Sunday, May 19, 2013

Stories from My Mission: Ethnic Tensions in Argentina

Normally when you think about ethnic tensions and strife Argentina is not a place that you would associate with that kind of thing, mostly because there is very little ethnic tension in Argentina. The fact that there is so little tension makes it that much more surprising when you run into it. One of the (mostly) unspoken points of pride among Argentines is that they are not racist ("Como los norteamericanos" [Like the Americans] as they would say). They like to view themselves as not partaking in the gross sin of racism (again, "Unlike those Americans, who are the worst racists in the world") unlike some or most of their neighbors. But even though they pride themselves in being non-racist I have found them to be no different from everyone else in the world.

One of the reasons why there is so little ethnic tension in Argentina is because the people there are so homogeneous. It is estimated that 93%-96% of the population is of European origin. That is, pure European origin, not mixed native and European (Mestizo), which only makes up 3%-6% of the population. This is very odd for a Latin American country because, for example, Mexico is about 60% Mestizo and 30% native, and Paraguay is about 95% Mestizo. Furthermore the most prominent country of origin for Argentines is Italy, which makes up approximately 60% of the population, followed by Spain (30%). This high amount of Italian heritage has greatly influenced everything from cuisine to language.

Thus the homogeneity among Argentines is the reason why there is so little ethnic tension in Argentina, despite what a few Argentines have told me, who insisted that Argentines are just naturally more resistant to racism (it's sort of like arguing that Eskimos are more naturally resistant to heat stroke). Despite this I found that many Argentines actually do deal with ethnic tensions, but it is not just as visible as it is in other places. I will give a couple of examples that I was able see in person.

In my second area of my mission, Sáenz Peña, there is a small barrio (neighborhood) on the edge of the city where several Toba live. The Toba are a tribe of natives that lived in the area of the Gran Chaco when the Spanish conquistadors showed up. The relationship between the Spanish and the Toba was about average, meaning the Spanish took their land, moved them to very poor plots of land, exploited their labor, and generally mistreated them.Since then the relationship between the Toba and the Europeans has not been about average (meaning not very good, which is average for the relationship between natives and Europeans). There have been some very serious problems but it is nothing that anyone talks about anymore.

So there was a barrio, called barrio Toba, where all the Toba lived in Sáenz Peña. The Toba there mostly kept to themselves, and everyone else kept away from them. When I say everyone kept away from the Toba, I mean there was a buffer zone of 50-100 meters surrounding barrio Toba where no one would build, as you can see in the image from Google Earth below. I have marked barrio Toba in the image with a red outline. You can see the (unofficial) buffer zone to the north and to the west, with the edge of the city to the east.
Barrio Toba in Sáenz Peña outlined in red.
To the south there are a few houses, but the people that lived there were the poorest of the poor. When I got to Sáenz Peña the barrio directly to the south of barrio Toba didn't even have a name, which is unusual in Argentina. A few months before I got there the city had some devastating floods and the people who had nothing left after the flood were given small plots of land in the poorest part of the city, right next to barrio Toba. The city did not provide power, water or sewers, or even a school for the people in the poor barrio. They just sent a road grader though to make the roads and told people to move in. In many cases the deal was 4000 for 150 pesos, that is 4000 bricks for 150 pesos. You buy the bricks and someone brings them on a horse drawn cart and dumps them on your plot. You then have to build the house yourself using nothing but mud (and straw!) for mortar. It was a very primitive life and disease was rampant. So the only people who would even live close to the Toba were the poorest of the poor who lived in the worst of conditions.

While I was in the area I worked with one missionary, who was Argentine, who tended to try to avoid the Toba at all cost. This avoidance was at times painfully obvious. I remember once we were visiting someone who lived in the poor barrio just south of barrio Toba and when we were done visiting we had to head north to find our next appointment. My companion, the Argentine, insisted on walking around barrio Toba rather than go through it. Below I have marked on the satellite image where we were and where we had to go. We were at point A and we had to get to point B.
The most direct route would have taken us through barrio Toba.
But he insisted on taking a route that almost doubled the distance, just so we wouldn't have to go through barrio Toba. Below is the route we took.
When I asked him why we couldn't just take the direct route his only reply was, "We just shouldn't go in there."

In that area there was one man who was a member of the Church who was also a Toba. He would come to church occasionally, and when I was with my American companions we would occasionally go visit him. At the time the branch (local Church congregation) was having a hard time getting things organized. They were trying to get home teaching started. At one point I suggested to the branch president that this Toba brother should have home teachers assigned to him. The branch president was a bit evasive in his answer and when I pressed him what it came down to was no one was willing to visit him. (I should note that the branch president was not unwilling to do it, he was just stating a reality. He had many problems he had to deal with in the branch and adding the ethnic tension between the Toba and everyone else to the mix was just a little much for him.)

I mentioned this to a member of the branch who was also a counselor in the district presidency (kind of like a stake presidency). He sort of blew it off by saying, "Of course, he's a Toba. We don't talk to them." (As a note, he said this rather sarcastically implying that he did not approve of the way everyone else treated the Toba. This member was one of the few people who was willing to go into barrio Toba and talk to them. There were a few others, but not many.)

The few times that I did go into barrio Toba we were always met with children peeking out from doors and windows and all the adults hiding from us. Some times I wish I spent more time there and worked on getting the Toba to trust me.

There were other minor things that I came across that reminded me about the ethnic tensions just below the surface. The Argentines didn't really get along with Chileans, or the Bolivians (and they just sort of ignored the Uruguayans), but it was never as pronounced as it was with the Toba. Overall the ethnic tensions were practically nonexistent but that probably had to do more with the extreme homogeneity of the country and not so much something special about the Argentines.

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