Italians fleeing Argentina
Their forefathers helped build nation
BY KEVIN G. HALL
Herald World Staff
BUENOS AIRES -- More than a century ago, poor Italian immigrants crossed the Atlantic to build railroads and theaters and to turn Argentina into one of the world's richest nations.
Now their descendants line up outside the Italian Embassy in Buenos Aires, hoping their Italian lineage will entitle them to passports and a new start in the Old World.
They are trying to escape a nearly three-year recession, unemployment around 15 percent and a sick economy that shows few signs of rebounding.
The Italian Embassy in Buenos Aires says it gave more than 12,000 passports to Italian-origin Argentines in Buenos Aires alone last year. That was up 15 percent over 1999 figures, and this year the embassy expects a 30 percent gain in passports given out in the capital. Those figures do not include passports granted at six Italian consulates in Argentina, a country of 36 million.
The flow of emigrants from Argentina is not unique in the region. Looking to escape dismal economies, Peruvians, Bolivians, Colombians and Ecuadoreans are swarming to get visas for the United States, Spain or anywhere with a growing economy.
But emigrating from Argentina is different because of the vast
promise it once held -- similar to the United States -- for European immigrants.
It is South America's
second-largest country at just more than one million square miles, about the size of Mexico and Texas combined. But Argentina is sparsely populated, and its
development depended heavily on Europeans, who account for at least 85 percent of the population.
Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world at the end of the 19th Century.
British money paid for the construction of national ports and
railroads, and immigrants from Italy and Spain provided the labor. Sheep
and cattle exports, along with
mining, brought wealth. The lavish Colon Theatre in Buenos Aires remains one of the world's great opera houses, inaugurated in 1908 with Italian composer Guiseppe Verdi's "Aida.''
A wave of emigration from Italy to the United States in the late 1880s led to anti-immigrant feelings there. So between 1900 and 1930, Italians moved instead to Argentina.
As Philadelphia, New York, Boston and other Northeastern U.S. cities did, Buenos Aires took on a decidedly Italian flavor. In 1905, 40 percent of the city's population was of Italian origin.
Italian television is almost as prevalent as Spanish television in some regions and many Italian descendants speak a bit of Italian, though they are not fluent.
Today the effect remains in the accent of ``porteños'', as residents of the port city are known. Their Italian-sounding accent is distinct from the Spanish spoken in the rest of Argentina or Latin America.
``Immigration totally changed us and formed a new culture. These European roots made us very different than the rest of Latin America,'' said Mario Santillio, director of the Center for Latin American Migration Studies in Buenos Aires.
Santillio said three million immigrants entered Argentina between 1882 and 1927 by official estimates. But ship records and other data suggest that closer to five million came, he said. An estimated one million, a third of all documented immigrants, came from Italy.
The 1991 census found that 450,000 Italians were living in Argentina, and that more than six million people -- about a fifth of the population at the time -- were of Italian descent.
Now, many of these Argentines are forced to make the same tough choice their ancestors once did.
``I took out my passport for my children,'' said Mariano Abaca, who oversees shipments of household goods for Reygraz, a cargo-consolidation company in Buenos Aires. "Even if you don't want to leave, you have to do this. You are fenced in here.''
In early July, Pablo Parmo stood outside the Italian Embassy in Buenos Aires, checking on the status of his paperwork. At 21, Parmo has given up on chances of playing professional soccer or even finding a part-time job and hopes to leave for Italy by March. His sister Nadia, 19, is studying accounting and has started her paperwork now so she will have an Italian passport when she graduates from college in two years.
Both expect to say goodbye to their parents and cross the Atlantic in the opposite direction from their great-grandparents, who left Cattanzaro Savelli in southern Italy.
``It's hard for them, as it would be for anyone's parents. But, sadly, this a country where there is no work and they understand it's best for us,'' Parmo said.
Adrian Moreno, a 20-something professional, wants an Italian passport so he can take advantage of the European Union-wide flexible labor laws and get a job somewhere in Europe if not in Italy.
``I am an industrial designer, and here there are few options,'' he says.
The consul general at the Italian Embassy, Vincenzo Palladino, politely takes questions on the street from Argentines who want to know why their paperwork hasn't been processed promptly. Palladino said there are no efforts to curb Argentine emigration to Italy, because ``we have a strong need for labor.''