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Argentina's Frontier of Promise

COLUMN ONE

A country shaped by European settlers sees its future in new immigrants from its impoverished Latin American neighbors. The faces have changed, but the dreams--and struggles--remain the same.

June 08, 1996|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENOS AIRES — The legacies of the immigrants, old and new, converge on the streets of this prosperous port city that has been shaped and reshaped by foreign diasporas for more than a century.

In La Boca, the historic waterfront enclave of brightly painted tenements founded by Genovese dockworkers and fishermen, the worshipers at Our Lady Mother of the Immigrants church are mostly of Italian and Spanish descent. But after Mass, a celebration fills the church with the music of the newest immigrants fleeing poverty and strife: Peruvians.

"My mother still speaks a mix of Sicilian dialect, Italian and Spanish," said Maria Grazia, 56, who arrived from Sicily half a century ago. "She has not adapted. She misses everything. I have adapted, although I miss the mother country. . . .

"And I miss the old La Boca. The neighborhood has changed a great deal, with all the immigrants from across the border."

At dawn on the other edge of the city, a plaza in the Bajo Flores neighborhood bears a startling resemblance to the street-corner hiring halls of Southern California: The owners of textile factories, mostly Koreans, recruit illegal Bolivian and Paraguayan day laborers, who line up patiently for jobs that pay $3 per hour per double shift, cot included.

"There is no justice for us," said Gloria, 24, a short, animated Bolivian who is a veteran of the sweatshops. "If we find a job, they exploit us. We can't complain because we are undocumented. If you answer an ad in the paper for a job, they ask for documents, and if you don't have them, they never call.

"But the people keep coming. I ask myself: Are things really that bad in Bolivia?"

Like the United States, Argentina remains a frontier of promise, the most powerful magnet for immigration in Latin America.

Like the United States and Western Europe, Argentina has experienced the classic collision of a tightening economy and a wave of immigrants from impoverished neighboring nations.

"Argentina is a very European nation," said Father Wolmar Scaravelli, a priest at the church in La Boca who directs a Roman Catholic social service agency. "It looked to the north. Now it is beginning to look to the south. This new migration has a lot to do with that."

The "Latinamericanization" of the migrant flow also forces Argentines to look inward, at themselves.

The spirit of mobility remains fresh in this self-confident and well-educated society. Enterprising Argentines still occasionally depart for the United States or for the European countries their ancestors left behind. This breeds tolerance toward newcomers.

But as unemployment has reached 18%, the government has toughened border policing and laws against smuggling and illegal entry.

Hugo Franco, the energetic special administrator appointed last year to overhaul the neglected immigration service, said the new policies do not contradict Argentina's identity as a nation of immigrants.

"Argentina says yes to immigrants, but no to illegality," Franco said. "I don't know of any nation that became great with illegals."

There have been nationalistic rumblings: Gov. Domingo Bussi of rural Tucuman province, a retired general with a stern reputation forged during the military dictatorship of the 1970s, caused a stir recently by declaring that he preferred that natives, not Bolivian farm workers, harvest "the fruit of our land."

At times, the national conversation about immigration sounds like the debates in California and Washington, D.C.

Referring to border-crossers, Population Secretary Aldo Carerras told the press: "There is no way to stop them. You could put guards one next to the other all along the hundreds of kilometers of border. And what's more, Argentina has always been a nation with open doors."

The doors opened in the late 19th century, when the sprawling, sparsely populated country was home to descendants of Spanish settlers and remnants of indigenous groups that largely had died out or been destroyed.

A boom stoked by agricultural exports brought waves of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. They toiled in the ports, meat-packing plants, railroads, service industries.

In 1914, the end of the first great migration, more than a third of Argentina's population was foreign-born. Forty percent of the newcomers were from Italy and 35% from Spain, according to government statistics. These two groups also led smaller influxes after World War II.

So Italian and Spanish cultures predominate in the names and faces of many Argentines, their predilection for pizza and pasta, their jaunty, talkative and occasionally operatic manner.

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