Ethnic Groups in Argentina

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  • 0:04 The Argentine Melting Pot
  • 1:18 300 Years of European…
  • 3:44 Indigenous Amerindians Today
  • 7:05 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Linda Brown

Linda teaches French at SIT Graduate Institute and Brattleboro Area Middle School. She has a BA in French and a master's in Experiential Education.

The country of Argentina is second only to the US for its immigrant population. This lesson explores how Argentina became a mixed-race society and a melting pot of different ethnicities.

The Argentine Melting Pot

How did a county at the farthest tip of South America end up with a population that is 97% White? How can an immigrant ethnic group that at one time made up a third of the population vanish and be all but forgotten? What has happened to the indigenous tribes that originally populated the nation? Stretching from the Andes Mountains to the South Atlantic coast, Argentina is a country of ethnic complexities and mysteries.

Let's cover some fast facts about Argentina. Argentina is in South America, as mentioned a moment ago, and as of July 2013, there were 42,610,981 people living there. As we also mentioned a moment ago, 97% of the population is white, while 3% is Amerindian (which is the Argentinian equivalent of Native American descendants), Mestizo (which is a mix of white and Amerindian), Afro-Argentine, and other assorted non-white ethnicities. This makes the Amerindian population hover around 600,000 and the Afro-Argentine population at around 149,493, as of the 2010 Census.

300 Years of European Colonization

Argentina was home to an estimated 750,000 Amerindians prior to the arrival of Spanish conquerors in 1516. Argentina remained an object of European colonization for almost 300 years.

For three centuries, from 1516 to 1800, the population of Argentina was made up of Spanish colonists, their descendants, a significant number of African slaves, and Amerindians. By 1800, black slaves made up a third of the Argentine population. Their numbers dropped drastically in the mid-19th century due to epidemics and civil wars, in what some researchers have termed a covert genocide. Those that survived gradually merged with the mestizo and indigenous groups, and proof of their presence has all but been eradicated from Argentina's records and memory.

Subsisting primarily by agriculture, the Amerindians found themselves at a disadvantage and in decline with the advent of industrialization. The number of Amerindians dwindled until they made up less than 10% of the Argentine population.

By the time Argentine patriots won the war for independence from the Spanish crown in 1818, Argentina had become a predominantly mixed-race society. Remarkable social and economic progress marked the late 19th and early 20th century. Argentina had become one of the richest countries in the world.

Between 1870 and 1930, an estimated seven million Europeans migrated to Argentina, taking advantage of the government's open immigration policy and migration subsidies. At the height of immigration in 1914, the new settlers made up one-third of the country's population and half of the population of Buenos Aires. Walking the city streets, one was as likely to hear Italian, German, and French as he was to hear Spanish.

Argentina joins the ranks of the United States, Canada, and Australia as a country populated in majority by immigrants. It's for this reason that the overwhelming majority of the Argentine population self-identifies as white, mostly of Spanish and Italian descent. The remaining part of the population is Amerindian, mestizo (mixed white and Amerindian), or other non-white groups. A common expression used in Argentina to describe their ethnic origins is ''Ellos descienden de los barcos,'' which translates to, ''They descended from boats.''

Indigenous Amerindians Today

The Amerindians were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of European immigrants. Treated as second-class citizens, subjected to discrimination, intimidation, and violence, the indigenous people of Argentina went underground. For more than a hundred years, they sought to maintain their customs and way of life despite the government's, and their nation's, repressive behaviors and ideology.

In 1985, the Indigenous Policy and Support to the Aboriginal Communities law was passed, allowing the Amerindians ''legal personhood, land rights, biodiversity, and multiculturalism.'' The 2004 Complementary Survey of the Indigenous Peoples was the government's first attempt in more than a century to recognize and classify the Argentine population by ethnicity. Thirty-five Argentine Amerindian groups were catalogued.

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