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Buenos Aires History & Culture: The “Paris of South America” Through the Ages

Argentina History

The History of Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is the capital, as well as the largest city, in Argentina. Buenos Aires has grown long the southern shores Rio de la Plata, an estuary formed by the confluence of the Rio Uruguay and Rio Paraná, providing it with excellent shipping links. This multicultural city is home to almost three million people, although the entire metropolitan area comprises around 13 million.

Origins of the Name "Buenos Aires"

Originally the name "Buenos Aires" came from the sanctuary of "Nostra Signora di Bonaria" which is Italian for "Our Lady of Good Air", or also "Virgine de Bonaria" in Spanish. The sanctuary which the city is named after is found in Cagliari, Sardinia.

The Founding of Buenos Aires

The region in which now lies Buenos Aires was first discovered in 1516 by Juan Diaz de Solis from Portugal, who was navigating in South American waters in the name of Spain. He was the first European to have reached Rio de la Plata. His expedition was cut short when he was killed by the native Charrua tribe who inhabited what is now Uruguay.

The city of Buenos Aires was founded in 1536 by Pedro de Mendoza, although its original name was the Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa Maria del Buen Ayre (City of Our Lady Saint Mary of the Fair Winds). Due to attacks by indigenous peoples, settlers were forced away and in 1541 the site was completely abandoned.

The second settlement, which was also a permanent one, was established in 1580 by Juan de Garay.

Trade Restrictions and Naval Blockades

Because of the city’s location along the waterfront, its success depended on trade. Spain was aware of the great amount of prosperity that could be achieved and therefore insisted on all trade to Europe to pass through Lima, Peru during the 17th and 18th centuries so that taxes could be collected. This scheme further frustrated local traders of Buenos Aires, then creating a contraband industry.

Deep resentment in porteños was held towards the Spanish authorities because of this. Later Carlos III of Spain eased trade restrictions and declared Buenos Aires to be an open port in the late 1700s.

From 1806-1807 British invasions of Rio de la Plata occurred twice but were managed to be held back by local militias. On May 25, 1810 while Spain endured the Peninsular War—criollo citizens of Buenos Aires successfully ousted Spanish Viceroy and made a provincial government. May 25th is now the national holiday where formal independence was declared in 1816.

Today Buenos Aires is Argentina’s main centre for liberal and free trade ideas, whereas many provinces in the northwest are more conservative-Catholic. Due to these contrasting views, centralist-federalist conflicts of the 19th century have resulted throughout the provinces. Resulting violent clashes have also come about due to this.

During the 19th century, the city suffered from naval blockades on two various occasions from the years 1830 to 1840 from the French, as well as a joint Anglo-French blockade beginning in 1845. Both of such blockades failed to surrender the city and foreign powers eventually desisted from their demands.

The Political Status of Buenos Aires

Throughout the 19th century, the political status of Buenos Aires remained a sensitive subject. This was in part due to the succession of Buenos Aires from the Province of Buenos Aires between 1853 and 1860, this issue not being settled until 1880 when the city was federalized and finally became the seat of government, with its mayor appointed to position of president. The Casa Rosada became the official seat of the office of the president.

Along with the 19th century came the beginning of the railroad construction throughout the country, mainly in the second half of the century and an important feature of Buenos Aires’ history. This construction came along with the increased economic powers of Buenos Aires due to the immense flow of raw materials into its factories. Because of this, the city became a multicultural city that ranked with other major European capitals.

Immigration to Buenos Aires Through History

Due to its extensive cultural characteristics and architectural feats for the time, the city was a favored destination for immigrants from Europe throughout the 1920s. Because of the great influx of immigrants, numerous shanty towns started to grow around the industrial areas of the city, leading to an increase of social problems and poverty which was a great contrast to the country’s predominant riches.

Later in the 20th century, fighting between the left-wing revolutionary movements and right-wing paramilitary group Triple A, supported by Isabel Peron (President Juan Peron’s wife) who later became president after her husband’s death, increased.

The military coup of 1976 escalated the liberal versus conservative conflict, inevitably leading to the “Dirty War” – a central feature of Argentina’s history that continues to shape the country to this day.

By the end of the Dirty War, 10,000 to 30,000 people were missing, kidnapped, and killed by the military. In protest of the war, silent marches from mothers with lost children known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo become known for the image of the people suffering throughout the country at the time.

Neighborhoods and population size in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires was divided into 48 original barrios—neighborhoods for administrative purposes. Originally, the divisions were based on Catholic parishes, however changes since the 1940s altered the city’s structure and Buenos Aires is now is divided into 15 communes. Some of the most famous include La Boca (home to the famous Boca Juniors football team), the wealthy Palermo neighborhood and San Telmo, home to its acclaimed Sunday flea market.

As of 2001, 12.4 million people were living as residents in city and residential zones of Buenos Aires. The population density of the city is 13,000 hab/km squared making Buenos Aires the most populated city in Argentina.

88.9% of the population is white (European), 2% is African American, 7% is Native American, and 2.1% being Asian.

The Culture of Buenos Aires and Argentina

Buenos Aires is a city strongly influenced by European culture and because of this, is often called the “Paris of South America.”

This is most noticeable in the architecture and buildings of modern Buenos Aires. One of the most symbolic is the Teatro Colón or Columbus Theatre, which opened its doors to the public in 1908 and is still considered one of the five top opera houses in the world because of its exceptional acoustics.

During the late 19th century and early 20th century – periods important in the development and history of Argentina – the skyline of Buenos Aires altered dramatically, with the construction of many of the tallest buildings of the period in South America, as well as the first subway network in the continent.

Modern Buenos Aires’ culture is a key feature of the city. Here, you’ll find a wealth of museums of fine arts, modern arts, decorative arts, popular arts, sacred arts, theatre and popular music, as well as the well-preserved homes of famous writers and artists and sumptuous old palaces. There are also plenty of historic Buenos Aires cafes offering a relaxed place to soak up the relaxed Argentine culture of the capital.

Libraries are also in abundance throughout Buenos Aires, while the city is also the home to a world-famous zoo and botanical garden.

Languages of Argentina and Buenos Aires

The main language spoken in Argentina is Spanish, although it varies from Spanish spoken in other parts of the continent due to its distinctive accent.

In Buenos Aires, the dialect known as Rioplatense Spanish is most spoken and characterized by the use of “vos” instead of tú or usted and the loss of the syllable final-s. It’s believed that the dialects of Andalusia and Murcia in Spain have heavily influenced the evolution of the Spanish found in Buenos Aires.

However, after a study was conducted in regards to the dialect, the results showed that the porteño accent is the closest to the Neapolitan dialect of Italian than any other language today. Either way, the city has a wide range of unique phrases and expressions that aren’t necessarily used across the rest of Argentina.

The history of immigration in Argentina

In the early 20th century, Argentina absorbed millions of immigrants from Europe—mainly Italians—who spoke mostly their local dialects (mainly Neapolitan, Sicilian, and Genoan). The adoption of Spanish for such immigrants was gradual, creating a wide array of Italian dialects and Spanish known as Cocoliche. Its usage today is mainly obsolete, although it is sometimes employed for comic purposes.

Many Spanish immigrants from the region of Galicia came to Buenos Aires as well, where their Galician language, culture, and cuisine had a major presence and effect on the city for most of the 20th century.

Yiddish is also commonly heard throughout Buenos Aires, especially in the Balvanera garment district and in Villa Crespo. Korean and Chinese became significant languages beginning in the 1970s due to the number of immigrants from Asia, however newer immigrants are quicker to learn Spanish in order to begin the assimilation process.

Want to learn more about Argentine culture? All of our Spanish language courses include a dynamic agenda of cultural activities and lectures.

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