Low Life In Argentina
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
How THE POOR LIVE—THE CONVENTILLOS OF BUENOS AIRES, AND THEIR MISER-ABLE INHABITANTS—WORK, WAGES, AND TRADES UNIONS—THE CHANCES FOR WOMEN—STRANGE WAYS OF WASHING AND IRONING—AMONG THE GAUCHOS OR COWBOYS OF THE PAMPAS—A PEEP INTO THEIR HOMES—THEIR TERRIBLE DUELS—"I FEEL LIKE KILLING SOME ONE!
THERE is low life as well as high life in the Argentine Re-public. The poor are in the majority. Argentina has thousands of people who live in zinc sheds, and there are courts in Buenos Aires in which men, women, and children swarm as thickly as they do in any tenement section of New York or London. Rents are very high and only the rich are able to have houses to themselves. The well-to-do live in flats and apartments, and the poor are crowded into " conventillos."
Conventillos are a peculiarity of Buenos Aires. They are immense buildings of one or two stories running around narrow passages or courts, and containing scores upon scores of one-roomed homes. Each room is the living place for one or more families, and in most cases it has so many inmates that the washing and cooking must be done outside in the court. These one-roomed homes are without ventilation, except from the front. They have no light but that which comes through the doorway, and their sanitary condition is beyond description bad.
You find conventillos in every part of Buenos Aires. They exist even under the shadow of the government mansions. Some are in the by-streets of the business sections, and there are others back of the palaces of nabobs, 'built against the houses of men whose incomes run into more dollars per week than many of the inhabitants of the conventillos receive in a year.
Take one, for instance, which I lately visited. It is situated under the shadow of the Grand Opera House. I had just come from the box-office, where I saw a score of men paying sixteen dollars a seat for the night's entertainment, and where one man had paid down a thousand dollars for his family box for the sea-son. The conventillo was entered by a door from the street. Passing through this, I came into a court, six feet wide and about two hundred feet long, walled with a two-story building of many rooms, each about twelve feet wide and not more than twelve feet deep. There was a gallery along the outside of the second story, and the two opposite walls were so close together that the stone-flagging of the court oozed with moisture. It received but little sun, and there was a damp, green mould on the stones not trodden by the tenants' feet. Opening upon the court from each room was a door, which furnished the only light and ventilation for the rooms. Just outside each room in the court was a bowl of charcoal which served as the cook-stove of the family within. Upon some of the fires rested pots of steaming soup, with ragged Italian women bending over them. In one doorway, there was a portly, gray-haired Indian dame cleaning a cabbage, and next to her I saw a lean Spanish woman cooking macaroni. Farther on, a girl mother, of perhaps fourteen, was washing clothes, while under the tub her dirty baby sprawled on the stone and squalled. Most of the people in the court were Italians, and many of the women were very young.
The Italians of Buenos Aires mature at an early age, and you may read any day in the papers the records of marriages of girls of fourteen. Large families are the rule, and several women of the court had, I was told, as many as ten children. Father and mother, grown-up sons and daughters, children and babies, all sleep in a space not over fifteen feet square. Many rooms have only one bed, which is occupied by the parents and as many children as can crowd in; the remainder of the family must sleep on the floor. There is no way of heating the rooms. They were all dirty and more like caves than the homes of human beings. Notwithstanding this, the children in them seemed healthy, al-though I heard one mother crooning away over a sick baby, her sad lullaby mingling with the strains of the singers who were practising a comic opera in the great theatre over the way.
The death-rate of Buenos Aires is not as high as that of some of the European cities. The climate of the Argentine is excellent, the last general census taken showing that there were then living two hundred and thirty-four persons who were over a hundred years old. As I stated before, a large part of the population is made up of Italian, Spanish, and French immigrants, the Italians predominating. The latter have an annual birth rate of sixty per thousand, which is fifty per cent higher than the average birth-rate of Europe.
The real work of Argentina is done by the Italians and the Spaniards, furnished by the stream of immigrants which is always flowing to the lower parts of eastern South America. Within the past twenty-four years about 2,000,000 emigrants have been imported from southern Europe, and to-day out of the 4,000,000 people in the Argentine Republic it is estimated that more than one in every four is a foreigner.
Although the English furnish the money, the railroads are built by the Italians, and I am told they make splendid workmen. They are thrifty, economical, and generally happy. They send a large part of their wages back to Italy, just as our Irish do with their wages in the United States. The Italians are also the small farmers. They work the wheat lands, many of them taking tracts to farm on shares. They are, as a rule, thrifty and accumulative, and many who came here poor have amassed fortunes. The fact that an Italian lives in squalid quarters is not a sure sign that he is poor, for in these very conventillos, it is said that there are Italians who have nice little properties, but who prefer to save and starve now that they may be richer hereafter.
The Italians are the masons, the carpenters, and the mechanics of the Argentine. They are very apt at trades and will work for much lower wages than will the mechanics of the United States; moreover, they can live more cheaply than our people; many of them have but one real meal a day, which is eaten after they have dropped work in the evening. They take only a cup of tea and a piece of dry bread on rising, and this lasts them until dinner, although they may have another cup of tea at noon.
As to the markets, meats, with the exception of pork, are exceedingly cheap, but other things are high. Mutton brings al-most nothing, and beef costs about half its value in the United States. Very little pork is used by the labouring classes. Most families buy their bread, as the poor have no facilities for baking. Licensed bakers supply the demand, and. the bread-man on horseback, his horse's panniers filled with rolls, goes from house to house daily. The bread of Buenos Aires is excellent. Corn-meal is not used, although hominy is a staple. Onions are every-where eaten, and a frequent sight on the streets is the onion peddler, who goes along carrying strings of onions, the bulbs being braided into straw so that they can be thrown over the two ends of a pole and thus carried across the shoulders. In the country the labourers live almost entirely on meat, and although they could have garden patches, they seldom care to undertake the trouble of attending to them.
The different classes of labourers have their own unions, but they do not often strike. I have been told by railroad men that they seldom have a difficulty with their employés. There is no great variation in wages from year to year, and so far strikes are almost unknown. Most of the employers prefer to get their work done as far as possible by contract or by the piece. This is especially so in railroad construction, where all excavation is done by the cubic yard. One man will hire a gang of men to help him, and he will be responsible to the contractors or to the officials.
Upon all the large "estancias" or farms the proprietor has a store from which he furnishes goods to his hands, deducting a certain amount from their wages to pay for them. The railroads often carry provision cars with them and sell eatables and other goods to the workmen at a little over cost price; they furnish wine and clothes as well as all sorts of provisions, from London jam to hard-tack.
Neither in the country nor in the cities do the labouring classes seem to care as much for comforts as our labourers do. A galvanized iron shed forms the usual home of the farmer, and a quarter in a conventillo that of the city workman. An American mechanic would not live in this way, and I do not think he could make enough money here to enable him to buy the comforts he has at home. The Argentine labourer has to pay more for his clothing, and he has nothing like the educational or social advantages- of his North-American brother. There is, in fact, no chance- in South America for North-American labourers.
As to the women, those of the lower classes have a much poorer chance than in the United States. There are but few female clerks in the stores. Women are not generally employed in the government departments, and the female professional type-writer of the Argentine has yet to be born. In the government telegraph offices there are a few women operators, and at the " central" of the telephone there are girls to answer the calls. They are not "hello" girls, however. The Argentine man when he calls up " Central," yells out ," oila" to get the young lady's attention, and often talks to her a moment before he begs her to have the graciousness to connect him with his butcher, baker, or candlestick maker.
There are a number of women teachers in the schools of the Argentine Republic. School-teaching is, perhaps, the most respectable profession a young woman can have. The normal schools are well equipped, possessing some of the finest buildings in the Republic. They are found today in nearly every province, and many young Argentine girls are being trained in them, The native Argentine women make excellent teachers, but there are not enough schools for them in the cities in which the normal colleges are located, and it is not considered proper for young women to go away from home to teach. The result is that most of them remain at home and stand in the door or lean out of the windows day after day gazing at the passers by. This is the chief occupation of the middle-class girls of the Argentine cities.
The Argentine Republic is yet in its infancy as a manufacturing nation, and the females employed in its factories are comparatively few. There are some glove-makers, cap-makers, and umbrella-sewers, who are paid from fifty cents to a dollar of our money per day. There are some good seamstresses and milliners. In private families women are used as house servants, but about the hotels and boarding-houses all of the scrubbing and cleaning, besides much of the chamber work, is done by men.
Even the washerwoman of the Argentine has not the chance her sister labourer has in the United States. All families have their washing and ironing done out of the house; and it is customary for one set of women to do the washing and another to do the ironing. The washerwoman never irons and the ironer never washes. The corrugated zinc washboard is unknown; the clothes are usually taken to the banks of a stream and rubbed with the hands on flat stones or upon boards in the public washhouses,- where for a small sum per week a woman can get a place at the trough and the use of hot and cold water. There are many families who do nothing but iron, one woman employing from five to ten helpers, and paying each about fifty cents gold per day. The ironer usually arranges with his or her customers for both washing and ironing, and lets out the washing to the washers. The prices charged at the hotels are by the piece; I have to pay thirteen cents for linen shirts, ten cents for night shirts, three cents for handkerchiefs, and twenty cents per pair for pajamas. These prices are reduced to gold.
A discussion of the poor of the Argentines would be incomplete without mention of the "gaucho ": the gaucho is the native Argentine of the country; he is the cowboy of the pampas, a man whose counterpart is hardly to be found, a peculiar product of southern South America. The gaucho is a cross between the Spaniard and the Indian; if any part of his blood predominates. it is that of the Indian, although the Spanish traits are always to be seen. The gaucho will not work in the cities; he will not farm, nor does he like to tend sheep, but he is at home on horseback, and is always ready to ride over the plains and to tend or drive cattle. He is a nomad, and prefers odd jobs to steady work.
You may see the gaucho anywhere outside of the cities, and wherever you see him he is the same. His complexion is usually of a light coffee colour. He is in fact the American Indian bleached, save that he has a full black and rather heavy beard. His eyes are coal black, bright and fierce, and his form is short and wiry. He dresses curiously; his black head is usually covered with an old skull cap, or a soft slouch hat. On the upper part of his body hangs a blanket, often striped in bright colours, through the centre of which his head is thrust. Another blanket is wound about his waist, pulled between the legs, and fastened at the back. Out of this lower blanket white drawers, often edged at the bottom with lace, extend down to his ankles, while bright red or blue slippers may cover his feet. He usually wears a belt of chamois leather, which may be decorated with silver buckles and bangles.
The gaucho is fond of silver and decorates the trappings of his horse with it when he possibly can. He has the best horse he can buy, steal, or borrow, and his saddle is often adorned with silver stirrups, while his bridle bit is sometimes silver-plated and usually of great size. He is never without a horse, although he may be a beggar, Argentina being one of the few countries where the beggars really go about on horseback.
You see the homes of the gauchos scattered over the pampas. Let me describe one. It is a mud hut, fifteen feet square, and so low that you have to stoop to enter the door. The floor is the earth, and there is no furniture except the skulls of bullocks, which are used for seats, and a table made of a board or two, which the gaucho has probably stolen from some rich landowner near by. The only table furniture to be seen is a couple of tin pans.
The gaucho does not need cooking utensils. He roasts his meat on a spit over the fire outside his door, basting it as he does so with the juice which he catches in the pan. When the roast is done he cuts it off a slice at a time. In eating he does not use a fork, but holds one end of the slice in his hand and clinches the other between his teeth, while he draws his knife across within one-sixteenth of an inch of his nose at every bite. His favourite dish is carne concuero, which is meat cooked with the skin. The meat is wrapped up tightly in the skin, and thus cooked over the coals. The skin keeps in the juices, and the result is delicious.
The gaucho is hospitable. If you come to his hut he will take you in and give you the best he has, although he may intend to stab you in the back as soon as you have gone a few rods away. He cares little for blood-letting, and is always ready to fight. He is never without his knife, and is seldom backward in using it. Sometimes he acts like a demon, stabbing without cause. I heard of a gaucho who came along one day where a woman was working with her little boy beside her. As the gaucho saw the boy he said : " I feel like killing some one! " And with that he took up the boy and stabbed him. I heard of another gaucho who shot a boy with no more provocation. Neither of these men was hanged for the murders.
The gauchos often have duels, their favourite method of fighting being with knives. The duellists on some such occasions have their left legs tied together, each kneeling upon the right knee, so that they face each other. Each man is now given a poncho or blanket, which he throws over his left arm and uses as a guard, and a knife which he holds in his right hand. At a word from the principal the two men begin to stab at each other and they cut away until one or the other drops dead.
And do such men have wives and families ? Yes, and they are said to be affectionate husbands and good fathers when sober, although often cruel when drunk. Almost all drink to excess at times; you see the little saloons kept up by their custom scattered everywhere over the pampas. They like to play billiards and gamble ; nor do they think it wrong to cheat at cards ; indeed, the man who can cheat without being found out is considered an excellent player. They make good soldiers, and I am told that many of the bravest men in the Argentine army have been gauchos.