POPULATION: 32.3 million
LANGUAGE: Spanish (official); Italian; English; Quechua; other native languages
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism (official); Evangelical Protestantism
Argentina gets its name from the Latin word for silver, argentum, and this is what drove the Spanish, the colonial rulers of Argentina, to explore the land during the sixteenth century. Ever since, the country has attracted European immigrants, including Welsh, Basque, English, Italians, and Ukranians. When these immigrants encountered indigenous (native) peoples, they simply removed them from the land, claiming it as their own.
During the 1820s, a series of independence movements throughout South America combined to pry control of the continent away from the hands of Spain. Under the leadership of General José de San Martín and others, the United Provinces of the River Plata (the first name of the present-day Argentina) declared independence in 1816. Argentina's Constitution was established in 1853.
After decades of military dictatorships, today the country is ruled by a parliamentary democracy. During the 1970s and 1980s, the military government waged what has come to be known as the "Dirty War" against its own people. In the name of protecting the country from Communists, the military murdered thousands of innocent civilians whom they labeled as "subversives." This violent period has had a lasting impact on the character of the Argentines.
Geographically, Argentina is the world's eighth-largest country, only slightly smaller than India. It has a total area of about 1.1 million square miles (2.8 million square kilometers), excluding the South Atlantic island and the part of Antarctica it claims as national territory. From north to south (from Quiaca on the Bolivian border to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego), it is nearly 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) in length. This is about the same distance as from Havana, Cuba, to the Hudson Bay in Canada, or from the Sahara Desert in Africa to Scotland.
Approximately 80 percent of the population of 32.3 million people live in urban areas. More than 33 percent live in Gran Buenos Aires, which includes the Capital Federal and its suburbs in the Buenos Aires province. The majority of people (85 percent) come from European stock, including about four hundred thousand Jews. Argentina is the world's eighth-largest Jewish community. Approximately 15 percent of the population are Mestizo—people of mixed Indian and European blood.
The official language of Argentina is Spanish, but a number of other European-descended communities still maintain their own languages. Italians, for instance, constitute the largest immigrant group. As a result, Italian is widely understood, as is English, another significant immigrant language. Some seventeen native languages still survive, though some are spoken by very few individuals.
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Despite the fact that Argentina considers itself cultured and European, spiritualism and the worship of the dead play an important part in the lives of the people. A famous novelist, Tomás Eloy Martínez, has pointed out that the country's national heroes, such as San Martín, are honored not on the anniversary of their birth but of their death. This is the way that saints' days are celebrated. Pilgrims regularly visit the Recoleta and Chacarita cemeteries in Buenos Aires, where personal prayers are said and ritual offerings are left, especially at the tombs of political and popular culture figures.
During the 1800s, the gaucho, the Argentine cowboy, came to represent a free-spirited symbol for the country. He was seen as a rebel who challenged authority in order to preserve his freedom. Legends about him grew, and he became the inspiration for many writers.
The official state religion is Roman Catholicism, but Evangelical Protestant movements are making converts among traditional Catholic believers. The Catholic religion also faces challenges where popular folklore conflicts with official church teaching.
The main Christian festivals such as Easter and Christmas are celebrated throughout the country. There are also national celebrations of historical times and heroes such as the May Revolution of 1810; Malvinas Day on June 10, which celebrates the establishment of the "Comandancia Política y Militar de las Malvinas" in 1829; Independence Day on July 9; and Día de San Martín, the anniversary of Saint Martin's death on August 17.
Baptism, first communion, and saints' days are major events, important to both individuals and families. Because of the strong Spanish and Italian heritage and the continuing influence of the Catholic Church, these occasions are used as important family get-togethers. Younger people, however, no longer feel obliged to get married in church. Civil marriages have become popular. There is a growing trend toward divorce and remarriage.
Argentines are extremely outgoing and eagerly invite visitors to participate in their activities. One famous pastime is drinking maté, a Paraguayan tea made from holly leaves. This is more than a simple drink like tea or coffee. It is an elaborate ritual, shared among family, friends, and colleagues. For those taking part, the sharing of the tea-making process seems to be the whole point of the maté ritual.
During the process, one person is responsible for filling a gourd almost to the top with the tea. Meanwhile, water is heated, but not boiled, in a kettle. The hot water is then poured into the gourd vessel. Everyone sips the liquid from a silver tube with a bulbous filter at its lower end that prevents the leaves from entering the tube.
Argentines are quite formal in public and are very aware of proper civilities. Even when asking a stranger for directions in the street, one is expected to approach the person with a greeting such as buenos días or buenas tardes, "good day" or "good afternoon."
The major cities in Argentina have a European look to them. The middle classes live in tall, modern apartment buildings or in bungalows with small gardens. Since the 1930s, rural workers have flocked to the big cities and a number of slums have sprouted on the outskirts, where the workers live in shacks. Rural houses are often built of adobe, with earth floors and roofs of straw and mud.
The strong Catholic and Spanish heritage has meant that the family plays a central role in Argentine life. There is still a strong belief in the nuclear family, which also extends to grandparents, uncles and aunts, and other close relatives.
Much social life is family-centered, and occasions such as birthdays, First Communions, weddings, and funerals are of major importance. Meals are also important occasions for families and are often elaborate, and quite long. A favorite family get-together is the barbecue.
Most city-dwellers wear Western-style clothes, and many enthusiastically follow the fashions of Europe, particularly those of Italy.
In the rural areas, however, many workers on the estancias (ranches) wear at least part of the gaucho costume—a wide-brimmed hat and loose trousers tucked into the boots—as part of their outfit. In the northwest, the Indians wear ponchos, colorful skirts, and bowler hats.
There are enormous cattle ranches in the Pampas region in Argentina. So it is not surprising that the Argentine diet is meat-oriented. A recipe for a popular beef main dish follows.
There is a surprising ethnic and regional variety to Argentine cooking. The Italian presence has resulted in a great popularity for pasta dishes such as spaghetti, lasagna, cannelloni, and ravioli. Beef, though, is the center of most meals. The most popular form is the parrillada, a mixed grill of steak and other cuts.
Some regions have very distinctive food. The Andean northwest offers very spicy dishes. It is common to find Middle Eastern food in the Mendoza north.
With a 94 percent literacy rate, Argentina is one of Latin America's most literate countries. From the ages of five to twelve, education is free and compulsory.
Serve with cooked rice.
Adapted from Sarvis, Shirley. Woman's Day Home Cooking Around the World. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Universities are traditionally free and open, but the courses tend to be rigidly specialized. With so much higher education available, the system has turned out many people with professional qualifications, such as doctors and lawyers. Unfortunately, not of all of these people can easily find work in the capital city, Buenos Aires. Despite this, few of them are willing to move to the provinces.
During the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Buenos Aires adopted French trends in art, music, and particularly architecture. This can be seen in many of the buildings constructed in the capital in the early 1900s.
Argentine writers of the twentieth century are some of the most famous writers in the world. They include Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Ernesto Sábato, Manuel Puig, Osvaldo Soriano, and Adolfo Bioy Casares. Most of their work is available in English translation.
In Buenos Aires, the Teatro Colón opera house is one of the finest of its kind in the world. Classical music and ballet, as well as modern dance, are staged here. The capital also has a lively theater circuit, as rich as any major city elsewhere in the world. Even in the provinces, live theater is an important part of cultural life.
Despite its abundant natural resources and its well-educated and cultured population, Argentina has failed to live up to its potential. Earlier in the twentieth century, Argentina was seen to be on a par with prosperous countries such as Canada and Australia. Yet not only has it failed to keep up with them, it has continually fallen behind them.
Like other Latin American countries, one of Argentina's fundamental problems lies in the poverty of its rural areas. Control of the richest agricultural lands of the Pampas is in the hands of a small number of wealthy families. Most rural people are reduced to scratching out a living on marginal lands or laboring as poorly paid workers on the big estates.
The country is soccer-crazed. Argentina won the World Cup at home in 1978, and again in 1986. The country has produced a number of internationally known players such as Diego Maradona and Daniel Passarella, who now coaches the national team. There are more first-division soccer teams in Buenos Aires than anywhere else in the world. Of the country's twenty teams, eight are based in the capital, while five are in the nearby suburbs.
Several Argentine tennis players have also become world-famous, such as Guillermo Vilas and Gabriela Sabatini.
The game of basketball has also become a notable sport in Argentina, following the influx of many North American athletes who were unable to play professional basketball in America or Europe. In 1995, the Argentine national team defeated the U.S. team for the gold medal in the Pan American Games in Mar del Plata.
The best-known and most striking feature of Argentine popular culture is the tango, both as music and dance. It first became popular in 1880, when it emerged from working-class districts. It was a blend of gaucho (cowboy) verse with Spanish and Italian music. Then came Carlos Gardel, the music's most famous performer, who created the tango canción, the "tango song." This lifted tango out of the poor streets and into the fashionable bars of Buenos Aires.
For many Argentines, the tango song sums up the fears and anxieties of life. It can carry themes as diverse as love, jealousy, and betrayal to everyday subjects such as going to work or coping with one's neighbors. It is often full of nostalgia about a way of life that is fast disappearing.
Argentines are great movie-goers, although many theaters have shut down outside Buenos Aires due to the increasing popularity of at-home viewing of videos.
In artisans' ferias, found throughout the country, the variety of handicrafts is extensive. Maté paraphernalia is widespread, and gourds and bombilas range from simple and inexpensive aluminum, which are often sold in street kiosks, to elaborate and expensive gold and silver found in jewelry stores. In the province of Salta, the distinctive pon chos de guemes are produced.
Runaway inflation seems to have been halted by the government under President Carlos Menem, elected in 1989. Menem, a former soccer player, has worked to cut government spending and state-owned enterprises. The trouble is that continuing privatization (the selling of government-owned businesses to investors) has led to high unemployment. The government justifies this as a necessary part of reform.
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Caistor, Nick. Argentina. Austin, Tex.: Steck-Vaughn Library, 1991.
Fox, Geoffrey. The Land and People of Argentina. New York: Lippincott, 1990.
Gofen, Ethel. Argentina. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1991.
Jacobsen, Karen. Argentina. Chicago: Childrens' Press, 1990.
Liebowitz, Sol. Argentina. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.
Peterson, Marge. Argentina: A Wild West Heritage. 2nd ed. Parsippany, N.J.: Dillon Press, 1997.
Sarvis, Shirley. Woman's Day Home Cooking Around the World. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.