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On the expression "Argentines descend from the ships"

Many of Argentina’s 19th century political leaders would be pleased to hear Argentine President Alberto Fernández and Argentine ex-President Mauricio Macri say Los argentinos descienden de los barcos (‘Argentines descend from the ships’). At face value, the expression seems to confirm that the “civilised”, European Argentina these 19th century leaders imagined has indeed come to fruition.


Argentine President Fernández (left): “Mexicans emerged from Indigenous people, Brazilians emerged from the jungle, but we, Argentines, arrived on boats. On boats from Europe”

Argentine President Mauricio Macri (right): "In South America, we are all descendants from Europe."


Argentine national discourse does not fall short of highly creative, metaphorically-rich multiword expressions that seek to legitimise the "Europeanness" of Argentine people and places, and which perpetuate nation-building ideologies advanced by the country’s late 19th and early 20th century elites. Take, for example, Los argentinos son italianos que hablan español (‘Argentines are Italians who speak Spanish’), and Buenos Aires es la París de Sudamérica (‘Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America’).

That these expressions can ring true not only to Fernández and Macri but also to a broad sector of Argentine society is indicative of the "success" of the political ideology advanced by Argentina’s 19th century political elites. What is this ideology ? How did it concretise? I will answer these questions here (surely, a lot more can be said).


The 'Europeanisation' of Argentina


Argentina’s first generations of self-proclaimed “liberal” thinkers—among these, prominent figures like Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888), Juan Bautista Alberdi (1810-1884), and Esteban Echeverría (1805-1851)—longed for the 'Europeanisation' of Argentina. To them, Europa (‘Europe’) was the epitome of cultural, political, and scientific sophistication—the ideal model of civilización (‘civilisation’).

Typically, the notion of Europe as the source of civilisation included countries such as Britain, Germany, Switzerland, and France, and excluded regions near the Mediterranean Sea. Spain, Argentina's former metropolitan state, embodied aspects of both civilisation and barbarism, and, as such, it was generally excluded from the notion of civilised Europe (Shumway, 1991; Svampa, 2006).

By contrast, Argentina was conceived of as being plagued by barbarie (‘barbarism’): the country’s interior (‘hinterlands’) was inhabited by rebellious, mixed-blood gauchos (‘rural men’), and ruled by backward, authoritarian caudillos (‘strongmen’). In the fertile territories beyond the borders of the country—the so-called desierto (‘desert’)—lived the “savage hordes” of “repugnant” indios (‘Indians’) (Sarmiento, 1913; Svampa, 2006).