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On the expression "Argentines descend from the ships"

Updated: Jun 13

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).

Sarmiento’s Civilización y Barbarie (‘Civilisation and Barbarism’) (Sarmiento, 1999 [1845]), laid the intellectual foundations of Argentina’s 19th century “civilising” project.

In the mid- to late 1800s, this way of thinking translated into a concrete state-run “civilising", nation-building project. Several military campaigns, among these the much-celebrated Conquista del desierto (‘Conquest of the desert’) (1878–1885), resulted in the expansion of Argentina’s geographic borders and the destruction of numerous indigenous political autonomies.

Mass graves in the Patagonia, Pampa, and North-West regions were held up as evidence that the Argentine state’s attempts to exterminate the indios were successful, a persistent myth in the Argentine national imaginary (Delrio, Lenton, Musante, & Nagy, 2010; Gordillo, 2016; Grimson, 2012).

With thousands of hectares of now “empty” fertile land, the state opened its doors to massive European immigration, in line with the immigration policy stated in the Argentine Constitution of 1853:

Section 25.- The Federal Government shall foster European immigration; and may not restrict, limit or burden with any tax whatsoever, the entry into the Argentine territory of foreigners who arrive for the purpose of tilling the soil, improving industries, and introducing and teaching arts and sciences.’ (Biblioteca Sede Central n.d.)

Between 1871 and 1914, nearly 6 million European immigrants flooded Argentina, injecting the country with the much-needed workforce. There followed a remarkable economic expansion based largely on the export of beef, hides, and grains to Great Britain (Rock, 1985).

For the Porteño (i.e. Buenos Aires-based) oligarchy, however, investing in the development of industries did not seem to be a priority. Instead, they used much of the export profits to move north of their colonial-style homes and erect a whole new Buenos Aires.

Renown European architects were commissioned to design opulent mansions inspired by French buildings such as the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles, constructed with materials from Europe and filled with European furniture and objets d’art. With its new European facade, Buenos Aires earned its still-famous nickname: La París de Sudamérica (Scobie, 1974; Pigna, 2005).

The Argentine elite’s project did not go quite as planned, though. The desired immigrants from “civilised” Europe were vastly outnumbered by Southern and Eastern Europeans, mostly Italians and Spanish who had fled from poverty, political turmoil, and wars (Rock, 1985). The majority had come in search of rural work, but limited opportunities in the interior led them to settle in Buenos Aires, confined to unsanitary, over-crowded conventillos (‘tenements’) in the city’s south.

At first, these city-based migrant masses, with their impenetrable dialects and political activism, were seen as a threat to the elite’s project of national unity and economic development. However, in the context of the favorable economy, the immigrants and their descendants began to move up the socioeconomic ladder, and, with the introduction of free public education, their children effectively assimilated the national language and culture (Ennis, 2015; Rock, 1985).

Before long, this empowered Porteño sector of European descent would become a key agent of Argentine identity, advancing a national discourse that links Argentines and European immigration, famously articulated in the saying Los argentinos descienden de los barcos (Adamovsky, 2009; Garguin, 2007; Guano, 2003).

Dr. Jan Hein is a cultural linguist, psychologist and translator.

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