How Immigrants Built Argentina, And Why They're Needed Again
The surge in worldwide refugee numbers may be alarming, but for Argentina it should be seen as an opportunity to boost its economy. Much like in the past.
BUENOS AIRES — Humanity has been around for a million years or so, but perhaps only present on the American continent from around 15,000 years ago, when people crossed from Siberia into Alaska and gradually made their way toward the tip of the Southern Cone.
In contrast with other parts of our continent, regions like Chaco, the Pampas and Patagonia, faced food shortages in the early 16th century, which is when the Europeans arrived, though not walking this time, but sailing in ships. The Spanish conquerors who led expeditions to this part of the continent in the early 16th century, Juan Días de Solís and Pedro de Mendoza, found only hunter-gatherers with relatively simple farming techniques, certainly compared to those of the Guaraní 1,000 kilometers to the north, or the agricultural feats of the civilizations of the Andes, Mexico and Central America. In fact, farming developed successfully on the continent, but not in our territory.
Until the creation of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, the economy had its epicenter north of the La Plata river. Potosí, now in Bolivia, was the word's most populous city in the mid 18th century, and the Jesuit missions one of the most successful societies. Both colonial experiences enjoyed sophisticated and diverse food supplies, assured by existing native systems and enriched with complements of wheat and animal proteins brought in from Europe.
But down here, our diet remained monotonous. We had yet to receive the migrants who two centuries later would constitute our peculiar profile in terms of population, farming and diet.
From then on, a narrow strip of land stretching between Santa Fe on the lower Paraná river and Mar del Plata on the Atlantic coast, came to house half the entire Argentine population on just three percent of its territory and in one of the most successful examples anywhere of immigration, diversity and integration.
Colonists thrived in Caseros (now in Buenos Aires), while Esperanza took the lead with its Swiss migrants in the 19th century. Concordia (presently in the province of Entre Ríos) became a wine and olive country, and the big estuary zone a fruit emporium. City farming reached its apotheosis when Dardo Rocha, the late 19th century governor of the Buenos Aires province, and the architect and planner Pedro Benoit, specifically conceived a green belt, a departure from the prudent city planning of colonial times. This alongside the arrival of Italian migrants, assured the city's supply of fresh produce the following century.
UNESCO recently declared Mexican food to be part of the heritage of mankind, while the chef Gastón Acurio is helping Peruvian food challenge France's haute cuisine as a symbol of sophistication. Both come from social, hierarchical and historical environments that far predate the arrival of colonial populations. We, in this somewhat plebeian part of America east of the Andes, had no emperors, slaves or even workers until the globalizing processes of the industrial revolution and European migration. That may be why we have forged our own, particular experiment within humanity. Argentina is as varied and even chaotic in its diet as it is in its population.
In Argentina, we saw the peculiar condition of the ordinary laborer rising to become boss.
Italians, Galicians, Turks, Jews, Poles, Croats, Ukrainians — we all came to Argentina looking for freedom, peace and progress, and escaping misery, injustice and hunger. The Argentine surge was the other side of Europe's failure in the first half of the 20th century, when intolerance and violence became a bad response to the historical need for social evolution.
A statue in Rosario honoring immigrants — Photo: Pablo Flores
There are migrants in all the world's horticultural zones given the role of cheap labor in this sector. Too often, the recently arrived do not succeed in transcending the labor and duties of ordinary workers or laborers. But in Argentina we have seen the peculiar condition of the ordinary laborer rising to become boss or businessman within two decades.
When European migrants stopped coming, their place was taken by our northern compatriots. They crossed the Bermejo and Pilcomayo rivers again, and came to replace the Italians and Galicians whose sons were now doctors, lecturers and designers.
Humanity is currently undergoing one of its refugee waves. Sixty-five million people are migrating after being displaced from their original settings, and some expect this figure to rise exponentially in the near future. We may add to this problem other fundamental, global challenges of our time: knowledge, participation and citizenship, climate change and the environment, cohabitation issues, family and gender relationships, food and health.
While some warped world leaders propose walls and wire fences as a solution, here we might instigate a repetition of that epic and successful period of Argentine history, which assured both general welfare and the benefits of liberty for all those who may wish to come and live in Argentina.
Like Peter Sellers' character Chauncey Gardiner in the 1979 movie Being There, we could issue an invitation "from the garden," and do our share in the collective responsibility. Argentina needs to double its food and farming output, and history has shown that refugees and migrants are a prime means of achieving this.