Beneath my blog pen name is an Italian surname with the requisite number of double vowels including a pair of “L’s”. In much of Texas where I now live and anywhere else that Spanish is widely spoken it is rare that these “L’s” are not mispronounced as a “Y”… except during my visit to Buenos Aires. The reason, I suspect, is that nowhere else in the New World except the U.S. has been the destination of more Italian immigrants than Argentina. Cappuccino widely appears on B.A. menus as “Italian Cappuccino,” and in the famed La Recoleta cemetery there is an Italian “neighborhood” of consequence not only because of its sheer size, but because of the many ostentatious monuments that speak to the early prominence and prosperity of Italians in Argentina.
While Argentina’s Italian connection has its nominal roots in Columbus’s discovery of the New World in 1492 and Amerigo Vespucci’s landfall within the following decade, Italian immigration in any significant numbers did not begin until nearly 350 years after Pedro de Mendoza founded Buenos Aires in 1536.
In no other nation do Italian immigrants seem to have had such an immediate and lasting impact. While this is in no small part due to the industry and enterprise that they also amply demonstrated in the U.S., Italians had in Argentina a boost from a unique twist of geo-history. Unlike in Mexico and elsewhere in Hispanic America, Argentina was occupied by no native populations of any size and its pampas geography made ranches a far more important element of rural economy than labor-intensive plantations. The consequence is a distinctive absence of either indigent or African populations as any significant part of Argentina’s ethnography, which accounts in large part for its distinctively European character. This Euro-centricity set a hospitable stage for the arrival of Italians in Argentina beginning with the massive global Italian immigration of the 1880′s that continued for another 40 years.
The prominence of Italians in the Argentine mix also likely contributes to the unique reverence in which Columbus is held here. Elsewhere in Hispanic America where sizeable indigent populations were nearly exterminated by European disease and slave labor, debate now rages about whether Columbus is the first in a long line of Spanish criminals who propagated what we would call today a campaign of ethnic cleansing. As these indigent populations increasingly prevail in the tortoise-and-hare race of assimilation, Argentina may ultimately become one of the few places in Hispanic America that his reputation remains pristine.
Italians in Argentina probably haven’t hurt Argentina’s drive to dynasty as a world soccer powerhouse, either; B.A.’s rabid soccer fans bear a striking resemblance to those in Milan and Naples and it turns out that I share my Italian surname with one of the nation’s winningest soccer coaches.
In combination with a sizeable immigration of Germans that occurred in roughly the same period and Spain’s World War II neutrality, the high mix of Italians in Argentina also likely contributed to pro-Axis sympathies widely held by Argentinians during World War II. But I digress.
As Buenos Aires grew, it spread north and west away from its roots along the river port. In response to epidemics spawned in the low-lying land along the water, its moneyed criolla families left these original B.A. neighborhoods to poor immigrants just as they similarly fled Manhattan’s Lower East Side . The La Boca neighborhood and its El Camionito district were central to the Italian immigrants, where they worked as manual laborers on its port docks and in its meat-packing plants. It was here that tango began as a bawdy, working-class phenomenon that over the years has acquired in its maturity a respectability which has enabled it to become a national trademark known worldwide.
Also as they did in America, Italian immigrants moved to the suburbs as they prospered, and that legacy survives today in the naming of the Palermo district that abuts the La Recoleta/Barrio Norte neighborhoods.
History, it appears, is not as original as we sometimes think.