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Monday, October 25, 2010


The city of my ancestors

The Teatro Colon was built between 1889 and 1904. It was the landmark jewel of the bourgeoisie and stood as emblem of the immigrant nation.

Teatro Colon de Buenos Aires

The City

What kind of city was Buenos Aires in the late nineteenth century, where these various
Europeans, my ancestors, arrived in their immigrant ships? A prosperous, growing, old Catholic city of secular merchants and shopkeepers, a contradiction within itself, awakening from the torpor of the years of Rosas, ‘La Gran Aldea’ of Lucio Vicente Lopez (1848-1894), a book and a concept that provides us with an accurate portrait of the town which these very immigrants would change forever. Thrown unto the muddy expanse of the Rio de la Plata, up to its very shores, it was a low lying city crowned by church steeples and domes that outlined its cityscape against the enormity of the surrounding flat Pampa and its vast skies overhead. A great political compromise had recently occurred, before these immigrants arrived.

[click on images to enhance their size]

Buenos Aires in 1816

Since the time of the country's independence from Spain (1810-1816), a struggle had been waged between those who believed that the resources of the land, particularly the customs revenues of the port of Buenos Aires, should be centralized to support a nation state (these were the Unitarios), and those who favored regional autonomy (the Federales) under various war-lords, who were mostly cattlemen from the provincial cities of the interior.

Gaucho on the plains
("My pride" drawing by Molina Campos)

This battle between Unitarios and Federales lasted until Rosas unified the country under his rule in the 1830's. Born and bred in Buenos Aires, Rosas was a Federal, and he made certain that the city would control the customs revenues of the port. But he was also a centralizer, and he ruled the entire country, as it then was, by a system of alliances with a few provincial strong-men.

Juan Manuel de Rosas

The battle of Caseros in 1852, which was the end of Rosas, was won by a combination of provincial warlords and Unitarios, on the one hand, and disaffected landowners and cattlemen from Buenos Aires, on the other. The latter saw that the winds were changing, and had become tired of the Rosas regime. But the alliance between these two groups broke up shortly after Caseros, for the Buenos Aires cattlemen wanted to keep the customs revenues of the port city, and generally felt that the city of Buenos Aires, which belonged to them, should rule the entire country. The triumphant forces of the provinces and the Unitarios, on the other hand, were nationalists, and would soon coalesce with British capital to develop the country. They wanted to nationalize the Buenos Aires Customs House for the benefit of an Argentine Republic.

The subsequent struggle between these two factions lasted until the 1880's, and it constitutes the background of the immigrant nation. In fact, the immigrants could not arrive in any great numbers until these civil wars ended. When they did, after a period when Buenos Aires seceded from the Union, the city of Buenos Aires was nationalized, together with its customs revenues, and the country around Buenos Aires became a province with a new capital in the new city of La Plata. As well, a new ruling class, headquartered in Buenos Aires but with nationwide interests, proceeded to recruit British capital to create a system of railroads that would tie the port to all the productive regions of the interior. The Argentine state was ready to be born, and hence the gates were thrown open to European immigration. It was then that the immigrants we have been considering began arriving, for the most part, in the country.

Contemporary oil-paintings and prints show the city to have been a typical Spanish colonial metropolis, its skyline dominated by church domes and steeples, its construction mostly adobe and red tiled arcades on muddy roads.

Images of the city of Buenos Aires in the 1820’s to 1840’s

My first ancestor in Argentina, Friedrich Rutenberg, knew the city of Rosas, unpaved, unlighted, with high perched sidewalks along muddy roads and streets. But by the time most of the other immigrants in the family arrived, it was the city of Lucio Vicente Lopez, the ‘Gran Aldea,’ already adorned by larger buildings, a gas-lighting system, some road improvement and a definite motion towards making the city look like Paris, the Paris of Baron Haussmann, who had re-built the French capital in the 1860’s. This is the Buenos Aires which my great-grandfather, Ernst Kranichfeld, saw in 1890.

Buenos Aires in 1894

The individuals I describe, the first immigrants in my family, did not come to America alone. They migrated in communities into communities, wherein they met their spouses, made friends and found work. Buenos Aires had its German community by the turn of the century, and my ancestors came into it and blended with it. Most of them arrived to America unmarried and found their spouses in the community. Some traveled back to Europe and married there.

Perhaps the greatest historical event to greet the immigrants as they first began to arrive to the new city of Buenos Aires was the yellow fever epidemic of 1871. My grandfather used to talk to me in awe about that catastrophe almost one hundred years after its occurrence. It did not affect my own ancestors very much. In fact, it probably made my great-great-grandfather Federico Fernando Strassburger a rich man, as he profited from the purchase of cheap real-estate in the affected areas of the city. But it was a traumatic experience for the citizenry, and one of vast consequence.

“Yellow Jack” Buenos Aires, 1871 (Juan Manuel Blanes, Episodio de la Fiebre Amarilla, (Episode during the Yellow Fever) Oil on canvas, 1871)

The first Argentine census of 1869, counted 177,787 inhabitants in the city of Buenos Aires, of which 88,126 were foreign born, and of these, 44,233 were of Italian origin, and 14,609 of Spanish origin, leaving a balance of 29,284 foreign born of other national origins. It has been difficult to establish exactly how many deaths were caused by the yellow fever that swept the capital two years later, but a total figure of 14,467 has become acceptable. Of these, 3,397 were estimated to be native born, 6,201 Italians, 1,608 Spaniards, 1,384 French, 220 English, 233 Germans, and 571 unidentified as to national origin. The Revista Médico Quirúrgica of the Asociación Médica Bonaerense established an official number of deaths at 13,763. Eight percent of the total population of the city died as a consequence of the epidemic. Many historians have identified this catastrophe as responsible for the decimation of the people of African descent in the city who were practically entirely extinguished. Indeed, the epidemic affected primarily the poorest areas of the city, where black Argentineans and the new immigrants had made their home.

Map of Buenos Aires, 1870. The epidemic devastated the Southern neighborhoods of the City (to the left of the map).

The epidemic began in the aftermath of the war against Paraguay, and was brought in by the soldiers returning to their homes in the city. In 1871, Buenos Aires hosted the Federal Government, led by President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the government of the Province of Buenos Aires, and the government of the City, presided by Narciso Martinez de Hoz. This made for administrative confusion and inefficiency. The city grew prodigiously over the decade that preceded the epidemic, and its neighborhoods were overcrowded, the streets narrow, the plazas without vegetation. Situated on a vast plain, the city had no proper drainage or operating water systems. Many of the houses were built of mud with thatched roofs. Housing units that were overcrowded constituted a focus for infection, and there was no public health or hygiene education at the time, particularly among the recently arrived European immigrants or among the Black population in the south of the city. The Riachuelo, a small river that marked the southern boundary of the city, was a repository of all sewage and the waste of the meat-packing plants. Given that there was no sewage system at all, human and animal wastes contaminated the water levels underground, leaving only the vast Rio de la Plata as a source of potable water.

The Riachuelo in the 1830's (Pellegrini, water color)

The consequences to the city were nefarious, but the epidemic served to inaugurate a new period in the city’s history. Not only was there an improvement in public health and medical administration, but the crisis affected the resolution of the pending political quandary whereby the city was torn between the ambitions of the provincial and the federal governments with regards to the national income, namely, the customs revenues. By the end of the decade of the 1870’s, Buenos Aires had become the capital of the Republic, and a new era of capitalist expansion began which would lift the fortunes of the immigrants to gilded status.

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