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.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Buenos Aires' Obelisco Posted by Hello

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The roots thing...

An American friend of mine who's spending time in India with his family inspired me to start a blog. After 20 years of living in Canada it was time for me to do the roots thing as well.

For the past three months I have been in beautiful Buenos Aires spending time with family, working on an interesting project related to education policy and the national debt problem, and enjoying a nightlife that I still can't believe exists. I have also been carefully observing how the country has been slowly dusting itself off from a devastating depression that peaked in 2001.

Since arriving, I constantly search for clues to solve what remains a mystery to me: how can a country that was once considered to be as developed as most Western European countries about 7 decades ago, have gone through a process of under-development that left half of its population in poverty and the other half in constant fear of the poor?

While I am quite familiar with the various economics-centred answers from both ends of the political spectrum, I find them too simplistic and incomplete. In the upcoming months I hope to develop a broader understanding of Argentina's culture, and share with you some deeper insights that I never found in my text books or in news articles.