Friday, April 29, 2005

The roots thing (II)....

"But, you don't look Latino?" (usually accompanied with a look of confusion and slight intrigue).

I've had this reaction countless times as a white Latino living in the far north.

The predictability of this encounter is understandable given that relatively few Argentines migrate, and rarely do so to
Canada. Moreover, most of the migration to the north comes from other Latino countries, whose people are mostly of mixed European and indigenous blood (mestizos).

The need for this clarification brings me back to my first post. I must qualify the idea that I am doing the "roots" thing in
Argentina. Buenos Aires is the birthplace of both my parents and where my four grandparents spent most of their lives. But like most Argentines, I have ancestors who came from all walks of life in Europe to a country that has grown accustomed to ignoring its true roots.

In this sense, Argentina is similar to Canada, the USA, and Australia as they are all ex-colonies that received massive amounts of European immigrants during and following a massive genocide of their First Nations people (but, as I will demonstrate in future blogs, this parallel more or less ends there).

From the turn of the 19th century until WWII, massive waves of Europeans migrated to
Argentina. Some escaped persecution from the Hitler, Franco and Mussolini. Others, ironically, were Nazis that fled justice when they lost the war.

In my case, my mother’'s father fled from Franco during the Spanish civil war because of his socialist ideals and my father’'s parents were Eastern European Jews -– a not-so-accommodating place for them in the 1920s.

For the most part, immigrants were searching for greater economic opportunity which many poorer European regions, such as
Spain's Galicia and Italy's Sicily, couldn't provide.

The impact of Italian immigration is quite unique to Argentina. I often get the feeling that there are more people of Italian ancestry than that of Spanish. Indeed, pastas, pizzas and ice cream are as important to people's diets as juicy cuts of beef (all of which manage to taste better than in Toronto despite its own large Italian population).

Argentina also has to partially thank the Italians for a gold medal in basketball. The 2004 Olympic gold medal game was played between Argentina and Italy. Here are the two rosters (note the overwhelming amount of vowels on both teams):

Team 1: Basile, Bulleri, Soragna, Galanda, Marconato, Radulovic, Pozzecco, Righetti, Rombaldoni, Chiacig, Garri and Coach: Recalcati.

Team 2: Nocioni, Sconochini, Scola, Wolkowyski, Montecchia, Fernández, Ginóbili, Sánchez, Delfino and Coach: Magnano.

For anyone who follows basketball, the Ginobili and Nocioni names reveal Team 2 to be
Argentina's. Otherwise, there are only two Spanish names on Argentina's roster, along with an impossible to pronounce Eastern European name.

Anyways, I started to delve into the race and immigration issue to make the point that compared to the rest of the continent, Argentina is an overwhelmingly white, European country.

I think this reality is essential to understanding the unique sense of cultural superiority found in Argentina.

Most sources I’'ve come across claim that whites make up 97% of the population, while grouping the remaining 3% as mestizos (mixed European and indigenous) and indigenous. However, these numbers distort reality. After having read the Executive Summary of the Human Rights Documentation Center, “Racial Discrimination: The Record of Argentina”, I would probably put these figures at around 85% white, 12% mestizo, and 3% indigenous.

Regardless of which figures are exact, the document makes a critical point about what is essential to understanding Argentinean society: The official figures may overestimate the white population, but they certainly reflect the normative perception that the country is predominantly white.

This illusion is also reflected by the everday use of racist labels which greatly distort the way races are perceived in other societies. The most common example is when people call mestizos “negros” (blacks) and refer to anything vulgar or lower-class, in reference to mestizos, as a “negrada” (no direct translation).

I once half-seriously, half-mockingly asked someone, "“If mestizos are called blacks, then what are blacks called?”" He looked at me like the question came out of left field, and said: "“We don’t have those kind of blacks here."”

Indeed, the general perception of race in Argentina mystifies me in a way that is probably similar to how I must puzzle people back in Canada when I tell them I am from Argentina.

22 Comments:

Blogger Vikrum said...

Diego,

I enjoyed your second post on "the roots thing." However, I disagree with your comment that, "The impact of Italian immigration is quite unique to Argentina."

Many people state that Argentina received the lion’s share of Italian emigrants, but Argentina actually received a lot less Italian immigration than the United States. (I should note that Brazil received almost as many Italian immigrants as Argentina in the late 19th/early 20th centuries).

So what is going on? Why is Argentina considered “Italy in the Americas” while the United States and Brazil are not considered as such?

I think there are a bunch of factors at play:

1. While Argentina received less Italians than other countries, Argentina was always an underpopulated country and therefore the Italians made more of an impact numerically than in more heavily populated countries like the United States and Brazil. In other words, there were so few Argentines before Italian immigration that the Italians naturally made a bigger demographic impact than they could have made in Brazil or the U.S.

2. Many of the Italians that came to Argentina came with the intention of settling and “putting down roots”. In contrast, a sizable portion of the Italians that came to the United States came with the goal of making money and returning to the homeland (similar to many Latino laborers illegally in the United States). Thus one fourth of all Italian immigrants to the U.S. returned to Italy while a greater proportion of Italians in Argentina stayed on. Despite this, the U.S. still retained more Italians than Argentina received.

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_Americans.

3. Perception is often more important than numbers. The United States received more Italians than Argentina (and Brazil received about the same amount as Argentina). Yet the United States and Brazil are not perceived to be “Italian nations”.

This leads me to my point: perception can create “reality”. If Argentines are perceived to be Italians, then they become Italians.

Example: Diego, as you know, the majority of Costa Ricans is not “white.” The majority is obviously mestizo to anyone visiting the country. Yet many Ticos claim they are white (and add that their Nicaraguan neighbors are “indios”).

Costa Rica – both inside and outside of Costa Rica – is perceived as a “white European” country, a veritable “Suiza Centroamericana.” For example, lonelyplanet.com lists Costa Rica’s population as “96% Spanish descent, 2% African descent, 1% indigenous, 1% Chinese.” This simply cannot be true. What about the mestizos? See: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/
central_america/costa_rica/

Another example: The United States is not perceived as a “German country.” But 47 million Americans identified themselves as German American in the most recent census and German culture is very much linked with American culture. In part because German Americans are so well assimilated into the United States, most Americans do not think the U.S. is a “little Germany” – or better said a “giant Germany.”

One more example: Many people do not consider India to be a Muslim country. Many know that the vast majority of Indians are Hindus. But India is the country with the world’s third largest Muslim population with 130 million Muslims (Indonesia being the first and Pakistan being the second).

Last example: Many people think that the majority of the world’s Muslims live in the Arab world. Yet this is not the case at all.

Out of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims, a minority live in the Arab world. The majority live in the non-Arab countries of Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh (which share a total of around 630 million Muslims). See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_by_country

What I am trying to say is that Argentina has achieved a perception of Italianness but Italians also went to places like New York and Sao Paulo in droves. Argentina is not so unique in that sense.

Diego, you wrote that the European perception is at the root of Argentine’s feelings of cultural superiority. I think this is an incomplete explanation. For example, most people in southern Brazil (Paraná, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul) are of European descent (overwhelmingly German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Polish – although not necessarily in that order). When I was in Curitiba, the capital of Paraná, I was one of the darkest people in the city. Yet I did not feel discriminated against.

Some links:

This website claims that Sao Paulo has the greatest number of Italians outside of Italy:

http://txt.estado.com.br/english/italia/italiav.html

This is an excellent link which statistically compares Italian emigration to America, Argentina, and Brazil:

http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/soc/soc237/papers/
cookappendixr.pdf

I’ll end this with a question:

Do you think that being white has facilitated your assimilation into Argentine society? Do you think the Argentines would have opened up to you if you were African? If you were indigenous? Chinese or Sri Lankan?

3:29 AM  
Blogger Juanson said...

Vikrum -

You state that there are more Italians in absolute numbers who came to the US and Brazil, so Argentina is not unique because aren't these countries identified by their "Italianness".

Yet Diego's post was very clear in indicating that it is the impact of Italians that is significant in Argentina, not the absolute number. Hence his statement that "I often get the feeling that there are more people of Italian ancestry than that of Spanish."

Your point about Italians returning to the Italy after coming to the US strengthens rather than refutes Diego's argument. If Italian immigrants had returned to Italy from Argentina, then Argentina would felt less of an impact from Italian immigration.

You then state that perception creates the reality. While we all agree that Costa Ricans have a warped perception of themselves, I do not think that people outside of Costa Rica consider it a white country. When people refer to it as the "Switzerland of Central America," they are usually referring to the commonalities of peace and stability that the two nations have enjoyed, not the relative whiteness of the population. (By the way, the CIA World Factbook lists the following as the racial makeup of CR: white (including mestizo) 94%, black 3%, Amerindian 1%, Chinese 1%, other 1%) I.e., it seems that Lonely Planet left out the term "including mestizo." So I would not say that this reflects a perception from the outside that CR is a white country.

Your arguments about Germans in the US and Muslims in India also reflect percentages rather than absolute numbers. In other words, no one is going to identify the US as a German country because 47 million out of 280 million is not anywhere close to a majority. Same with 130 million Muslims out of 1.1 billion Indians. In such large, diverse countries, such an impact could only be felt on a regional level. (hence Latinos in California, Texas, and Florida, Italians in NYC, Irish in Boston, etc)

Also, I think that the perception that Muslims are mostly found in the Arab world reflects the percentage dominance of Muslims in Arab countries. Hence the percentage dominance of Italian immigrants in Argentina has impacted its cultural identity and in my opinion has influenced its feelings of superiority over neighboring mixed race countries such as Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru.

I do agree with you that perception can lead to a false reality. For example, if perceive that you will be discriminated against, in many cases you will believe that it is so. In sum, I would be very cautious to label southern Brazil or the whole country in general as a hallmark of racial harmony.

6:25 PM  
Blogger Vikrum said...

Christian,

You wrote: "The impact of Italians is significant in Argentina, not the absolute number. Hence his statement that "I often get the feeling that there are more people of Italian ancestry than that of Spanish."

Christian, you must go to the Italian districts in Sao Paulo, the North End in Boston, Little Italy, or the Italian parts of Queens in New York. Or go to the Italian parts of Chicago.

In some parts of Boston (Everett, for example), every second person is Italian American.

You wrote: "Your point about Italians returning to the Italy after coming to the US strengthens rather than refutes Diego's argument. If Italian immigrants had returned to Italy from Argentina, then Argentina would felt less of an impact from Italian immigration."

I take that point back. I rechecked the pdf file on Italian and Spanish emigration to the Americas and it actually shows that the Italian return rate from Argentina was double the return rate from the United States!

The Italian return rate (from Argentina) was 56% in the 1860s, 76% in the 1870s, 53% in the 1890s, and 101% in the 1910s (you can have a return rate greater than 100% if more people leave the country than immigrate within the specific time period). In fact, the average return rate of Italians in America was 25% - which is less than half the average return rate for Argentines (53%). Again, I urge you to see this site:

http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/soc/soc237/papers/
cookappendixr.pdf

In regards to Costa Rica, you are incorrect. Many Americans and Europeans think that Costa Rica is a "white Spanish" nation.

Also you are incorrect in regards to Suiza Centroamericana.

The idea of Suiza Centroamericana is predicated on several powerful claims: Costa Rica is (and always has been) a rural democracy; it is a nation comprised of a large middle class (in contrast to more oligarchic Latin American societies); it is peaceful (in contrast to the violent Central American neighbors); it has a mild mountainous climate; and it has a "white" population. Suiza Centroamericana not only defines Costa Rica but it contrasts the nation from its "darker" and "more violent" neighbors.

When I wrote my undergraduate thesis, I researched the evolution of Suiza Centroamericana and its links to racism. I was stunned.

The phrase was born in the 1860s when a German traveler was in Costa Rica.

I wrote: "In 1863, Wilhelm Marr, a German traveling through Central America, described Costa Rica as a 'paradise comparable with Switzerland.' The climate was described as 'eternal spring,' with 'fresh air from the mountains [like] the Swiss Alps… One could imagine that he is in a Swiss Valley.'"

By the beginning of the twentieth century, "Suiza Centroamericana" was used internationally to promote immigration to CR. Additionally, the upper classes appropriated the phrase and began to perceive themselves as a Swiss nation. This is evidenced in the popular novels and history books of the period.

In the 1960s (until the late 1980s), one of the most popular history books in CR was a volume entitled "El Costarricense" written by Constantino Láscaris (first published in 1962). In the first chapter, Láscaris examines the racial and cultural origins of the Costa Rican people:

"It has been said that the population of Costa Rica is 'white.'… The color of the skin like the beauty of the women shows, in a clear manner, the 'ethnic' affiliation of the population. Additionally, culturally, Costa Rica has found itself totally immersed, all the time, in European trends… The great majority of the [Costa Rican] population is certainly of Spanish ethnic origin…" (Láscaris, 1975, p. 25)

When I was researching, I also found that many Americans had written about Costa Rica as a white nation. A particularly interesting example of this can be found in Donald Lundberg’s Costa Rica (1968), a book written by a professor at the University of Massachusetts with the intention of educating Americans about Costa Rican society and life. Lundberg wrote:

"No one seems to have a sense of inferiority. There is none of the simmering sense of resentment seen in the faces of many people in neighboring countries. An apparent reason for this is the lack of racial discrimination, for there has been a highly homogenous group of people in the country since its settlement. Nearly everyone has been or is a farmer. Most are small farmers, landowners, if only the proprietors of a few acres." (Lundberg, 85)

Despite the claims for whiteness (from foreigners and Costa Ricans alike), we all know that Costa Rica is a mestizo nation.

Finally, by putting (including mestizo) within parenthesis, the CIA World Factbook (which is not always correct) is stating that more or less the population is white. If they wanted to be more specific, they could have separated the white category from the mestizo category - as they do in Mexico, for example.

Christian, of course I realize that my arguments in regards to Germans in the US and Muslims in India reflect absolute numbers, not percentages.

At the same time absolute numbers are important. Yes, there may be "only" 130 million Muslims in India but that still means that there are more than three times as many Indian Muslims as Argentines (or Colombians) in the world. Additionally, any person in India - visitor or Indian - will notice that Islam has made a massive impact on the Indian way of life (just like the British more recently).

Your comment about Islam and the "percentage dominance of Muslims in Arab countries" is testable.

There are non-Arab countries with absolute majorities of Muslims. For example, Afghanistan is 99% Muslim, Indonesia is 90% Muslim, Iran is 99% Muslim, Mauritania is 100% Muslim, Pakistan 97%, Somalia 100%, Tajikistan 95%, Turkey 99%, Bangladesh 88%.

Last I checked, only 15% of Muslims lived in the Arab world (although this stat could be slightly off). My point is that Muslims have overwhelming majorities in many countries outside of the Arabic-speaking world.

Please see:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_by_country

Last thing: I never labeled southern Brazil as a “a hallmark of racial harmony.” I simply said: “I was one of the darkest people in the city. Yet I did not feel discriminated against.” You are taking my words out of context.

Un Abrazo,

Vikrum

2:22 AM  
Blogger Diego said...

Vikrum and Christian,

Thanks for your comments.

Christian, you essentially much made the point I was going to make by qualifying my use of the word "impact" as one of relativity and personal perception. That is, I perceive the Italian presence in Argentina to be proportionally larger than it is elsewhere.

Vikrum, admittedly I didn't make anything resembling an academic argument to support my claim. I was quite anecdotal in my argument as I referred to a basketball team's roster and the availability of tasty Italian food. Nevertheless, thank you for challenging my assertion. It made me think more about the subject and I found all of the data you provided very interesting - particularly the document on Argentine, Italian and Spanish migration patterns.

That being said I still hold the perception that Argentina has the largest proportion of Italian descendants living within its borders. Perhaps only Canada and Australia would have comparable percentages. I may be wrong. Obviously the question of “impact” is a subjective one that hinges upon how one would go upon defining the word.

As to your question:

Do you think that being white has facilitated your assimilation into Argentine society? Do you think the Argentines would have opened up to you if you were African? If you were indigenous? Chinese or Sri Lankan?

I strongly believe that being white has facilitated my assimilation into Argentine society (remember this place is whiter than Canada and the USA, and has recently gone through significant migratory changes coupled with a severe economic crisis after decades of stagnation).

I imagine that I would be treated differently as a visible minority, independent of the level Spanish I were to speak. I highly doubt I would experience overt racism (ie verbal or physical aggression), but I think I would encounter subtle prejudiced behaviours, be it the odd dirty look, overhearing an ignorant comment etc.

Through my visits over recent years, I have found young people increasingly racist in their comments and views towards mestizos, particularly from neighbouring countries. I rarely ever hear these comments from people in my parent's generation. I imagine that recent economic troubles and racial homogeneity have made it very difficult for the last wave of immigrants (Bolivians, Paraguayans, Chileans) to progress economically, thus making it easier to scapegoat them for many social problems, such as crime.

Now, my evidence for these arguments is drawn from personal perception. Similarly, you provided an example of racial harmony you experienced in southern Brazil to argue that my view on the Argentinean superiority complex is incomplete (which admittedly is incomplete, as it is a subject I still have a lot to learn about). Indeed, it's hard to draw broad, accurate conclusions from limited, personal experiences.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

Un abrazo.

5:39 PM  
Blogger Juanson said...

One more thing that is relevant: I am almost certain that the Argentine accent derives from Italian, especially the "sh" sound for ll. Calle, instead of CAH-YEH, is CAH-SHEH.

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