The Impact of Immigration on the Urbanization Process of the Global City Buenos Aires

Seminar Paper, 2018

15 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of content

1. Introduction

2. Main part
2.1 Immigration and its effects
2.1.1 Immigration from Europe
2.1.2 Immigration from South-America
2.1.3 Comparison of European and South American immigration
2.2 Urbanization, its challenges and suggestions for improvement
2.2.1 Urbanization process including development of Villas
2.2.2 Link between foreigners and Villas
2.2.3 Side effects of Villas: unemployment, poverty, crime
2.2.4 Discussion of term “sustainability” in context of city with Villas
2.2.5 Suggestions for improvement of living conditions and sustainability (economic, social)

3. Conclusion


1. Introduction

When thinking about diverse melting pots on the American continent, people tend to think about diverse global cities such as New York and Toronto. However, in terms of cultural diversity, Buenos Aires is equally strong. The city`s diversity can be seen when looking at the population and what the city has to offer. Not only are urban buildings, the food, the music and the tango influenced by immigrants who entered the country. Also many events the city of Buenos Aires hosts acknowledges the many immigrants who have shaped this city and the entire country until today. One of these events is the “Buenos Aires celebra …” program which was founded in 2009 to support the celebration of foreign countries whose people have immigrated to Argentina. Communities as diverse as Austria, Basque, Croatia, Poland, Paraguay and Peru take part, offering a bit of their culture on Avenida de Mayo, in the historic center of this intercultural South American capital[1]. How diverse the city is can be derived from the numbers: 4 out of 10 inhabitants of the City of Buenos Aires were born outside of the capital and even 12, 8% were born outside of the country of Argentina[2]. Needless to say, that a population as high as 13.000.000 in agglomerations and a high degree of diverse brings opportunity as well as it creates challenges.

This essay will examine the impact immigration had on the urbanization process of Buenos Aires into becoming a diverse megacity. One of the first factors was the sharp increase of the population due to the European immigration wave of the 19th century, so the reasons and effects of European immigration will be outlined. As in the 20th century the immigrants` origins shifted from Europe to South American countries, this second major immigration wave will be discussed. Based on these two phenomena, the conditions, chances, challenges of the European and South American immigration wave will be compared. Due to the majority of immigrants settling down within the urban area of Buenos Aires, urbanization with its positive and negative effects will introduce the second major part of this essay, which deals especially with Villas, unemployment, poverty and insecurity as a results of the urbanization process of Buenos Aires. Afterwards, possible improvements of living conditions will be suggested to create a more sustainable city of Buenos Aires.

2. Main part

2.1 Immigration and its effects

2.1.1 Immigration from Europe

Before immigration, Argentina was sparsely populated. This was mainly due to the large expanse of the country and also due to the Spanish colonization of the Americas between 1550 and 1810 that favored Mexico and Peru. The population of Argentina decreased even more in the 19th century during the Argentine War of Independence and the Argentine Civil Wars. To counteract this decrease in population, the idea of promoting immigration to Argentina came up which would distinctly shape the future of the country but particularly turn the city of Buenos Aires into a metropolitan megacity. Several Argentine politicians from that time period, such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Juan Bautista Alberdi promoted European immigration in order to populate the country. Thus, the Constitution of Argentina of 1853 declares the prohibition of any barriers on immigration in its 25th article: “The Federal Government will encourage European immigration, and it will not restrict, limit or burden with any taxes the entrance into Argentine territory of foreigners who come with the goal of working the land, improving the industries and teach the sciences and the arts”[3].

The reason why many immigrants finally chose Argentina was alongside their open door policy also their endless unoccupied lands as well as Argentina`s significant development of the economy in the first half of the 20th century: in the 1920s Argentina`s per capita income was higher than the one of Italy, Spain or Portugal and in 1950 Argentina`s GDP growth rate exceeded the growth rate of Spain and Portugal[4].

Consequently Argentina saw a sharp increase in overseas immigration with people coming mainly from Europe. The majority of immigrants during that time period came from Spain or Italy, but large immigration waves also came from France and Germany as well as other nationalities (especially Jews, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, Greeks, Irish, British, Swiss, Dutch, Hungarians, and Scandinavians)[5].

Italian arrivals made up 45% of total Argentine inflow which surpasses the Spanish influx (30%). The focus in literature lays on the Italian as well as German and Jewish influx, which is surprising considering these numbers. Reasons for this disproportional focus in literature is the better recording of their country`s influx by Italians, Germans and Jewish also because the Spanish immigrants have been considered not “other enough” and thus have been described in literature as “invisible immigrants”[6]. The reasons for the immigrants to leave their countries in Europe are as diverse as the countries they came from, so only the backgrounds of the most important immigration waves will be highlighted here.

The reason for Spanish people leaving their country lay in “agrarian backwardness and poverty, lack of industry and economic stagnation, political corruption, abusive taxes, bad harvests, floods, rural inheritance practices, labor unrest” and some scholars have also attributed “the spirit for adventure” for one important cause[7].

In the case of the Italian immigrants, one common reason for many was the impoverishment of the population due to the unification of the Italian states, which caused unemployment, overpopulation, and serious political conflicts[8].

German immigrants came in various waves between 1870 and 1950, the first wave mostly being socialists fleeing the ban of socialism and the conservative Prussian statesman Bismarck. A big proportion of the immigrants in the centuries to follow were German Jews on one side and German opponents of Nazism on the other side, especially since their immigration was encouraged to escape punishments in Germany[9].

In any case, increasing population through immigration proved efficient as the total population of Argentina rose from 4 million in 1895 to 7, 9 million in 1914, and to 15, 8 million in 1947[10]. With the 1929 economic crisis, immigration from Europe to Argentina slowly started to decrease and when in 1945 after the Second World War productivity and wages in Europe saw a sharp increase, it was more attractive to stay than to leave, anyway[11].

2.1.2 Immigration from South-America

In the second half the 20th Century, European migration was replaced by immigration from bordering countries in South-America which is also known as intra-regional migration. This inflow was as high that by the early 1990s, regional immigration represented more than 50% of the total immigrant population in Argentina[12]. Besides that influx, another immigration wave has been taking place which was the rural-urban migration wave, meaning farmers from the countryside of Argentina moved to the capital or other big cities to look for a better life with less hard physical work and more opportunities. As that way intense urbanization from rural-urban internal migration flows has already caused a sharp increase in the population of Buenos Aires, migrants from the southern cone arriving in Buenos Aires increased the population even more, causing a higher labor supply and therefore less favorable conditions and opportunities for them, taking into regard the theory of demand and supply.

Nonetheless, Argentina became a very desirable destination for immigrants of the southern cone and reasons are various. The economic as well as political instability in neighboring countries appear to be the predominant push factors. In terms of countries of the immigrants, Paraguay was the number one exporter of immigrants to Argentina, but also Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay supplied migrants in the second half of the 20th century.

Paraguay has been one of the fastest growing foreign nationalities in Argentina and accounted for 40-65% of influx from neighboring countries to Argentina between 1950 and 1980. People left the country because Argentina`s economy was more advanced than the agriculture-oriented one in Paraguay, but also political reasons played a role, such as the Chaco war of 1936 and the civil war of 1947[13]. They decided to settle down in Argentina, especially in the capital or in Gran Buenos Aires, so that today in Gran Buenos Aires counts 500.000 people with Paraguayan descent[14]. Most of the Paraguayans work in the industrial manufacturing sector or in the construction sector.

In the case of Bolivia, the collapse of the sugar industry and several agricultural products that started in the 1960s triggered the migration of many of these workers towards the construction industry, which was principally located in Buenos Aires[15].

With regards to Chilean immigration, the greatest influx to Argentina happened during the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet[16].

One unifying explanation for the high number of South Americans immigrating to Argentina was the country’s high standard of human and economic development relative to the migrants’ countries of origin and high wages. This generated, over time, migration chains that facilitated the processes of finding employment and migrant integration within communities. Labor migration from bordering countries was mainly concentrated in seasonal activities, housekeeping, construction, and commerce, but many wanted to stay for longer or even permanently as well. However, their circumstances were considerably different from the European immigrants in the first migration wave as will be explained in the next chapter.

2.1.3 Comparison of European and South American immigration

Now it will analyzed in how far the immigration process, conditions, chances and challenges differed between the immigration from Europe and the immigration from southern cone countries.

As far as the reasons for immigration are concerned, the reasons of European immigrants were not as different from the reasons of South American immigrants. In both cases, immigrants left their countries because to them, the uncertainty of starting all over again in a foreign country seemed to be a better option than bearing economic hardships such as unemployment and poverty as well as political instability or even civil war in their home countries.

Secondly, the immigration process and the conditions of their arrivals will be outlined. In the case of European immigrants most arrived through the port of Buenos Aires. The majority stayed directly in the capital or within Buenos Aires Province. Due to the government`s aim to encourage immigration, the country was prepared for the arrivals and welcomed immigrants by providing them with supportive services. One of them was the Hotel de la inmigracion, which is a complex situated in Retiro right at the former port. This building consisted of the desembarcadero, an oficina de trabajo, a hospital and the hotel itself which could accommodate 3.000 people. All was financed by the government and therefore free for the immigrants. The compulsory desembarcadero served as the control and documentation of migrants as well as a health check-up, to make sure the migrants were neither contagious, nor invalid and under 60. If the migrants were allowed to enter the country, they were redirected to the other part of the complex, which was the hotel itself – there they were provided with accommodation, hygienic facilities and three meals a day in the canteen. The rule was that the immigrants could stay there for 5 days, but in reality the duration was very flexible: While some migrants left two days after their arrivals because they could move to family members, others stayed up to two or three months because they fell ill or hadn’t found work yet. While the girls were taught domestic tasks, the women worked in the laundry or took care of their children. The men participated in classes to acquire skills like using industrial and agricultural machines and went to the Oficina de trabajo to find a job[17]. Concluding it can be said, that their start in Buenos Aires was certainly strictly scheduled and tough due to no privacy and pressure to find work. At the same time their everyday life was facilitated immensely because they were taken care of and supported to find their first job and improve their housing conditions. Thus, when looking at the start conditions of the South American immigrants, it can be stated, that their first days in Buenos Aires are more diverse as the immigrants enter the country on many different ways and there is no such thing as a reception center anymore which would allow for a common classification.

One challenge the European immigrants had to overcome, unless they were from Spain, was the language barrier which allowed often allowed the Italian or German immigrants to only perform low skilled jobs which didn’t require language skills in Castellano. Even though this challenge is less present for immigrants from the southern cone, it does represent a problem for some, e.g. the Guaraní from Paraguay which struggle to integrate especially in cities like Buenos Aires with a low percentage of indigenous[18].

In terms of chances, it can be said that European immigrants enjoyed benefits, that weren’t given in the second part of the 20th century anymore. They didn’t only receive accommodation for the first days but also enjoyed tax exceptions on their possessions as well as free rail transportation which gave them capital to start off their stay under fairly good conditions. This as well as a strong demand for labor in Argentina and especially in Buenos Aires up to the financial crisis in 1929 gave many of the immigrants the opportunity to achieve “quick social mobility”[19]. Many that were able to overcome the language barrier, started working in institutions that often were linked to their country of origin, in the education sector or they opened shops and restaurants and moved to better areas of the city of Buenos Aires.

One further point that is worth noting is the legal character. During the times of the European immigration, migrants were dependent on entering the country on a ship, so it was hard to sidestep the registration process of Migraciones. However, for migrants from neighboring South American countries, who can chose from various overland routes, sidestepping migration requirements is easier. Thus many immigrants have entered the country without papers. Entering a country legally often gives immigrants chances, illegal immigrants don’t have, such as better work and thus a higher probability of social upward mobility.

2.2 Urbanization, its challenges and suggestions for improvement

2.2.1 Urbanization process including development of Villas

Since Buenos Aires is a city of immigrants, its urbanization process wasn’t only determined by politics but also subject to where the immigrants settled down. La Boca for example was an attractive destination for Italian immigrants at it was close to the port where they arrived.

Due to the exponential growth of the city Buenos Aires between 1880 and 1910, the new arrivals had to find homes and many times those homes had to be provisory. That explains the high number of European immigrants settling down in Conventillos in the center of Buenos Aires. A Conventillo can be seen today, e.g. in La Boca where Europeans used to arrive at the port. They rented one single apartment of the Conventillos and therefore had their own place while being able to use the shared kitchen and bathrooms. Conventillos were made of corrugated iron and the buildings constructed in a gallery style with one patio in the middle which was used for social gatherings of the immigrants all new to the country. However, the hygienic conditions were often terrible. Later, as the train lines were expanded, European immigrants also settled down in suburbs[20].

When port and train workers arrived to Buenos Aires and the need for housing was increasing, the government built houses directly in the area of the workers (Puerto Nuevo and Retiro). However, the global financial crisis of 1929 left many of the newly arrived European immigrants without employment. As a result, in 1931 the government offered empty sheds to some Polish immigrants in Puerto Nuevo, who were not able to afford anything else in a city and therefore moved into buildings made of corrugated iron that would become the first asentamiento. This was the start of hundreds of these settlements who were built by the people themselves – however, illegally without permission or support from the government. The Villa Desocupación was populated not only by unemployed European immigrants, but later more and more also by people who moved to Buenos Aires from the countryside due to the crisis of the agro-exporting model and the beginning of the industrialization in the city (internal rural-urban migration) as well as Bolivians who used to have jobs on Argentinean fields. At the end of the 50ies, Villa de Retiro already had 6 internal barrios and in 1956 the Comisión Nacional de la Vivienda conducted a census with the result that in the city of Buenos Aires 21 Villas were existing already with a total population of nearly 34.000 people. In Gran Buenos Aires the number of Villeros, the people living in Villas, even exceeded 78.000 people. Now the Villas Miserias, still illegal settlements, were starting to be perceived as a problem. Journalist Bernardo Verbitsky coined the expression in the 1950s and used it in his novel “Villa Miseria también es América”, so the term “Villa” started to become a household word in Argentina[21]. The Villeros were still living in precarious situations and in order to be able to articulate the misery and requirements for drinking water, electricity and sewage to the government, in 1958 the Federación de Barrios y Villas de Emergencia was founded. While under the government of Peron, also Viviendas – individual houses that were part of Peron`s social welfare program - were growing, also Villas were growing rapidly. But especially from the 1960ies also discrimination against the Villeros was getting worse and in the beginning of the 70ies, the dark times started for the inhabitants of the Villas of Buenos Aires. According to the Plan de Erradicación de Villas de Emergencia, the government set up 13 areas with 3 buildings, each one made of 11 to 13 floors and a water tank outside of the city. People were forced to leave their homes in the Villas and were moved to the outskirts of the city. The military governments of the 80ies stigmatized the Villas for being dark ghettos where immigrants without papers were living who took the jobs of the Argentines without paying taxes and giving anything back to the country. Before the soccer world cup came to Argentina in 1978, the military government`s aim was to remove the Villas and especially those that were close to the Stadium Cancha de River and in general to wealthy areas. Those forced eradications took place by troops destroying houses, and taking the inhabitants with them in trucks to Gran Buenos Aires, more precisely to Conjunto Habitacional de Ciudadela, which would soon become an overcrowded place full of violence. After the human catastrophes linked to the elimination of the Villas by the military governments, the new democratic government abolished the laws for the structural elimination of the V illas in 1983. Though, that is not the end but only where the path of developing the Villas begins.




[3] Visit to the “Hotel de los inmigrantes” on the 06.06.2018 and participation in a guided tour

[4] Durand 2009 p.2ff

[5] Devoto 1989 p.11ff

[6] Moya 1998 p.1ff

[7] Moya 1998 p.43

[8] Organization of American States, 2014

[9] Lannes, 1954 p.325ff

[10] Organization of American States, 2014

[11] Organization of American States, 2014

[12] Devoto 1989 p. 434

[13] Devoto 1989 p. 457

[14] Benítez, 2017

[15] Devoto 1989 p. 457

[16] Devoto 1989 p. 457

[17] Visit to the “Hotel de los inmigrantes” on the 06.06.2018 and participation in a guided tour

[18] Martyniuk, 2010

[19] Organization of American States, 2014

[20] Guided visit in La Boca on 04.05.2018

[21] Caselli, 2016

Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Impact of Immigration on the Urbanization Process of the Global City Buenos Aires
Austral University of Chile
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impact, immigration, urbanization, process, global, city, buenos, aires
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Nathalie Fr (Author), 2018, The Impact of Immigration on the Urbanization Process of the Global City Buenos Aires, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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