Critique of the documentary ArgenChino

Screencap from ArgenChino.

I finally got a chance to watch Julia Reagan’s documentary ArgenChino, about Chinese supermarkets in Buenos Aires. It was a well-made film and a good introduction to the subject. I particularly liked the section on the looting of Chinese supermarkets and government protection of chain markets during the 2001 financial crisis; this was something that I (inexplicably) did not come across in my own research. I do, however, have a number of critiques to share:

1. The voice of the immigrants

As in many media depictions of the Chinese in Argentina, the voices of immigrants who do not speak Spanish are not heard. While we hear from some 1.5 generation immigrants who do speak Spanish, much of the ire against Chinese immigrants in Argentina is directed towards those who don’t speak the language. How do supermarket owners who haven’t spent most of their lives in the country feel about their businesses and about the xenophobia and racism directed against them?

2. Two factual errors and one glaring omission

3. Why don’t the Chinese integrate culturally?

There were several important elements missing in the section towards the end about why Chinese immigrants aren’t integrating into Argentine society. First, I suspect that the immigrants may be ambivalent about integrating because they do not know how long they will stay. Only once in this film is it mentioned that many Chinese use Argentina as a stepping stone to third countries like the US and Canada. Return migration to Taiwan and Mainland China is not mentioned at all, though after the 2001 financial crisis many Taiwanese did in fact go back to Taiwan.

Second, Argentine society’s understanding of what immigrant integration entails is largely shaped by the experiences of the Great Wave (“Gran Ola”) of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the Great Wave, millions of migrants from all over Europe (but mainly from Italy and Spain) arrived on Argentine shores, making Argentina the receptor of the second-largest flow of immigrants during this period, after the United States. Immigrants rushed into Argentina’s depopulated countryside and developing cities in such large numbers that, for over fifty years, immigrants formed half of the population of the most economically important provinces and almost 70 percent of the population in the city of Buenos Aires.

While the United States received more immigrants, the native-born United States population was fairly large, and immigrants came over a long period of time. In Argentina, however, the native-born population was fairly small, and immigrants came in large numbers over a relatively short period of time. This is reflected in the census data. In 1914, more than 30 percent of the Argentine population was foreign-born; in contrast, in 1910, only 14.4 percent of the United States population was foreign-born (Fontanella de Weinberg 1979).

This overwhelming influx of immigrants drastically transformed Argentine society. Unlike in the US, where immigrants added on to an Anglo-American substrate, immigrants were the vast majority in Argentina’s political and cultural capital and completely redefined what it meant to be Argentine. While the US talks of the melting pot, where immigrants melt into the preexisting soup, Argentina uses the “crisol de razas” (crucible of races) metaphor, implying a much more transformative process that does not take any one group to be the foundation.

The melting of races has already happened, and the “nuevo tipo argentino” (new Argentine man) has already emerged out of it. Now that immigrants are coming in small trickles rather than overwhelming waves, it seems that Argentina doesn’t really know how to incorporate them.

Fontanella de Weinberg, María Beatriz. 1979. La asimilación lingüística de los inmigrantes: Mantenimiento y cambio de la lengua en el sudoeste bonaerense [The linguistic assimilation of immigrants: Maintenance and language change in southwestern Buenos Aires Province]. Bahía Blanca,  Argentina: Universidad Nacional del Sur.


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