Argentina has celebrated this day as Immigrant’s Day (Día del inmigrante) since 1949 when Juan Perón declared it a national holiday to honor the country’s immigrant heritage. I want to pay particular attention to this holiday this year because this year, especially, the status of immigrants has come into stark relief in the Brexit referendum in the UK, in Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and in national politics throughout Europe and Australia. I am particularly sensitive to this topic because I have lived as an immigrant for almost all of my life.
I was born in Buenos Aires of British parents, so legally I am a natural-born citizen of two nations, Argentina and the United Kingdom, and I carry passports from both. I have spent very little of my life in either country. I grew up in Australia, where I was known as a “migrant” (more usually “pommie bastard”), and worked at a university in New York for almost my entire professional career. Now I live as an immigrant in Italy, having been one in China most recently. Being an immigrant comes naturally to me. Even though I am a citizen of the UK I feel like an immigrant when I visit. Argentina is my home.
I don’t get treated as a foreigner in many countries as long as I don’t open my mouth. When I am going about my business in Mantua, strangers (usually tourists) sometimes come up to me on the street to ask directions, thinking that I am Italian. In China it’s a different story, of course. English-speaking white people of European extraction living abroad like to refer to themselves as “ex-pats” because the term “immigrant” carries a stigma, and tends to conjure up people of color or of non-European heritage. But let’s be honest and call a spade a spade; if you are not living in the country in which you are a natural-born citizen, YOU ARE AN IMMIGRANT.
The nations of the Americas are all nations of immigrants. Argentina happens to be proud of that fact, and uses this day to celebrate its immigrant heritage. To be fair, that heritage has been somewhat checkered. Presidents in the 19th century (particularly Sarmiento) sometimes had racist immigration policies, and slavery was normal for much of the 18th century into the 19th – even though it was gradually phased out after independence in 1812, but then followed by systematic discrimination and covert policies of genocide. The African-Argentine population has declined from a peak of 30% or higher in some regions in the 19th century to a mere 0.37% in the 2010 census.
Since its unification as a country, Argentine rulers intended the country to welcome immigration. Article 25 of the 1853 Constitution reads (in translation):
The Federal Government will encourage European immigration, and it will not restrict, limit or burden with any taxes the entrance into Argentine territory of foreigners who come with the goal of working the land, improving the industries and teach the sciences and the arts.
The Preamble of the Constitution dictates a number of goals (justice, peace, defense, welfare and liberty) that apply “to all people in the world who wish to dwell on Argentine soil.” The Constitution incorporates, along with other influences, the thought of Juan Bautista Alberdi, who expressed his opinion on the matter in succinct terms: “to rule is to populate.”
The legal and organizational precedents of today’s National Migrations Office (Dirección Nacional de Migraciones) can be found in 1825, when Rivadavia created an Immigration Commission. After the Commission was dissolved, the government of Rosas continued to support immigration. Urquiza, under whose sponsorship the Constitution was drawn, encouraged the establishment of agricultural colonies in the Littoral (western Mesopotamia and north-eastern Pampas).
The first law dealing with immigration policies was Law 817 of Immigration and Colonization, of 1876. The General Immigration Office was created in 1898, together with the Hotel de Inmigrantes (Immigrants’ Hotel), in Buenos Aires. The liberal rulers of the late 19th century saw immigration as the chance to bring people from supposedly more civilized, enlightened countries into a sparsely populated land, thus diminishing the influence of aboriginal elements and turning Argentina into a modern society with a dynamic economy. So we have to admit that immigration had racist overtones which continue to this day. The indigenous populations, especially in the North, have suffered decades of oppression. The Qom are the worst example.
In 1902, a Law of Residence (Ley de Residencia) was passed, mandating the expulsion of foreigners who “compromise national security or disturb public order,” and, in 1910, a Law of Social Defense (Ley de Defensa Social) explicitly named ideologies deemed to have such effects. These laws were a reaction by the ruling elite against imported ideas such as labor unionism, anarchism and other forms of popular organization.
The modern National Migrations Office was created by decree on February 4, 1949, under the Technical Secretariat of the Presidency, in order to deal with the new post-war immigration scenario. Perón is infamous for welcoming former Nazis from Germany but he made two things explicit. 1. They were to live in peace and harmony, especially with Jews. He would not tolerate any kind of anti-Semitism. 2. He would not protect them if they were sought and captured by other nations seeking them for legal reasons.
Massive and continued immigration has been experienced all over Argentina (except for the Northwest), made up overwhelmingly of Europeans (90%). Neuquén and Corrientes provinces, however, have had a much smaller European influx but a large South American immigration, mainly from Chile and Brazil, respectively. The Chaco region (in the North) has had a moderate influx from Bolivia and Paraguay as well.
The majority of immigrants, since the 19th century, have come mostly from Italy and Spain. Also notable were Jewish immigrants escaping persecution, giving Argentina the highest Jewish population in Latin America, and the 7th in all the world. The total population of Argentina rose from 4 million in 1895 to 7.9 million in 1914, and to 15.8 million in 1947; during this time the country was settled by 1.5 million Spaniards and 1.4 million Italians, as well as Poles, Russians, French, Germans and Austrians (more than 100,000 each), plus large numbers of Portuguese, Greeks, Ukrainians, Croats, Czechs, Irish, British, Dutch, Scandinavians, as well as people from other European and Middle Eastern countries, prominently Syria and Lebanon. Argentine immigration records also mention immigrants from Australia, South Africa and the United States.
The latest census puts the number of immigrants currently in Argentina at 6.6 million who, thus, constitute around 15% of the population, making Argentina the country with the highest percentage of immigrants in the world. Nowadays there are significant numbers coming from Asia, especially China and Korea, settling mostly in enclaves in Buenos Aires, but notable for their ownership of convenience stores (called “chinos”) throughout the city. There’s a degree of xenophobia about the Chinese, but no one complains about being able to buy a bottle of wine or a pack of cigarettes at 1 am at the local chino.
So here’s my little rant. You’ll find a few pockets of xenophobia in Argentina, of course, but, generally speaking, it is a country of immigrants that welcomes new immigrants all the time, and where they become part of the culture. Ironically, I am not an immigrant in Argentina, although my Spanish has a weird accent and I’ve spent little time there as an adult. Soy Argentino y soy orgulloso. Vivan los inmigrantes!!!
Today is celebrated with a huge festival in Oberá in Misiones province where the Parque de las Naciones celebrates just about every ethnic heritage imaginable. Permanent exhibits include a “village” consisting of house styles from a variety of cultures contributed by those nations.
On my visit there 4 years ago I noticed that there was no British house in evidence – courtesy of mixed feelings that stem currently from the Malvinas War, but which have a long history due to various efforts by the British to invade Argentina in the 19th century. There is also a large hall displaying national costume from numerous countries, and during the immigrant festival there is a gigantic arena of stalls selling food from around the world.
You’ll find every cuisine under the sun in restaurants in Buenos Aires. Indian is becoming increasingly popular although you have to really insist to get anything resembling a chile pepper in your dish because Argentinos cannot tolerate anything spicy. Sushi is a big hit, along with Japanese noodles. I’ve also stumbled on Malay and Greek restaurants.
The one thing you have to hunt for in Buenos Aires’ restaurants is home cooking – what you might think of as local food. You can find it abundantly in the provinces, but not in the city. What you will find is pizza and pasta to drown in.
How do you want to celebrate immigrants today then? I know it’s craven of me not to give a recipe, but I’d suggest trying out the immigrant restaurant of your choice. Turkish is popular in Mantua, so I could give that a try for lunch, although I know that it will be nothing like Turkish food. For you, it’s all going to depend on where you live and which ethnicity is considered an immigrant population in your area.