Life in Buenos Aires Part 3: Ex-Pats & Immigrants

ex-pats and immigrants

As a current ex-pat with two immigrant parents back in the States, it was important for me to discuss ex-pats and immigrants living in Buenos Aires. The city is a global hub that has seen large waves of both ex-pats and immigrants over the years. In this post, I highlight a few groups that have landed in Buenos Aires and give a sense of their history.

But first, what is the difference between an expatriate (ex-pat) and an immigrant? The difference, according to Fluency Corp, is the following: 

An expatriate is, “typically defined as a person who lives outside their native country.”

An immigrant is, “defined as a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.” 

Sometimes, there are stereotypes associated with being either an ex-pat or an immigrant. Ex-pats are generally seen as privileged, having little interest in learning about the native culture of their new home country. Immigrants are labeled as low-income and accused of “stealing” jobs. Although neither of these stereotypes is true, many people have their own biases toward ex-pats and immigrants.

Over the last few centuries, there have been huge waves of immigration to Buenos Aires, making it attractive to new immigrant groups. Jewish… Middle Eastern… Spanish… there are immigrants here from all over the world!

Immigration in Buenos Aires

In the mid-to-late-1800s, Buenos Aires was considered a small city, with just 178,000 inhabitants in 1869. Immigration was prevalent beforehand due to the easy-to-access port, but numbers increased in the early 1900s with the development of the Puerto Nuevo, or “new port,” in 1911. Just a few years later, in 1914, Buenos Aires housed 1.6 million people. There were folks from all over the world: Italy, Germany, France, Syria, Lebanon, Spain, and Britain.

One of the largest waves of immigration was from Italy. Between 1870 and 1960, almost 2 million Italians immigrated to Argentina. Both economic opportunities and the need to escape war in Europe impacted this wave of Italian immigration. The influx of Italians influenced the local culture, having an impact on food, language, lifestyle, and more. Today, there are about 30 million Argentinians of Italian descent, making up two-thirds of the population.

At the same time, Buenos Aires hosts a large Jewish population. With over 250,000 Jewish people living in the city, it is the largest Latin American center for Jewish people… and one of the largest in the world.

Jewish people have immigrated to Buenos Aires from all over the world. However, there was a sizable influx after World War II, when Jewish people fled from the Nazis in the 1940s. Buenos Aires was a welcoming city to Jewish refugees, despite Perón’s deeply problematic support of helping Nazis escape post-war Europe. Jewish immigration into Buenos Aires is a significant part of history and there is far more information out there than I have shared in this article. For further reading about the Jewish population in Argentina, check out this resource.

Why is immigration in Buenos Aires important? The same reason immigration is important all around the world: It brings new cultures, perspectives, economic resources, and traditions to large cities. However, immigrants have not always been treated fairly. Xenophobia, or prejudice against people from other countries, is rampant toward immigrants in many countries around the world, including Buenos Aires. For example, as someone of Middle Eastern descent who lives in the United States, I’m especially cognizant of the fact that Middle Eastern people are not extremely welcome in certain areas. The same goes for Middle Easterners in Buenos Aires.

Over the centuries, Middle Easterners and Arabian-Argentinians have built a large community, but they have not always had a welcoming introduction to the country. In the 1860s, there was a large influx of immigrants from Arab countries to the Americas due to the political and religious persecution of the Ottoman Empire. Many Arabic immigrants came from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Turkey. As with many Middle Eastern immigrants all over the world, initial assimilation to Argentine culture was not easy. Many Arab immigrants found economic success by opening small businesses, which was felt as a threat to the Argentinians. However, with time, business success, and connecting with their own community, Middle Eastern folks have found it easier to assimilate to Argentinian culture than centuries before. 

As a Middle Eastern person in Buenos Aires, I didn’t have too much of an issue adapting to the culture. I’m a fairly white-passing person. (Interestingly enough, I’m white-passing to POC but considered “diverse” to white people. I’ve heard both sides of the coin many times. If you want to read more about this, check out this article I wrote: “Are Middle Eastern People Really White?“) I can acknowledge and own that it is a huge privilege that I never experienced any sort of discrimination as a Middle Eastern person in Buenos Aires. If anything, there was more animosity toward the fact that I was from the United States… but I’ll touch on that later. For now, I want to delve more deeply into another group of folks in Buenos Aires and how they’re treated: expatriates.

Buenos Aires: An Ex-Pat Heaven

Beyond the rich history of immigration to Argentina and Buenos Aires throughout the years, the city is also a haven for expatriates. Why? According to the guide to Buenos Aires on the Expat Arrivals website, the city has great public transportation, an excellent exchange rate (especially for USD/EUR), an incredible nightlife, varied restaurant offerings, high-quality private healthcare, and an already-built-in community of other ex-pats.

It is no surprise that this Argentinian city has attracted folks from all over the world for their travels and long-term stays. It’s easy to find a community here and make yourself at home, though it’s important to note that, especially as an ex-pat, you should make an effort to learn the local language and customs when visiting a new country.  

Ex-pats have been treated much better than immigrants when it comes to assimilating into this new culture. Ex-pats have financial privileges and, in most cases, the safety net of being able to return to their home country. Sometimes, immigrants are refugees of war, crime, and violence in their home countries, whereas ex-pats typically move to a different country for a new experience or cultural influence.

I consider myself an ex-pat. I moved to Argentina on my own terms, with a plan to move back to the United States. Being an ex-pat comes with a slew of privileges that are not afforded to many immigrants. My parents, for example, are both immigrants from Iran. They came to the States for their education and never returned to their home country due to the devastating impact of the Iranian Revolution. They didn’t have the privilege of returning home; many ex-pats do.

Whether immigrant or ex-pat, every person has their own challenges when it comes to moving permanently (or temporarily) to a new country.

What about being “American” in Argentina?

Enjoying local empanadas in the Buenos Aires barrio, or neighborhood, of Recoleta!

First, I would like to acknowledge that I am not of Indigenous descent but, rather, use the term “American” here to describe people who are currently living in the United States. However, using the term “American” when you are from the United States may be an imperialistic way of describing your background.

Being described as “American” outside of the United States is inaccurate unless you are of Indigenous descent. I myself have learned that many local folks do not appreciate it, and sometimes even get upset, if you describe yourself as “American.” That is because South America is also an America!

What Argentinian folks have told me is that it is best to say that you are from the United States, or estadounidense (a citizen of the United States). 

The use of the word “American” by those from the United States is emblematic of white supremacy and colonization. You can learn more about this here: What Does ‘American’ Actually Mean?

Previous Posts in This Series

As an ex-pat, I did not want to play into any of the negative stereotypes ex-pats carry, such as having no interest in learning local customs and traditions. My first task was to sign up for Spanish classes, where I not only learned the language but also local customs and traditions. You can learn more about my personal journey (and the history of Buenos Aires) in Part 1 of this series.

In Part 2, I wrote about women in Argentina.

Stay tuned for my next (and last) post in this series, which will be about the LGBTQ+ community in Buenos Aires. 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


Expat vs. Immigrant: What’s the Difference?

The rich legacy of immigration 

Immigration, Communities, and Neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, 1880–1930

What is the connection between Italy and Argentina?

Jews and Arabs in Argentina: A Study of the Integration, Interactions and Ethnic Identification of Argentina Migrant Groups 

Buenos Aires: Pros and cons of moving to Buenos Aires

Perón and the Nazis: a fraternal relationship

Yasi Agah is a born and raised Californian living out her dreams in New York City. She loves to read, write, listen to podcasts, and teach yoga. Becoming by Michelle Obama makes her cry every time she reads it.

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