Italian Argentines: Distant Yet Close Relatives

A long history binding the Old World to the New one

A long history binding the Old World to the New one

On 27 October center-left politician Alberto Fernandez was elected the new president of Argentina with 48% of votes, after roughly 12 years of Kirchnerism ruling the South American country. The moderate Peronist reached many different layers of society with a program focused on welfare and lower classes, operating in line with former president Mauricio Macri’s political tradition, but without its most radical aspects.

Regardless the outcome, the 2019 Argentine general election was followed with much interest by Italian media. As a matter of fact, Italy and Argentina share a long history – and, sometimes, we tend to forget that.

The bond between these two nations is so strong that Italian Argentines could vote for our general elections, following the 2003 abroad voting system reform. Technically speaking, the Italian Constitution already recognizes such right, but the Tremaglia Law made that actually possible by establishing a foreign district.

Are we really that far apart?

“Here we are, do you hear us from there? In this never-ending background we are impressionist shadows,” sang Genoese pop singer Ivano Fossati back in 1990. In his Italiani d’Argentina song, the songwriter imagined an expat’s nostalgia for his homeland – in this case, it being Italy.

The protagonist of the lyrics is an Italian in Argentina. Back in 1920 (and before then, but I’ll touch that later on) many Italians of the Northwestern regions moved away from the poor countryside, looking for a better life in a new place, one of them being the Latin American country.

Like many other Piedmontese and Ligurian people, I myself have actually some relatives there, whom I’ve unfortunately never met. When I was younger I often wondered how they were: the only stereotype I could think of was the Italian American one, which, in time I discovered is far from what they actually are.

From 1880 to 1945: escaping poverty

Italians have been migrating to Argentina since 1880. Most of them came from the North, in particular from Liguria and Piedmont. The immigration phenomenon brought together individuals with different backgrounds, as both middle-class and poor people tried to reach Buenos Aires’ shores by traveling on the same boat.

It was quite common for a migrant to work for a compatriot who arrived in the new country earlier in time. Our fellow countrymen imported in Argentina many things: cows, knowledge, business, and (alas!) stereotypical territorial differences.

Northern Italy immigrants kept their intolerance towards Southern Italians – the Terroni, as they were and still are called. For example, the Argentinian government prioritized the first group over the second one: the North of Italy was quite richer than the South, and traditionally the former was more focused on running small businesses; on the other hand, Southern Italy had a manorial economy, which was based on great landlords owning the land.

As a consequence of the Questione Meridionale, the Southern Issue, most of the citizens inhabiting the South of the Peninsula were farmworkers, and once they arrived in Argentina, former Northern Italians hired them as roustabouts. That relationship slightly changed when, in 1882, the Argentine government decided to hand 25 hectares of land to cultivate to each family who made of the country their new home.

It is currently estimated that nearly 40% of Argentines have Italian origins, and said migrations are responsible for such genetic and cultural heritage.

The 2001 economic crisis and the migration back to Europe

The troublesome political history of the South American country reversed everything that happened throughout the decades: from the Peron government to the military dictatorship, Argentina’s political landscape had a deep impact on its economy.

Keeping that in mind, one of the nation’s lowest moments was the 2001 economic and financial crisis. Initially, because of the lack of liquid assets, Argentine counties invested in BONDs and other government securities, which increased the problems in the long run. After a while, all the bank accounts were blocked and people rioted in the streets.

The matter is that complex that I suggest reading American weekly news magazine Time’s article on the topic, “Argentina’s Crisis Explained”. That crisis, obviously, affected a big part of the Italian Argentines. So, in order to escape social turmoil as well as the collapsing economy, nearly 800.000 European Argentines, including 150.000 Italian Argentines, moved back to Europe thanks to the set of rights provided by the ius sanguinis

The distance is [as big as the] Atlantic. The memory bad and near. And no tango will we ever enjoy. Ahi, there’s so much sea [between us].

These are the final verses of Ivano Fossati’s aforementioned song, and probably such heartfelt words reflect the feelings of both Italians living in South America and Argentines in Italy: both groups miss their homeland and turn their thoughts to it, as they reside in a new place somehow familiar, yet, so different.