Buenos Aires: a City’s Power and Promise

The stylish and affordable capital of Argentina has become a big hit with growing numbers of foreigners

Buenos Aires' colorful Boca neighborhood. (Anibal Greco / WPN)
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Argentina didn't really begin to open its doors to immigrants until after it gained independence from Spain, which had colonized it in 1580 and made Buenos Aires a capital in 1776. With the British defeat of Spanish naval forces in 1805, Argentina's criollos, or people born in Latin America of European lineage, began to seek freedom from Spanish rule. Criollo leaders voted to depose the Spanish viceroy in Buenos Aires on May 25, 1810.

Today, the Cabildo—the building in which the criollos debated that action—is a museum that commemorates the May revolution. It fronts the Plaza de Mayo, renamed for the event and a focal point of civic and political life.

Still, many in Argentina remained loyal to Spain. It took José de San Martín, the native son of a Spanish officer, to organize an army and urge lawmakers to declare independence from Spain, which they did on July 9, 1816. Martín went on to lead a liberating army throughout the continent before exiling himself, beginning in 1824, to Belgium, England and France. Today, his body rests in a mausoleum in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral, steps from the Cabildo, surrounded by three statues of female figures representing the nations that revere Martín as a liberator: Argentina, Peru and Chile.

Blessed with wide-open spaces and some of the world's most fertile lands, the new nation—with its 1853 constitution modeled after the United States'—turned to England for capital. Great Britain invested in everything from railways and banks to meat-processing plants. Today, British landmarks abound. The dome of the 1915 Retiro railway station was designed by British architects and made with Liverpool steel, and the subway system, the first in South America, was designed by a British company in 1913. One of the subway lines—the "A"—still operates with the original wooden cars.

But newly independent Argentina was missing an important component: people. In 1853, the Argentine political thinker Juan Bautista Alberdi declared that "to govern is to populate," and Argentina embraced immigrants, most of them from Spain and Italy. Between 1869 and 1914, the population grew from 1.8 million to 7.8 million. By 1914, about 30 percent of Argentina's population was foreign-born, nearly twice the percentage of immigrants in the United States at that time.

Today, the Hotel de Inmigrantes, where until the 1950s newcomers were allowed to stay free for five days, is the site of the Immigration Museum. The Boca neighborhood, near the old port, was the center of immigrant life, particularly for Italians. It's now a tourist attraction; on Sundays, Caminito Street is lined with souvenir sellers and tango dancers.

During the boom years early in the 20th century, Buenos Aires' upper classes developed what some called a "money fetish" and emulated Europe's aristocracy—especially Paris'. As a result, Buenos Aires acquired its answer to the Avenue de l'Opéra (and a world-class opera house). Buenos Aires is "a great city of Europe, giving the sensation of premature growth, but, by its prodigious advancement, the capital of a continent," the French statesman Georges Clemenceau wrote after visiting in 1910. And in a 1913 book about his travels, British diplomat James Bryce seconded the notion: "Buenos Aires is something between Paris and New York. Everybody seems to have money and to like spending it and to like letting everybody else know that it is being spent."

Not everyone was impressed by the nation's eagerness to copy continental fashions. After he visited Buenos Aires in 1923, the Colombian writer José María Vargas Vila called Argentina the "Nation of Plagiarism."

It is, at any rate, a walkable city of intriguing neighborhoods. While the middle-class Palermo district has gone wildly upscale, with swank restaurants and boutique hotels, San Telmo has largely retained the downbeat character favored by backpackers, who stay in the many hostels along its narrow, cobblestone streets. Tourists pack the Sunday artisan fair in Plaza Dorrego, another place where tango dancers show off and visitors can buy antiques, handicrafts and jewelry.

Almost every neighborhood bears traces of two of the most dominant figures of the modern era, President Juan Domingo Perón and his wife Eva Duarte, or Evita. An official in the War Ministry in the 1940s, Perón rose to power by allying himself with the workers' unions and was named vice president. But his popularity troubled the military government of President Edelmiro Farrell; he forced Perón to resign, on October 9, 1945, and then had him arrested. A huge march eight days later organized by union leaders, military allies and Perón's soon-to-be wife led to his release. This show of support empowered Perón. He won the 1946 presidential election and went on to nationalize industries and focus on the plight of workers, making him widely popular.


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