Here and There: Hispanic Heritage in Toronto

[Aquí y allá: La herencia hispanica en Toronto]

Written by Tyson Brown

Father with twin girls. MHSO Collection, LAA-200903

The first major waves of Latin American immigration to Canada occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. In that period, the foundations of Toronto’s Latin American Community were laid. During the 1980s and 1990s, new waves of immigration from Central and South America dramatically increased that community, and made the Spanish language one of the top 10 “mother tongues” in the city.

The Latin American communities in particular, provides a good example of how successive waves of migrants from the same region interact in their new home city and develop shared experiences. Their stories also illustrate the way transnational identities are formed, as events unfolding in their homelands continue to affect them.

Those who are classified as being of Latin American descent belong to a broad group that encompasses 20 different nationalities. Although there are shared linguistic and cultural characteristics, this is not a monolithic community, but rather one with multiple identities and experiences shaped by each country’s history and the causes of emigration. The community’s common denominators are their Spanish language, and their determination to build a home for themselves in their new surroundings. It was this latter challenge that united them, and elements of their common cultural heritage were often used to provide a support system during the re-settlement process.

Prior to World War II, the Hispanic presence in Toronto was minimal and its documentation was limited. From the 1950s to the 1960s, a small wave of migrants arrived in the city, mainly well-educated and of European origin rather than from Latin America. At the time, Canadian immigration policies welcomed Europeans as desired migrants, and thus British, German, Polish, Jewish and other Europeans from Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela arrived in urban centres such as Toronto.

This group was followed by a smaller wave of workers, referred to as the Andean Wave. Their arrival from Ecuador, Peru and Columbia was a response to the declining economic conditions in these countries. During this period, the emigration of Latin Americans from Central and South America to the United States was increasing steadily and the option of migrating to Canada became part of this broader movement of people coming to North America to improve their standard of living.

College Theatre. Credit: David Levine, MHSO Collection, LAA-0002

For cities such as Toronto, two factors in the 1970s set the stage for successive large waves of immigration from Latin America. First, a series of military coups in Cemtral and South America led to intense domestic conflict, and people left their homelands under traumatic circumstances to find safety. This wave of immigration, known as the Coup Wave, began in Chile in 1973, when a violent coup overthrew the democratically elected government, forcing many Chileans to immigrate to places like Toronto. With the help of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, international groups and local activists, they made their way to Toronto. At the same time, the Canadian government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was more broadly emphasizing human rights in its policies. The arrival of Chilean refugees, followed by refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador, had a significant effect on Canadian cities such as Toronto by providing exposure to the humanitarian crisis of forced migrations.

Advertisement for Latin American Cultural Evening. MHSO Collection, LAA-0003

The newcomers may have found a safe haven in the city, but there were many challenges for those who had experienced upheaval and displacement, highlighting the need to establish resources and institutions to help them. Their arrival reminded Canadians about the fragility of nations and the importance of a compassionate and caring society. Organizations such as the Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples, the Hispanic Development Council, Bloor Information and Life Skills Centre and the North York Community House were created, each of them playing important roles for the Latin American community, helping the newcomers adjust to life in Toronto.

Many of those who came to Toronto as a result of political destabilization did not plan to live in the city for the long term, but hoped to return home once the problems had subsided. But the situation did not improve and as time passed and children arrived, they became rooted in Canada. For these initial waves, life was challenging. Many did not speak English, and they had to contend with the loss of income and social status that they had enjoyed in their homelands. As they did so, they sometimes faced racism and discrimination.

After the coup waves, the Latin American community experienced increased solidarity as these dispersed nationalities found common ground. Kensington Market became a hub for these cultural groups, as it has been for many others throughout Toronto’s history. In this multi-ethnic neighbourhood, Latin Americans found a niche to open restaurants and grocery stores and by the 1980s, a concentration of Torontonians of Latin American descent was established along Bathurst Street, between College and Bloor Streets. Over the years, this area became a fusion of Asian, Caribbean and Latin American migrants who transformed parts of the Annex neighborhood into a thriving example of the city’s developing social diversity. Shortly, this growing community expanded northwards and another hub of Latin Americans in Toronto was established in the Jane and Finch area.

Uruguayan chefs, 1978. MHSO Collection, LAA-3902

The next wave of Latin American migrants to Toronto arrived in the 1990s, many of them professionals who had come to attend university and increase their professional accreditation and language skills. Unlike the previous waves, they intended to stay in Canada, and aimed for full citizenship. After more than 30 years in the city, Latin Americans were becoming active in civic affairs and during the 1990s, numerous conferences, initiatives, coalitions and summits were formed to improve not only their own lives, but the broader society.

Along with this increase in civic consciousness, art played a role both as a form of expression that added to the city’s diversity, and as a means by which the community maintained its relationship to its homelands and preserved memories. Art enabled the community to find common bonds during the initial experience of settling in a new city, and it also had a profound effect on Toronto. The Fiesta Hispanica has been held in Toronto since the 1980s, enriching the city and providing Spanish-speaking Torontonians the needed connection to their cultural roots.

Over time, the Latin American community has managed to plant itself firmly within the social, cultural and civic infrastructure of the city, and its own heritage has been there every step of the way.


Fernández and A. Pérez, ‘The Spanish Iberian Community of Toronto’, Polyphony, Vol. 6, No.1 (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1984), pg.152–53.
Marcela S Duran, “Characteristics of the Spanish speaking Latin American Community”, Polyphony: Toronto’s People, Vol. 6, No. 1, (Spring/Summer, 1984) pg., 186-188. Moreno, Maria V. “Theatre in Spanish speaking Toronto”, Polyphony: Toronto’s People, Vol. 6, No. 1, (Spring/Summer, 1984) pg. 214-216.
Ruitort, Monica. “Latin American women in Toronto”, Polyphony: Women and Ethnicity, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Double issue/1986), pg. 73-74. Lao Berga, Latin American in Canada ‘The First Decade’, MHSO Collection, Lalo Berga
Latin American Immigrants in Toronto, North York Board of Education, MHSO Collection
Hispanic Community in Metro Toronto, MHSO Collection
‘Strangers in a Strangeland’, The Globe and Mail, Oct 28, 1986.

Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.

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