosario. Google Street View.

Patagonia Lithuanian heritage

The extreme south of Argentina is known as Patagonia. This windy terrain is unique as in 1820s when the Liberation of Latin America came to a full swing these territories were not colonized by Europeans. Therefore they were initially annexed (or from the Native American standpoint taken away) by independent South American states: Chile and Argentina (these two fought the final war for the area as late as in 1977).

At the time first Lithuanians entered Argentina the Patagonian lands were still devoid of cities and Lithuanians participated in their establishment. Their participation was especially important in development of Sarmiento city (1902). However without new Lithuanian migrants local Lithuanians abandoned their language over several generations; unlike in the USA there are no memorial plaques to show that the city library (formerly St. Casimir library) and church (St. Joseph) were established mainly by Lithuanian families.

However Sarmiento has a massive bust for Kazimieras Šlapelis (Estrada st., near intersection with San Martin). He was an aviator at the era when flying was still a risky affair (1935) as the doomed flight of Darius and Girėnas had shown recently. The local airport used to be named after him (closed down due to road improval) and his initiative led to naming one street of Sarmiento after Lithuania.

Kazimieras Šlapelis bust in Sarmiento, Argentina (in the middle of the street). Google Street View.

In Esquel town (northwestern Patagonia) Lithuanian Argentines Olga and Bruno Lukoševičius had established a Lithuanian Museum (Los Nires Street). In 2007 a Lithuanian Square was also opened in the city.

Entrance to the Lithuanian museum in Esquel with a sign 'Campena Lituana Olgbrun'. Google Street View.

Lithuanian Argentines operate clubs and other organizations but these are dominated by second to fouth generation immigrants. Dances and other cultural traditions survived longer than did the language. Today Argentina is poorer than Lithuania and no longer attracts immigrants. Its vice-versa: Argentines are seeking appourtunities abroad. Finding Lithuanian roots may now help in gaining access to European labour markets.

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Brazil

Brazil arguably has the largest Lithuanian community in South America. This migration peaked in the 1920s and 1930s. 35% of all emigrants from interwar Lithuania chose Brazil as their destination, 25 000 to 50 000 moved in. Unlike elsewhere in America, most Lithuanians of Brazil started of as rural workers (in coffee plantations), under contracts they pre-signed while in Lithuania. They had little rights and most were quite poor as was Brazil itself. Eventually, many of them drifted to the cities and became richer than the average Brazilian, constructing homes and establishing businesses.

Sao Paulo (Latin America's largest city) hosts the only true Lithuanian neighborhood in South America - Vila Zelina. Its construction was carried out ~1934 when the Lithuanian immigration was peaking.

The district is centered at the Lithuanian Republic Square (Praca Republica Lituania), so-named on 1976 10 31. The square is adorned by a Lithuanian Freedom Monument with the Columns of Gediminas symbol and lyrics of a song "Lithuanians we are born, Lithuanians we want to be" written on it. The Monument is a copy of a similar monument in Kaunas. When the Sao Paulo monument was unveiled in the December of 1985, the original had been long since destroyed by the Soviet Union occupational regime, giving the erection of the monument in the communist-free Brazil a symbolic meaning. The original monument in Kaunas has since been reconstructed, however. The Sao Paulo monument is currently covered by trees which are not peritted to be removed or trimmed as per ecological regulations.

Freedom Monument (right) and the Lithuanian church in the Lithuanian Republic Square ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian Republic square is a convergence of 7 streets. One of them is named after a Lithuanian priest Pijus Ragažinskas (Pio Raganzinskas, 1907-1988). He had established a Lithuanian-Brazilian newspaper "Mūsų Lietuva" (Our Lithuania) that was published from the January of 1948 until 2016. Rising above the square is St. Joseph Lithuanian church, constructed in 1936 under a direction of priest Benediktas Sugintas. A Lithuanian wooden cross (UNESCO-inscribed art form) stands in front of the church. In the interior one may find various Lithuanian details and paintings. The St. Joseph Lithuanian community (parish) has been established in 1931.

It was the construction of the church that helped make Vila Zelina a Lithuanian district. The real estate developer of the district gifted a land plot to the Lithuanian parish. Soon afterward, the nearby plots were acquired by Lithuanians who sought to build homes not far away from a Lithuanian church.

Lithuanian Republic square with the lower part of Freedom Monument, adorned by the Columns of Gediminas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The interior of the church has many Lithuanian signs. Next to the entrance, there is a commemorative plaque for Benediktas Sugintas, the builder of the church (bilingual Lithuanian-Portuguese, adorned with his bust), as well as a commemorative plaque for priest Juozas Šeškevičius (Portuguese only, created 1998) who was a long-term leader of the Lithuanian Catholic community since 1954.

Commemorative plaque for Benediktas Sugintas inside the St. Joseph Lithuanian church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The altar of the church is surrounded by paintings of Our Lady of Vilnius (copy of the sacred painting on Vilnius Gate of Dawn), St. Casimir (the patron saint of Lithuania. The painting also includes an image of Vilnius castle). There is also an image of the Divine Mercy. The church has been decorated by a Lithuanian artist Antanas Navickas.

The interior of Sao Paulo St. Joseph Lithuanian church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Most of the holy masses in the church today are held in the Portuguese language. However, a bilingual mass is held on Sundays (with a Portuguese-speaking priest but Lithuanian-language Bible readings).

As the main period of Lithuanian migration to Brazil was in the 1920s and 1930s, most of the current Lithuanian-Brazilians are born in Brazil. Still, parts of the elder population speak Lithuanian. Other Lithuanian activities are more popular, including several ethnic dance groups (Nemunas, Rambynas), a parish choir (established in 1936). Those activities are taking place in the parish buildings behind the church, that were constructed under priest Juozas Šeškevičius (1921-2008), who also organized festivals for Lithuanian-Brazilian youth in the 1960s-1970s.

Some shops around the church still sell Lithuanian food (e.g. a shop at Rua Monsenhor Pio Ragazinskas 17, wich also stocks a uniform for Lithuanian sports team, traditional colored Lithuanian easter eggs and more).

Lithuanian food in a shop at Vila Zelina. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There is a multitude of Lithuanian motives in the nearby Bar do Vito (Avenida Zelina 851). It uses a stylized Vytis (Lithuanian coat of arms) as its symbol, while the interior houses many Lithuanian banknotes, postcards of Lithuanian song and dance festivals and more. Lithuanian beverages are also for sale there.

The logo of Bar do Vito. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The main avenue of the Vila Zelina district is known as Avenida Zelina (it passes through the Lithuanian Republic Square). There are more Lithuania-inspired names on that street. Some of them are in fact not made by Lithuanians. Yet because the district is known as Lithuanian, some non-Lithuanians also named their businesses after Lithuania. There is an optician's shop "Lithuania", real estate agencies "Lithuania" and "Kaunas". One 22-floor apartment building in the area is also named "Kaunas" (in Brazil, each apartment block has its name).

Apartment building Kaunas (on the right) is surrounded by an electrified fence (as it is common in Brazil for security reasons). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

As the years passed, the Lithuanian-Brazilian community has been active in suggestions to commemorate various people and events important to Lithuanians. In 1991, after Lithuania had restored independence, such lobbying was successful in achieving a renaming of one small street into Free Lithuania passage (Passagem Lituania Livre).

Street name sign of the Free Lithuania passage. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Historically, Sao Paulo had six Lithuanian schools.

One of them, the Vytautas the Great Lithuanian school, operated in a purpose-built building of the 1930s (Rua Santo Amasio 327, ~1 km away from Vila Zelina in Vila Bela). The building used to be adorned by a bas-relief of Vytautas the Great (the Medieval grand duke of Lithuania who ruled Lithuania at its largest territorial extent). Unfortunately, even though the building is still owned by the Lithuanian community, it is now leased out for a restaurant, so the bas-relief has been removed. Only the doors and windowsills remain authentic.

The former Vytautas the Great Lithuanian school. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another Lithuanian school in Vila Zelina itself has been established in 1938 by Lithuanian Franciscan nuns who arrived from Pittsburgh (USA). The monastery itself is still operational (Rua Campos Novos, 49) and the St. Michael the Archangel school is still nearby, now located in modern buildings. However, today it is attended by children of various ethnicities.

Three more former Lithuanian schools have no relations to Lithuania or schooling now (the buildings have been sold and now they do not operate as schools). Maironis school used to exist in the district of Parque das Nações. This district still has a Lithuania street (Rua Lituania), among the streets named after other nations. Dr. Jonas Basanaičius school used to operate at Vila Anastacio district in the western Sao Paulo (9 km away from the center), while the 5th Lithuanian school used to operate in Bom Retiro district.

Extant coats of arms on the door of Vytautas the Great Lithuanian school. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Sao Paulo has two secular Lithuanian organizations. In addition to the Lithuanian-Brazilian Community that operates in the parish house of St. Joseph church (est. 1958), there is also the Lithuanian-Brazilian Union (est. 1931). It operates in a two-floored building with a stylized Vytis. The street where that building exists is called Lithuania street (the address of the building is Rua Lituania 67). It is the larger one of the two Sao Paulo streets named after Lithuania.

The building hosts a library and archive with various Lithuanian articles and books both with origins among Lithuanian-Brazilians and interwar Lithuanians. The hall of the building hosts Lithuanian festivals. In the past, the building housed the 6th Lithuanian school named after Dr. Vincas Kudirka.

Lithuanian-Brazilian Union building. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Although it is now harder to hear Lithuanian spoken in the Vila Zelina area, a significant part of the local population still consists of the descendants of Lithuanians. Unlike in the USA, Brazilians often spend their entire lifetimes in a single city or district, meaning that Vila Zelina is still largely populated by those, whose forefathers moved there in the interwar or postwar period. One may still often spot Lithuanian surnames adorning the offices of various specialists (e.g. dentists, brokers).

Real estate agency 'Lithuania' in Vila Zelina. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The single location that has the most Lithuanian surnames is probably the cemetery Cemiterio Ceramica of the São Caetano do Sul suburb. The cemetery is not Lithuanian-only. However, as it serves as the final resting place for people of the surrounding districts, a significant part of graves belong to Lithuanians. Like in all the Brazilian cemeteries, gravestones are large and often replaced entirely by family chapels (far from just the richest families own them). However, the cemetery has been damaged by vandals and drug addicts who have stolen a large share of metal plates listing the surnames of the dead.

Cemiterio Ceramica of the São Caetano do Sul suburb. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Sao Paulo hosts the only Lithuania's consulate general in Latin America (Avenida Irai, 438, cj. 34). It was established after the Lithuanian embassy in Argentina was closed down as a cost saving measure in 2013. The larger number of Lithuanian-Brazilians was cited as a reason for the move to Sao Paulo although the decision has received criticism from the Lithuanian-Argentine community which holds itself to be more lively and keen at safeguarding Lithuanian traditions.

The true number of Lithuanian-Brazilians is heavily disputed with various sources claiming 30 000, 150 000, 300 000 or even 1 000 000. Presumably, the larger numbers include everyone who had at least single grandfather or great grandfather from Lithuania. Lithuanian-Brazilian Community election of 1970 had 821 participants, while its counterpart in 1999 had 177 participants.

Cemetery. A close-up shot of one of the Lithuanian family chapels. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Rural Lithuanian communities largely assimilated over a couple generations as they always lived intermixed with other larger groups. Lithuanian rural settlement was largely limited to the states of Sao Paulo, Parana, and the Rio Grande do Sul. In the Rio Grande do Sul, Lithuanians established Ijui city (pop. 100 000) where they were later joined and outnumbered by other European ethnicities. There is also a small Lithuanian community in Rio De Janeiro megalopolis. In 1954, there were some 50 000 Lithuanian Brazilians, of them 30 000 in Sao Paulo, 20 000 in the countryside and 300 in Rio. Most were interwar migrants, many once lured in by a free boat trip (in exchange for a long-term contract) and plantation company promises of "American riches" (some believed the entire American continent to be as rich as the USA, while in fact, Brazilian GDP per capita was 1/6th of the US one in 1929 and the wages in Brazil were lower than in Lithuania but cheap land compensated this to some).

500 post-World War 2 refugees in 1940s became the final major immigration of Lithuanians to Brazil. There had also been several thousand Lithuanians in Brazil prior to 1918 independence (immigrated in 1870s-1910s).

Interwar cups at the premises of Lithuanian-Brazilian Union. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanians of Brazil attracted filmmaker interest. In 2002, Brazilian documentary Eldorado - Lituanos no Brazil (Eldorado: The Lithuanians in Brazil) was created, while in 2011 a group of Lithuanians traveled to Brazil for their own documentary on the local community. Several books on Lithuanian-Brazilians have been published in both Lithuania and Brazil.

More information about the imigration of Lithuanians and other nations into Sao Paulo may be discovered at the Immigration museum of Sao Paulo (Rua Visconde de Parnaiba 1316, Mocca).

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Uruguay

With a population of 3,3 million Uruguay is similar to Lithuania. Most of Uruguay's 10 000 live in the capital Montevideo (the district of Cerro which is separated from downtown by a bay). In the first half of 20th century slaughterhouses thrived in Cerro attracting many European immigrants. Unlike most Latin American countries Uruguay has a strong White majority (88%). They mostly immigrated before World War 2 when Uruguay was richer than many European nations.

On a hill in Cerro there is a Lithuanian church dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima (Bélgica 1765). Completed in 1954 together with Jesuit house it had been partly funded by Lithuanian American donations as the Uruguay Lithuanian community was quite small (~6000-10000 migrants entered between the World Wars).

Lithuanian church of Cerro, Montevideo. Google Street View.

Additionally the Lithuanian-Uruguayan community was plagued by Soviet-funded communists who promoted atheism among Lithuanians (the communist activity among Lithuanian-Uruguayans was unprecedented anywhere else as with the Soviet occupation of Lithuania "Lithuanian" and "Anti-communist" have been almost synonymous). Regardless of this activity Uruguay never recognized the Soviet occupation of Lithuania.

Lithuanian Uruguayan cultural society (Rio de Janeiro 4001) and Lithuanian club (near Hollanda and Grecia street corner) are also in Cerro. Previously Cerro also housed a Lithuanian school named after the "Patriarch of the Nation" Jonas Basanavičius which had been funded by interwar Lithuanian state which also provided teachers. After the Soviet occupation of Lithuania the school disintegrated.

Lithuanian Uruguayan Cultural Society. Google Street View.

The streets of Cerro are named after foreign nations and cities. One of them is Lithuania (Lituania) street. Immigrant square marks the center of the district and is a location for festivals of immigrant cultures where Lithuanian dance and singing groups also participate.

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Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago lacks Lithuanians, but Tobago has a Great Courland Bay and Little Courland Bay. Their name derives from a Bronze Age Baltic tribe that lived in Western Lithuanian and Latvia.

Thus name has an interesting history. Long after the original Couronians (Lithuanian: kuršiai) have already merged into Lithuanian and Latvian nations the land they once inhabitted was still refered as Courland. In 1561 a Duchy of Courland and Semigallia has been established in modern-day Latvia (as a fief of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania). To the German Dukes of largely Latvian-inhabitted Courland and Semigallia, known for their opulent palaces, Europe was never enough. Even though their duchy had merely 200 000 inhabittants they have amassed a navy one third of the legendary Spanish armada to become the smallest colonial power to partake in the Conquest of Americas.

They have selected Tobago island in the Carribean as their colony which they named New Courland and also called one of its bays a Great Courland Bay. Colonization attempts lasted merely from 1637 to 1656 when Courland-Semigallia, together with the rest of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth suffered a Swedish-Russian invasion. Settlers in New Courland then surrendered to the Dutch who also had a colony there. Courland-Semigallia never reacquired its former glory but this interesting episode of colonization by a Lithuanian fief left a geographic name in the New World.

In 1978 Latvians built a commemorative plaque for their settlers at the Great Courland Bay. Just as various plaques built by Lithuanians in the USA it had a symbollic meaning during the occupation of the Baltic States, reminding of their nicer past.

Courland-Semigallia also had another colony in Gambia.

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Venezuela

Venezuela has a city named after St. Casimir, the only Lithuanian saint and the patron saint of Lithuania. The city, known as San Casimiro de Güiripa, has been established in 1783. The naming is not directly related to Lithuania and owes more to the fact that the cities of the Catholic Spanish Empire were often named after saints. That said, St. Casimir is quite little known in the West and there are no other large cities named after him. The city festival is on St. Casimir day (4th of March), therefore coinciding with the traditional St. Casimir fair of Vilnius.

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Map of Lithuanian heritage in Southern Latin America

Map of Lithuanian heritage in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

More information on the Lithuanian heritage in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay.

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