There are few better places that illustrate the impact of the Spanish conquest of Latin America than the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco, Peru. Cathedrals with foundations of perfectly hewn Incan stone sit atop the ruins of what was once the mountain capital of the great Incan empire. Chapels gleam with Andean gold and silver, a testament to the ambitions of the first conquistadors who set foot there. The local Quechua word for this main square is also telling. The Spaniards brutally executed the famed Incan rebel Túpac Amaru II there in 1781. Ever since, it has been called the Huacaypata — the Place of Tears.
But go to Cuzco’s Plaza de Armas now, and you’ll see that history has its ironies. On a recent visit, TIME witnessed packs of fair-skinned Spanish twentysomethings approaching both local and foreign tourists with baskets of trinkets and souvenirs for sale. Others performed juggling tricks with the hope of picking up a couple of soles in change. Julia, a college grad from Seville hawking felt marionette dolls in Cuzco, spoke plainly of her native country: “There’s nothing for me to do back there.”
These Spanish youth represent a wider phenomenon: with Spain’s economy in crisis, and youth unemployment above 50%, many are upping sticks to seek a livelihood on the other side of the Atlantic. Latin America now boasts some of the world’s hottest economies, including Peru, whose GDP grew at more than a 6% rate in 2012. “Ten years ago, it would have been far more likely to see Peruvian pipers in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor,” says Jason Marczak, director of policy at the Council of the Americas. Now, the heady days of Spain’s construction boom are long gone and not only are job-seeking Spaniards seeking work in their country’s former colonies, but many Latin American migrants are returning home as well.
Data charting this new trend of migration are still sparse. A recent study published in Americas Quarterly by two professors of human geography at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid found a 6.7% increase in Spanish citizens living abroad between 2011 and ’12. Of more than 1.8 million Spaniards living abroad in 2012, 57% were in Latin America — Argentina and Venezuela counted more than 100,000 Spanish nationals each while countries like Mexico, Chile, Cuba and Peru hosted more than 50,000. Meanwhile, in 2011, nearly 50,100 more people emigrated from Spain than immigrated to it — this following a decade when hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans had joined the Spanish workforce. The number of Latin Americans who obtained residency in Spain in 2011 was roughly half of the pre-financial-crisis total in 2007. “My assumption is that if the Spanish economy does not improve, we’ll see a continuation of this trend,” says Marczak. (Spain’s economy is expected to contract at a 1.3% rate in 2013.)
Similar movements are under way in Portugal, which has been equally wracked by the effects of the European debt crisis. According to government figures (which are conservative), some 2% of Portugal’s population — up to 240,000 people — has emigrated from the country since 2011. Chief among their destinations is the booming economy of oil- and diamond-rich Angola, a former Portuguese colony that has emerged from a brutal civil war to become one of the more lavishly wealthy (and unequal) societies in Africa. Some 100,000 Portuguese nationals now work in the country, chiefly in Luanda, the Angolan capital and one of the more expensive cities in the world. Meanwhile, Angolan tycoons have invested considerably in Portugal’s banking, telecommunications and media sectors, a process that has been dubbed “reverse colonialism.” In an angst-filled 2012 song, Portuguese rapper Valete sings of austerity, the collapse of the E.U. and the need to leave for Luanda.
In a telling trend noted by the World Bank, remittances — money sent home by migrants — flowing out of Brazil to Portugal are greater now than those going in the opposite direction; the same reversal has been happening between Mexico and Spain. Growing regional powers like Brazil and Mexico are in desperate need of skilled laborers, and both local and multinational firms there are increasingly turning to white-collar immigrants to cope with the shortfall. According to the Economist, 71% of Brazilian employers are having difficulty filling positions. My colleague Tim Padgett has written at length about inadequate education and R&D in Latin America — the continent accounts for only 3% of global research and development, compared with 30% in Asia — that lead to domestic labor shortages. Eventually, the region’s governments will address these problems, says Marczak. “Looking into the future,” he says, “there will probably be fewer opportunities for migrants from the Iberian peninsula” to transplant themselves across the Atlantic. In the meantime, though, as the economies of former colonizers struggle to stay afloat, hundreds of thousands are yet again leaving home for a new world.