There was a time when in cities, towns and villages of the Canary Islands, America (…) was a recurring talking point. Few, very few were the families who could say that not one of their relatives had fled for overseas countries. (Translated from Felipe Lorezo’s “Cómo los conocí”).
Migration has been a constant in the history of the Canary Islands, and without a doubt one of the realities that has shaped the personality and identity of the Canarian people. Although migration started in recent years after the discovery of the Americas, massive migration flows from the Canarias towards America were only recorded from the second half of the 17th century.
The economic boom experienced during the 16th century as a result of emerging cane sugar and wine, among other products, changed and relationships with America dramatically dropped due to a crisis that had an impact on a large part of the population of the Canary Islands, especially Tenerife. The crisis in wine export led to impoverishment among the population and was the main cause for thousands of locals crossing the Atlantic looking for a better life. Venezuela and Cuba became the two main destinations, where many Canarians flourished. Thus began a close relationship that would last for centuries, and that would deeply impact the traditions, culture and history on either sides of the Atlantic.
The situation would not improve throughout the 18th century. On the contrary, it gradually worsened to the point of Malvasía wine exports to Europe and America being reduced to a bare minimum. In spite of a remarkable growth the trade of in wine and saltwort towards the end of the century and the early years of the 19th century, the quality of life of Canarian labourers continued to be precarious, which led to a relentless migratory movement that would only be slowed down by those returning from Venezuela (1810-1824). Many others decided to try their luck in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Uruguay and as a result of a new crisis in 1875 the production of cochineal struck and more people migrated. This time to Uruguay and Venezuela, as Cuba was immersed in the Ten Years’ War.
From the end of the 19th century, with the emergence of tomatoes, potatoes and bananas as export crops, the Canary Islands’ economy improved, which directly impacted the dynamics of migration. Migration not only decreased, but it also became a family affair, with essentially men trying to earn and save money during their working years in America with the aim of returning shortly after, buying a plot of land and building a house in the islands.
The aftermath of the Spanish Civil War led to yet another strong migration wave, reaching its peak between 1948 and 1952. Spain’s situation in general, and that of the Canary Islands in particular, would radically change in just a few decades.
The 80s was the before and after in the history of Canarian migration to the Americas. The progressive economic development of the archipelago -owing to the profound impact of tourism on the islands, together with the difficult economic situation Latin America was going through, caused a reverse migratory flow. Thus, thousands of people, mostly from America, but also from Africa and Eastern Europe, driven by the same desire that led Canarians to temporarily leave their homeland in search of opportunities, chose the Canary Islands as a destination to build a better future.
Time has passed but it has not erased the mark of a common past. Both the Canary Islands and many Latin American countries share highly apparent traits of common history that enriched cultures on both ends. Life stories were passed on from generation to generation; living memories of an era in which “in cities, towns and villages of the Canary Islands, America was a recurring talking point”.