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Argentine Immigration

Collin Anderson

Anthropology, Latin America: South America

Sister Leslie Straub

Collin Anderson
Anthropology: Latin America, South America
Research Project
Argentine Immigration
The Americas are home to an old life force. Humans live there that have roamed
the vast stretches of the two continents for millennia. In the middle of the last millennia
however, something happened that would change the world forever: immigration. This
immigration was accidental, and with motives of conquest and plight, but none the less
was it a vehicle for cultural migration and fusion. First the peoples of the Iberian
Peninsula came to the New World, and then in later years, countless other countries and
cultures came over to flee their old home in search of new lands. Many cities in the New
World became hubs for immigration, but one city in particular in South America is
defined by its immigration: Buenos Aires, Argentina. Its name alone speaks poetic
volumes towards the city, as it translates to Fair Winds; winds that could catch a sail and
take a body to this new and vivacious place. This land situated on the Rio de la Plata was
not always a hub of international commerce and culture, but today it serves as one of the
most diverse and widely different populations in the world, as well as the largest Spanish
speaking city in South America. This paper will comment on immigration, its effects, and
also touch upon immigration to Buenos Aires within the country itself.
As Mexican author Octavio Paz says, Mexicans descend from the Aztecs,
Peruvians from the Incans, and Argentines from the boats. Argentina is known

worldwide as a melting pot. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Argentina took in 6.5
million immigrants, which radically changed the national identity and the shape of the
demographic (Richter). Of these new immigrants, 46% of them were Italian, 33% were
Spanish, and of the rest are definitive sub groups of Irish, British, Jews, and various
others (Richter). Only one nation between 1821-1932 had more immigrants, the United
States, and Argentina had the most proportionally to its original population (Whitiker).
Because of this, many people consider Buenos Aires as the Paris of South America. This
name comes from the bohemian flare and rich culture that comes from the mix of people
that reside in this global city. The immigration patterns can arguably be broken up
roughly into three main subgroups: Mid 19th century 1914, then a gap until around
1945, or the end of World War II, where immigration was halted, and even negatively
effected, the second period is 1945-late 1980s, and then 1990s - leading up to the
contemporary period.
In order to begin understanding why, of all places, Argentina became such a
bustling utopia for international immigration, a brief history of how the country came to
be is vital. To begin, the entire brickwork of the nation is laid upon internationalism.
First, the Spanish colonized land in 1580 that natives had been residing in for about
twelve and a half thousand years. Buenos Aires was then established in 1776. With
British aid, the Argentines were able to gain independence from Spain in 1816. It took
until 1853 for an established government and constitution to be set up. The people
modeled the Argentine constitution after that of the United Stated of America. The people
then turned to Britain for support in their new state. The British built infrastructure, meat-

processing plants, and everything in between. English influence is still widely seen across
the city of Buenos Aires (Politi).
The only thing lacking form this carapace of pure potential that was Argentina
was people to populate it. To this day Argentina is still vastly unpopulated in the rural
regions, with 14.5% of the nations entire population residing in the largest three cities
alone (Brinkhoff). In 1853, when the constitution was being drafted, political thinker
Juan Bautista Aberdi birthed the motto to govern is to populate, a political ideal that
still resonates. It is through this willingness to expand the population that suffering
peoples in Europe, Israel, America, and even as far as Asia saw an opportunity. The
country embraced immigrants and in the span of time between 1869 and 1914 the
population grew exponentially from 1.8 million to 7.8 million people (Politi). At the latter
part of that same benchmark, 30% of the population was foreign born; twice the statistic
in America at the time. As a symbol of their acceptance, the Hotel de Inmigrantes was
established, where recent immigrants could stay free of charge for five days as they
searched for means to live. In 1913, a British diplomat named James Bryce said Buenos
Aires is something between Paris and New York. Everybody seems to have money, and to
like spending it (Politi).
While beginning to delve into basic groups of immigrants, one peculiar group
sticks out, the Jewish. Argentina is home to the largest Jewish population of any Spanish
nation, and furthermore, arguably the 4th or 5th largest population (depending on the year,
as there are changes) of Jews worldwide. Much like the large Jewish groups that
immigrated into New York City, these people started with nothing, and worked their way
up over a century or so to being some of the most influential and culturally powerful in

all of Buenos Aires (Foster 132). This being said, the Jewish population here is not
exempt from the rampant anti-Semitism that is seen across the world during the 20th
century (Foster 133). The Jewish population (also quite paralleled to similar tendencies in
the United States) had a penchant towards the media industries of radio, television and
movies. Because old Christian money saw this industry as below them, the Jewish people
were able to get a major foothold on the blossoming industries without fear of
competition (Foster 132). The Jews in Argentina were so bountiful in their impact on
culture that it is estimated that of all Latin American Jewish works, 60% come from
Argentina (Foster 134).
The biggest migrant group for the period is the Italians. Around 2,750,000 Italians
moved to Argentina during the period before 1914. Many of who went directly to Buenos
Aires. One of the lasting effects the Italians had was an impact on language. Direct Italian
immigrants had an easy time assimilating into the Argentine masses because the language
barrier wasnt as severe as other immigrants because of the similarities between the two
languages (Foster 39). The fact that the Italians could speak their own language, and yet
be generally and basically understood by the Spanish speakers naturally says that these
immigrants didnt make as severe an effort to learn Spanish. Through this, a certain
combination of the two, which is neither a dialect of each other, nor a freestanding,
definable language, was developed. Cocoliche is the name given to the combination of
Italian and Spanish that the immigrants spoke as a result of unwillingness to learn
Spanish fully (Foster 39). Also, another Spanish dialect called lunfardo exists in the slum
areas of Buenos Aires. This rougher dialect of Spanish is not traced directly back to the
immigrants as cocoliche is, but instead it spawned from Italians knowing both Spanish

and Italian, and adding an Italian inflection to the Spanish spoken all around them (Foster
Buenos Aires today is described by one current resident form London as a place
where people come to figure their lives outyou can pretend you are in Europe for one
quarter of the cost, (Politi). In the early 1990s Argentina took their peso and secured it
against the American dollar. Their aim was to set anti-inflammatory measures, which
backfired as the same measure actually limited the economy and tethered it to foreign
standards. American inflation happened subtly in the 1990s, and because of the tie the
nation made between the peso and the dollar, coupled with the fact that Argentine labor
laws do not allow companies to reduce production costs drastically, inflation reached
peak as the value of the peso plummeted; this onset depression (Tendencias).
Foreigners saw this not as the true economic crises that it was, but as opportunity
to gain from the weakened peso. The exchange rate was so good from other currencies
that in 2001 when the Argentine economy collapsed, immigrants swept into the country
to seize the opportunity of living in a first world, culturally advanced city for a fraction of
the cost to them (Politi). To give perspective, at the time just before the collapse, the
healthy peso exchanged at a rate of 1.8 against the dollar. Right after the fall of the
economy, it hiked to as high as 3.8 or 4, and continued to fluctuate (Tendencias). Even
now, after the economic strife in America where the dollar is considered very weak, the
exchange rate to the Argentine peso is as high as 4.27 ( So
many foreign migrants came in fact, that the government actually had to tighten its
allowances on immigration (The Economist).

This economic strife did not prove fatal for Buenos Aires though. Quite the
contrary, it enlivened its spirit of European flare that had been diminishing as the
immigrants did post World War II. The tourism industry saw a massive increase, with
2008 visitors to Buenos Aires totaling 2.5 million, up six fold from the 2001 number. As
reflected in the tourism numbers, immigration from countries outside of South America
boomed. An immigrant could bring a small amount of money from their home country,
and get two or three times the worth out of the devastated peso. There had been a drop off
in international immigration into Buenos Aires after the war, and the turn around caused
by the economic downturn was so vast that one woman, Wendy Gosselin from Michigan,
that Politi interviewed said When I moved [to Buenos Aires], you had to learn how to
speak Spanish, now you go into a restaurant and everyones speaking English. This
phenomena gets further detailed as Politi further describes this in his journal: people
have begun comparing [Buenos Aires] to the Paris of the 1920s, emblematic as the place
where artists, intellectuals, and others from around the world pursued their passions,
through this description a sentiment of youth and vigor is portrayed through bleak
economic standing; vigor experienced by the foreign migrant. The same era of post
World War II downturn, and subsequent opportunity for foreign immigrants is starkly
contrasted in the details of migrant workers from the surrounding nations, particularly
Per and Bolivia.
Recent trends of the past 50-60 years (before the time detailed in the previous
paragraph), when foreign immigration dropped off, show patterns lending towards more
inter-South American migration, and more trends of urbanization from the southern
stretches of the nation. Accounts have been described as a long line of Andean Indian

[peoples] (The Economist) waiting to photocopy and process documents outside the
National Immigration Office. These people are migrants not from Europe, but instead
from Bolivia and Per that have come to work in the Metropolitan area of Buenos Aires.
During the period of 1960-1970, 217,000 people immigrated to Argentina, and
70% of them moved directly to the greater Buenos Aires area (Marshall 489). Today, the
sign outside of the door of the Nation Immigration Office states, In todays Argentina,
only those who want to be undocumented will be, (The Economist) which shows the
stress the Argentine government still has in accepting foreign workers. In 2006, Argentina
issued over 350,000 residence visas, the majority of which went to these migrants from
Per and Bolivia, which was eight times the amount that were issued the year before in
2005 (The Economist).
One goal of Argentinas lenient immigration policies is to get these migrants to
pay taxes in exchange for government labor protection, and other citizen rights. Two
thirds of the migrants work informally in the system. Because they are uneducated as a
whole, they end up performing many odd jobs such as being a nanny, house cleaner, or
busboy that are unskilled (The Economist). These jobs are unfavorable to the average
citizen of Buenos Aires, so the migrants easily assume these roles, with generically lesser
wages because of illegal status. With the surge of migrants as well as the push by the
government to get them officially on the books, the unemployment rate in the nation has
fallen from 20% to 10% since 2003 (The Economist).
This great upswing in foreign migration or workers into Argentina accomplished
two major feats economically. The first is that all of the new labor force aided in breaking

trends of local labor deficits, and by bringing many of the rural citizens towards urban
areas, mainly Buenos Aires (Marshall 490). Further, many migrants from other countries
moved into the very places left behind when Argentines moved into Buenos Aires and
urbanized. The foreign workers also aided in populating areas that were never really
populated to begin with, and subsequently bringing labor there, which led to vast
development (Marshall). These very workers that swept in (in the same period, 19601970) accounted for 14% of the labor force in the entire nation, and the statistic boosts to
20% when changing the scope to Buenos Aires alone (Marshall 491).
These people didnt move in from their other Latino nations to be lazy, instead the
population of migrant workers was on average 18% more economically active than the
juxtaposed native citizen (Marshall 492). Migrant males dominated the construction
sector percentage wise, and this pattern was seen across the board in jobs that constituted
as manual labor. Evidence of Bolivian males especially surfaces in accordance with this,
most of them joined the labor force as unskilled construction laborers, and then advanced
after time to more skilled jobs (Marshall 497). Females characteristically worked in
manufacturing or service, such that 68.7% of all migrant woman worked somehow with
clothing, whether it be with textiles, manufacturing, sales, or service.
Buenos Aires is a swirl of culture, people, language, art, and history. Noting the
patterns of immigration is vital to the discovery of how it came to be this way. From the
effects the original Spanish and British powers had on the blossoming nation, to the Jews
writing plays and movies, to the migrants from Per filling in holes in the manual labor
force, the immigrants of Buenos Aires, and all of Argentina, give a paradoxical national

identity of difference. It is in this that Buenos Aires thrives year after year and remains
today one of the worlds leading cities.