CULTURE History of Chile

Migration in Chile: The influence of the Basques

Brian O´Sullivan is an expert on the O´Higgins region, running O´Higgins Tours. In a series of guest blogs, he writes about “the heart of Chile”: Rancagua and the Central Valley. Today in part two, O´Sullivan picks up on another theme: the presence of Basque families in Chile.

In Chile, and particularly in Santiago, you will probably notice street names and statues of people with surnames that look particularly untypically Spanish compared to other cities in Latin America.  Although many of them are often Irish, Italian, British or even French, most of them-and usually the hardest ones to place-are actually Basque.

The Basque people are a separate ethnic group whose homeland is made up of the Navarra region in Spain and the Basque country in northern Spain and parts of southern France. They have their own separate language and distinct culture that separates them from other ethnic and language groups in Spain.

The first Basque immigrants

Basque immigrants first began arriving to Chile during colonial times. Some 24,000 arrived between 1701 and 1810 – almost twice the number of other Spaniards. At one point, the Basques are even thought  to have numbered up to 47% of the colonial population, becoming the biggest of all the “Spanish” ethnic groups  to arrive here,  and therefore the biggest of all ethnic/ancestry groups in Chile.

Further waves of Basque immigrants came after the Spanish civil war and even up until during Salvador Allende’s government of the early 1970s, fleeing political persecution under the dictatorship of General Franco.

The Basque Diaspora / Wikimedia Commons

Influence on culture and economy

Basques were famed for their strong work ethic and entrepreneurial skills which helped them quickly rise to the top of Chilean society, and the greater hand they had in shaping the nation may well at least partially explain why Chile is more prosperous, business-friendly and trade-orientated than its South American neighbours.

Basque immigrants to Chile have also influenced the markedly distinct Chilean accent,  in much the same way as the massive influx of Italian immigrants to the River Plate region unmistakeably helped shape the Argentinean one (especially around Buenos Aires).

“Far from my homeland, I can do no more than devote myself to recollection”

Publications among the Basque community in Chile have included the monthly and nationalist newspaper Euskadi, circulated among the Basques in Santiago from 1943 to 1960, and Aurerra here in Rancagua at the beginning of the 20th century. The following, a Basque immigrant’s nostalgic description of his homeland,  is an excerpt from Rancagua’s Aurerra dating back to 1907.

“Far from my homeland, I can do no more than devote myself to recollection, an enraptured memory of the old country home, which for its white stands out from the hill. In my mind I see the walnut tree, which like a sentry shields the façade with its branches (as though shame caused it to hide the shield which in better times was the pride of its inhabitants). I recall the fruit trees that surrounded the house and the vine arbour that climbed the walls, as thought wanting to protect them. In my dreams, I see and hear my beloved grandmother, sitting by the stove, watching the fire that burns in the fireplace as, in our blessed language, she tells of past grandeurs and sorrows whose details she would follow with great interest.”

Chile: home to the world’s largest community of Basque descent

According to some estimates, there are more ethnic Basques today in Chile than in Spain. While the most conservative ones put the Basque ancestry population in Chile at 1.8 million, or 10 percent of the population, others indicate it to be as high as 4.8 million or 27 percent of the population, making Chile home to the world’s largest community of Basque descent.

Certainly, you will notice that Basque surnames (once you recognise them) are extremely common here, more so than in other Latin American countries, and many of them are now more common in Chile than in the Basque region itself.

Chileans consider race key for immigrants’ success

Basques in Chilean politics

In a way, the Republic of Chile owes its very independence to the Basque community, as the most predominant heroes of the Chilean war of Independence all came from Basque families. Among them are such Chilean household names as Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme, Jose Miguel Carrera, Jose Luis Carrera, Luis Carrera and Manuel Rodriguez Erdoiza.

A famed Chilean genealogist, Luis Thayer Ojeda, believes that ‘three-fourths of the distinguished personages of nineteenth- century Chile were of Basque descent’ and indeed most Chilean presidents were also of Basque origin,  among them the Salvador Allende, the notorious Agosto Pinochet Ugarte, Patricio Aylwin Azocar and the current President of the Republic, Sebastian Piñera Echenique. The Basques’ descendants in modern Chile continue to make up the bulk of Chile’s upper classes and are known even today as the Basque-Chilean aristocracy.

For reasons previously mentioned, notable Chileans of Basque descent are far too numerous to mention. However, examples of powerful and influential Basque families in Chilean society, particularly prominent in Chilean culture, politics and business, are:

The Vicuña family

The Piñera family

The Larraín family

The Errazuriz family

The Carrera family

The Balmaceda family

The Allende family

The Zañartu family

Read any current Chilean newspaper, magazine or history book and these surnames crop up again and again.


Basque-Chilean Presidents and Heads of State, past and present.

1811-1814                  José Miguel Carrera

1817-1823                  Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme

1826-1827                  Agustín de Eyzaguirre Arechavala

1829-1829                  Francisco Ramón Vicuña y Larraín

1831-1831                  Fernando Errázuriz Aldunate

1861-1871                  José Joaquín Pérez Mascayano

1871-1876                  Federico Errázuriz Zañartu

1876-1881                  Aníbal Pinto Garmendia

1886-1891                  José Manuel Balmaceda Fernández

1896-1901                  Federico Errázuriz Echaurren

1901-1901                  Aníbal Zañartu Zañartu

1901-1906                  Germán Riesco Errázuriz

1910-1915                  Ramón Barros Luco

1915-1920                  Juan Luis Sanfuentes Andonaegui

1925-1927                  Emiliano Figueroa Larraín

1932-1932                  Abraham Oyanedel Urrutia

1938-1941                  Pedro Aguirre Cerda

1941-1942                  Jerónimo Mendez Arancibia

1946-1946                  Juan Antonio Iribarren Cabezas

1970-1973                  Salvador Allende Gossens

1973-1990                  Augusto Pinochet Ugarte

1990-1994                  Patricio Aylwin Azócar

2010- 2014                Sebastián Piñera Echenique


Missed part one? Read it here:

The influence of European immigrants on Chilean winemaking

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