Benjamin Bryce, University of British Columbia
Italians were the largest group of immigrants to Argentina for more than a century, starting in the 1850s. Significant migration continued after the Second World War, and since then, south-north mobility between Argentina and countries in Europe continues on paths worn by Italians a century before. As Argentine statemen actively sought to foster European immigration in the 1850s and 1860s, Italians immediately became the largest group of arrivals. They made up 71 percent all immigrants in the 1860s and were still 45 percent of all new immigrants the country in the decade after 1900.
Table 1. Italian immigration to Argentina, 1857-1955
Italian migration to Argentina before the First World War came from many regions, but the four most common places of origin were Piedmont and Lombardy (both in the north) and Calabria and Sicily (both in the south). This is due largely to the fact that more people were leaving the north earlier on, a time when Argentina – and not the United States – was the main destination for Italian emigrants. Once established and even as southern emigration became more prominent in the 1890s, personal connections and knowledge about Argentina continued to link people who lived near the major port of Genoa to Buenos Aires.
Italian Hospital of Buenos Aires, 1907
Source: Archivo General de la Nación, Buenos Aires, Caja 2567 – Hospitales, varios, item 11492_A.
Just like immigrants of other backgrounds, Italians in Buenos Aires created a range of community institutions. For example, Italians founded Unione e Benevolenza in 1858, a mutual aid society that helped immigrants in need with services and job placement, provided Italians with health care, paid the burial costs of members, and ran a bilingual school. In the 1870s, affluent immigrants also opened an Italian hospital which, like that mutual aid society, provided health care services along ethnic lines. Dozens of Italian-language newspaper opened in the city and elsewhere in the country. Italians and many other immigrants created bilingual schools through the country. In 1916, of the forty-three immigrant-run schools in the Argentine capital, twelve taught in Italian.
Medical Staff at the Italian Hospital of Buenos Aires
Source: Archivo General de la Nación, Buenos Aires, Caja 2567 – Hospitales, varios, item 11498_A.
Italian and other migration to the country was highly masculine, and this imbalance was linked to two family strategies. For those Italians who came to Argentina with the goal of sending money home or returning to Italy with savings accumulated abroad, young, male workers could earn more than women or older people. And for entire families seeking to emigrate, a husband often traveled before the family, and in some of those instances plans changed and the husband returned home. Although that gender imbalance is true, we should not overlook Italian women. For example, in 1914 women were 37 percent of all Italians in Argentina. While male dominant, these data also mean that there were 344,000 Italian women who were seeking work and new lives far from home.
Ladies’ Commission, Unione e Benevolenza, 1907
Source: Archivo General de la Nación, Buenos Aires, Caja 1077 – Sociedad Española de Beneficencia y Unione e Benevolenza, item 66992_A.
Italian nationalists, throughout this period, dreamed up imperialist fantasies about how emigrants could support the geopolitical and economic ambitions of the mother country. Indeed, the United States and Argentina were by far the two most common destination for Italian exports, and migrants’ consumer habits played an important role in creating export marketplaces. In the 1920s, the fascist regime in Italy sought to mobilize diasporic communities to support Italy, but those efforts also exposed the forking paths of ethnic identity and European nationalism. While some enthusiastically supported Benito Mussolini and fascism from afar, others mobilized to stake out a place for political opposition and welcome Italian exiles.
The nationalist aspirations of many immigrant groups and actors in Europe, but especially those of Italians caught the attention of Argentine politicians and bureaucrats. Those pressures from Italy and elsewhere in Europe starting in the 1880s also gave shape and meaning to ideas of the nation in Argentina.
In the decade after the Second World War, another half million Italians came to Argentina. It was only then, as the Argentine economy ceased the ferocious growth that had begun a century before, and as other options closer to home became more attractive (such as West Germany’s guest worker program) that the strong movement of people from Italy to the Río de la Plata slowed.
Nevertheless, that historical mobility continues to play a role in Argentine society today. At the time of a 2016 constitutional referendum in Italy, there were 673,238 Italian citizens in Argentina. Almost all were Argentines who had acquired a European passport through ancestry. Yet those “Italians” are one of many tangible markers of the ongoing connections driven by human mobility.
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