After my first weeks in Toronto, Canada, I began to yearn for my daily morning mate and went on the search for some sort of Latin grocery store where I could find yerba. To my surprise, I ran into El Almacén, ‘the general store’, a café specialising in yerba mate located in one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Toronto.
“I had noticed that every time I would go into a coffee shop here, people would not speak to one another, they would all be immersed in their laptops or cell phones,” says Silvio Rodriguez, the Argentine-born owner of El Almacén. He opened the store years ago motivated by the idea of introducing the experience of mate drinking to espresso-soaked Toronto. “With the introduction of mate we were trying to bring in the idea of communication. The experience of mate drinking is all about talking and sharing,” he adds.
Rodriguez is just one of many Argentines trying to preserve part of their national culture in faraway lands. Though official, up-to-date statistics are hard to come by, a report released by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in 2009, revealed that more than 800,000 Argentines emigrated after the 2001 economic crisis. Today it is estimated that there are more Argentines spread out all over the world than ever before.
Argentina: A Country of Migrants
Argentina is a country that has been historically marked by international migration, first as a host country for overseas migrants mainly coming from Europe in the 19th and early 20th century, and then after the 1960s, as a source of emigrants to destinations around the world.
Rattled by a series of political and economical crises in recent decades, many middle-class Argentines with higher education saw emigration as a possibility for the social advancement and security they were not attaining in their own country.
Rodriguez left Mendoza in 1980 when he was only six years old to integrate the first generation of Argentines in Canada. Argentina’s difficult political situation at that time together with the alluring job opportunities offered to immigrants, were reasons enough for his parents and grandparents to make the call and move.
Later, during the 1990s, against a backdrop of rising inequality and social exclusion as a result of neoliberal economic policies, migration was also adopted as an alternative of life by a large sector of society. Destinations were diverse, including neighboring, continental and intercontinental countries.
However, it was after the 2001 economic crisis that Argentines moved abroad in greater numbers, desperate to escape the crippling poverty and unemployment in their home country. Around 2% of the population left in the following years, with the main countries of destination Spain (229,009), United States (144,023), and Paraguay (61,649), Chile (59,637).
IOM’s report, called the “Immigration Profile of Argentina” stated that emigration from Argentina is mainly driven by occupational reasons; people of a working age seeking better opportunities in the job market, higher wages, or the chance for social advancement.
Given the country’s volatile history, there has always been a strong conception among many Argentines that career development as something more easily attainable overseas. The population who left are mainly young, professional and in productive and reproductive age, leading to a significant social and economic impact. They are also well educated: the Argentine Consulate in Madrid claims that 35% of Argentines in Spain have university degrees (which differentiate their professional profiles from the rest of immigrants). For the most part, the places they look to settle in usually offer richer work opportunities, in addition to a more developed economy and stable political climate. The idea of making ‘dreams come true’ by leaving the country has long been a part of Argentines’ intricate interpretation of success and goal achievement.
“I left in October 2010, and the reasons were essentially to achieve professional growth and to have the opportunity to live in the city I had always dreamed of,” says Santiago Edelberg, a 31 year-old digital marketer living in London, England. From the wide range of activities the city offers to its security and organisation, London has always been for Edelberg the ideal place to live. “Aside from being the perfect city, the job market here is simply much more stable than back home. Opportunities are endless”.
Another 31-year-old Argentine in London is Sergio Torres, who nine years ago decided to leave his father’s brick factory where he used to work in the city of Mar del Plata to pursue his dream of becoming a professional football player in Europe. “Trying to live from soccer was my dream ever since I was a kid, and I knew it wasn’t going to happen in Argentina”, claims Torres. Today, he is the hero of the English club Crawley Town, the team with which he got the chance to face Manchester United in the FA Cup.
Escaping from the abiding sense of insecurity was another issue several Argentine ex-pats consulted highlighted as one of the high points of leaving the country. “It is priceless to feel safe and sheltered in the place you live,” says Marina Mozzoni a 27-year-old model living in Paris, France.
Torres agrees: “I live very peacefully here. It is such a relief to go out on the streets without thinking that someone is going to kill you to get something from you.”
Being an Argentine Overseas
While flying to new destinations brings Argentine ex-pats hopes of prosperity and realisation, leaving home and loved ones is always tough, especially coming from a culture strongly rooted in family and friends. Maintaining old habits keeps that spirit alive and makes those who left feel closer to home.
Argentines abroad know that tea is not the same as ‘mate‘, caramel is not ‘dulce de leche’, and Sundays might not only be reserved for football and ‘asados’. These are culinary and behavioral habits that make up a big part of the Argentine folklore and are very difficult to replace. They are rituals and traditions that, to a greater or lesser extent, remain with us and define us as Argentines in other parts of the world.
The ritual of mate drinking was what prompted Rodriguez to open his own mate-bar in Toronto. At El Almacén, while Argentine rock legends ‘Soda Stereo’ plays in the background, Rodriguez serves his customers, taking time to educate them in yerba’s secret codes. Although he spent most of his life in Canada, he also preserves some traditional Argentine customs within his household, such as the classic Sunday ‘asado’ while watching River Plate, or eating ‘ñoquis’ (gnocchi) on the 29th of every month.
In London, footballer Torres says Argentine music always has to be playing at his house or in his car. “I listen to Argentine music pretty often in the car, mainly cumbia and local bands from national rock, the music I used to listen to when I was still there, pretty different from the modern bands and electronic stuff my English friends listen around here.”
Adrián Pereyra, a 40-year-old engineer living in Madrid, Spain, every once in a while organises football matches with his Spanish and Argentine friends in his backyard. Afterwards, they talk about politics over Argentine wine and cheese, while he offers to play some popular chacareras—Argentine typical folk music— on his guitar.
These social practices serve as an excuse to meet, eat, drink, talk, and exchange opinions on topics of all sorts. Aside from a generalised bad reputation for being opportunists, Argentines are well-known for their warmth and affection, something that manifests in the act of sharing their everyday habits.
Although this quality works to advantage when adapting to a new community, it might be difficult to come across the same kind of demeanor everywhere. This was the case with Edelberg in London. Even though he claims to be absolutely pleased with the choice made to move two years ago, he admits that when getting involved with the English, he finds they are not as open and sociable as he is used to back home.
However, at least when it comes to the contentious Malvinas/Falkland issue, according to Edelberg, despite all differences, the issue did not hinder in any way his relationships with his local friends: “No one has ever shared with me a strong stance about the islands having to be British. On the contrary, for the most part they don’t seem to identify themselves with their government’s interventions; they perceive them as an unnecessary waste of time and resources. It’s so far removed from people’s everyday life that some even told me the islands should be Argentine.”
Going Back. Just a Thought
The IOM figures, which date from 2009, do not consider the number of Argentines who left the country during the last three years. Nor those who have returned as a result of the global economic crisis that has hit countries like Spain, Italy and the US hard. It is suspected that the trend towards leaving the country via immigration to the United States, Europe and other destinations, has slowed, or even reversed. For example, according to an official study of the Spanish National Statistics Institute (INE), 12,237 Argentines decided to leave Spain in 2010 due to its massive economic crisis.
All the Argentine expats interviewed admitted that they had contemplated the idea of returning to the country at least once. “Being an Argentine is to love my flag, to love my country. It is putting family and friends first,” describes Torres. But how far does that feeling go?
But speculations about Argentina’s future were so uncertain that they eventually ended up putting the decision on hold.
Pereyra concords, claiming that he considered returning a couple of years ago but fears that the country´s economic instability, his disagreements with the current government, and the increasing insecurity would make him want to leave again.
Mozzoni shares a common sentiment: “Of course I tried to go back. I even tried to do it last year but it was clearly not the right time to do it and life dragged me once again into the Old World.”
In recent years, there have been attempts to promote productive development within Argentina in different fields, including the implementation of state policies supporting the promotion of science and technology by increasing the number of resources. In doing so, Argentina hopes to keeps its best minds from seeking work overseas after finishing their education.
But despite important progress, the cohesion between the scientific and educational system with the productive system is still deficient. Until that changes, developed countries will continue to represent the ‘promised land’ for many Argentines who leave with hopes for a better quality of life.