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Converge and Preserve: Cultural identity in Argentina’s diasporas. 
Click here for Spanish version.

How does the convergence of cultures manifest itself within diasporas, and how do we measure the importance of preserving one’s own heritage in a foreign home? What kinds of pressures bring diasporas to adapt to new customs or cling on to their way of life, and how does this balancing act transfer into new generations? What kinds of unrepeatable subcultures emerge from migration, and what are the contradicting values placed on preserving traditions? How do immigration politics impact how a country welcomes foreigners? 

 

Converge and Preserve is a documentary series using portraits and archives telling stories of migration in Argentina’s diasporas, weighing the different sociopolitical factors that play into how cultural identity evolves. Argentina's notoriously loose immigration policies and being the second most popular destination during 20th century migration waves after The United States, it has become an incubator where foreign diasporas manifested their tendencies to converge and preserve in their own ways. While in most cases, a sense of pride in being both foreign and Argentine was found throughout my research, sociopolitical circumstances lead the subjects to either monetize or sacrifice elements of their culture for survival.   

Subjects include: Founders of a German village in the mountains of Calamuchita, the remaining Eastern European Jewish cowboys in rural Entre Ríos, Syrian-Armenians in Córdoba, and a one-person Rapa Nui diaspora (Easter Island’s indigenous tribe) in Ushuaia-Patagonia. 

This project is ongoing.

The Last Jewish Gauchos  

Argentina has the largest Jewish community in Latin America and the subculture has infiltrated itself into Argentine society. But many of the stories start in the rural province of Entre Ríos because of the Baron Hirsch Association of Jewish Colonies initiated in 1891, giving Eastern European Jews escaping antisemitism chunks of land and some livestock in exchange for agricultural labour, hence the term ‘gauchos’ or cowboys. The prominence of  Jewish gauchos in Entre Ríos, an area with once-thriving colonies, has withered at an alarming pace through the rapid exodus to urban areas to study and work, the industrialization of agriculture and therefore lack of jobs, the termination of the railroad system, and the economic hardships in the region. Discrimination and antisemitism has created barriers from the beginning — the traditional Spanish-Argentine gauchos and the indigenous communities saw the Jewish colonies as threats when they first arrived. Many of today’s challenges with discrimination are seen in the local municipalities’ neglect of the region's historical landmarks and institutions. Only few active synagogues and Jewish schools remain, and a small museum in Villa Dominguez, ‘El Museo de Las Colonias Judias,' which is run by Osvaldo Quiroga. Although not Jewish, Quiroga has singlehandedly archived and maintained the communities' Jewish history over the last few decades which has made him a local hero. The fading of Jewish presence has pushed the community in Entre Ríos towards either a survival-mode to preserve what is left through self-initiative, or like many have, to leave it all behind. 

San Gregorio - Edu Furman

“Today my father is the last jewish gaucho,” said Eduardo, or Edu Furman who is one of the few younger members of the community fighting to preserve its history. At 38, Edu has completely restored his family home in San Gregorio, Entre Ríos, and created a small day-time guest house for visitors to enjoy nature and local cuisine, host events, and learn about the town's history. A small pink house, a barn and a pool, a garden and a pasture for some horses and geese, his dog, a nearby Jewish cemetery where his family is buried and his neighbor Carlos Speling who runs a cattle ranch along with some relatives, are essentially the only surviving relics of the Jewish gauchos in San Gregorio. 

 

Down the road, the historic Synagog of San Gregorio erected in 1893 in the former Sonnenfeld Colony, one of the first Synagogues in Latin America, has been abandoned for over 100 years with only its exterior facade remaining. The municipality has essentially failed to preserve the region’s Jewish history, with people like Edu the only ones left who are committed to preservation. “I don’t have support from anyone, there is no municipality that supports me,” he said. “There is still this barrier because I’m Jewish….I still feel a lot of discrimination.” His requests for forms of funding for his business from the local government and the tourism office have been denied, even with many frequent visitors vouching for him and its historical significance. But Edu says that he continues to receive guests and his business is growing, organically. 

 

Edu, whose family were originally Russian Jews and were given the piece of land through the Baron Hirsch Initiative, left San Gregorio for primary school and spent most of his life separated from that piece of his childhood. Before returning to San Gregorio during the pandemic, he lived in Concepcion de Uruguay for 18 years, a small city near the Uruguayan border where his teenage daughter still lives with her mother. “This is a passion project of mine, there is no one who will follow my footsteps as of now,” he said, as his daughter enjoys the visits but does not identify much with her Jewish heritage. “I came back to these parts because it reminds me of the happier times in my childhood…Here, I have peace,” he said.  

Villa Clara - Ale Talem Collective

The changes happened in front of their eyes. Growing up in Villa Clara, a small town in Entre Ríos, Clara Rabinovich (first image), Susana Fink (third image) , Lidia Ester Apter de Mendelevich, Patricia Acst (second image), and Berta Rosa Tevelez (fourth image) are part of the Comunidad Isrealita Clara Beles, or Ale Tamen collective, and remember a thriving Jewish community during their childhoods. But they are now some of the last approximately 70 families living in the area. To keep the traditions alive aside from celebrating Jewish holidays in the local synagogue, they meet at the Escuela Hebrea Barón Hirsch Jewish primary school where Patricia and Lidia are teachers, as a way to combat the loss of Jewish identity in their hometown. They gather every Wednesday in the school and prepare Jewish food, catch up and plan events. “There were 55 pupils in this school, now there are 10…the primary school is the only way to instill some form of Jewish culture in the younger generations,” said Patricia, adding that the younger members of the community in Villa Clara lack this urgency to preserve. Nevertheless, they all feel full-heartedly Argentine and see the value in preserving Judaism for the sake of community and tradition, without having very strong connections to their countries of origin. "Our families didn't share much about their childhoods, it was traumatic for them...they had to adapt themselves," said Patricia. 

 

Lidia, who’s family from Poland and Romania all left for Buenos Aires but recently returned to Entre Ríos, said that her son and a few couples in Villa Clara represent what will be the future of the Jewish community there. “We still have some young people in the community, there is a pregnant couple now!” they said with excitement, “but it is always less and less…we don’t like to think about what will happen in the future.” While Lidia’s family came over in 1940 on what she said was the last ship of European Jews escaping World War II, Patricia’ family was one of the first, and came from Russia around 1890 during the time of the pogroms, a system of targeting and oppressing Jews. This was just one year before the Baron Hirsch Association of Jewish Colonies. Some families such as Clara’s, hailing from Odessa, migrated at the turn of the century for trade and business. 

Villaguay - Community Center and Synagog.

....coming soon...

Little Germany in Argentina 

While Argentina is known for having been a hiding spot for Nazis, Germans had lived in Argentina well before the Nuremberg Trials - in fact, some were even Jews escaping fascism. As Siemens began projects in Argentina, its employees brought along friends and family who would slowly build small communities throughout the country. One of the most famous communities was La Cumbrecita in the mountains of Calamuchita, originally a piece of baran land bought by Siemens-employee Helmut Cabjolsky in 1934 -- his wife was a Jew in exile. While Cabjolsky was mostly traveling for business, the Mehnert family helped build La Cumbrecita from scratch, which flourished into a nostalgic little-Germany and became a holiday escape for the German diaspora and later for local tourists. 

Beli Mehnert

"Many forget that people actually live here, this place has a story." Beli Mehnert’s German grandmother Lisbeth, originally from Mittweida, was one of the founders of La Cumbrecita. Beli, who still lives in the area, remembers her childhood surrounded by German language and culture. But preserving this culture has come at a cost. Her hometown has attracted investors and now seems like a caricature of Germany with bratwurst, schnitzel and German memorabilia gift shops, attracting tourists from the surrounding area and Córdoba, Argentina's second largest city. "It was definitely difficult to watch them build the theme park and rip out the trees my grandparents planted," she said. 

 

La Cumbrecita looks like a little-Germany because at one point, it actually was. "At the beginning, it was all friends and friends of friends living here, and Germans are naturally very closed off, so the houses are built like in Germany because that's all they knew...They brought seeds from German trees and built a village that was as good as home," said Beli. Beli said she feels fully Argentine, but she grew up with certain German values such as punctuality, still speaks fluent German and has implemented her grandmother's recipes in the bakery, Edelweiss, which used to be her family's home (second image.)

 

La Cumbrecita may now seem like an amusement park, but for Beli, it is a story of resilient preservation of her family's culture.  "They had to leave Germany, some were in exile, Mrs. Cabjolsky was Jewish. And to be able to build a place that is similar to home was important for them. There are so many difficult feelings mixed together: You are not home, you cannot go back home...My grandmother was always very thankful that she moved here. She was happy here. "  

Syrian-Armenian survival stories and family recipes

Armenians began migrating to Argentina in the early 20th century in the wake of the Armenian genocide, a bloody biproduct of World War I which whiped out over one million Armenians – around 60 percent of its population. But unlike many Armenian families in Argentina who have integrated for a few generations, Diran Arslanian has a first-hand story of migration. Diran and Silva Arslanian are a Syrian-Armenian father and daughter whose award-winning restaurant in Córdoba uses family recipes to carry on Armenian legacy and survival-stories which date back to the Armenian genocide when their family fled to Syria, and Diran's time fighting in the Syrian wars in the 1970's before migrating to Argentina. To them, their restaurant business became a medium to converge and preserve Armenian identity. 

Diran

"We can be born in any country but we never forget our identity...In my heart is Argentina, but in my blood and veins is Armenia.” Diran Arslanian and his daughter Silva are Syrian-Armenian chefs whose restaurant in Córdoba is a voice for the Armenian fight against oppression in the ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan, and a direct extension of their family’s relic. A meal at Diran, also the name of the restaurant, is made entirely by hand by himself and Silva. The two wake up at dawn everyday to prepare everything on the menu themselves, from stacking and seasoning each slice of shawarma meat to hand-pressed pomegranate juice, stuffed grape leaves and freshly baked Baklava or Armenian empanadas – perhaps the ultimate physical manifestations of what Syrian-Armenian-Argentine convergence looks like.

 

Born and raised in the Armenian neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Diran grew up with the Armenian spirit of resilience hearing stories of relatives who were killed or tortured and driven out by Ottoman soldiers during the genocide, walking through the desert to Syria in what were considered ‘death marches.’ After rebuilding in Aleppo, different wars throughout the 1970’s once again drove many Armenians out of their home or into the battlefield. While in the Syrian army, Diran recalls cooking for his peers, and his mother once even found him in his precinct to bring him a warm plate of home-cooked food. After leaving at 25 for Argentina, the only country that granted him a visa, his restaurant is a story of survival. “Our job is to spread Armenian culture and nothing more…the best way for me to present our culture and our fight is through gastronomy.” 

Silva

"I only had Armenian friends growing up." Silva reminisces on growing up in Córdoba's close-knit Armenian neighborhood and is now on the commission of the local Armenian club, often traveling to Armenia to volunteer and engage in youth politics. "We talk about ways to improve Armenia's future and to expand our engagement within the diaspora."

 

She is a strong voice in Córdoba's Armenian community and an activist in the ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan which has recently led to 100,000 refugees in Armenia. The Armenian diaspora in Argentina is extremely centered around preserving culture, language and identity. Her sister Betty moved to Armenia to work as a journalist, and her mother also manages the restaurant. The Arslanian family are staples in Córdoba's Armenian community but also in its gastronomy scene – their restaurant has created a space for converging Armenian culture into Argentine society through food and storytelling, while also preserving the memory of their ancestors. 

Easter Island: A one-person diaspora 

Captain Uke sailed by himself to Chile from Easter Island at 19, eventually making his way to Ushuaia, Patagonia where he made a career out of the sailing skills he learned growing up as an indigenous Rapa Nui on the island, now working as a navigator and ship operator in the Antarctic region. His parents, who taught him everything he knows, passed away in a boating accident when he was a child -- his adventurous, one-with-nature lifestyle and career is his way of preserving his parent's legacy and Rapa Nui identity. He said that his son in Ushuaia does not strongly identify with his origins, and Uke is not part of a larger community nor does he consider himself Argentine, "I am forever a Rapa Nui," he said. This story is ongoing.