A sea of flags ripples through Rosario’s Parque Nacional a la Bandera. Set on the shore of the Paraná River, the park pays homage to the Argentine flag in the city of its birth. The blue and white glow emitted by the looming national flag memorial illuminates the scene, providing the backdrop to Rosario’s biggest annual festival: ‘El Encuentro y Fiesta de las Colectividades’.
The festival is a celebration of the diverse customs of the city’s many established immigrant communities. Spread over ten days each spring, locally the event is known simply as ‘las Colectividades’. Despite taking place throughout the country, the festival has become most deep rooted in Rosarian tradition. On 6th November, the city reverberated with an eruption of live music and fireworks, signalling the beginning of the 25th anniversary of las Colectividades, and ten days of art, performance and gastronomy from around the world.
A Nation of Immigrants
Juan Nyffenegger is one of the key organisers of the festival. He asserts: “Rosario is a city of immigrants. There are people here from all over the world. Not only are we rejoicing in what this has given us, but we are also presenting this rich culture to people from outside.” Indeed, each year the festival attracts thousands of visitors to Santa Fe province, both from Argentina and from around the world. “This is the most important time in Rosario’s tourist calendar, because immigration really is at the heart of our historical appeal.”Forged by centuries of immigration, the development of Rosario’s voluminous cultural archive is microcosmic of the entire country. The complexion of contemporary Argentina is the direct result of the waves of immigration that have characterised its history. Aside from 16th century Spanish colonisation, Argentina’s most significant influx of settlers arrived from Europe – mainly from Spain and Italy – coinciding with the definitive constitution of the state in 1880.
Argentine rulers intended the country to welcome productive immigration, albeit selectively; and Article 25 of the 1853 Constitution reads: ‘The Federal Government will encourage European immigration, and it will not restrict, limit or burden with any taxes the entrance into Argentine territory for foreigners who come with the goal of working the land, improving the industries and teaching the sciences and the arts.’
Bienvenido a Buenos Aires!
This sense of hospitality was charted in a documented account of one immigrant’s arrival to Argentina. He writes: “We were taken to the Immigrants’ Hotel. It was like an oasis…we started seeing the reality of this promised land…it worked as the link between the tragic and the known that was left behind, and the new and the unknown that was ahead of us…”Housed in the original ‘Hotel de los Inmigrantes’, Argentina’s Museo Nacional de Inmigración pays tribute to the men and women whose diverse backgrounds shaped the cultures and customs of the country. The hotel opened its doors to Argentina’s new arrivals in 1911, providing free accommodation and health care for their first five days in the country, whilst assisting with finding housing and work. The main museum space is situated in the building’s dining room, which now exhibits photographs, artefacts and original furniture from its time as a hotel.
The museum is tucked away behind the city’s current immigration office. It does not dwell on illegalities or the problematic documentation issues that habitually surround the subject of migration in contemporary society. Rather, it displays in glass cabinets an array of passports from around the world, emphasising the host of nations and cultures that have contributed to the country’s formation. The museum proclaims its dedication “to all the people of the world who sought a place on Argentine land.”
A kaleidoscopic cultural collection
It is clear that Argentina encouraged and valued the waves of immigrants who formed the blueprint of its heritage and who garnished its sumptuous culture. The late 20th and early 21st centuries saw the arrival of economic migrants from Korea, China, Latin America and Eastern Europe. With them, they brought a wealth of new traditions, settling in many of the country’s urban centres.
At the festival, 38 different immigrant communities set up tents, kiosks and stages. They devote their space to selling typical food and drink, exhibiting photographs and local crafts, and showcasing the performing arts of their homelands. The president of the organising committee, Lydia del Grosso, champions the strength of each colectividad. She maintains that “every group is passionate about their heritage. It is this honour and pride which cultivates the identity of Santa Fe, and the essence of the festival.”
Passed down…However, although the range of cultural offerings was spectacularly diverse, it was striking that there was little variation in physical appearance amongst the representatives of each community. Ernesto works at the festival as a food vendor on behalf of the Sociedad Polonesa de Rosario. He states: “To be honest, most of the people here have never set foot in the countries of their ancestors. I am of Polish origin, but I am most definitely Argentine.”
As he dampens the flames licking at the keilbasa (Polish sausage) sizzling on his grill, he explains that despite the four or five generations separating many Argentines from their families’ roots, there is nonetheless a strong sense of tradition within each colectividad. “We are celebrating the fact that these songs, dances and recipes have been passed down, and we never lose sight of where they came from.”
Furthermore, as these traditions are perpetuated, they also diffuse through the society in which they are embedded. After performing a typical dance in national dress with the ‘Casa Paraguaya de Rosario’, 12-year-old Franco tells me that not a single member of his family is from Paraguay. He joined the group because some of his friends were members and he wanted to be a part of what they did there. Franco expressed a genuine interest in the customs of the Paraguayan community around him. Jorge Luis Borges identified this curiosity in Argentines, noting how “throughout their history, they explored, appropriated and adapted to the cultures of the immigrants who composed their society”.
Culture is not an organically unified or traditionally continuous entity, but rather an ever-changing process. Walking through the Parque Nacional a la Bandera, you are not bearing witness to pure, undiluted strains of the customs of each colectividad. Rather, in accordance with the festival’s name, the abundance of food, drink, art and performance should be perceived as a collective: an intricate whole, compiled of a myriad of cultures which have developed and fused over time. You are bearing witness to the multiplicity that conceived Argentina.
El Encuentro y Fiesta de las Colectividades takes place every year in November. It is held in Rosario’s Parque Nacional a la Bandera, Santa Fe province. Entrance is free, and for more information, visit www.encuentrodecolectividades.com
The Museo Nacional de Inmigración is situated on Av. Antártida Argentina 1355, Edificio 6. Entrance is free and you can arrange a guided tour. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.Argentina’s immigrant make-up
In the first half of the twentieth century, large numbers of Europeans migrated to Argentina. Leaving Spain, Italy, France, Wales, Germany, Russia and Poland, many established homes in a rich and vast land full of possibilities. The Argentine government sought to integrate the country in the European market, and to adopt the manual labour of the European settlers, primarily in the agricultural sector.
European immigration had an impact on the rapid urbanisation of Argentina, as well as the distinct accent of its inhabitants, and their lighter complexions in comparison to the rest of Latin America.
Also notable was the arrival of Jewish immigrants escaping persecution. The total population of Argentina rose from 4 million in 1895 to 7.9 million in 1914, as the country became home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world.
The last three decades of the century started to bring new immigrants from neighbouring countries like Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay, whose economic conditions pushed their citizens to look for a better lifestyle in the region. Many immigrants also arrived from Korea, Japan and later, the Ukraine.
Today, a good deal of immigration goes undocumented, and the authorities cannot be certain of the exact figures concerning the country’s ethnic make-up. According to official records, the top eight countries of origin of Argentina’s foreign-born population are Paraguay, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Brazil, Italy and Spain.