The Spanish arrived and colonized present day Argentina in the early 16th century. They founded cities throughout the country and killed off many of the native inhabitants in what can only be described as a mass genocide. In 1776, they established a powerful centralized government called the Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata in Buenos Aires to rule over much of the South American continent. Thousands of Spaniards arrived in the city to assist with the new administration, far outnumbering the few indigenous people that remained.
However, it wasn’t until after independence had been achieved in 1816 that Argentina became truly European. During the 19th and 20th centuries, huge waves of white European immigrants flooded in, fleeing conflicts and crises at home. They came from countries like Italy, Spain, Russia, the Austro-Hungarian empire, Germany and the U.K., bringing vasts amounts of wealth with them and establishing their own communities throughout the country. With this mass migration of people also came a migration of culture. European music, dance, literature, theater, food and architecture changed the nation’s cultural identity forever.
Much of this is still evident today. A walk through downtown Buenos Aires will unveil fashion conscious people who mimic the latest designs from Europe as well as an array of impressive old world architecture with styles that have been influenced by various European nations. Pizza shops and French restaurants abound, serving up fine wines from an industry that rivals those of Europe. People sit outside cafés around elegant leafy plazas to wile away the afternoon, much like their counterparts do in the north. Perhaps most notable of all is the importation of culture, with a sizable proportion of the population preferring theater, Tango, reading and poetry over Hollywood and reality TV.
During the first few decades of the 20th century, Argentina was among the wealthiest countries on Earth. Economically speaking, they were far closer to Europe than their underdeveloped Latin American neighbors. But then things took turn for the worse. In the 1930s a military junta took power and sent the economy into a tailspin, something that would be a common theme for several decades and from which the country would never fully recover. The worst period was in the late 1970s when a brutal dictatorship slaughtered tens of thousands of opponents, ruined the already fragile economy and shattered national pride by declaring and losing the Falklands War against the British. During these darkest days, Argentines took solace in the one thing they felt they had left: their European heritage. Despite the country being in ruins, they remained proud of their roots and strived to keep the culture of their ancestors alive.
Although the economy has improved substantially since the 1970s and the country now lives in peace, Argentines of today identify less with Europe than they did before the days of dictatorships. This is perhaps indicative of a collective realization of fallibility caused by so many disastrous decades. Argentines understand that their country does not share the same level of stability and economic strength as those of western Europe, and have consequently shifted their identity to align more closely with that of Latin America. Interestingly, Argentines are the most prominent users of psychotherapy on the planet, and a topic that is commonly discussed in therapy is the search for cultural identity.