A Hard Road for Argentina's Bolivians

September 25, 2007

As the sun rises in a working class neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Bolivian immigrants wait on a street corner for Korean or Argentine textile manufacturers to come and hire them for one or two days work. Across the street, some Peruvians and Paraguayan laborers also wait. Almost no one has working papers and every hour a police car passes by. If the car stops, the immigrants run to escape detention. Between the squad cars, the running and hirings, they listen to one of the Bolivian radio stations in Buenos Aires. If they don’t get hired, they return the next day. If they do get work, they could earn between $5 to $10 for a 10-to-16 hour workday. Then a few days later, they will return to wait on the same corner. The fact that Bolivians have become easily identifiable scapegoats for the growing misery of Argentina’s current economic crisis only adds to their hardship.

Argentines—the government and the general population—consider this migration to be a new phenomenon, a recent human wave comparable in size to the old European migrations. Statistics show, however, that migration from Bolivia to Argentina has been going on for over a hundred years in more or less the same proportions. Indeed, migration patterns between the Andean region and the Southern Cone go back to colonial times. Reliable data concerning the presence of Bolivian migrants in Argentine territory dates back to 1869. Immigration to Argentina from border countries has varied depending on economic factors such as the labor market and the exchange rate, and on certain political factors as well. Between 1869 and the present, a steady 2 to 3% of the population has consisted of people born in border countries, though the percentage has been considerably higher in the larger cities over the last three decades. According to a February 1999 report by the Department of Labor, the number of immigrants in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area (Federal District and Gran Buenos Aires) decreased between 1993 and 1998 from 8.4% to 7.8% of the total population.[1]

Notwithstanding those statistics, five years ago this so-called “new migration” was explained by the neoliberal government of Carlos Menem as an unanticipated result of the entry of Argentina into the “First World.” Currently, distress caused by the country’s four-year recession has become so widespread that the great majority considers itself to be living in worse conditions today than twenty years ago. During the 1990s unemployment rates increased from 6% to finally stabilize around 15% according to official figures, not counting the rising underemployment rates. Authorities often explained this as the result of a new “migratory wave,” although rigorous studies showed that even if the recent immigrants returned to their countries, unemployment rates would decrease by only 1%.[2]

Bolivians and other migrants have historically benefited from certain niches in the labor market that Argentines were not willing to occupy (certain construction, textile, domestic and street-related jobs). However, because of unemployment, Argentines are now willing to settle for lower-paying jobs under worse labor conditions. While the number of migrants coming into the country has not varied significantly, the social and economic expectations of Argentines have lowered.

Bolivian migrants—as well as Chileans, Peruvians and Paraguayans—have recently had to face intense xenophobic campaigns from national and local governments as well as from some labor unions. These campaigns blame immigrants from neighboring countries for the country’s social, economic, sanitary and security problems. Secretary of State Guido di Tella anticipated that “in the year 2020, 20% of the population [in Argentina] will be Bolivian or Paraguayan,” and stated that “we want to be near the rich and the beautiful…we don’t want to be with the horrible people.”[3] Presidential candidate and governor of the province of Buenos Aires, Eduardo Duhalde, expressed the need to persecute illegal workers and “defend the Argentine workforce.” In January 1999, Duhalde insisted upon the fact that “every day there are fewer job opportunities to be distributed among Argentines.”[4]

A labor union called the Union of Construction Workers echoed official views by organizing xenophobic campaigns. Neither the government, the companies nor the labor unions were to blame for the lack of jobs, low wages or accidents in the work place. These factors were the responsibility of the “bolitas” (a derogatory Argentine term for Bolivians) because they stole jobs from Argentines. The union demanded that the government implement strict immigration policies and increase the repression of immigrants from nearby countries. In 1998, more than ten thousand construction workers joined to demand better security measures in the workplace; among them were Bolivian workers who were also affected by the situation. Nevertheless, they had to gather separately in a group with Peruvian and Paraguayan workers who also suffered discrimination. Across from them, protesting union workers chanted “we are Argentines and peronistas,” as well as “we are Argentines and not bolitas.” Some workers stated that “they (the foreigners) are to blame for our low wages.”[5]

During the first few months of 1999, a fierce xenophobic campaign tried to use immigrant workers as scapegoats for the social crisis. Immigrants were blamed for the rise in delinquency and insecurity. Secretary of Migration Hugo Franco asserted that 60% of minor crimes in Buenos Aires are committed by immigrants: “Crime in the capital has become ‘foreignized.’”[6] A systematic campaign to arrest immigrants was implemented: In a single precinct, more than 100,000 people were detained over a period of 19 days for not having work permits.[7] President Menem stated that “those who do not have their papers in order will have to leave the country” because Argentina will not receive “those who come to commit crimes in our country,” he also said that “whenever we ask people to have the required documents we encounter the human rights issue.”[8]

Statements made by the Federal Police, however, contradicted those made by the government. Captain Galvarino, the Director of Urban Order, asserted that “the number of foreigners engaged in theft and homicide crimes is very small. Although we don’t have statistics to prove these assertions, we believe that foreign participation in criminal acts is somewhere around 5 to 7%.”[9] The terms “detained” and “convicted” have been used indiscriminately throughout the immigration debate. While those detained are only suspects of a crime, those convicted have been found guilty. While arrests are performed by the police, convictions can only be obtained through the justice system. As long as the belief that “being an immigrant makes you a suspect” or that “being an immigrant makes you a delinquent” exists in the institutions responsible for maintaining order, racial profiling will increase the number of arrests and therefore distort the actual number of criminal acts committed by immigrants. According to a poll done by the Department of Population of the Interior Ministry “the percentage of convicted foreigners is 4.6% of the total.”[10]

From this perspective, the government submitted a bill to Congress which would increase punishment for those who helped illegal migrants enter the country, penalize companies that employed illegal workers, facilitate the deportation of illegal immigrants and give the government power to regulate criteria related to the admission of foreigners into the country. This and other immigration bills are pending in Congress. In April 2000, the de la Rúa Administration’s Secretary of Defense declared that the Armed Forces should focus on “new challenges and threats.” Among those he mentioned were extreme poverty, overpopulation, ethnic problems and massive migration. Even though a few administration officials wanted to deal with migration issues in a democratic and pluralistic way, discrimination and exclusion are not just a product of discourse, they are effects of a judicial, symbolic and social structure that continues to reproduce itself.

The structure is reflected by public opinion. Polls show that xenophobic discourses have a large impact on a significant portion of society. During the mid 1990s, Bolivians were largely mistrusted by the Argentine population (55%) surpassed only by Chileans (58%).[11] Eighty one percent of the population supported policies that controlled foreign labor. Ninety one percent thought that foreigners were detrimental to the labor conditions of Argentines and half the people polled approved of the deportation of “illegal immigrants.”[12] By the end of the 1990s, 63% responded affirmatively when asked: “Do you think Argentines are racist?” According to a survey “Bolivians are largely affected by discrimination along with dark-skinned Argentines.” Out of the 63% that consider racism to be a characteristic of Argentine society, 50.5% think that “Argentines don’t like Bolivians.”[13] Finally, 77% think that more immigration regulations are necessary.[14]

These statistics illustrate the growing conflict in everyday, intercultural relations. Bolivians feel that they are discriminated against or directly insulted at work, on the streets and on public transportation. They complain that teachers in public schools in Buenos Aires build stereotypes according to the children’s ethnic and national backgrounds.

These conflicts, however, related to the stereotypes of immigrants being “inferior” or “dangerous,” have not gone unchallenged. Various sectors in society join the Bolivian community in protesting against xenophobic campaigns and provoking intense national debate. Organizations such as the National Anti-Discrimination Institute as well as human rights groups have denounced the scapegoating of immigrants for the current crisis.

Bolivian immigrants respond in different ways to the exclusion and discrimination that they suffer. Although fear and resignation prevail among incoming groups, wide sectors of immigrants who have been in the country for years create organizations and coordinate events that strengthen social ties and stimulate collective action. Markets and fairs have flourished in cities with a substantial Bolivian presence. Traditional Bolivian foods, like picante de pollo, pique lo macho, chicharrón or anticucho, can be bought there. These fairs provide a meeting point for immigrants who replicate some of the large marketplaces in Bolivia with local variants. Some restaurants and discotheques can also be identified with Bolivian culture.

Celebrations such as the patron saint’s day of Urkupiña, Copacabana and Socavón, which covers several cities from Jujuy in the north to Buenos Aires, give way to new traditions like the designation of the Virgin of Guadalupe as the “Patron of Bolivian Immigrants in Argentina.” They facilitate the necessary unification and integration process. The markets and fairs are part of a debate over the meaning of Bolivian identity—viewed negatively by Argentine society but reaffirmed with pride and a positive attitude by Bolivians. Therefore, the celebrations take place in visible places such as certain popular neighborhoods or even in downtown Buenos Aires. According to the immigrants, “being Bolivian” is felt more strongly outside of their home country. Many who had never participated in traditional dances do so in Argentina because of “nostalgia.” Those who dance see it as a way to “do something for Bolivia.” At the same time, these encounters strengthen the social networks of immigrants, facilitating mutual collaboration in order to tackle various work, housing and documentation issues.

Additionally, Bolivian radio stations have emerged. Radio programs create and rely on the feelings of nostalgia and melancholy. The “music of the nation” and the constant references to “national traditions” form imaginary roots on foreign soil. The media circulates certain objects identified with being Bolivian, such as folkloric music, stories of the Incas, and phrases in Quechua and Aymara, thus providing the public space for immigrants’ social and cultural debates.

Bolivian social organizations have flourished as well, including civil associations that defend neighborhood rights and social groups such as the Bolivian Textile Workers. In 1995, the Federation of Bolivian Civil Associations (FACBOL) was created to unite legally constituted civil associations. Its objectives are to improve the living conditions of immigrants, especially those who are facing greater difficulties, by promoting health centers in neighborhoods with a high Bolivian population and solving documentation problems. This and other immigrant federations have strongly rejected the new General Migration and Immigration Law being promoted by the government. In 1999, during the government’s xenophobic campaign, the Latin American Confederation was created to unite several federations of diverse immigrant groups in Argentina.

The combination of social exclusionary practices and the new urban-focused destinations create the need for the construction of “Bolivian spaces” that can transcend local barriers. In this way, although Bolivian presence in Argentina goes back to the nineteenth century, the construction of a Bolivian identity as a referent for the strengthening of social ties and the demands for civil rights, has increased steadily in the last three decades. In this way, Bolivian identifications, though with a certain risk of ghettoization, have expanded to counter discrimination and exclusion.

The workers who wait on the street corner under extremely precarious conditions to be hired find in Bolivianidad a way to extend their solidarity networks to help them find homes, work and ways to legalize themselves. Bolivian radio stations circulate news of work opportunities, and news also circulates by word of mouth in immigrant soccer leagues and during feast day celebrations. Bolivian nationalism has thus become a political resource in confronting a society that discriminates against Bolivian immigrants. At the same time, of course, it isolates Bolivians from Peruvians, Paraguayans and Argentines from the provinces, who live similar situations of exclusion and exploitation.

Alejandro Grimson is an anthropologist at the University of Buenos Aires, specializing in migration and intercultural relations. His latest book is Relatos de la diferencia y la igualdad. Los bolivianos en Buenos Aires (Eudeba, 1999). Translated from the Spanish by Carmen Burbano.

1. Ismael Bermúdez, “Hay menos inmigrantes que vienen por trabajo”, Clarín (Buenos Aires), February 14, 1999, p. 20.
2. Roberto Benencia and Alejandro Gazzotti, “Migración limítrofe y empleo: precisiones e interrogantes,” paper presented at V Jornadas de Colectividades, IDES, 1995. Also see Alicia Maguid, “Migrantes limítrofes en el mercado de trabajo del Area Metropolitana de Buenos Aires. 1980-1996,” Estudios migratorios latinoamericanos, No. 35, Buenos Aires, April 1997, pp. 31-62.
3. “Bolivianos,” Pagina/12 (Buenos Aires), June 11, 1999, p. 1.
4. “Menem dijo que los inmigrantes ilegales deberán irse del país,” Clarín, January 21, 1999, pp. 34 -35.
5. “Masiva marcha por la vida de los obreros de la construcción,” Clarín, June 8, 1998, p. 8.
6. “En la Argentina no hay discriminación,” Clarín, February 6, 1999, p. 39.
7. “Menem dijo que los inmigrantes ilegales deberán irse del país,” Clarín, January 21, 1999, pp. 34, 35.
8. “Menem dijo que los inmigrantes ilegales deberán irse del país.”
9. “Menem dijo que los inmigrantes ilegales deberán irse del país.”
10. Lelio Mármora, “Mitos xenófobos,” Trespuntos, February 1999, p. 82.
11. Encuesta Latinobarómetro, Clarín, November 19, 1996, p. 15.
12. Enrique Oteiza, Susana Novick, and Roberto Aruj, Inmigración y discriminación. Políticas y discursos (Buenos Aires: Universitaria, 1997).
13. Centro de Estudios de Opinión Pública, Clarín, February 26, 1998, p. 7.
14. Santiago Kovadloff, “Delito oportuno. Los inmigrantes ilegales como chivos expiatorios,” Trespuntos, February 1999, pp. 80-83.

Tags: race, Argentina, Bolivians, immigrants, discrimination

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