South America Today - Foreign Colonists in Argentina
( Originally Published 1911 )
IT is now time to return to the city to get a little better acquainted with its inhabitants. As a matter of fact, the features upon which I have touched—the town, port, promenades, palaces, settlers' houses, agricultural products, manufactures, or commerce do more or less reveal the native, and although I have said nothing of his person beyond that he looks very like a European, my reader has certainly gathered some light as to his way of living.
To the Argentine extra muros, the citizen of Buenos Aires is the porteno-that is, the man of the port, the townsman kept, by the sea, in constant contact with Europe, and more readily undertaking a trip to London or Paris than to Tucuman or Mendoza. On his side, while professing great esteem for the provincials (for in the Argentine patriotism amounts to mania), the porteno is inclined to pity those who pass their lives far from the capital; while the countryman mocks good-humouredly at his strange compatriot who knows naught of the Campo, whence are brought to his door the corn and cattle which are the outcome of the highest and mightiest efforts of their common national energy, and which by his means are to be exchanged for European produce in an ever-widening and developing trade.
This is, however, but a superficial judgment that we may permit ourselves to make; but if we look more closely into the national character, we shall perceive that if the porteno is the nearer to Europe and hastens thither on the smallest pretext; if he is more thoroughly steeped in European culture; if he takes more interest in the doings of the Old World, attaching the greatest importance to its opinion of his own country; if it is his dearest ambition that the youthful Argentine Republic shall comport herself nobly among the old peoples of a weary civilisation; if it is his constant care to obtain from beyond sea the advantages gained by experience, to be turned to account by his own nation—we should be greatly mistaken in assuming that European contact or descent could lead either citizen or farmer, porteno or estanciero, to prefer to his own land that Old Continent which his forefathers deserted, in the hope, already realised, of finding on this virgin soil, fertilised by his own labour, a better chance of success than the Old World could offer him.
While the physiognomy of the streets of Buenos Aires is wholly European in symmetry, style, and even in the expression of the faces to be seen thereon, yet this people is Argentine to the very marrow of the bones—exclusively and entirely Argentine. New York is nearer to Europe, and New York is North American in essence as completely as Buenos Aires is Argentine. The difference is that in New York, and even in Boston or Chicago, North Americanism is patent to all eyes in type, in carriage, and in voice, as much as in feeling and manner of thinking; whereas the piquancy of Buenos Aires lies in the fact that it offers the spectacle of rabid Argentinism under a European veil. And, strangely enough, this inherent jingoism, which in some nations that shall be nameless assumes so easily an offensive guise, is here displayed with an amiable candour that is most disarming, and instinctively you seek to justify it to your-self. Not satisfied with being Argentine from top to toe, these people will, if you let them, Argentinise you in a trice.
To tell the truth, there are some (I have met a few) who speak ill of the country—and these critics are people who have not even had the excuse of having been unsuccessful in their business affairs here. There are systematic grumblers everywhere, who endeavour to give themselves importance by finding fault with their surroundings. Those who are not pleased with their stay in a foreign country should re-mind themselves that nobody prevents them from returning to their own.
I have already mentioned that many Italians cross the sea for the harvesting in the Argentine, and then, taking advantage of the difference in the seasons, return home to cut their home corn. This backward and forward movement has grown enormously. But in the long run the attraction of a land that overflows with energy defeats atavistic proclivities and weak-ens roots that are centuries old. And as soon as the settler has become the owner of a few roods' of the new soil, he is irrevocably lost to Europe.
I have not sought to conceal the fact that the largest number of immigrants make the mistake of stopping at Buenos Aires, whose population is thus increased out of all proportion with the development of Argentine territory. This mass of working people, who necessarily remain easily accessible to European influences, offers apparently an excellent field for revolutionary propaganda. Anarchists and socialists spare no pains to make proselytes here, in order to strengthen their hands. A violence of speech and action has in this way given to certain strikes a truly European aspect. Still, in a country in which there is a constant supply of work, it is hardly possible that disturbances arising rather from doctrine than from existing social evils can take any hold on or materially affect any considerable extent of territory.
If I am to believe what I heard in all parts, the Russian anarchists have a specially redoubtable organisation. To mention only the most recent of events, it is known that the Chief of Police, who had directed in person some ruthless repressive measures, was killed in the street by a bomb thrown by a Russian, who was protected from the full severity of the law by his tender age.
Last June, a few days before I left Europe, a bomb was thrown by some unknown person in the Colon Theatre, falling in the middle of the orchestra and wounding more or less seriously a large number of persons. The Colon Theatre, in which opera is given, is the largest and perhaps the handsomest theatre in the world. The open boxes of the pit tier, like those of the first two tiers and orchestra, present, when filled with young women in evening dress, the most brilliant spectacle that I have ever seen in any theatre. In such a setting, imagine the catastrophe that could be caused by a bomb!- The injured were carried out somehow or other, the house was emptied amid loud and furious outcries, and, the damage having been repaired in the course of the following day, not a woman in society was absent from her place at the performance of the evening. This is a very fine trait of character which does the highest honour to the women of Argentine society. I am not sure that in Paris, under similar circumstances, there would have been a full house on the night following such a disaster.
It is easy to understand, however, that the fury of the public found expression in an Act of Parliament of terrible severity, directed immediately against any suspicious groups. The criminal in the present case has not yet been discovered, though during my stay in Buenos Aires there occurred a sensational arrest which led the authorities to believe they had laid hands on the guilty man. A state of siege was in some sense declared, lasting all the time I was in Buenos Aires; and the Government obtained extraordinary powers, to be used only against organisations believed to be anarchical. The penalty generally imposed was transportation to Terra del Fuego, under conditions that no one would or, perhaps, could describe to me. I am without the necessary returns for establishing the results obtained. Some complaints reached me from the more populous quarters affirming that the innocent had been punished; all I could do was to hand them over to the authorities. I can testify that in my presence, in any of the circles of Buenos Aires society that I was able to observe, no anarchist outrages were on any single occasion the subject of conversation. More than once I led up to it. The reply invariably was that the question was one for public authority, that the Government was armed and would take action, and if further powers should prove necessary they would be granted. Then the topic was changed.
There is no doubt that the Argentine Government, like that of Great Britain, is resolved to finish, once for all, with crimes which arouse only horror in all the civilised world. In the course of a hasty visit I had occasion to pay to the Police Department, in the company of the City Superintendent, Senor Guiraldes (at the very moment of the arrest of the man who was believed to have thrown the bomb in the Colon Theatre), I could see that not only is the force a very powerful one, but that it has at its head men of energy and decision who are determined to repress deeds of violence, of which all or nearly all are committed by persons not of Argentine nationality.
While on the subject, one may note that the Argentine police have adopted and perfected the system of identification of criminals by the marks of the thumb. First the imprint of all ten fingers is taken, so as to make mistake impossible and arrive at absolute certainty; then, acting on the principle that it may be as useful to identify an honest man as a bandit, identification certificates are issued to the public, for a small fee, containing an enlargement of the thumb imprint.
A crowd of people waiting at the door of the office that makes and furnishes these documents showed that the public fully appreciated their usefulness. Young men and old were submitting in silence to have their ten fingers smeared with a sort of wax not easily removed by soap and water. Each in turn departed well pleased that the stigma of " Unknown " would never be attached to his grave. It appears that it has become the fashion to register one's thumb at the police-station before starting on any journey. Senor Guiraldes told us that his own son, now in Europe, had taken this precaution be-fore exposing his person to the risks of the elements and the unceremonious manners of Parisian apaches.
In the days of the stage-coach Parisians used to be laughed at for making their wills and taking out passports before starting on a journey to Etampes. Now behold! By other routes we have returned to the good old days. And funny as it may appear to those of us who like to believe that civilisation in South America is more or less rudimentary, it is precisely this country which thus, in scientific fashion, guards against the barbarous ways of the capitals and even the country districts of Europe.
There was recently a story of an Argentine who was drowned on our coast and whose body was subsequently washed up on shore, with the head frightfully mutilated. As, however, the telltale thumb had been preserved he was quickly identified. If this story had been told me in time I should certainly have allowed as much of my person as was necessary to be dipped in wax instead of venturing to start on my homeward journey without the simple proofs of identity which would suffice to place beyond doubt the status of any Jonah in the depths of a whale. As it is, in spite of my imprudence, I reached home with my head still on my shoulders. Pure luck ! Never again will I trust myself at sea without this elementary pre-caution, which would so radically have changed the fortunes of Ulysses in rocky Ithaca.
After this digression, which is only excused by the importance of the subject, I want to finish what I began to say about the rabid Argentinism of our friends. I had a great surprise one day when speaking respectfully of the fine qualities of the Spaniards. Some highly cultured men present interrupted me, and criticised severely the race from which they had sprung in terms one might have expected from an Anglo-Saxon, but not from a Latin. Therefore I must ask my readers not to imagine that the Argentinos are merely Spaniards transplanted to American soil. No! The real Argentino, though he would never confess it, seems to me convinced that there is a magic elixir of youth that springs from his soil and makes of him a new man, descendant of none but ancestor of endless generations to come.
That there is indeed a regenerating influence in this youthful land is proved by the power it wields over newcomers of whatever origin. The Italian in particular is Argentinised before he is argenté. In the provinces, as in Buenos Aires, I had a hundred thousand examples of this before my eyes. You ask a child, the son of an immigrant, whether he speaks Italian or Spanish. He answers haughtily, " At home we all talk Argentine." Another, unable to deny that he was born in Genoa, although he claimed Argentine nationality, murmured by way of excuse, " I was so little." I may add that in the primary schools where these replies were made to me the teaching was the epitome of Argentine patriotic spirit, as might be guessed from the pictures and inscriptions on the walls. But Alsace-Lorraine and Poland are witness to the fact that unless the heart be wholly won authority may labour in vain.
As I want to be wholly sincere here, I must admit that the French take this Argentine contagion with remarkable facility. I should grievously wrong our own excellent colony, how-ever, if I did less than justice to its ardent patriotism. It is only when tried that love grows and grows purer. In absence the fatherland seems the dearer in proportion as it is connected with the recollection of sufferings that left us stripped of all but honour.
The public work of the French colony speaks loudly for it. Its most important achievement is the French Hospital, founded long ago, but,thanks to its Governor, M. Basset, and its chief physician, Dr. G. Laure, it is invaluable. As I was leaving the building after a visit I shall not, soon forget, the Chairman of the Board of Directors showed me a bust of Pasteur standing among the trees, and asked what I thought of a suggestion to place near it a figure of Lorraine. Although the symbolism in the two statues would be entirely different, I warmly concurred in the plan. There is, after all, a delicate connection between these two manifestations of the soul of France—the desire for know-ledge and the courage to hold.
These men, who have presented to the city of Buenos Aires a monument worthy of France in commemoration of the friendship of the sister republics, and who, on the occasion of the floods in Paris of last year, sent a cheque for 400,000 francs to assuage the worst of the distress, never miss an opportunity of showing their loyalty to the mother-country. Yet how many sons of France one meets at every step who have gone over to the Argentine, head and heart, beyond all possibility of return !
One large manufacturer of the port of Buenos Aires is a nephew of a member of our National Assembly of 1871. I noticed, when inspecting his very remarkable establishment, that he speaks French less fluently than Spanish, while his two brothers, who pay frequent visits to Paris, have become thorough Argentinos.
Again, I might take the case of one of our most eminent compatriots who left France in his twentieth year, but who has remained French to the very marrow of his bones. His son is an official of high position in the Argentine. Doubtless his marriage with a woman of the country laid the foundation for this South American family. The atmosphere of the home is naturally altered, and his material interests, indissolubly riveted to the soil that feeds him and his family, attune the settler insensibly to new ways, and gradually transform his whole habit of mind to the new pattern.
Can anybody explain why this is not the case with the French who try their fortune in North America, and why in Canada the two races live side by side in all harmony but never mix? It must be that " blood is thicker than water," as says the English proverb, and that the Latin element blends more readily with a Latin agglomeration than with an Anglo-Saxon community. Here I have seen, over and over again, that after two or three generations nothing remains of the original stock but the name.
I know of but one instance where the Latin organism has been completely assimilated by a northern race, and that is the French emigration to Germany in consequence of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. But in that case a community of religious fervour, strengthened by an odious persecution, was the active agent in the blending of the Latin mind and character with that of Germany. We all remember that the first German Governor of Alsace-Lorraine was the descendant of a French emigrant. Some of us may recall the furious address of the learned Dubois-Reymond to the youth of Prussia in 1870, urging them over the frontier of the land from which their ancestors were driven by the sabres of the dragoons of Louis XIV.
To return once more to our Franco-Argentinos, I ought to say that the severe application of French military law but too often embitters them against the mother-country. In its haste to increase its population, the Argentine awards nationalisation to the children of foreigners born on Argentine soil, and nationalisation carries in its train military service. It is the same system adopted by ourselves in Algiers toward Spanish colonists. The consequence is that the son of French parents duly registered at the French Consulate, in order to preserve for him his father's nationality, finds himself later called simultaneously to serve under two flags on opposite sides of the ocean.
What is he to do? In the Argentine, where military service is very short, are all his future prospects, while in France no place has been kept open for him. If France were in danger and called to him for help he would not hesitate, but, failing that, his actual surroundings make it hard for him to decide. The majority respond to the call to the Argentine flag, and by so doing fall into the class of insoumis on French soil, except in cases where the father, with a forethought that cannot be approved, has omitted to register the birth at the Consulate.
If I remember rightly, ten only out of forty youths called up leave Buenos Aires annually to answer to their names at the French roll-call. One wonders whether the result be sufficient to justify steps that might easily trouble our relations with the French colony in this country. For the young insoumis. can never set foot on French soil without finding the gendarmerie after him. Yet his business will call him inevitably to Europe. Where will he take his orders when France has shut her doors to him? England, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany are open to him. I heard recently a story about a Frenchman of Buenos Aires who ventured to Lille, and had only just time, at a warning from a friend, to escape over the border.
I need not dwell on the matter, but it is easy to see how detrimental the present state of the law is to French families living in the Argentine, Brazil, and other American countries, as well as to France herself. We manage in this way to drive from the national fold a number of young men who would in time of danger respond heartily to a call from the motherland.
Wherever I went I heard the same cry. The Consuls and the French Minister could only reply, " It is the law." But the Frenchman who follows the Flag in some foreign land demands an alteration in a law which ought not to be applied with the same rigour to youths living in Basle, Brussels, Geneva, and to those who have found a field for their activities across the sea.
To me it seems only justice to establish a distinction in our legislation between these two categories of French subjects. For example, I heard of the case of an eminent politician—M. Pellegrini, the son of an inhabitant of Nice, and therefore French—who, in his youth, got into difficulties in the way described with the French recruiting service, and who later, having risen to the position of President of the Argentine Republic, received the Grand Cordon of the Legion of Honour. The red ribbon or the Council of War—which seems the more appropriate reward to citizens of this kind? Of course, we must all regret that valuable citizens should thus be taken from France at the moment when she needs every one of her children. At the same time we must consider that a Frenchman who has become Argentine is by no means lost to France, as might be the case in the United States, for instance, where the Latin is rapidly submerged by the irresistible flood of Anglo-Saxonism.
In the Argentine, on the contrary, the Northern races prove merely a useful element of methodical intelligence and tenacity, which is in time engulfed by the great Latin wave. There are important German colonies in Brazil, and even in the Argentine. Both English and North Americans have prosperous manufactories there. Yet in a race that has preserved integrally its Latinity, all this is of but secondary interest, and the tendency remains to travel steadily in the track of peoples of Latin stock, among whom it may without presumption be said that the French exert the most powerful influence.
For this reason any Frenchman of average intellectual and moral value who becomes incorporated in the Argentine nation must almost infallibly at the same time—for I doubt if any Frenchman is ever really un-Frenched—materially aid in permanently strengthening French prestige.
What are we to think of men like M. Paul Groussac, who holds an eminent place in Buenos Ayres, but who would equally in his own land have reached the very front rank? M. Groussac, having gone through our naval training school, set out to see the world. One day, his pockets empty, he arrived at Buenos Aires, where courageously he hired himself as gaucho—that is, keeper of the immense flocks of the Pampas, whose members run into their thousands—and he undertook to drive a train of mules to Peru. He accomplished the journey successfully, covering the same route four times in all, each journey taking four months. Later we find him acting as schoolmaster. In Tucuman he carried on the work of the French outlaw, Jacques, who, having escaped to the Argentine after the coup d'état of December 2d, devoted himself entirely to public education on lines taken up later and developed by President Sarmiento. We had the pleasure of seeing in the place of honour at the Training College of Tucuman the portraits of the two French founders, Jacques and Paul Groussac. From time to time the latter brother has published various literary works, notably some short stories in which Argentine life and character are brilliantly set forth, and the name of their author has achieved a wide celebrity. Then M. Hilleret, the great French sugar manufacturer of Santa Ana, placed a large capital at the disposal of Paul Groussac with which to start a daily paper destined to reveal, in the person of its editor-in-chief, a writer of remarkable force.
Today you may hear that Paul Groussac is the leading Spanish writer of our times, which by no means prevents him from contributing some brilliant articles to our own Journal des Débats, amply proving his mastery of his mother-tongue, not to mention a curious study by him of that literary enigma the Don Quichotte of Avellaneda.
In 1810 a Public Library was founded by decree of the first Revolutionary Junto, on the initiative of Secretary Moreno. It was opened March 16, 1812, its nucleus being drawn from the convent libraries. In 1880, after the proclamation of Buenos Aires as capital of the Federation, the Public Library became the National Library, and in 1885 Paul Groussac was appointed Governor. In an interview with President Roca, who cannot be accused of any partiality for him, Groussac obtained a grant of the building intended, alas ! for public lotteries, in which the library might be installed. He set to work immediately. The National Library of the Argentine, under the control of M. Groussac, is now without a rival in South America, and can bear comparison with many similar institutions on the Old Continent.
One of the pet hobbies of M. Groussac is now to open a French lycée in Buenos Aires, with the support of both Governments. His eldest son, an Argentino, has just been appointed to the post of Under-Secretary of State in the Office of Public Instruction by M. Saënz Pena.
Strangely enough all the fine qualities of this illustrious compatriot of ours have been lost sight of for the reason that through some defect —I had almost said vice—in his character he has won the reputation of being the surliest of bears. Having myself also, to some extent, a reputation for being less than amiable I wondered whether the two of us might not come to blows if we met. Considering in some sort my
In 1893 the Library numbered 69,000 volumes; in 1903, 130,000; and in 1910, 190,000. bald head a protection, I ventured into the bear's den, and found only the most affable and genial of men, whose claws were of velvet and his tusks of sugar. Thus we made friends at once, and I found that the much-dreaded beast had nothing terrible about him, unless it was a strong accent of the Gers.
Since that day I have done my best to dispel so injurious a prejudice against the man. I can only explain its prevalence by the words of Tacitus, who remarked of his father-in-law, Agricola, " He chose rather to offend than to hate." It is a rare enough trait among men this, which leads them, like Alceste, to declare their real opinion rather than stoop to the in-dignity of falsehood. It may very easily happen that in this way such men may offend the talker who asks only cheap flattery, though actuated themselves by the kindliest feelings towards their fellow-men.
If we consider for a moment the sentiment aroused in us by the general practice of using words to conceal our thoughts, we must recognise that we are the first to suffer by this universal weakness—not to say cowardice—in that we only expect from others what we ourselves give, namely, hypocritical phrases, leading to crooked actions, and causing that silent but lasting dislike which forms the principal obsession in the life of many among us. If it is a less offence to inspire than to harbour dislike, let us absolve the men who fail to win universal regard, but who are nevertheless wholly in-capable of harming a creature.
Unless I am misinformed, we shall soon have the pleasure of seeing Paul Groussac in Paris. A Chair of History of the Argentine Republic has been founded at the Sorbonne, and there is talk of offering it to him. Certainly no one could better perform its duties. Yet it would surprise me if he could in this way break off his multitudinous engagements in the Argentine. They say he will in person open the course of lectures. I can promise an intellectual treat to his hearers.
I did not hear of any Germans or English-men who had, to the same extent as the Italians and the French, undergone transformation into Argentinos. The German, whose fundamental roughness—to call it by no stronger name—is frequently masked by good humour, works his way into all classes of society, but without losing any of his original traits. M. Mihanowitch, who is at the head of a colossal business of river and sea transportation, must, notwithstanding his Austrian origin, be considered as an Argentino, though he is surely of Slav blood.
The English invariably retain their individuality. I am told that in Patagonia, where they are carrying on sheep breeding on a scale that leaves Australia in the rear, they have built up cosy dwellings, where every night they change into their smoking-jackets for the family repast, and never miss taking a holiday of two or three months in their native land. They never become Argentinos. This, however, does not prevent their being at the head of the business world of La Plata, where they exert a powerful influence on the industrial and commercial life of the people.
It would have greatly interested me to study the foreign colonies more closely, but time was lacking. Of the Spanish, the only man I was able to see anything of was M. Coelho, the distinguished Governor of the Spanish Bank of La Plata, whose untiring energy reaches out daily in new directions; he gave me many proofs of kindness, for which I am sincerely grateful.
It is certain that the recent visit of Field-Marshal von der Goltz to the Argentine must prove useful to German influence. As we know, it is the Germans who are responsible for the present organisation of the Argentine Army. Their Government, wiser than some others, did not hesitate to send to La Plata some of their most skilled officers, who were naturally received by Argentine society with the deference that was their due.
The eminent legal scholar, Professor Enrico Ferri, lately re-elected Deputy of the group that we should call " Independent Socialists," is and has long been the official mouthpiece of the Italian colony. Gifted with a perfect urbanity, an impartial mind, lofty ideals, and generous eloquence, he quickly attracted the notice of the public, and soon vanquished the suspicions of the Extreme Right, who feared his Socialist views, and the opposition of the Extreme Left, who bore him malice for having broken away from them. M. Saënz Pena's Cabinet has been ell advised in calling on M. Enrico Ferri to take over the management of the penitentiary system.
I have mentioned the principal features of the French colony, and shall hope to be forgiven if lack of space has prevented me from doing full justice to its members. I have spoken of M. Py, the distinguished Governor of the Banque Française de la Plata, who is admirably assisted in his work by the manager, M. Puisoye. It would be unpardonable to omit the name of Mme. Moreno (of the Comedie Française), who has so thoroughly mastered the Spanish tongue that she has opened and carried to success a conservatoire, in which she trains pupils for the stage. It would be the less excusable to forget this lady in that she is frequently to be met at receptions, where her elocution, both in prose and in poetry, delights her Parisian-Argentine public. Whilst waiting for the Academies to confer on women the right to be learned, let us venture to proclaim their cleverness even when it is but an adjunct to feminine charm.