Posted by: talljoe | December 2, 2011

The Bolivianization of Northern Argentina

“I don’t mind that they’re here but –”:
The Bolivianization of Northern Argentina

Racial discrimination has been rampant throughout the world for centuries.  From the African slave trade in the 1700s and Nazi Germany’s humiliation of Europe’s Jewish communities during World War II, to the continued racial boundaries between white and black in the United States and the internal physical discrimination among Asia’s various bloodlines, discrimination is nothing new when it comes to determining ones’ place in society.

Today, one can point to the struggle of Mexican immigrants adjusting to new lives (legalities pending) in the United States as a significant source of discrimination.  According to a Pew Research study conducted in late 2008, nearly 13 million Mexicans were living in the United States – more than half (55%) were residing illegally.  This has prompted outrage among conservative Americans.  “We are a nation of people that have worked to gain our citizenship,” Josh Hensen, creator of ‘Stop the Invasion,’ a Facebook group which formulates a discussion on illegal immigration, wrote on the site.  “Illegals are an insult to our ancestors, and most importantly, the legal Mexicans that have worked their butts off to become part of our great nation.”

Simultaneously an equally significant struggle is occurring in Argentina – over 6,000 miles south of the U.S. and Mexican border – where Bolivian migration has rapidly increased since the year 2000 to 7 million.  Conservative Argentines share the opinions of U.S. citizens when it comes to the Bolivian burst.  “I don’t mind that they’re here,” Recoleta resident Cristina Claros said sarcastically.  “They’re invading our schools.  They fill up the queue in our hospitals.  They take our jobs, but they’re still littering our streets selling their fruit.”

Despite backlash from natives in both countries, Mexicans and Bolivians continue to migrate to the United States and Argentina respectively.  In Argentina, Bolivians arrive knowing that there are anchors of support.  Bolivian journalist Lilia Camacho and activist Reina Isabel Torres are just two shoulders to lean on.  Camacho and Torres have been supporting each other and immigrant communities in Argentina since 2001 when Torres’ sister-in-law Marcelina Meneses and her 10-month-old son were pushed off a train en route to Buenos Aires and killed.  The apparent assassinations of Meneses and her son were due to discrimination toward their Bolivian roots.  Since that day Camacho and Torres have been tirelessly advocating for the improvement of immigrant communities in Buenos Aires.

Camacho mans public relations for Radio Constellation, an Argentine radio station operating out of a small apartment in barrio Flores, Buenos Aires.  For four years, the station has provided Bolivian immigrants with music from their roots as well as a place that they can call a second home.  In addition to broadcasting great music, the station also acts as a community center for immigrants in need.  Upon walking into the building there is a wall covered in classified ads posted by members of the community.  Those looking to buy, sell, find a job or hire employees come to the center and hope for the best.  The radio provides counseling and support to those who are employed in Buenos Aires to educate new workers on their rights and responsibilities and to ensure success.

Camacho and Torres understand the fragile situation for immigrants in Argentina.  “One of the reasons for the discrimination is that [immigrants] are vulnerable,” Camacho said.  “We come from a country where we, as farmers, are also discriminated against, so [Bolivians] are shy and unaware of their rights in Argentina.”  Others attribute immigrants’ susceptibility to their distinct appearance.  “They’re very noticeable in the streets,” Claros said.  “[Argentines] call them Boliviguayos because we don’t know if they’re Bolivian, Paraguayan, Peruvian.  They’re different.”  Bolivians are also called bolitas (little balls) and Paraguayans, paraguas (umbrellas).

The derogative labeling of immigrant groups is quite common in countries with large migrant populations.  In the United States, Mexicans are sometimes referred to as wetbacks because of the necessity to cross the Rio Grande in order to enter the States illegally through Texas.  Bolivian name calling was illustrated in the 2001 award winning film Bolivia.  The film portrays a Freddy Flores, a Bolivian employed as an undocumented restaurant worker in Buenos Aires.  Throughout the film, Flores is subject to racial slurs like ‘negro’ by some of the customers.  However, Flores’ struggle did not stop with verbal abuse.  At some points he is physically harassed and in the end he is killed due to his Bolivian heritage.

Today, the social wellness of Argentina’s Bolivian community is slowly but surely developing.  Reina Torres recounted the change in the frequency of the discrimination while speaking to a group of students in Buenos Aires.  “In 2001 the Bolivians were viewed as scapegoats,” she said.  “But now if you ask Argentines about Bolivians the response is improving.”  Camacho added that the graffiti which pollutes the city’s streets used to fire shots at the Bolivian immigrants.  Expletives about the Bolivian community which used to adorn walls throughout Buenos Aires are now being replaced by signals of support – fighting back against fascism.

Perhaps the shift in the mood has some connection to the advancements made by Bolivians in Argentina’s work force.  “The first waves of Bolivian immigrants were farmers,” Torres said.  “But now the second generation is mostly made up of textile workers who earn and save a lot of money.”  It is difficult to move ahead in the job market without holding a legal status in one’s country.  Immigrants are well aware of this.  A visit to Argentina’s Immigrations office in Retiro will reveal long lines filled with Bolivian, Peruvian and Paraguayan immigrants looking to earn their golden ticket into Argentine society.

Discrimination among migrant groups is always going to have an impact on societies around the world.  With time, Argentina’s citizens will come to fully accept Bolivians as Argentines, and U.S. citizens will no longer frown against the abundance of Mexican workers in their workplaces.  However, the end to of discriminatory action always leads to another.  This practice, as negative as it maybe, will always remain a significant part of the global society.

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