Ethnic (In)Visibility in Neoliberal Argentina

September 25, 2007

During the 1990s, Argentina’s government and national media repeatedly called attention to a wave of migration that was supposedly flooding the country with new immigrants, a wave comparable in scale to the influx of Europeans at the turn of the previous century. This time, however, the new arrivals were coming from the neighboring countries of Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru. The government celebrated this as a sign that Argentina had entered the “First World.” Germany had its Turks, the United States its Mexicans and Argentina its Bolivians.

But overshadowing the celebration was an official xenophobia that blamed the newcomers for the country’s growing social and economic ills. According to government and media accounts, the torrent of immigrants from nearby countries was causing an explosion in unemployment and crime. The truth was, demographic data disproved the storied jump in immigration rates. The proportion of the population consisting of immigrants from neighboring countries increased by only a fraction of a percent during the 1990s. Between 1991 and 2001, their representation within the total population increased from 2.6% to 2.9%.

Clearly, the fiction of exploding immigration rates was motivated, at least in part, by the need to find a scapegoat for the country’s building economic and social crisis. But the nature of ethnic visibility in Argentina was also changing. In the past “diversity” had been rendered invisible, but by the 1990s difference was increasingly highlighted, or “hyper-visibilized.” This tendency toward ethnicization was partly driven by the organizing efforts of migrants seeking legal status and their attempts to counter negative stereotyping through the celebration of their culture. Immigrants’ heightened visibility elicited alarmist, racist and xenophobic responses across society, even at the level of public pronouncements and policy. In 1995 Foreign Minister Guido Di Tella, warning of an influx of “horrible people,” predicted that “in 2020, 20% of Argentines will be Bolivian or Paraguayan.”1 For Argentine elites, the alleged explosion in migration from bordering nations threatened their image of Argentina as a European redoubt in Latin America.

Specific renditions of Argentina’s national ideology around race and ethnicity have accompanied the country’s social and economic transformations since the 1930s. In the 1940s and 1950s, ethnic and racial differences were subsumed within the political polarization over the populist government in power. With the consolidation of neoliberalism in the 1990s, traditional political identifiers became diluted; social segregation and fragmentation increased; and ethnicity emerged as a meaningful and ideologically expedient social category. The crisis of the neoliberal model, however, seems to have reversed this process of increasing ethnic visibility.

Argentina’s national narrative, like Brazil’s, tells of the country forging its population in a “racial melting pot.” In the Brazilian imaginary, the “races” that mixed were whites, indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants, whereas in Argentina’s, the “races” in the national mix were entirely European. According to this dominant narrative, the only things Argentines descended from were the boats arriving from Europe. Argentina was conceived as a country without “blacks” or “Indians”—a European enclave.

Of course, Argentina has never been culturally, ethnically or racially homogenous. In fact, the country has a proportionately larger indigenous population than Brazil.2 But the portion of the population that would be considered “mestizo” in other Latin American contexts has been subjected to a unique process of “de-ethnicization” in Argentina. Ethnic differences have been removed from public view and political language. And state pressures have made assimilation the only route for ethnically marked persons to attain the full rights of citizenship. Government antidotes against diversity have included the white dustcoat worn over regular clothes by public school children, the prohibition of indigenous languages, universal conscription and restrictions against giving infants names considered too exotic. By shedding ethnic markings, each generation has been promised a greater degree of equal status within strictly defined “Argentine” cultural parameters.

By the 1940s, ethnic identities in Argentina lacked relevance in the national political scene. The myth of homogeneity prevailed and, importantly, the dominant understanding of Argentine social and political reality revolved around the dichotomy of Peronism and anti-Peronism. Social divisions and political identities, that is, were subsumed within the split between those who supported and those who opposed the populist policies of Juan Domingo Perón, who ruled from 1946 to 1955, and again in 1973-1974. The degree of cultural and ethnic homogenization, while concealing differences, did not eliminate racism. Racism in Argentina was simply expressed differently than in other contexts; “blackness” was constructed around characteristics other than the conventional African phenotype. The case of the “cabecitas negras” (“little black-headed ones,” a reference to Argentines from the interior provinces) illustrates this clearly: with the introduction of import substitution industrialization and the associated growth of industrial employment in the 1930s, there was a rural-to-urban migration throughout the country, especially to Buenos Aires. The urban middle and upper classes referred derogatorily to the provincial migrants as cabecitas negras. In Argentina, blackness was then and is still associated with being of lower-class status; in common language to be “poor” is to be “black.”

This form of racism played a role in political discourse for several decades. “Blacks”—in the sense of the poor, the workers, the people from the provinces of indigenous ancestry—were equated politically with Peronism, because of its populist appeal to lower classes.3 For upper and middle classes, “Peronists” were “blacks.”

In this context, immigrants from neighboring countries, particularly Bolivians and Paraguayans, who since the nineteenth century had accounted for less than 3% of the population, were not considered “foreigners.” Rather, they were simply counted as part of the undifferentiated mass of cabecitas negras. Any distinction based on national origin or ethnicity was dissolved within this overarching class identity, though this identity in turn was racially marked with “darkness.”

This conceptualization changed in the 1990s. as neoliberalism transformed the country’s social and economic landscape, ethnic visibility in Argentina also transformed. Official discourse blamed immigrants for the country’s growing social and economic problems, and the national and local governments responded with similarly anti-immigrant initiatives and policies.

Eduardo Duhalde, as governor of the province of Buenos Aires, launched a “Labor Plan” in June 1995 that sought not only to pave roads, but also to crack down on undocumented workers in “defense of Argentine jobs.” The Construction Workers’ Union (UOCRA) echoed the official government line and launched its own xenophobic campaign. According to the union, low salaries, poor working conditions and unemployment were the fault of the bolitas and the paraguas who robbed Argentine workers of their livelihoods. UOCRA asked the government for greater migratory controls and a heavier hand in its dealing with undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, Secretary of Migration Hugo Franco announced that immigrants were responsible for 60% of misdemeanors committed in Buenos Aires—even though statistics showed the correct figure to be only 10%. “Crime in the capital has been taken over by foreigners,” proclaimed Franco. Then-President Carlos Menem, asserted that Argentina would close its doors “to those who come to commit crimes against our country.”

Congress considered legislation for harsher penalties against those who entered the country illegally, sanctions against companies that employed undocumented immigrants, greater resources for enacting deportations and a mandate allowing the executive to establish new criteria and time frames by which to regulate the admission of foreigners. Although the law never passed, similar public pronouncements and policies met with significant public approval. A poll in 1996 found that 81% of Argentines agreed that foreign labor should be strictly limited, 91% felt Argentines were hurt by immigration and half of those polled supported the expulsion of “illegal immigrants.”

The sudden increase in the visibility of these immigrants was not due to any major change in their demographic significance. Instead, it was Argentina’s socioeconomic reality that had changed. The consolidation of the neoliberal model brought with it not only heightened expectations about Argentina’s future, but also contradictions that required rationalizations. Ethnicity had a new role to play in the re-imagining of Argentina under neoliberalism.

Various anthropological studies from the 1990s confirm notable indications of this change in the visibility of ethnicity. Many Argentines began using the term “Bolivian” to refer to not only those born in Bolivia, but also those born in Argentina of Bolivian parents; children who are legally Argentine but socially Bolivian. The progressive loss of ethnic markings across generations, as was traditional in Argentina, thus went into abeyance in the 1990s, marking a new conceptualization of the relationship between ethnicity and national belonging.

However, one can also add to this growing visibility the revealing trend that in many contexts “Bolivian” had become a generic label used to encompass the classifications of “poor” and “black.” Members and fans of the soccer team River Plate, for example, refer to the fan-base of their principal rival, Boca Juniors—the most popular team in the country and traditionally associated with the lower and working classes—as la boliviana. If Bolivians were once absorbed into the category of “the poor,” then during the 1990s the poor were in many contexts, absorbed into the category of “Bolivians.” The shift is significant: the socially excluded became “foreigners.” The elite-driven national myth insisted that the neoliberal model had made Argentina an affluent First World country, meaning that the mass of poor people appearing everywhere could not be Argentines. The national imaginary sought to de-nationalize the negative social consequences of neoliberalism.

Arguably, “Bolivian”—rather than Brazilian, Chilean, Paraguayan or Uruguayan—was used to de-nationalize exclusion because from the perspective of the dominant classes in the capital city, Bolivians occupied the lowest rung on the Argentine ethnic hierarchy. For those who perceive the country as a European enclave, nothing is as evocative of extreme difference as the indigenous “otherness” of a person from the Andean altiplano (highlands). In this sense, equating the domestic poor with Bolivians is indicative of just how significant the social and symbolic rifts had become among different sectors of Argentine society with the consolidation of the neoliberal order.

Another social change that affected the role of ethnicity in national thinking took place in the realm of work. Traditionally, immigrants from neighboring states tended to occupy specific occupational niches, usually in jobs considered unpalatable to native-born Argentines. These included seasonal farm work in the border regions as well as unskilled manual labor and domestic service in Buenos Aires. Historically, then, these immigrants filled gaps in the Argentine labor market. They complemented the existing labor force instead of competing with it. This changed in the 1990s, but not because, as claimed, immigration increased astronomically. It was the boom in unemployment that altered the landscape of work for Argentines. New processes of social exclusion led those who previously would not accept the working conditions tolerated by immigrants to suddenly be willing to work under more precarious conditions. It was not immigrants who began to compete with Argentines for their jobs; rather, it was Argentines who began to compete for jobs traditionally held by immigrants. Immigration did not change; it was Argentina that changed—dramatically.

Increased governmental and societal insistence on Argentine nationality as the basis for civil and political rights coincided with social organizing by immigrant groups. Confronted by a hostile environment, exclusion and the impossibility of articulating broader social identities in the xenophobic context of the 1990s, immigrant groups organized around their ethnic-national identities. This was evidenced, for example, by the upsurge in immigrant-based fairs, celebrations, radio stations, soccer leagues and rights organizations. Immigrant rights organizations not only fought for equal rights in terms of access to work, health and education, but also for rights related to the acceptance of cultural differentiation. Likewise, it was during this period that Argentina’s native-born indigenous and Afro-descendent communities began making similar claims.

The appearance of categories for ethnic identification had the potential for transforming historically established social relations and conflict in Argentina. However, they created tendencies for cultural chauvinism that reinforced existing processes of discrimination and segregation. Indeed, amid the growing organization of immigrant groups, the state reacted with more discriminatory policies—like tighter migratory controls—and rhetoric. This fed into the already prevailing climate of xenophobia, and robbed immigrant groups of the strategy used in the past of invisibility through assimilation. In the context of severe social crisis and widespread exclusion, nationality became a political justification for affording differential rights, thus exacerbating the growing rift between social groups.

When Argentina was supposedly entering the First World, these immigrants were marked for their difference and “foreignness.” They came to be interpreted as members of underprivileged nations who aspired to partake of Argentina’s success, and they were blamed for any of the blemishes in Argentina’s neoliberal promised land. But in 2001 and 2002, Argentina’s reigning economic, political and cultural model fell into definitive crisis, as did the congruent national narrative. The crisis generated a new national narrative with a fresh, shared understanding of what was happening to the country and where it was going. In this new story, the place of immigrants from neighboring countries was also destined to change.

During the most acute moments of the crisis, newspapers announced an exodus of immigrants to their home countries. The scale of return was probably exaggerated, but since these announcements were accompanied by ongoing increases in unemployment, it became less and less believable that these immigrants had been the cause of Argentina’s employment problems. The sheer dimension of the socioeconomic crisis belied the notion that they had been to blame.

In 2002, Eduardo Duhalde, who as governor of Buenos Aires had scapegoated immigrants in “defense of Argentine jobs,” became Argentina’s interim president. During his nearly 18 months in office, he did not make a single reference to illegal immigration or its supposed negative impacts. Undoubtedly, he rightly realized that in 2002 few would believe the argument that unemployment was caused by immigration from neighboring countries. The structural causes were, by then, laid utterly bare.

With this exposure came a general change in the way Argentines perceived immigrants. An opinion poll in 2002 found significantly fewer respondents supporting restrictions on immigration, as well as the idea that there was a relationship between immigration and insecurity, as compared with respondents in a 1999 poll.4 At the same time, immigrants changed their way of intervening in public space during this period of crisis. They ceased to make their own group-specific claims. Their most basic demands, for food and work, had acquired new-found political weight. How could one advocate for a minority when the viability of the entire country was in doubt?

Ethnic-specific claims subsided during 2002. Minority groups participated in actions geared toward broader social ends. Indigenous protests linked up with marches of unemployed workers, or piqueteros, in Buenos Aires; Bolivian and Paraguayan immigrants joined the piquetero movement and in some cases became key players in factory takeovers and efforts to demand employment programs. No longer were unionized workers protesting against immigrants from neighboring countries, accusing them of “stealing their work,” as in the 1990s. In 2002, the unemployed organized themselves into groups that incorporated the residents of poor neighborhoods, regardless of nationality. As in the past, members of these immigrant groups became ethnically “unmarked” as they were re-absorbed into Argentine society as neighbors, as fellow workers or as so many more victims of the crisis.

Of course, immigrants in Argentina still suffer everyday forms of discrimination. But they are no longer the subject of institutional stigmatization and persecution in law, in labor politics or in official and media discourses, as was the case during the 1990s. For now at least, Argentina’s crisis has debunked the national myth of the country as a prosperous European enclave, so different from the rest of Latin America—a myth that highlighted the difference or foreignness of these immigrants from neighboring states. Since 2001, official discourses about Argentina’s uniqueness have been displaced by an acceptance of the fact that it is “a normal country.” Argentines no longer believe that Argentina has the imminent potential to become a global power or enter the First World. In fact, for political and economic reasons, Argentina now finds itself more distanced from the United States and drawn closer to its neighbors, over whom it can no longer claim superiority.

As Argentina seeks to redefine its place in latin America, the country may once again be forced to grapple with questions of immigration and ethnicity. As it does so, it must question regional integration projects that only seek to facilitate the free movement of capital without allowing for the free movement of people within a regional labor market. To reduce social inequality, a precondition to the construction of a genuine democracy, it will be necessary to conceive of citizenship in regional, rather than national, terms.

Paradoxically, the processes of globalization that stimulate cross-border migration have not resulted in the formation of a transnational or global citizenship. Rather, these processes have pushed thousands of people into a “Fourth World” in which they have no citizenship privileges at all. In this context, the nations that make up the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) are at a crossroads. They can deepen those policies that hinder migration, criminalize undocumented immigrants and encourage xenophobia, all of which only make immigrants more vulnerable to exploitation and social exclusion. Or they can truly embrace the declarations of solidarity expressed in the summit meetings of regional governments by rejecting the narrow, nationalistic policies that currently marginalize immigrants.

This will require a vision of regionalization aimed not only at economic development, but one that seeks to achieve comprehensive human development as well. If public policy and intergovernmental accords do not emphasize the granting of full social and cultural rights to all citizens of the region, then regional economic development will lack the necessary social underpinnings to make it viable in the long run.


Alejandro Grimson is a research anthropologist at the Instituto de Desarrollo Económico y Social and the Universidad de San Martín (UNSAM).

1. Quoted in Página/12, July 11,1995.
2. Indigenous people in Brazil were estimated to number between 236,000 and 300,000 during the 1990s, representing 0.2% of the population. See Alcida Ramos, Indigenism: Ethnic Politics in Brazil (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). In Argentina, estimates of the indigenous population ranged between 250,000 and 450,000, representing between 0.7 and 1.2% of the nation’s total. See Héctor Vázquez, Procesos identitarios y esclusión sociocultural. La cuestión indígena en la Argentina (Buenos Aires: Biblos, 2000).
3. Hugo Ratier, El Cabecita Negra (Buenos Aires: CEAL, 1971). Rosana Guber y Sergio Visacovsky, “De las ‘antropologías nacionales’ a la nacionalidad en la antropología. Un caso argentino” (Brasilia: Série Antropologia, 235, Departamento de Antropologia/UnB, 1998).
4. In 1999, 77% of those polled agreed that the admission of immigrants, and their right to remain, ought to be restricted. Only 51% felt this way in 2002. In 1999, only 18% opposed increased restrictions on immigration; 42% did so in 2002. In 1999, 45% thought tighter immigration laws would resolve the country’s crime problems while 46% thought otherwise. In 2002, the numbers were 77% and 18%, respectively. Diego Casaravilla, “Crisis social, discurso y xenophobia,” in Programa Todas: “Buenos Aires. Ciudad con migrantes,” Dirección General de la Mujer, Gobierno de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 2003, pp. 15-28.

Tags: Argentina, race, ethnicity, immigration, neoliberalism, Bolivia, discrimination

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