Pioneers or Mere Labor: Italian Emigrant Colonization in Latin America and the Phenomenology of Development, 1947-1956

Dario Gaggio, University of Michigan

In the aftermath of World War II Italy’s centrist leaders saw the emerging practices and discourses of “development” within the U.S. sphere of global hegemony as an opportunity to solve the country’s allegedly intractable problems of underemployment and overpopulation. Hundreds of thousands of Italian peasant farmers could perhaps be persuaded to settle on Latin American land thanks to the contribution of U.S. and international capital. This aspiration would also have put to value the forms of knowledge that Italians had developed in the settlement of their dying colonial empire in Libya and other parts of Africa. For Latin American elites, rural immigration from Europe promised to continue their racial “whitening” policies right at the moment when massive flows of internal migration made population control harder than ever. These projects were sold to the Italian public with an orchestrated campaign of deception, organized by a variety of local and international actors. With the symbolically important contribution of U.S. funds, both through the European Recovery Program and the establishment of the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration, Italian rural migrants began to leave for work in Brazil’s fazendas or in settlement “colonies." Despite the countless scandals that had involved rural settlement in Brazil and other parts of South America in the pre-WWI period, thousands of actual or aspirational Italian peasants responded to the call in the early 1950s, attracted to promises of relatively risk-free landownership and quick social ascent. Predictably, much chaos and disillusionment ensued. This paper attempts to come to terms with the seemingly “irrational” and “anachronistic” character of these settlement experiments by locating their appeal for many sections of Italian society in powerfully mythopoeic post-fascist and post-colonial tropes. These projects reveal the contradictory relationships between Italy’s leaders and its rural masses, redundant and yet precious players in a global geopolitical game.

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 Presented in Session 226. Global Migration Systems and Trajectories