Buenos Aires’s origins are, in some ways, as murky as the muddy Río de la Plata. Everyone agrees that Querandí hunter-gatherers roamed its southern banks, but their encampments of toldos (tents of animal skins) shifted with the availability of game, fish, and other resources. No Querandí site could be called a city, a town, or even a village.
Buenos Aires proper dates from January 1536, when Pedro de Mendoza’s expedition landed on its shores, but his short-lived colony withered in the face of supply shortages and Querandí resistance. Traditionally, Argentine histories place Mendoza’s settlement on the barrancas (natural levees) of present-day Parque Lezama, but author Federico Kirbus has concluded that the first Buenos Aires may have been closer to the provincial town of Escobar, up the Paraná Delta. The evidence is circumstantial, but it’s an intriguing hypothesis.
While Mendoza’s initial effort failed, Juan de Garay refounded Buenos Aires on a southbound expedition from Asunción, in present-day Paraguay, in 1580. Garay died at the hands of the Querandí, but his settlement—peopled by mancebos de la tierra (offspring of Spaniards and Guaraní Indians)—survived.
The muddy riverbank location made a poor port, but this was almost irrelevant—the new Buenos Aires was subordinate to Asunción, which was subordinate to the Viceroyalty of Lima and the Spanish capital of Madrid via a long, indirect overland and maritime route. It took nearly two centuries for Buenos Aires to match Lima’s viceregal status.
Colonial Buenos Aires
Mendoza’s expedition had one lasting legacy: the escaped herds of horses and cattle that, proliferating on the pampas, transformed the backcountry into a fenceless feral-cattle ranch. The presence of horses and cattle, nearly free for the taking, spawned the gaucho culture for which Argentina became famous. Durable hides were the primary product; perishable beef had little value.
Buenos Aires lacked accessible markets, though, because low-value hides were too bulky for shipment to Spain via Lima and Panama. But they could support a vigorous contraband with British and Portuguese vessels in the Paraná’s secluded channels, and Spain acknowledged Buenos Aires’s growing significance by making it capital, in 1776, of the new Virreinato del Río de la Plata (Viceroyalty of the River Plate).
The population, only about 500 in the early 17th century, grew slowly at first. By 1655 it was barely 4,000, and it took nearly a century to reach 10,000, in 1744. By the time of the new viceroyalty, though, it exceeded 24,000, and nearly doubled again by the early 19th century. As Madrid loosened control, the livestock economy opened to European commerce and expanded with new saladeros (meat-salting plants). The growing population, which previously consisted of peninsular Spaniards, criollos (creoles, or American-born Spaniards), small numbers of indígenas (Indians), and mestizos (the offspring of Spaniards and indígenas), soon included African slaves.
Republican Argentina and Buenos Aires
While porteños resisted the British invasions of 1806 and 1807, those invasions undercut Spain’s authority and helped end Spanish rule in the Revolution of May 1810. The movement reached its climax in 1816, when delegates of the Provincias Unidas del Río de la Plata (United Provinces of the River Plate) formally declared independence, but the loose confederation only papered over differences between provincial “Federalist” caudillos and the cosmopolitan “Unitarists” of Buenos Aires.
In Buenos Aires, the largest province, Federalist Juan Manuel de Rosas ruled from 1829 until his overthrow in 1852. Ironically enough, the ruthless and opportunistic Rosas did more than anyone else to ensure the city’s primacy, though it did not become the country’s capital until 1880.
By the time Rosas took power, the population was nearly 60,000; in 1855, shortly after he left, it reached 99,000. In 1833 Charles Darwin was impressed with the city’s size and orderliness:
Every street is at right angles to the one it crosses, and the parallel ones being equidistant, the houses are collected into solid squares of equal dimensions, which are called quadras. On the other hand the houses themselves are hollow squares; all the rooms opening into a neat little courtyard. They are generally only one story high, with flat roofs, which are fitted with seats, and are much frequented by the inhabitants in summer. In the centre of the town is the Plaza, where the public offices, fortress, cathedral, &c., stand. Here also, the old viceroys, before the revolution had their palaces. The general assemblage of buildings possesses considerable architectural beauty, although none individually can boast of any.
Rosas’s dictatorial rule, obstinate isolationism, and military adventures discouraged immigration, but his defeat at the battle of Caseros (1853) opened the country to immigration and economic diversification. For the city, still a provincial capital, this meant explosive growth—its population more than doubled, to 230,000, by 1875. In 1880, when the other provinces forced Buenos Aires’s federalization, irate provincial authorities shifted their own capital to the new city of La Plata, but the newly designated federal capital continued to grow. By the early 20th century, it became the first Latin American city with more than a million inhabitants.
The Porteños Get a Port
Buenos Aires was a poor natural port. Its muddy river banks and shallow waters made loading and unloading slow, laborious, expensive, and even hazardous, as freighters had to anchor in deep water and transfer cargo to barges. Before becoming a great commercial port, it had to speed up a process that took months for the average steamship.
Engineer Luis Huergo offered the simplest and most economical solution: to provide better access to existing port facilities in the southern barrios of La Boca and Barracas. Political influence trumped his practical expertise, as congress approved downtown businessman Eduardo Madero’s vague plan to transform the mudflats into a series of deep water diques (basins) immediately east of the central Plaza de Mayo.
Approved in 1882, Puerto Madero took 16 years to complete, came in over budget, suffered scandalous land dealings, and, finally, even proved inadequate for the growing traffic. Only improvements at La Boca and the 1926 opening of Retiro’s Puerto Nuevo finally resolved the problem, but port costs remained high.
From Gran Aldea to Cosmopolitan Capital
Federalization brought a new mayor—Torcuato de Alvear, appointed by President Julio Argentino Roca—and Alvear immediately imposed his vision on the capital. Instead of the intimate Gran Aldea, Buenos Aires would become a city of monuments, a cosmopolitan showpiece for Argentina’s integration with the wider world. Where single-story houses once lined narrow colonial streets, boulevards like Avenida de Mayo soon linked majestic public buildings like the Casa Rosada presidential palace and the Congreso Nacional, the federal legislature.
Newly landscaped spaces like the Plaza de Mayo, Plaza del Congreso, and Plaza San Martín, not to mention the conversion of Rosas’s Palermo estate into parklands, reflected the aspirations—or pretensions—of an ambitious country. Some, though, castigated Alvear for favoring upper-crust barrios such as Recoleta, Palermo, and Belgrano over struggling immigrant neighborhoods like San Telmo and La Boca.
As immigrants streamed in from Spain, Italy, Britain, Russia, and other European countries, such differential treatment worsened social tensions. In 1913, Buenos Aires became the first South American city to open a subway system, but in poorer neighborhoods large families squeezed into conventillos (tenements) and struggled on subsistence wages. The gap between rich and poor exploded into open conflict—in 1909, following police repression of a May Day demonstration, anarchist immigrant Simón Radowitzky killed police chief Ramón Falcón with a bomb, and in 1919, President Hipólito Yrigoyen ordered the army to crush a metalworkers’ strike during the so-called Semana Trágica (The Tragic Week).
Yrigoyen, ironically enough, pardoned Radowitzky a decade later, and his was the first administration to suffer one of the repeated military coups that plagued the country in the 20th century. The dictatorship that followed him continued to obliterate narrow colonial streets in favor of wide thoroughfares like Corrientes, Córdoba, and Santa Fe, and the crosstown boulevard Avenida 9 de Julio. Despite public deference to working-class interests, the populist Perón regimes of the 1940s and 1950s splurged on pharaonic works projects, heavy and heavily subsidized industry, and unsustainable social spending that squandered post-World War II surpluses.
The Dirty War and Its Aftermath
As Gran Buenos Aires grew and sprawled, encompassing ever more distant suburbs, the capital and its vicinity housed more than a third of all Argentines; by 1970 it had over 8 million inhabitants. Continued political instability, though, became almost open warfare until 1976, when the military ousted the inept President Isabel Perón (Juan Perón’s widow) in a bloodless coup that became Argentina’s bloodiest reign of terror ever.
One rationale for taking power was corruption, but the military and their own civilian collaborators were just as adept in diverting international loans to demolish vibrant neighborhoods and create colossal public works like freeways that went nowhere. Much of the money found its way into offshore bank accounts.
Following the 1983 return to constitutional government, Argentina underwent several years of hyperinflation under President Raúl Alfonsín’s Radical government. President Carlos Menem’s succeeding Peronist government brought a decade of economic stability with strong foreign investment, and Buenos Aires was one of the main beneficiaries. The financial and service sectors flourished, and ambitious urban renewal projects like Puerto Madero’s conversion into a fashionable riverfront of lofts and restaurants brought a sense of optimism through the 1990s. The boom had its dark side, though, in “crony capitalism,” through which the president’s associates enriched themselves through favorable privatizations.
Even before late 2001’s partial debt default, the economy contracted and porteños began to suffer. After Menem’s hapless successor Fernando de la Rúa resigned in December, the country had a series of caretaker presidents until Néstor Kirchner’s election in May 2003.
As the economy stagnated and unemployment rose, homelessness also rose and scavengers became a common sight even in prosperous Palermo and Belgrano. Strikes, strident pickets blocking bridges and highways, and frustration with politicians and institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) contributed to the feeling of bronca (aggravation).
In the ensuing years, the devalued peso brought a tourist boom and once again encouraged investment in hotels and other real estate, though the benefits were uneven and unemployment remained historically high. The global economic downturn of late 2008 has reversed some of those gains, but the city has not suffered so badly as the provinces and some other countries.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition