What do yerba mate, empanadas, and tango all have in common? You can experience them all in beautiful Buenos Aires, Argentina!
Why am I writing about this magical South American cultural hub? I am currently sitting in my apartment in Buenos Aires where I have been living for the last 6 weeks. I’m living here for 3 months total with my partner and am excited to share a little more about this wonderful city. Buenos Aires is a complex, politically, and culturally-rich city that is going to take more than just one blog post to do it justice. Through this 4-part series, I’ll be analyzing how various groups are treated in Buenos Aires through a feminist lens and, most importantly, from my perspective as someone who is a visitor. I’ll touch on women (generally), ex-pats/immigrants & the LGBTQ+ community. For this first post, let’s do an overview of the city, history, and my experience living in the city so far.
Let’s kick it off with a few quick facts about Buenos Aires:
Where is Buenos Aires? It’s the capital and largest city located on the east side of Argentina .
How big is the population? In the city proper, there are about 3 million folks living in Buenos Aires. In Greater Buenos Aires, there are about 15 million people.
What language do they speak? Spanish with various dialects
What is their time zone? Argentina Standard Time, ART (UTC-3). You can think of it as EST plus 1 hour.
How many provinces are in Argentina? There are 24 provinces with Buenos Aires being the largest.
Buenos Aires has been founded twice. Once in 1536, by Spanish explorer Pedro de Mendoza who named it Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Aire – or – “Our Lady St. Mary of the Good Air” based on the “good air” of the port area. This initial area, now known as the neighborhood, or “barrio”, of San Telmo was abandoned and re-colonized in the late 1500s. In 1580, Spanish explorer, Juan de Garay, “refounded” the city and declared it Ciudad de Trinidad, or “City of Trinidad”.
Buenos Aires started growing over the next couple of centuries, becoming a central player in the trade industry due to its port. As the city began to grow, both in population and economically, Britain attempted to invade in 1806 and 1807. Buenos Aires folks, or porteños, had managed to fend off their city which marked the beginning of Argentine nationalism. On May 25th, 1810, Argentina began campaigning to free themselves of Spanish rule. They finally achieved this goal on July 9th, 1816 – Argentina was finally emancipated from its Spanish colonizers and became an independent country.
As Argentina reveled in its victory, conflict rose throughout the city. According to Thought Co, the country was split between “Unitarians, who favored a strong central government in Buenos Aires, and Federalists, who preferred near-autonomy for the provinces”. As the fight continued, in 1829 Juan Manuel de Rosas came into power as a Federalist leader and the Unitarians were persecuted. Rosas was eventually removed from power in 1852 and Argentina ratified its first constitution a year later. As civil unrest continued, England and France both tried to take over Argentina in the mid-1800s but ultimately failed. Despite all the obstacles, Buenos Aires continued to thrive as a port city which eventually led to its European influence, high immigration rates in the early 20th century, and mass industrialization.
Many of you might have one image when it comes to Argentina: Eva, or Evita, Perón. In the mid-20th century, Juan Perón and his wife, Evita, came into power when he became president in 1946. Perón is a factually important person in Argentianan history who, along with Evita, made changes to Argentina’s domestic and foreign sphere of influence, however this does not dampen the atrocities commited by his government and his support of Nazi’s who fled to Argentina post WWII and his embrace of fascism. He was exiled in 1955 but continued to hold power in Argentinian politics. He even won the 1973 election but died a year into his second term.
So what happened to Argentina in the late 1900s? A little over 20 years ago, the Argentinian peso was about a one-to-one ratio to the US Dollar. But right now, it’s about 125 Pesos to 1 USD. What happened? Argentina’s economy collapsed at the beginning of the 21st century and never seemed to recover. According to the Buenos Aires Times, in 2001 there was a, “collapse of convertibility and the confiscation of bank deposits amidst a popular uprising” that led to the economic catastrophe that ensued. As of May 2022, inflation is 58% and increasing. The Buenos Aires times chalks it up to “politicians repeatedly [failing] to keep government spending under control, central bankers…changing their monetary plans, and the country [suffering] a currency crisis in 2018 amid a wider flight from high-risk emerging markets”.
The details of the actual 2001 collapse are ~fairly complicated~ and I’m not an expert – if you’re interested in learning more, check out this article from the Buenos Aires Times: Argentines recall nation’s worst ever crisis, 20 years on.
My Experience So Far
So what have I been up to in Argentina? I quit my full-time job and have been taking time to learn new skills, embrace a different culture, and explore Buenos Aires. Since I didn’t know Spanish prior to arriving in South America, I spent the first month of my time here taking an in-person intensive class. My 6 years of Latin class in middle & high school were finally starting to pay off. My Latin knowledge which was stored very, very deep within my brain had finally resurfaced when it came to learning grammatical rules, roots, and conjugations in Spanish.
By the end of the month, I was conversational and able to get around the city. After my Spanish class ended, I spent time venturing to different neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, focusing on my yoga practice and (you guessed it) writing! And…well…job hunting. I want to acknowledge that it’s been a huge privilege to take a few months off from work to focus on travel and hobbies. I wouldn’t be here without the support of my partner and his company – they’re the reason that we are here and I am grateful to be part of the journey.
By moving to a new country where I didn’t speak the language, I want to make sure that I’m being as respectful and engaged as possible in the local customs without imparting colonizing behavior. Whether it’s supporting Argentinian businesses, partaking in Buenos Aires traditions such as a Sunday “Asado” (barbeque), or practicing my ~ elementary-level ~ Spanish, I am making efforts to embrace the lifestyle here rather than fight the change. That has been one of my biggest takeaways so far – when change gets thrown your way, ride the wave the best that you can.
When it comes to embracing the change that comes with living in Buenos Aires, here are a few cultural differences that I have experienced – the first one is the later timing of their routine. Let me share a dialogue we had with an Argentinian friend that will perfectly showcase what I’m talking about:
“What time do you usually eat dinner in the States?”
“We usually eat dinner around 7 pm.”
“You eat dinner at 7 in the afternoon?? That is so early!”
You read that correctly. 7 in the afternoon. This is very typical for Argentinian culture. 7 pm is considered the afternoon! Most folks don’t eat dinner until 9 or 10 pm on a regular basis. On weekends, it stretches out to even later with a solid 11 pm or midnight dinner. The same rule goes for bars and clubs. You shouldn’t even step into a bar until at least midnight or try a club before 2 am. It’s been quite an adjustment from my grandmother-like bedtime routine of dinner at 6 pm with the goal of being in bed by 9 pm. Regardless – it’s been very fun to adapt as much as we can to this new routine! We’ve found that it’s best to strike a balance with the late-night dinners. I’m okay with cashing in on the early-bird special on the weekdays if it means I’ll have an 11 pm dinner on the weekends. Life is about moderation, right?
The next interesting culture shock was the Buenos Aires accent. Folks from Buenos Aires speak Spanish with a slight accent (that is only found in Buenos Aires – not the rest of Argentina). They pronounce “y” and “ll” as a /sh/ sound – the /sh/ sound is called the yeísmo rehilado.
For example, in many Spanish-speaking countries, you would pronounce the word for chicken, “pollo”, like poh-yoh. But in Buenos Aires, you would pronounce it poh-sho. Another example is the word for the month of May, “Mayo”. Typically this would be pronounced as mah-yoh but in Buenos Aires it would be mah-sho. Anything with a double “L” or “Y” turns into a /sh/ sound. So you guessed it correctly. In Buenos Aires, my name is pronounced as “Shah-si”.
This was probably the only time that I was grateful that I hadn’t taken learned how to speak Spanish prior to coming to Argentina. This change didn’t throw me off too much because I ended up learning Spanish through my classes with the /sh/ sound as part of the course. When I venture out to other Spanish-speaking countries, it might be a bit of an adjustment. For the most part, Buenos Aires folks understand the typical Spanish accent without the /sh/ sound but most of them speak it here. Why?
According to Argentina Reports, it’s unclear exactly how this accent came to be but many people attribute it to the mass immigration to Buenos Aires in the 1880s. The yeísmo rehilado is a common accent throughout Buenos Aires and is spoken most often, not only by porteños but also by Uruguayans in the capital city of Montevideo. The entire region surrounding the Delta, or the Río de la Plata, was most directly influenced by the yeísmo rehilado accent.
Another interesting expression that I picked up on was that local folks said “chau” to say “goodbye”. It reminded me of Italy with “ciao” which makes perfect sense because of the large Italian immigration in Buenos Aires. But we’ll get to that later in the series.
What hasn’t been too much of a culture shock for me is the friendliness and warmth of the Argentinian people. It reminds me a lot of Middle Eastern and Persian culture. Hugs and kisses when you say hello and goodbye to folks, treating everyone like family, and making sure that your plate is always full if you come over for lunch.
That’s all for now – stay tuned for the rest of the series where we’ll analyze the lifestyles of women, ex-pats/immigrants, and LGBTQ+ communities living in Buenos Aires through a feminist lens. Until later – or – hasta luego!
For Further Reading:
- The Argentina Reader: History, Culture, Politics edited by Gabriela Nouzeilles and Graciela Montaldo
- My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain by Patricio Pron
- Bodies in Crisis: Culture, Violence, and Women’s Resistance in Neoliberal Argentina by Barbara Sutton