Cousins and Strangers: Spanish Immigrants in Buenos Aires, 1850-1930. – Review

Cousins and Strangers: Spanish Immigrants in Buenos Aires, 1850-1930. – Review – book review

Raanan Rein

Cousins and Strangers: Spanish Immigrants in Buenos A ires, 1850-1930. By Jos[acute{e}] C. Moya (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. xviii plus 567pp.).

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth, more than four million Spaniards left the Iberian Peninsula in search of a better future in the New World. These Spaniards were part of a great exodus from Europe, where the population had been growing at an unprecedented rate since the nineteenth century. Most Hispanic emigrants chose Argentina as their destination, and Buenos Aires, that Paris of South America, became the city with the third largest Spanish population in the world, after Madrid and Barcelona.

Jos[acute{e}] Moya’s outstanding book examines this large immigrant urban community, which, surprisingly enough, has received little attention from researchers until now. One possible explanation for this glaring omission–suggested in Moya’s introduction–is the fact that Spaniards were not considered “other” enough to excite the curiosity of historians, who have devoted much more research to other, more “exotic” immigrant communities in Argentina, even though those communities were numerically much smaller than the Spanish one. Another possibility is that, influenced by orthodox Marxist tradition, historians in Spain and Argentina have preferred to focus on class and labor rather than immigration and ethnicity.

Moya’s book is a masterful weave of empirical study and analytical insights. His quantitative analysis is based on data collected on more than 60,000 individuals, while his qualitative analysis draws on a wide variety of primary sources (government documents, published censuses, statistical annuals, records of immigrants’ associations, newspapers and magazines of all sorts, travellers’ narratives, tourist guides, popular plays and popular humor, etc.), as well as on studies of the experiences of other immigrant groups in Argentina and other countries.

Moya’s greatest achievement, however, is a simultaneous examination of the macro and micro aspects of both emigration (the patterns of the mass European transatlantic emigration juxtaposed with the social reality of the villages and other localities in Galicia, Castile, Catalonia, and Navarre infected with “emigration fever”) and the immigrants’ adjustment to the host country (the general Argentine context versus the microsocial networks that permitted adaptation to the new environment). In this way he has intertwined individual decisions with historical structures and forces.

The first two chapters of the book provide essential context. Chapter One examines economic and social conditions in Europe in general and in Spain in particular to pinpoint the factors that impelled milliions of Spaniards to leave the Old World in the hope of making their fortunes in America. This approach allows Moya to present the “complex interplay between the preimmigration heritage and the host environment,” and explains why he has deviated from the customary periodization. Most works on emigration from southern and eastern Europe to Argentina focus on the period 1880-1930; Moya, however, goes back to the mid-nineteenth century to examine past social realities and perceptions, so that he can depict the aspects of continuity and change more clearly. Chapter Two studies the context of Argentine immigrant society.

Moya moves next to a microhistoric analysis, examining specific towns, villages, and kinship networks in order to show why Spaniards left certain areas but not others, why they chose certain destinations, how social background and position within the family influenced the descision to leave, and so on.

The next three chapters deal with the extensive process of adaptation to the new environment: how and where the new immigrants settled in, and how they looked for work, developed into an organzied community, and tried to improve their circumstances. This section of the book is rich in illuminating comparisons with the Argentine experience of immigrants from other nations, comparisons between different Iberian groups, and even comparisons between the respective fates of the Buenos Aires immigrants and their parents back in Spain. These chapters also analyze the tensions within the Spanish immigrant community in the context of differences in social class, regional origin (more than three quarters of the new arrivals were not Castilian), political ideology, and other factors. One of the issues raised is the limits of meritocracy even in societies considered more “open” than those of the Old World.

The last chapter of the book discusses continuity and change in Argentine state and social attitudes towards Spansih immigrants, and explains the name of the book. The immigrants were greeted with ambivalence. On the one hand they represented the Hispanic heritage, a central element in Argentine identity; on the other hand they were considered uncultured new arrivals from a monarchical and backward nation who were out to make a place for themselves, and as such they were treated with disdain. Moya draws parallels between these Spanish immigrants and Portugese immigrants in Brazil, British immigrants in the United States, and French immigrants in Quebec.

In clear, flowing prose, Moya examines such complex issues as the phenomenon of the “dormant chain” that became inactive under circumstances that made emigration or direct contact difficult but reactivated itself once the general situation became more favorable; the nature of emigration as a diffusion process, and the tendency of network-based emigration to spread and multiply with self-generating force.

In conclusion, this book is highly recommended for anyone interested in Spanish migration, modern Argentine history, and/or the history of migration in general.

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