A unique ethnography of the Eastern European Jews who settled northeast of Buenos Aires in the nineteenth century and left a diverse immigrant legacy in their wake .
By the mid-twentieth century, Eastern European Jews had become one of Argentina's largest minorities. Some represented a wave of immigration begun two generations before; many settled in the province of Entre Ríos and founded an agricultural colony. Taking its title from the resulting hybrid of acculturation, The Invention of the Jewish Gaucho examines the lives of these settlers, who represented a merger between native cowboy identities and homeland memories.
The arrival of these immigrants in what would be the village of Villa Clara coincided with the nation's new sense of liberated nationhood. In a meticulous rendition of Villa Clara's social history, Judith Freidenberg interweaves ethnographic and historical information to understand the saga of European immigrants drawn by Argentine open-door policies in the nineteenth century and its impact on the current transformation of immigration into multicultural discourses in the twenty-first century. Using Villa Clara as a case study, Freidenberg demonstrates the broad power of political processes in the construction of ethnic, class, and national identities. The Invention of the Jewish Gaucho draws on life histories, archives, material culture, and performances of heritage to enhance our understanding of a singular population—and to transform our approach to social memory itself.
- Foreword by June Nash
- Preface: The Story behind the Story
- Chapter 1. Social Memory as Part of Villa Clara's History
- Chapter 2. Entre Ríos, Mi País: Immigrants Becoming Argentine in a Province
- Chapter 3. Colonia Clara and the Emergence of the "Jewish Gauchos" (1892-1902)
- Chapter 4. From Jewish Gauchos to Gaucho Jews: Regional Economic Development and Intercultural Relations at the End of the Nineteenth Century
- Chapter 5. The Rise and Demise of Jewish Villa Clara (1902-1930s)
- Chapter 6. Rural Depopulation and the Emergence of a Multiethnic and Socially Stratified Landscape in Villa Clara (1940s-1990s)
- Chapter 7. The Present as Politicized Past: Legitimizing Social Structure through Heritage (1990s-2000s)
- Epilogue: The Jewish Gaucho Revisited
- Appendix I: Methodological Notes
- Appendix II: Chronology of Relevant Events in Villa Clara
- Glossary of Terms
Several thousand Eastern European Jews immigrated to Argentina at the close of the nineteenth century, and Jews had become one of the country's sizable minorities by the mid-twentieth century. The largest early influx of Jews arrived in the northeastern province of Entre Ríos and settled in an agricultural colony, Colonia Clara. By 1902, as the railroad meandered around the colonia's outskirts, some farmers moved closer to the station. They gave birth to a more urban settlement, Villa Clara, and played a central role in its initial growth and prosperity.
By the mid-1930s over a thousand villagers could reminisce about the transatlantic trip and boast of their transformation into Jewish gauchos, a hybrid symbol of acculturation of the new immigrant to the world of the native gaucho, the landless native then despised by the elites. The 1940s, however, saw the abandonment of the Jewish families' assigned plots of land in the colony and their homes in the village. By 2002 my household survey of generational memory revealed that only a few households, mostly composed of single elders, traced their ancestry to the Jewish colonization program of the late nineteenth century. While some of Villa Clara's current residents descended from Western European immigrant waves (particularly from France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Great Britain, Germany, and Spain), the majority considered themselves Creoles (criollos): that is, native born. How do the contemporary residents of Villa Clara remember the history of the village? What are the main themes chosen to represent the immigrant saga? Who is remembered, and who is forgotten? And why?
Answering these questions called for a reconstruction of the village's history through ethnographic fieldwork that combined the memories of its present inhabitants with historical research. My primary aim was to understand the connections between the village's past—the successive arrival of Eastern European and Western European immigrants and the contested timing of the first arrival of criollos—and its present, which memorialized a multiethnic past that was reasserted in the present social structure. While interweaving oral, material, and written versions of the past, I realized that they at times illustrated, at times contested, and at times confirmed one another. As the emerging social history of the locality acquired depth and color, the meaning of similarities and differences among alternative versions of the past became apparent, even when domains of divergence might have seemed minimal at first. What was remembered or forgotten in one but not another version of the past? Which personal memories were kept private, and which were selected to be disseminated to the public and thus entered the domain of officially accepted versions of the past? Which media were chosen to pass on the history of the past to villagers and the general public alike? And what is the political history of remembering and forgetting? Who remembers what, when, and why?
The transformation of social history (or the history of a people as told through written, oral, and material sources) into social memory occurs selectively over time and becomes manifested at the local level, where distributions of power are legitimized or contested through the discourse of ethnic, social-class, and national identities. Understanding the process of social and political constructions at the local level enhances the understanding of both the past and the present, because social memory is related to individual memory and is grounded in concrete spaces. Jacob Climo and Maria Cattell (2002: 4) explain:
Collective or social memories are shaped by social, economic, and political circumstances; by beliefs and values; by opposition and resistance. They involve cultural norms and issues of authenticity, identity, and power. They are implicated in ideologies. Social memories are associated with or belong to particular categories or groups so they can be, and often are, the focus of conflict and contestation.
Several issues need to be considered when reflecting on whether, and to what extent, memory adds to understanding how and why history is created. One issue relates to whether memory is based on actual experience of historical fact, on narratives produced by others, or on written or material records. A second issue is the need to reexamine the emphasis of the literature on the social construction of memory, since memory cannot be said to be solely a social construction; memory is also a subjective selection made by an individual who chooses, consciously or unconsciously, to highlight or reject the recalled past. A third issue that affects memory is the degree of literacy of the informant; those with access to written records will have conflated personal with scholarly constructions of the past. This combination of elements in the actual conformation of a memory bank influences the resulting report that the researcher obtains and brings a fourth issue to the fore: the "purity" or the "truth" of the informants' representation of past reality. In fact, most informants tend to share idealized renditions of the past with the researcher or partial histories of what really happened. The reasons vary, including believing that the past was better than the present, holding an interest in preserving what is believed to have a measure of worth for the next generations, or marketing a proud past as heritage to the outside world. Truth is a controversial issue that touches on the ethics of research as well: as the researcher I also provide a construction of the past as I combine the informants' reports and the historians' records to construct my own interpretation.
I was conscious that I was tapping informant memory rather than the direct knowledge based on actual experiences. Memory based on what one is told by others can be imperfect if recollected inaccurately or distorted through the passage of time, the medium of transmission (household, school, church, etc.), the personal characteristics of the transmitter (age, sex, social standing, etc.), or opportunistic, motivated recollection. Memory, as recollected information, is thus related to the question of truth. I started by tapping a common recollection: the place of birth of four generations related to the informant, two ascending and one descending. An ethnographic map, drawn with data obtained through a generational survey, overlaid social class and ethnicity on geographical space. How does social memory of the past validate current social hierarchy? When I prompted residents to reminisce about the village's past as it illustrated their own life-course, I learned about political history, predicated on class and ethnic hierarchies, but also about cultural space: they were preoccupied by what "what I believe I (or people like me) think about people like them."
The social history and public memorializing of an immigrant village, while important in and of itself, may also contribute to understanding the role played by immigration in the construction of the Argentine nation. At that juncture, the local village can also become a metaphor to understand the global displacement of thousands of Europeans and their relocation in Argentina and the role played by European immigration in the governing elites' imagined nation. The social construction of selfhood and otherness, however, can only be discerned at the local level, at a particular point in time, as diverse versions of history are politicized to legitimate the present individual or collective social position. In the village as an "imagined community" (Anderson 1991), some of the past is remembered and some forgotten by different social groups in the course of daily life, though that heterogeneity might be silenced to provide the generalized public with a unified version of the past.
"Official" History versus History "of the People" and the Construction of National Identity
The story I tell here combines history (written, archival, material) and the social memory of current residents of Villa Clara. Though they are intimately related, there are major differences between the two: written history, in particular, provides a chronological ordering of all sources compiled by a scholar, while conversation with contemporary people elicits just the remembered past, drawing on either personal or narrated experience. The inherent selectivity of life history research often results in a significantly more diverse and conflictive rendition of the past than the historian's. By focusing on everyday life—work, family, and other domains of private life—the personal stories situate the personal within the conflictive larger social context, whereas the written and material history legitimizes consensus on a unified view and often romanticizes the past. But there are also similarities between written and life histories: both are selective and confer authority on their sources. Thus, whether we are referring to a scholarly author or an anthropological informant, the storyteller's voice masquerades as a collective voice, making a case for the future preservation of a presumably truer cultural portrayal of the past.
Understanding Villa Clara as a Metaphor for Argentine History
Villa Clara is both locality and metaphor. A municipality of the Department of Villaguay in the province of Entre Ríos in northeastern Argentina, it was home to 2,748 inhabitants in 2001 (Censo de Entre Ríos 2001). The economy of the village, set in a traditionally agricultural and cattle-raising and, more recently, rice-producing region, has been negatively affected by economic recessions and the 1994 closing of the General Urquiza Railway system that connected it to Buenos Aires. Now, as in the past, national and international events mold life in this small village. Its railroad station, currently unused for transportation, now houses the local museum, the Museo Histórico Regional de Villa Clara. Conscious of its role in epitomizing the nation's history, Villa Clara still zealously preserves the past through exhibits, anniversary celebrations, and cultural tourism programs. What is the relevance of this history to understanding the nation's role in the world system of capital expansion?
During its nation-building process in the nineteenth century, Argentina was one of a few countries in the Americas that favored the entry of large numbers of European immigrants. The province of Entre Ríos was noteworthy in its promotion and implementation of the nation's liberal project. The social history of Villa Clara is told here to enliven the official history of European immigration to Argentina, including that of the Jewish founders of Villa Clara, interweaving records of the past with memories elicited from current residents of the village.
There are several important omissions in the officially accepted written history of Jewish immigration to the province of Entre Ríos. First, this history overemphasizes the repressive regimes in the homelands of the immigrants, to the detriment of the numerous constraints encountered in the new land. Depicted in a written history and literature more copious than for the other immigrant waves to the province, the story of Jewish immigrants focuses on their success. The Jewish gauchos became a metaphor for the successful acculturation of newcomers to the world of native inhabitants of the new land, and the frequent failures that led to a short-lived, nonsustainable agricultural project were obscured or minimized.
Second, the official history of the Jewish immigration is isolationist. In general, the Jewish farmers were not portrayed as part of a province where other European immigrants had settled in agricultural colonies or in relation to the ideology of the new nation that equated the arrival of European immigrants with progress. Overall, non-Jewish populations are relatively absent from the officially accepted history, unless they are members of Jewish networks such as the indigenous criollos and the over-idealized gauchos. Within the context of daily interaction, especially during the initial settlement, the gauchos are lauded as disinterested teachers or as hired hands; mostly they are depicted as friends, though, exceptionally, they could become murderous intruders. In illustrating this official history, the Museo Histórico Regional de Villa Clara uses artifacts, rather than oral histories, to glorify Jewish life during the first few decades of village history. A small niche, the Rincón Gauchesco (Gaucho Corner), and dispersed artifacts on Western European immigrants account for non-Jewish life in the village, as if their histories were separate from that of the Jews.
Although emphasizing the Jewish immigration is necessary to depict the initial history of the village, Villa Clara's history is incompletely understood without first understanding the history of Entre Ríos, where many European immigrants settled in agricultural colonies well before the founding of the village. The history of the province, in turn, is inseparable from the history of the Argentine nation, including the global connections spurred by the transatlantic immigrations. However wide the lens for the story told here becomes, the focus is on Villa Clara within a larger context.
The Political Economy of Immigration Policy: From Cosmopolitanism to Nationalism in Reading the Nation's Past
This case study is framed by the changing political economy of Argentina and its intersections with ideological pronouncements about the foreign "other," which in turn offered political commentaries on the native populations. To clarify those intersections, I identify three stages relevant to the arrival of the immigration cohorts to Entre Ríos: the organization of the independent state, the imagined global nation, and the return to nativism.
The Organization of the Independent State
Immigrants suffering from poverty, ideological and religious discrimination, and genocides in mid-nineteenth-century Europe who were fleeing to a country that was advertised to be freer found themselves in an Argentina that was far from peaceful. They arrived in a country in the throes of defining itself as independent of its colonial past and separate from its indigenous populations. Simultaneously with its need to define itself within the concert of nations, the new state also strove to define its national organization and identity. The first political issue that needed to be addressed after formal independence from Spain in 1816 was the polarization between the province of Buenos Aires and the rest of the country. Buenos Aires monopolized access to the harbor on the Atlantic and taxes on imports and exports, an issue that was not completely solved until the 1890s.
The Nation Imagined by the Liberal Project
The Constitution of 1853, the first proclamation of the nation imagined as a liberal project, started the process of legislating for the nation shortly after its ratification by all provinces.3 The governing elite's discourse made evident its preoccupation with the size and ethnic composition of the native population. During the second half of the nineteenth century the liberal state embarked on the active promotion of white European immigration, viewed as an antidote to "civilize" the native populations, who were devalued as ignorant and backward. One well-known ideologue, Juan Bautista Alberdi, coined a popular dictum in 1852: gobernar es poblar (to govern is to populate). By overwhelming the native populations, the liberal project of the nation hoped to emulate Europe. Through a selective immigration policy (immigrants who planned to practice agriculture were preferred) and exposure to institutions such as public education, the military draft, and naturalization, the state planned to assimilate the newcomers relatively quickly. Another well-known ideologue, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, extended the meaning of "populate" to "civilize" as he proposed a continuum of cultural and economic development: civilization characterized the progressive Europeans as heralding "progress" against the barbarism considered inherent in the illiterate indigenous population. That included the gaucho, the Argentine native whose role within the national political economy is admirably painted by Ezekiel Martínez Estrada (1942, 1: 58-59):
He did not have power [he did not own either land or cattle], though he faced the planet covered by animals who were wandering too . . . Thus emerged the gaucho . . . His vague aspirations fit a political program . . . [The gaucho] was never a poetic theme but an ethnographic type.
In addition to immigration, the expanding economy was fed by foreign investments, particularly British. Labor, capital, and goods interacted with each other to assure the stability necessary to continue attracting foreign investment (Rock 1985: 119). The British invested in transportation, particularly in the railroad, service, and financial sectors. It is not surprising that Baron Maurice de Hirsch of Bavaria, Germany, a wealthy banker who invested heavily in railroads in Europe and Turkey, registered his agrarian immigration company (the Jewish Colonization Association) in London, where he had numerous business contacts.
European immigrants might serve a dual purpose for the liberal project: as a cheap labor force for the growing agricultural industry and as a "civilizing" influence on the natives. Europeans were considered to be the most fit to populate Argentina's vast territory, promote sociability through the establishment of agricultural colonies in desolate rural areas, diversify economic productivity, and, in the long run, modernize Argentine culture and society. Fernando Devoto (2003: 31-32), a historian of Argentine immigration, notes the Constitution's hidden ambiguities:
The preamble, in its generality, presupposed all types of possible immigration, since it offered the rights and guarantees of the Constitution to "all the men of the world with goodwill who wished to inhabit the Argentine land." More precisely, article 25, on the one hand, promoted immigration but only the European kind ["the federal government will promote European immigration"] and, on the other, also gave an extensive occupational definition of immigration, noting that entry could not be denied to "foreigners whose goal was to work the land, improve the industries, and introduce and teach the sciences and the arts."
Concurrently with policies favoring the entry of the much emulated Europeans, there was rampant discrimination against the "barbaric" indigenous and Creole populations: while these populations were obliterated through forced assimilation, relocalization, and genocide (or made invisible when counted as Argentines in population surveys), the gauchos were marginalized as vagabonds, and their nomadic lifestyle was criminalized.
A political issue to be confronted by the new nation's landed elites was the need for agriculture as well as cattle raising to produce more export commodities (in addition to hides, salted beef, and tallow) to conform to new global market demands. To accomplish this aim, the new immigrants needed some support to settle as farmers. The Immigration and Colonization Law (Law No. 817, known as Ley Avellaneda, after the president who signed it in 1876, Nicolás Avellaneda) approved the distribution of fiscal land to immigrants "who wished to work it."
Immigration was promoted throughout the process of active recruitment: the law authorized the state to appoint agents in Europe to attract immigrants and facilitate their travel, initial accommodation, and settlement and offered protection from exploitative practices. But a noticeable lag existed between the passing of legislation and its administrative implementation. According to Devoto (2003), the private sector had already implemented colonization programs, regardless of state legislation. In fact, many colonias had been founded in the provinces of Santa Fé and Entre Ríos between 1850 and 1870, well before the legislation was passed.
Excluding first-class passengers and immigrants from neighboring countries, an estimated 4,600,000 transatlantic immigrants arrived in Argentina between 1881 and 1914. By 1896 immigration reached massive proportions in the nation as well as in the provinces: 49.6 percent of the population of the city of Buenos Aires was foreign-born, followed by the provinces of Buenos Aires (30.5 percent), Santa Fé (15.6 percent), and Entre Ríos (13.6 percent) (Devoto 2003). Two-thirds of real estate in Buenos Aires was owned by immigrants (Solberg 1970). While immigrants represented 25.5 percent of the total population of the country by 1895, they had reached 30 percent by 1914. The country's population composition was forever transformed with an increase of European immigration and a decrease in native populations as Argentine president Julio Roca embarked in the 1898 Campaign of the Desert to displace the indigenous population in the pampas and Patagonia. European immigration therefore played an important role in the construction of national identity. Within a few decades the country turned from a binary to a multicultural society.
The Return to Nativism
The Argentine population increased dramatically through immigration within four decades, doubling first between 1869 and 1895 and again by 1914. While immigrants kept coming, the nation experienced deep economic depressions in the 1880s. In addition, a growing working-class was becoming unionized to demand better working conditions. These developments signaled the emergence of a cultural reevaluation of the Hispanic, indigenous, and criollo components of gaucho culture in the making of national identity. The earlier characterization of the gaucho as "barbaric" (Devoto 2003: 38) was transformed into a romantic vision, a "guiding fiction" of nationhood, "a glorification of the rural poor in which the gaucho, rather than a barbarian outcast, emerges as a prototype of authentic Argentine values and a victim of the oligarchy's selfish ambition" (Shumway 1991: 216). Both the defamation and the glorification of the gaucho as the embodiment of authentic Argentine culture were political projects according to Martínez Estrada (1942, 1: 59), who declared 1880 "the year of the death of the gaucho." Since the immigrant inflow continued to be related to economic development that supplanted the gaucho culture and lifestyle, "the reaction led not to restriction of immigration, but to defamation" (Solberg 1970: 65).
The ideological schism between the factions that supported either indigenous or foreign populations in the constitution of an Argentine citizenry became a source of contention for decades, dividing those who imagined either a more indigenous or a more cosmopolitan Argentina. In contesting the prevalent ideology of assimilation, another political issue that the evolving nation had to address was the nature of assimilation. What would the nature of the imagined Argentina that would erase differences between natives and foreigners be? If the Argentina imagined by the liberal ideologues of the mid-nineteenth century proposed the assimilation of the natives to the foreigners, the nativists reversed the equation, suggesting that the foreigners should assimilate to the natives, who were now considered the "real Argentineans."
The Invention of the Jewish Gauchos: Memories of European Immigration in the Argentine Pampas
Alberto Gerchunoff immortalized the metaphor in Los gauchos judíos (The Jewish Gauchos) in 1910. Gerchunoff was born in 1883 in Russia; his father had decided on emigration when his successful inn lost patrons with the arrival of the railroad. The family arrived in Buenos Aires in 1891 with the first Jewish independently organized immigration, which experienced a troubled settlement from the Hotel de Inmigrantes (Immigrants' Hotel) in Buenos Aires to Moisesville in the province of Santa Fé. After Gerchunoff's father died at the hands of a drunken gaucho, the family moved to Colonia Rajil in the province of Entre Ríos and finally to Buenos Aires in 1896. There the author, naturalized Argentine in 1899, had a successful career as a journalist and a writer. Gerchunoff is best known for The Jewish Gauchos, which immortalizes the rural life of Jews in the Argentine pampas shortly after their arrival at the end of the twentieth century through twenty-three short stories based on autobiographical vignettes previously published in the prestigious newspaper La Nación. The book was written to contest the myth of cultural isolation of the immigrants popularized by the nativists, although it publicly accepted the axiom inherent in the gaucho literary genre (literatura gauchesca) that venerated the criollo native as the authentic Argentine.
While cultural nationalists were rehabilitating the Creole's reputation, they were denigrating that of the foreigner. The schools established by the immigrants were particularly attacked since they were the medium to disseminate this version of national history, though nationalists reserved their most virulent attacks for the Jewish schools of the Entre Ríos agricultural colonies. (Solberg 1970: 148, 153)
While epitomizing the much-expected acculturation of the foreign-born, Gerchunoff's thesis in The Jewish Gauchos inadvertently set limits to the possibilities of advancement for the Jewish immigrants. In fact, by limiting their assimilation to the positive image of the gaucho, the Jewish immigrants were incorporating into a relatively powerless social group. Whether denigrated in the earlier "civilization" ideology or exalted by the nativists, gauchos were historically poor and marginal members of society. Upper-class criollos, however, made sure they were accepted as natives but not as gauchos. For example, the writer Leopoldo Lugones, a member of the intelligentsia who disseminated the notion of the gaucho as containing the seeds of national character (patriotism, loyalty, compassion, and elegance), made sure that he was not identified as one: "We are not gauchos, of course . . . but the Argentine of today, though racial mixture has changed his physical appearance, still bears the gaucho's heritage. When racial fusion ends, the characteristics of the gaucho will dominate" (quoted in Solberg 1970: 155).
In 1910, when The Jewish Gauchos was published, Argentina was celebrating the first centennial of its independence. As gauchos became the idyllic prototypical embodiment of the true Argentine melting pot, the riots that convulsed Buenos Aires in 1919 were blamed on foreigners and taken as justifications for xenophobic attacks on Jewish neighborhoods and the enactment of anti-immigration legislation. If Gerchunoff's motive had been to exalt the assimilation of Jewish immigrants, the symbolic referent did not seem to coincide with the immigrants' aspirations for their children, many of whom left the countryside. Why the gaucho and not the landed elite or the successful entrepreneur? Why refer only to the Jewish immigrants who settled in the agricultural colonies and not to their urban concentration, particularly in Buenos Aires, through both international and internal migrations? When the Jewish immigrants arrived, Argentina's guiding fiction (Shumway 1991) equated the gaucho with the barbarian. Clearly, it was not this image of the gaucho that Gerchunoff had in mind but the one prevalent at the centennial, when the marginalized gaucho had disappeared, leaving only a nostalgically imagined heroic native behind. Gerchunoff was probably just romanticizing the newly arrived immigrant, who needed to emulate the gauchos (real experts at dealing with the rural terrain) for instrumental reasons, though not as a path of downward social mobility. The vision propagated by Gerchunoff was particularly effective because, unlike the other immigrants to Entre Ríos during the nineteenth century (Swiss, French, Italians, Spaniards, Belgians, Germans of the Volga), most Jews had not practiced much farming in the Old World. Gerchunoff must have thought of cultural pluralism (as different from a melting pot ideology) and of assimilation in a narrow sense: instrumental and not class-based.
In disseminating his powerful assimilation metaphor, Gerchunoff purposefully omitted the modes of incorporating immigrants in Argentina's social structure. Because the receiving society, despite immigration policies and ideological manifestos, did not nurture the European farmers, the immigrant colonization programs in Entre Ríos and most of the nation (with rare exceptions) were not sustainable. By the mid-twentieth century most projects would fail.
While the Constitution provided the legal framework for immigration, the newcomers were relatively on their own in terms of access to credit, police protection, access to naturalization, and land ownership. In fact, the expected democratization of land distribution did not occur. Rather, the large landowners' economic and political power was further consolidated through tenant farmers' revenues. By 1895 only about 8 percent of the immigrants (then approaching 1 million) were landowners (Solberg 1970). The metaphor of the Jewish gauchos is a paradox that will be unveiled through the mix of official and testimonial understandings of history.
By the end of the nineteenth century the rapid assimilation of diverse immigrant populations into a melting pot or crisol de razas had become accepted as a distinctive mark of Argentine nationality. As theories of cultural pluralism amply proved, however, immigrants in nations peopled by large immigrant stocks, like Argentina and the United States, proved to be more resistant to "melting" than expected: they eventually articulated with the larger polity as simultaneously nationals and ethnics. The cultural identity of a Jew, according to this theory, would not negate that of a gaucho. But the celebration of multiple cultural affiliations was not to emerge until 2000, when a federal program entitled "Mosaic of Identities" sought to promote the preservation of ethnic, cultural, and religious heritage. The first project of this program, "Shalom Argentina," focused on Jewish immigrations to Argentina, including the province of Entre Ríos, where Villa Clara is located.