Place Names

Argentina. Integración social de los inmigrantes vascos

Language, one might think, could have been another mobilising element for the cohesion of the immigrants in the new place. We believe that this is not the case of a Basque majority in Argentina. This does not mean that there was no fraction of Basque immigrants with language problems. The main drawback lies in the impossibility of estimating percentages of Basques with or without serious language problems. The arguments on which those who maintain that language was a crucial mechanism of rapprochement among Basques are based revolve around the high percentages of illiteracy (the only way to learn Castilian, they argue, was to attend schools) among immigrants. Contradictorily, in the Basque literacy percentages for different parts of the province, Basques who know how to read and write predominate. But as if that were not enough, we do not agree that Spanish could be learned - at least the basic words - only in the schools of Euskal Herria, nor that those who lived outside the villages were sullen, brutalised and isolated from the world. In the first place, the scope of "learning" must have come from the relationship people, whether in the village or elsewhere. Secondly, the geography of the Basque Country meant that the peasants had to frequent, if not the village, then the people in the village. Let us think of the pastoral transhumance, the sale of fresh fish inland, trade, market attendance, the countless annual festivals, and so on. Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, nuclear expelling areas, became, from 1870 onwards, labour poles to which peninsulars converged, strongly supporting the Castilian language. The commercial tradition (since the 18th century) with America and the transfer of Customs to the coast in 1841, are other important elements against the supposedly 19th century Basque-speaking map -mainly peninsular. Other - not minor - elements that weaken the linguistic strength of the Basque people in the last century are the number of newspapers published in Spanish, as well as the totality of documents - involving statements by Basques - and even the travel agency posters that were made - and were successful - to be read by those "Basque speakers". This does not deny that once in America some Basques -mainly French- had language difficulties.

But it is one thing to recognise that some Basque-speaking immigrants asked for help to get somewhere or to read a specific document before signing it, and quite another to affirm that knowledge of the Basque language is presented to us as the fundamental factor in establishing the bonds of solidarity of the new arrivals: uprooted from their natural environment and transplanted into a territory where everything (language, customs, idiosyncrasy) was alien to them. This may reflect what happened to the Basques in the United States, but not in Argentina or Uruguay. The problems caused by the language were neither so serious nor so extensive as to bring them together naturally and even lead to the formation of institutions. It should also be borne in mind that the Basque language - Euskera - recognised various regional dialects, which may well have determined a predisposition to complete the learning of Castilian in the new place. Despite the lack of direct sources to prove it or not, there are indicators to support our argument. If we take as a reference the geographical mobility characteristic of the Basques during the period, everything seems to indicate that they did not encounter - as they might have done in the northern country - insurmountable linguistic or cultural barriers.

Let us also consider the number of Basque workers in different parts of the province who were engaged in tasks (inns, commerce) that depended on dealing with customers. Another additional indicator comes from the early involvement of Basques in every neighbourhood committee that was set up in any of the towns analysed, including their participation in Spanish Mutual Aid societies. We should also remember, without going any further, the appearance of a magazine aimed at the Basque community throughout the country, La Vasconia, which appeared in 1893. It was written almost entirely in Spanish; presumably its editor, José Uriarte, was well aware of the reading possibilities of potential consumers. It could also be that the Basques who spoke Basque - and were often bilingual - generally did not know how to write it, a phenomenon that continues almost to the present day. This would explain - in our opinion only slightly - the presence of a good part of the texts, newspapers and sources in Castilian without the need to reduce the Basque-speaking map in Vasconia or in the Argentine pampa.

There were, in any case, personalities within the community who became points of reference and cohesion for the new arrivals, some of whom could encounter language problems. Such was the case of Crescencio Echevarría, whose name was given to a street in Bermeo at the end of the 19th century by his fellow countrymen for services rendered in America. For their part, people from the area of Tolosa, Gipuzkoa, came with a recommendation from Sarasola to be guided in Buenos Aires by Antonio Irazu; while José María Aldasoro, who arrived in the country in 1886, set up an office in Buenos Aires and there he also received the recently arrived Basques who did not know where to go and could not find a place to live. Echevarría, Irazu and Aldasoro were important references for the Basques arriving in the country, but, due to their brief and fleeting dealings, they did not have the same influence as a "leader" of permanent reference such as the Basque Graciano Ayzaguer in the process of integration of his countrymen in Tandil.