BUENOS AIRES AS ARGENTINA?
Argentina is a country of two parts. Buenos Aires – the sprawling capital city and its suburbs, playing home to a third of the country’s total population of 40 million – and the rest of the country, dubbed ‘the interior’ by porteños(Buenos Aires inhabitants). This myth leads to the idea that Buenos Aires is the ‘Paris of the South’ and to the confusion that visitors are, in fact, in Europe.
No matter how chic Recoleta may be, chic Palermo is or boho San Telmo seems, don’t be fooled. You are in Latin America, and this country has the same problems, and wonderful aspects, as its neighbours. Just sometimes with a slightly different façade.
Considered a country of immigrants, most Argentines are descended from colonial-era settlers, and of late 19th and early 20th century immigration from Europe. Whilst the majority of immigration came from Spain and Italy, a large portion of the current populace have heritage from other parts of Europe – particularly Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe.
A large portion of the inhabitants are of ‘mestizo‘ or mixed race (56%), and some 600,000 are of full indigenous blood, making up nearly 2% of Argentina’s total population, and 25% of the rural population. This tiny portion of the populace are descended from the 30 indigenous nations that pre-existed Argentina – some for 6-8000 years.
Many of the indigenous were wiped out in brutal ‘civilisation’ campaigns, most notoriously Roca’s Desert Campaign of the 1860s, or were sent to the front lines in the independence wars. A similar fate fell to the blacks who were brought to Argentina during the slave trade, leading to the idea that Argentina is a white country of European descent, something that was taught as official history until the 1990s when the Constitution was changed to include Article 75, recognising the ‘pre-existence’ of indigenous communities, finally ending the idea that the Spanish had conquered an empty country.
In recent years, the population make up of the country has changed dramatically – mass urbanisation has occurred as agro-industry has taken over the countryside and investment has waned in the railway network. As a result, ghost towns have sprung up around the country where the railway no longer goes. This, combined with deforestation for mass agriculture and the planting of (often GM) soya has led many rural communities to be abandoned and mass migration to the cities has occurred. Those leaving rural poverty often don’t find conditions much better in the cities, where the infrastructure can not cope with the numbers arriving, and there is a huge housing deficit.
Spanish is the official language of Argentina, but if you learnt your español in Spain, don’t be surprised if you have problems adjusting to the very distinct castellano spoken in the country. With strong roots in the large Italian influence the nation has combined with a form of slang called ‘lunfardo‘ as well as a very distinct accent, it can take a while to tune your ear. The accent of porteñosactually has more links to Neapolitan dialect of Italian than Spanish itself.
Many of the indigenous languages have died out – when the first Spaniard sailed up the Río de la Plata, 35 languages were spoken in the territory that is now Argentina – today just 15 remain, from six very distinct language groups.
In scattered communities around Argentina, people are still telling jokes, arguing, and making love in Mapudungun, Tehuelche, Vilela, Toba, Pilagá, Mocobí, Chulupí, Chorote, Wichi, Mbya, Tapiete, Quichua Santagueño, Guaraní-Correntino, Guaraní, and Chiriguano.
The official religion of Argentina is Catholic, with 92% of the population feeling an affiliation to the religion. Presidents actually have to be Catholic to stand, and Carlos Menem, who ruled from 1989-99, converted to the religion to become president. The capital may appear very liberal, but certain sectors of the society remain particularly conservative, something that rises to the surface on occasions, with issues like abortion and gay unions being particularly polemic. Divorce was, in fact, illegal until 1989, and the the Church retains a strong influence on policy in some areas.
Much of Buenos Aires is more liberal, and the city is regularly voted best gay international destination, but it is again a case of one rule for the capital and another for the rest of the country.
Argentina also has the largest Jewish population in Latin America with 300,000, and Buenos Aires has the highest population density of Jews in the world behind Israel and New York. The community was the victim of two attacks in the 1990s – in 1992 the Israeli embassy was bombed in an attack that killed 29. This was followed two years later by the bombing of AMIA, a Jewish centre, where a further 85 people lost their lives. Nobody has as yet been brought to justice for these attacks.
There is also a large Muslim community of an estimated half a million, although its presence is less felt than that of the Jewish community. Although Menem, who converted from the religion to Catholicim, was behind the building of Latin America’s largest mosque, which can be found in Palermo.
LEGACY OF ECONOMIC CRISIS
The economic crisis of 2001/2 had many affects on the country, some more visible than others.
One visible result of the problems of a decade ago is the cartoneros, the people who live off recycling, sifting through the rubbish on a daily basis to separate recyclables from regular trash, to then sell it on to either a recycling company or a middle man. Their job begins as most are going home, and it is a hard, physically exhausting task. They earn anything from $200-600 a month for their efforts, and are the only recycling service that exists in the capital.
A second phenomenon is the cooperative movement. After the crash, many industries were in serious problems, and factories closed their doors overnight, leaving workers with no final pay cheque or explanation as to what had happened. Many of these workers, after a time unemployed with little State help, regrouped and formed cooperatives with the idea that factories can be run without owners. They took the buildings back over and got production on its feet again under joint management, often investing their own money to buy machinery. In many cases, once the production was profit-making again, years later the owner would resurface and demand the factory back. Many of these cases have gone to tribunals, and in 2009 the first cooperative legally gained ownership of their factory.
The populace was also affected in terms of distrust – many people who had been law-abiding, tax-paying citizens found their government was unable to help them in their time of crisis, and the result is a level of cynicism towards the ‘system’. There is a large black economy as a result, and much tax evasion goes on, as well as wages being paid under the table in cash. Many people don’t have bank accounts, preferring to work in this cash-based economy, as the credit bubble and debt were part of the cause of the problem.
Partially as a result of the economic problems of recent decades, public services, from education to the health system, have not been modernised in the past 50 years, and, whilst the staff are more than qualified, there are few resources. Public hospitals and educational institutes are quite literally falling down due to under-investment, and it is often only the lower echelons of society who use the public services. Private options do exist, and are affordable, leaving a near underclass to deal with the decrepit public system.
Many people visiting comment on how political Argentines are – how they have an opinion on everything and are not shy about sharing it. This makes for an interesting experience – conversations can be triggered from the smallest of interactions – everyone has a story of the taxi driver or waiter who kept them talking for hours about something.
But ask anyone to describe an Argentine and two words often come up: ‘arrogant’ and ‘vain’. Again, this is possibly people confusing Argentines for people from Buenos Aires, as the average porteño has a complex combination of this arrogance, as it often goes hand it hand with a high level of insecurity: everybody is in therapy – and not at all shy about it. Unlike in other places around the world, where there is a stigma attached to the idea of seeking psychological help, here it is seen as being entirely normal for the middle classes upwards. And this goes hand in hand with the normality of aesthetic procedures – most medical insurers cover one aesthetic treatment a year.
This complex juxtaposition of arrogance and insecurity is often joked about, and Argentines say it helps explain how tango was born here. The melancholic music and lyrics go hand in hand with a passionate populace debating, arguing and crying with a good malbec.
Women are unlikely to experience any particular problems in Argentina though they may well receive plenty of male attention. Clearly defined male-female roles do exist, although the country is not perhaps as ‘machista’ as some of its northern neighbours. Women have a high level of education and the glass ceiling has well and truly disappeared, although there are still often disparities in levels of pay, as men are still seen to be the breadwinners.
Men are charming and polite, will let women get on the bus first, take a seat if one becomes available and hold doors open; but if women can not get involved in making the asado. At such social gatherings people often split into male and female groups, with conversations fitting of the gender stereotype – men talk football and women fashion.
Women in Argentina look after their appearance and are generally fairly feminine in their appearance with long swathes of hair, whose upkeep entails regular visits to the hairdresser, and perfect fingernails. This leads to many ‘piropos‘, cat-calls and whistling off men, whatever age, to any female of near-breeding age. Many Argentine women profess to enjoy receiving such attention; few find them offensive. This level of aesthetic care also adds pressure to some – Argentina ranks highly on a global scale for both levels of plastic surgery and eating disorders in the country.
Argentine women tend to play hard to get, and there are lots of games in the courting process, so accepting a drink right off may be viewed as being ‘easy’ and it could be hard to get rid of someone. As a result, the men are fairly persistent – and sometimes like to take on the role of a protagonist in a tango song, pursuing in the most outlandish romantic ways, and playing the tragi-hero in their pursuit. It is best to be clear from the beginning as to where any potential relationship is going, to save confusion down the line.