Immigrant Associations: Integration and Legacies

By Stefanía Cardonetti

In the narrative it presents, the Museum of Immigration identifies four stages: the journey, arrival, integration, and legacies. In this article and based on two photographs from the permanent exhibition “For all the Men of the World” we will focus on a common experience that united migrants of many origins and that shows both their integration and the legacies that their arrival left in Argentina.

Collection of Membership Booklets

This photograph depicts one of the museum’s display cases, and it shows several membership booklets belonging to people of different nationalities. The “Euskal Echea Mutual Aid Society”, the “Galician Hospital”, the “Casa de Galicia”, the “Spanish Beneficence Society”, the “Argentine Jewish Association” are some of the names that can be read on the covers of these booklets. These societies and institutions are of interest for the museum because they are physical traces that reflect the networks of solidarity that immigrants wove over time. For historians, these documents have been valuable sources that allow us to reconstruct different aspects of everyday life.

Once arriving at the port of Buenos Aires, newcomers integrated using a range of available resources. Many of them became enmeshed in what immigration scholars have called “social networks.” Personal relationships reduced the economic, social, and emotional cost of migration; and in many cases they were the determining factor that first encouraged people to immigrate to Argentina and that encouraged them to remain. Through networks based on kinship, friendship, or place of origin, information circulated about the local labor market and about how to decipher the social and cultural dynamics of an unknown society.

Immigrants could join one of many associations that provided a specific service or resource: schools, hospitals, social clubs. The first associations emerged in the mid-nineteenth century. One example of this is the Italian Unione e Benevolenza, which was founded in the late 1850s. A general associational fervor had taken hold by the late nineteenth century, and mutualism was one of the most widespread expressions of this growing associational culture. In exchange for a fee, members enjoyed various benefits such as health coverage or help with job placements. As members, they could also participate in social and cultural activities that provided invaluable spaces for the sociability of newcomers. The booklets depicted above were the proof that that a person was an active, fee-paying member.

Statutes of Several Associations

In addition to carrying out an important social or charitable task, these institutions fulfilled essential functions on a symbolic and emotional level, meeting needs that were also important for people’s integration in a new society. These spaces became a place to recreate both individual and collective identities and that fostered a sense of community. One of the best-known ways that the leaders of these associations encouraged national and regional identities was through consumption patterns linked to food. Many Italians, for example, appealed to cooking and the consumption of certain foods. In this case, it is also notable how this culinary culture transcended the limits of the immigrant community and became a key element in the construction of Argentine culinary culture. For example, pizza, fainá, and tiramisù are all dishes that continue to be found in local restaurants and households.

In this context, it is not difficult to imagine the relief that a person felt when meeting a fellow immigrant at

Festivals organized by one of these associations offered opportunities to meet compatriots. One such example was the annual celebration of Santiago the Apostle, patron saint of Galicia, every July 25, at the Galician Center (Centro Gallego) of Buenos Aires. There, in addition to a religious celebration, people enjoyed traditional dishes, listened to familiar music, and shared concerns.

When recentering these associational cultures, it is clear that those who integrated into the vibrant community life of the associations found refuge in an affective community. These communities eased the difficulties presented by immigration, such as the search for stable employment, the difficulty of mastering the Spanish language, or the nostalgia and sadness of having left behind people and places. Community activities helped immigrants maintain an emotional bond with the past and retain a sense of being Galician, Italian, Jewish, German, and many other things in the cosmopolitanism of Buenos Aires.

Immigrant Associations: Integration and Legacies