December 6, 2007


“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.