December 6, 2007

¨The Paris of South America¨

During the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century, Argentina underwent a period of rapid development as a nation politically, socially, and demographically. Its capital, Buenos Aires, stood at the base of these changes, transforming from a colonial port to an economically and culturally robust urban center. Mass immigration during this period brought with it a strong cultural connection to Europe as well as conflictions over the ethnic and national identity of the Argentine.

Some of Argentina’s greatest writers and artists addressed this issue in their work during this time, offering various visions for the future of the nation. A distinct style gradually began to develop in Buenos Aires, influenced not only by the cultural elite, but by the city’s slums and those who inhabited them. Out of the darkest corners of the street arose the tragic rhythm of the tango and the coarse porteño dialect Lunfardo.

Riding an economic swell, the country seemed poised to become the great power of the southern hemisphere and was proclaimed as an example to all Latin American nations. The world economic crisis of 1929 and an ensuing military coup would put an end to these hopes; however, activating a historical chain of events from which Argentina has not yet fully recovered.

The contemporary city of Buenos Aires can only be understood within the context of this golden period of its history. The cultural and structural developments which took place in the city at this time laid the foundations for the porteño identity. This webpage will explore the most significant political, cultural, and economic factors at the turn of the 20th century in order to provide a better understanding of the magnetism, beauty, and contradiction inherent in the city of Buenos Aires.


“Do not fear, then, the confusion of races and tongues. From Babel, from the chaos, there will emerge, some bright, fine day, the South American nationality. Our soil adopts men, it attracts and assimilates them and makes our land theirs.”

- Juan Bautista Aberdi, “Immigration as a Means of Progress”
(translated by Patricia Owen Steiner)

Between the period of 1880-1916, Argentina experienced an immigration boom, doubling its population and forever altering it political, cultural, and physical landscapes. Always in pursuit of development and modernity, the country adopted an open and unrestrictive immigration policy with the hope of attracting Europeans who would carry their customs, politics, and bloodlines to the fledgling nation. The vast majority of the immigrants who arrived in Argentina, attracted by the promise of economic opportunity, were from Southern Europe, mainly Spain and Italy. They brought with them not only their languages, but Roman Catholicism and the Mediterranean political model, which were vastly different than the Northern European Protestantism and politics that the Argentine intellectuals had been most hopeful in attracting.

Most of the immigrants who made the transition from developed nations to open continent were untrained laborers looking for work in the agricultural and industrial areas. Usually from the poorer classes of society, some workers traveled to Argentina seasonally, while others settled permanently. They found work laboring on the docks, construction sites, and railroad helping to provide the infrastructure such profound population increase required. Tradesmen also sought new lives in the country, answering the new demand for occupations such as carpenters, blacksmiths, butchers, tailors, and mechanics. Together these immigrants formed an emergent working class, though it remained unorganized and unable to control its social conditions during the early decades.

The new immigrants usually found that the best employment opportunities were located in the urban centers, particularly Buenos Aires. Their steady flow into the city created vast changes to its structure and appearance. During these years, Buenos Aires changed from a port village to a metropolis. Wide boulevards, open plazas, European architecture, public transportation and the influence of a cultured and intellectual elite transformed the city into “the Paris of South America.” This affluence, however, was not attainable to the immigrant laborers who helped build it. Instead, they lived alongside the luxury in crowded tenement houses where large families inhabited one room. Poor health, child labor, lack of education, crime, and other oppressive social conditions were the daily reality of the urban immigrants.

By the early 20th century, however, over half the population of Argentina was of immigrant origins. A powerful, newly formed middle class gained access to politics when the oligarchic elite could no longer suppress them. Nationalized public education and industrialization gave way to the formation of class consciousness and the political organization of the working class. This crucial development would change the face of Argentine politics indefinitely, just as the fusion of ethnicity and culture during the immigration boom had forever altered the identity of Buenos Aires.

Political Climate

“There slowly emerges a certain unity of political feeling between the metropolis and the rest of the Republic; the multitude that is formed in the capital will have traces of national traits. For it is in this center of Argentina’s circulatory system that blood is refreshed and later sent out to the most humble of the nation’s capillaries.”

-José María Ramos Mejía, “The Modern Crowd”
(translated by Patricia Owen Steiner)

The remarkable social and demographical changes occurring in Buenos Aires due to the mass influx of European immigrants inevitably led to profound political changes at the turn of the 20th century. The identity of the nation was changing as the faces of its citizens became increasingly diverse, leading many intellectuals contemplating what this meant for the future of the Argentine identity. Ideologies emigrated from Europe along with its people, changing Argentine politics indefinitely.

During the 19th century under the influence of Romanticism, Argentine intellectuals attempted to define the strengths and weaknesses of the Argentine character and to devise methods of using immigration to balance the extremes. In their view, the optimal way to advance the nation was to attract Northern European immigrants, who they saw as having the most desirable traits. After 1880, however, the immigration wave crested, washing unprecedented numbers of foreigners, mostly from southern Europe, onto the shores of Buenos Aires.

At this time, Argentine politics were under the control of the oligarchy, a highly educated and progressive elite. For this privileged few, modernization would be achieved through urbanization and public education. Under the principles of the emerging positivist theory, they sought to guide Argentina based on their ideas of national progress rather than on individual wellbeing. Their rule, which lasted until 1916, was secured through political fraud and intimidation tactics carried out by the Autonomous National Party (PAN) and the figure of Julio Roca.

Roca, a positivist leader, ran his government on the idea that political policies could be developed through experimentation and observation. For the positivists, society functioned like a living organism, with the needs of the whole always taking precedence over the needs of the individual. Order and progress were to be maintained above all, even civil rights. During this time, however, Argentina was developing into an economic and political powerhouse, on the verge of becoming one of the great world powers.

Oligarchical rule proved unable to withstand the intense social changes occurring in the 20th century. The increasing number of immigrants led not only to widespread social issues but also to the development of a large middle class. This emerging social sector began to become increasingly dissatisfied with their exclusion from political participation and the blatant fraud occurring under the PAN. A new political party touting social progress and institutional honesty began to form under the young idealist Hipolito Yrigoyen. The Union Civica Radical (UCR) began to develop in the 1890s and by 1910 had grown considerably in influence.

Under their increasing pressure, Congress passed the Saenz Peña Law, ending corrupt voting systems by making voting mandatory (for male citizens) and secret. This law guided the UCR to victory in 1916 with the election of Yrigoyen as the first president chosen by the masses. Under his direction, social reforms and a universal public education system began to take shape. The creation of a uniform curriculum allowed for the dissemination of a shared cultural identity among the diverse population of the capital, thus strengthening the emerging Argentine identity.

Still, Yrigoyen was bound to the landowning elite, who controlled the valuable agricultural exports. The working class, which still found itself facing considerable social ills, began to unite under the ideas of anarchism, socialism, and syndicalism, creating the trade unions which would become powerful political players in the decades to come. Their radical ideas created fear among the conservative elite, igniting a xenophobia not previously witnessed in Buenos Aires. The social unrest of the working class began to activate them not only politically, but culturally, producing some of the most important artistic developments of the city: The tango and Lunfardo.


“Canción maleva, canción de Buenos Aires, hay algo en tus entrañas que vive y que perdura. Canción maleva, lamento de amargura, sonrisa de esperanza, sollozo de pasión. Ese es el tango canción de Buenos Aires, nacido en el suburbio que hoy reina en todo el mundo. Este es el tango que llevo muy profundo clavado en lo más hondo del criollo corazón.”
- La Cancion de Buenos Aires (The Buenos Aires song) 1932,
- Lyrics: Manuel Romero, Translated by: Walter Kane
(“Mischievous song, song of Buenos Aires, there's something in your essence that lives and endures. Mischievous song, moan of bitterness, smile of hope, sob of passion. That is the tango song of Buenos Aires, born in the slum, today it rules all the world. This is the tango that I carry so deep, buried in the depth of the Creole heart.”)

As the intellectual elite debated amongst themselves over the true identity of the Argentine, a cultural phenomenon that would come to define the very essence of the porteño was being conceived in the brothels of the outer barrios. In these illicit dance halls men and women locked their bodies together against the passionate and tortured rhythm of the tango, unknowingly creating a profound and enduring identity out of the city’s most undesirable locations.

A blend of African, Creole, and European elements, the tango reflected the diversity of the immigrant population gathered along the city limits. Its controlled yet aggressive dance steps and mournful lyrics expressed a bitter sorrow and resentment at the economic struggles awaiting immigrants who had come to Argentina in search of a better life. Social mobility was a common theme of tango lyrics, and in the dance’s movements can be read an attempt to exert control in a world where there was little.

Contrary to prevalent beliefs, the tango is not a lover’s dance. In the world of the tango, love is equivalent to suffering and man is fated to endure continuous pain at the hands of callous, traitorous women. The lyrics recount the disillusioned lament of the scorned man, heartbroken and dejected after being left by the woman he loved. Yet, the dance’s choreography seems contradictory, for in the steps can be seen the machismo of the Argentine male. The dance revolves entirely around his dominance. He holds his partner rigidly and advances powerfully, forcing her to submit and recede, making her every move seem under his control. In the tango, the female never makes a move independent of the influence of her partner. It is through the dance that the man can finally dominate the duplicitous temptress who has tormented him.

During the late 19th century, those outside of the slums were scandalized by the overt passion of the tango and viewed it as a vulgar infestation of the lower class. Gradually, however the tango began to infiltrate the upper strata of society as wealthy young men entered the brothels and carried the tango to Europe where it became fashionable in Paris. By the time the 1920s arrived the tango had become a cultural phenomenon, launching figures like Carlos Gardel to international fame and local veneration.

Even today the tango can be found in every part of the city. The porteños consider the tango solely their own possession, an expression of their history that only they can truly understand. For them the tango is not a dance between a man and a woman, it is a solitary dance which they execute together, a willing plunge into suffering. To dance the tango completely is to not only surrender to pain, but to take pleasure in it. It is a solitary journey into the psyche and a means of accepting betrayal; the betrayal of man by woman, of immigrant by false promises, and in what came to grow increasingly in relevance over the coming decades, of citizen by nation.


“Vivirás mientras siga copando la patriada
un táura arrabalero que despreció la yuta,
mientras se haga un escruche sin que salga mancada,
mientras taye la grela de la crencha aceitada,
mientras viva un poeta, un ladrón, y un puta.”
- El Entrerriano Carlos de la Púa

(“You will live as long as there is a sparkle of patriotism
a slum ladies’ man who disdains the police,
as long as he can do his assault without getting caught,
as long as that bitch with the oily hair is the boss,
as long as their lives a poet, a thief, a whore”)

In the quest to uncover a distinctly Argentine identity, a new style of slang was taking form at the turn of the century in the underworld of the Buenos Aires slums. The barrios comprised of conventillos, or tenement houses, were made up of immigrants, the poor working class, and the jobless. Those living inside the conventillos hoped to make it out, and those living outside viewed them as breeding grounds of poverty, crime, and compromised morality. Yet, it was out of these streets that a new distinctly porteño culture began to flourish, one that would eventually creep into even the highest levels of society.

Conceived from the glass shards of the shattered mirror of Argentine ethnicity, Lunfardo was formed through a fusion of distinct languages. Spanish, Italian, English, French, and Romany can be found within this dialect of the streets. Words were also created through the use of metaphor or the concealment of standard language through the rearrangement of syllables. In homage to the language’s origins, the term Lunfardo comes from the word lunfa, meaning “the criminals.”

In truth, Lunfardo is not a language at all. It is a vast collection of slang words relating to the urban environment. Rather than as a complete form of speaking, the jargon is used to compliment standard language stylistically. Most of the words refer to types of criminals or crimes and elements of everyday life. The main purpose of Lunfardo was to provide a exclusively local description of porteño characters and culture. For this reason, the style of speaking began to be viewed as the expression of the Argentine identity that so many intellectuals had been searching for. Some wanted to make Lunfardo the Argentine language, while others began to incorporate it into their literature. The slang began to appear in popular theatre, novels, and poetry, but it found its ideal partner in the music of the tango whose lyrics were meant to be heard not read.

In literary form, writers like Carlos de la Púa (pseudonym, like most Lunfardo poets used, of Carlos Raúl Muñoz del Solar) saw the language as a way to break from the heavy European influence on literature at the time. Their poetry told of the struggles and lifestyle of the popular class rather the elite, considering them to be the authentic Argentines. Through the use of common language these writers hoped to represent the spirit of lower class Buenos Aires in a way that European languages could not. Many literary critics, however, would reject Lunfardo poetry, considering it vulgar and unworthy.

In the end, the Lunfardo lexicon would reach its crescendo before the 1920s. The post WWI generation would use the speech but no new words were added and the meanings of the existing ones began to gradually shift. Though its popularity began to fade as time went on, the language lives on in the tango; the irrepressible rhythm of the porteño streets.


“Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone.”

- Jorge Luis Borges

In the struggle to build a nation politically, culturally, and ethnically, Argentina began to construct a highly respected and influential literary body. During the final decades of the 19th century a new form of literature influenced by folk culture began to permeate the highly European style which saturated the written page. At the same time, the emerging social issues related to population growth and urbanization dominated both narrative writing and the more recent genre of the essay.

During the 1870s, the literary style known as gauchoesque began to emerge in response to the question of Argentine identity. The authors who engaged this style appropriated the figure of the gaucho - mestizo rural workers of the Pampas generally seen as outlaws – as a romantic notion of the Argentine essence. At this point in time, the gauchos, who had been the victims of prejudice and persecution, were mostly an icon of the past. Nevertheless, these authors used their image as a nostalgic view of the Argentine origins.

The most notable example of this genre is most certainly José Hernández’s epic poem, Martin Fierro. Destined to become a national classic, the poem, written in two parts during the 1870s, is narrated through the voice of gaucho Martin Fierro and follows his experiences under the brutality of state repression and his subsequent rejection of civilized life. In the second part of the poem, Martin Fierro reverses his stance, returning to a modernized society and preaching the virtues of law and order. The duality of the poem’s message allowed a variety of social classes and political groups to identify with the work and to find a hero among a world that was previously cast off.

By the end of the 19th century modernism came to the country and with it a debate on who qualified as a true Argentinean writer. Urbanization and modernization led to conflicted feelings on the changes occurring in Buenos Aires ranging from awe to disgust. During the 1920s literary journals began to sprout up around the city trying to cultivate a national style. Differing opinions on the degree of localism necessary in Argentine literature produced a split amongst the decade’s intellectual class.

From the split emerged two schools: The Florida and Boedo groups. The Florida Group, named after its location in an elite neighborhood was the more aristocratic of the two. The influential literary magazines Proa and Martin Fierro (named after the poem) are associated with this group as were its contributors, among them Jorge Luis Borges, Olivero Girondo, and the artist Xul Solar. The members of the Florida Group were influenced by Spanish ultraismo and were concerned with “art for art’s sake.” For them, literature did not have to use the local language to be considered Argentine; the local spirit would emerge organically.

In contrast, the Boedo Group, named after a more common neighborhood, was made up of leftist writers. Influenced by Russian realism, its members believed that art had a social function and sought to democratize literature through the use of popular local language. Nicolas Olivari, the groups founder, would eventually cross over to the Florida Group. In fact, the two groups’ differences were not all that great. Many writers, such as Borges and Roberto Arlt, considered themselves members of both groups.

What both groups did manage to accomplish was the foundation of a literary body that has received worldwide recognition. Borges in particular would go on to create some of the best literature of the century, influencing generations of writers to come and establishing himself and Buenos Aires as cultural icons.

Looking Forward

¨Shadows cannot see themselves in the mirror of the sun¨
- Eva Peron

The varying fragments which make up modern Buenos Aires are a collection of prisms, picking up the alluring city lights and reflecting them outwards. Their dazzling incandescence distracts from a city wrought with contradictions, however. The glittering lights conceal a struggle to keep up with the changes brought on by globalization, and reflections of the future are hazy and uncertain. Yet Buenos Aires is a proud city, a cultural force which has withstood the deterioration of its golden age with its essence intact. Both a reflection of a magnificent past and a mirror into an indeterminate future, the city has not lost its luster, its charm, or its magnetism.

Photography by
Brittany Krupski
The photographs included in this blog are the result of a 4 month trip to Buenos Aires and other areas of Argentina that I made as a student from August to December 2007. They reflect the contemporary city and country as I experienced and perceived them and are meant to compliment the historical and social context that I have learned along the way.

References/Additional Reading
Castro, Donald S.
1988 The Lunfardo Poets: Yacaré and de la Púa. Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 42(1/2):29-44.

DeLaney, Jeane.
1997 National Identity, Nationhood, and Immigration in Argentina: 1810-1930. Stanford Electronic Humanities Review 5(2):1-21.

Grayson, John D.
1964 Lunfardo, Argentina’s Unknown Tongue. Hispania 47(1):66-68.

MacAdam, Alfred. J.
1980 Origins and Narratives. MLN 95(2):424-35.

Nouzeilles, Gabriela and Graciela Montaldo eds.
2002 The Argentine Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Durham: Duke University Press

Taylor, Julie M.
1976 Tango: Theme of Class and Nation. Ethnomusicology 20(2):273-91.

Umphrey, George W.
1918 The Gaucho Poetry of Argentina. Hispania 1(3):144-56.

Velez, Wanda A.
2006 South American Immigration: Argentina. Yale New Haven Teachers Institute. 1.