Chris Szurgot graduated from Georgetown College in 2012 with a major in History and a minor in Government. Originally from Chicago, he studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and wrote for the Junior Year Abroad Network.
October 13, 2010
Argentina is a country that truly embraces its European heritage. With a 90% white population of mostly Spanish and Italian descent, it is considered both externally and internally as a European society situated in Latin America. This demographic majority mirrors the Christian religious dominance within the country. Over 90% of Argentines describe themselves as Christians, with the overwhelming majority professing Roman Catholicism. However, there is more to the religious landscape after you scratch the surface. Argentina is also home to the largest Jewish population in Latin America, the largest mosques on the continent, and a variety of indigenous beliefs that can be found throughout at the country. This letter will explore how different religious groups have fared within the supposedly homogenous, Christian country.
There is no denying the Euro-centric cultural dominance in Argentina. I can personally attest to the fact that the majority of the people I have met during my time here have been both white and Catholic. Argentines tend to think of themselves mostly along these same lines. In fact, the self-perception of homogeneity has led to a particularly Argentine form of political incorrectness. For example, it is perfectly acceptable to use the word negro to describe anyone with a darker skin tone, and any grocery store run by people of Asian descent can be referred to as los chinos (literally: the Chinese.) There is no harm meant by these terms, but it reinforces the idea that those of different ethnic make-ups are easily separated from the majority in society.
This way of thinking also reflects the religious situation in the country. While non-Christian religious groups are generally tolerated, their minority status has enabled varying levels of discrimination throughout the countrys history.
On a recent trip to the Andean province of Jujuy in the extreme Northwest of the country, I learned something of the troubled history of native Argentineans. In the small town of Humahuaca we saw the Monument to the Heroes of the War for Independence with an indigenous warrior standing over depictions of battle. While the indigenous people in this region were promised many rights and benefits in return for their support in the young Argentinas fight for independence, few have been realized. Native religious practices were then suppressed, but some syncretistic rituals have endured. The best examples are the continued celebrations and offerings for the Incan deity Pachamama, or World Mother, which coincide with Fat Tuesday.
The acceptance of Judaism in Argentina has also been a complicated affair. After the first leaders declared a policy of religious freedom following Independence from Spain, the country experienced a wave a Jewish immigration. Yet, after the Russian Revolution in 1917, there was a pogrom in the Jewish neighborhood in Buenos Aires and anti-Semitism only continued to increase. Although Juan D. Perón is one of the most revered figures in Argentinean history, he further ostracized the Jewish population by harboring Nazi ex-pats and strengthening the connection between the Catholic Church and the State.
The discrimination of Jews continued during the military dictatorship of the late 70s, and the Israeli Embassy and Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Association were bombed in the early 90s. More recently, Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated and I have even seen swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti in Buenos Aires.
Muslims are also marginalized in Argentina. Although there are actually more declared Muslims living in the country than Jews, their presence is largely ignored. Former President Carlos Saul Menem was actually born into a Muslim family, but was forced to convert to Roman Catholicism before assuming office.
Fortunately, Argentina has made great strides in terms of racial and religious tolerance. After the dictatorship ended in 1983, President Alfonsín made human rights a top priority and appointed many Jews to high positions within his government. President Menem took these reforms even further and approved a Constitutional Amendment that dropped the requirement for the President and Vice President to be Roman Catholic.
Yet the country still harbors discrimination within its borders. What I find most troubling is the prevalent perception of Argentina as a white, Roman Catholic nation. I know that not all Argentines think this way, but there seems to be some reluctance to acknowledge the legitimate presence of other religious groups in their society. However, I have experienced some of the rich religious culture that lies outside this one category. I have walked through the Jewish neighborhood of Once, seen an Islamic Cultural Center that spans a city block, and witnessed coca leaves and cigarettes being offered to Pachamama. In the end I know these different religious groups are tolerated in Argentina, but I hope that they will one day be embraced as well.
COMMENT FROM RYAN MAXWELL - AUGUST 17, 2011
Throughout my time in Chile, I noticed that a large portion of the population, while remaining nominally Catholic, has become increasingly less religious. The trend is particularly evident within members of the younger generation, the majority of whom rarely attend mass and largely ignore church mandates and regulations. Some may don a cross or religious pendant around their necks out of habit or as a nod to tradition, but very few out of any serious religious conviction. For many, faith seems to have been lost and replaced either by apathy or by active antipathy towards traditional religious institutions.
Amongst some, particularly the social-minded university students, the rejection of traditional beliefs and authorities has been accompanied by the development of a very liberal world-view. Not few have flocked to become adherents to what Enlightenment philosophers reverently called the "Idea of Progress," or what Chesterton disparagingly labeled the "Cult of Progress."
And yet, perhaps surprisingly, many of my personal experiences have revealed that the weakening of religious beliefs has not always coincided with an explosion of the liberal values of acceptance and toleration. Some young Chileans tend to retain their aversions (e.g., homophobia and sexism) even after ridding themselves of the religious convictions that have traditionally been blamed as the foundation for such prejudices. For instance, I once shared a beer (or a few) with a Chilean friend of mine and listened to him long-windedly lambaste the institution of marriage and malevolently mock homosexuals in the same tirade. This strikes me as a change for the worse, because biases that were once based upon moral or ethical beliefs have now devolved into mere bigoted prejudices.
While the majority of my time was spent in Chile, I have been told that the shift away from religion is a trend that is being witnessed throughout many South American countries, including Argentina. As the number of non-religious Argentineans grows, it will be interesting to see how the traditional attitudes towards Jews, Muslims, and peoples of indigenous religions are affected. Will the majority of Argentineans abandon their prejudices along with their Christian faith, or will their discriminatory attitudes remain regardless?
December 9, 2010
Spend any amount of time in Argentina and you will soon learn that the country has no lack of passion. Witnessing the heaving crowds at a soccer match, the emotional swaying of tango dancers, or just the affection of a standard Argentinean couple in a park will reveal this fact. Politics here carries the same passion.
The political history of Argentina consists of a series of upheavals punctuated by coup détats. In fact there have been five coups since 1930 and each space in between was filled with its fair share of riots, protests, and cults of personality. Stability, when it comes, seems ephemeral, as though everyone knew the next major uproar was lurking just around the corner. For example, the most violent and repressive military dictatorship ended just over 25 years ago in 1983. Over 30,000 citizens disappeared in detention centers, never to be seen again, while government forces battled rebel groups during the Dirty War. The country transitioned back to democracy in 1983 with the election of Raúl Alfonsín, but the ensuing calm did not last long. In 2001 Argentina experienced one of the worst economic crises in its history. The value of the peso collapsed and after the resulting financial frenzy the government froze bank withdrawals. The action sparked widespread rioting and a rapid succession of presidents who struggled to piece the economy back together. The nation has yet to fully recover.
The memories of these events still linger in the collective conscience of Argentina. The recent re-democratization and the continuing economic recovery have left citizens of all ages with strong feelings when it comes to politics. Ask any Argentine about a political theme and he or she will gladly discuss, debate, or shout about it with you. The amount of political activism here is almost obscene by American standards and it has had a grand impact on my study abroad experience.
During my semester here, a strike occurred in the Buenos Aires public school system that abruptly stopped classes for a period of six weeks. Since I was taking a class in the School of Social Sciences in the public Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA), I did not know if my class would meet again or if it would even continue at all. Yet this was like no school strike that I have ever heard of where teachers strike to demand higher salaries. This was a strike started by students on behalf of the teachers and the conditions of the schools themselves. It is called a toma, a specific form of protest where the students occupy school buildings to prohibit classes until a specific request is met. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the toma is the fact that it began with high school students with the goal of changing the poor conditions of their school buildings and low salaries of their teachers. The toma spread to the majority of public high schools in Buenos Aires and the University students soon took up the cause to show solidarity.
Public education taken very seriously in Argentina and is considered a fundamental right. Public universities have been fully autonomous from the government since 1918. For this reason, teachers and students can smoke during class even though smoking has been officially banned in Buenos Aires. Public education at the university level gained even higher regard during the administration of Argentina's most revered president, Juan Perón, with the expansion of graduate schools. Today public education from pre-school up through the completion of a PhD remains completely free and the public universities considered the most prestigious in the nation.
Close to six weeks into the toma, the situation appeared to be at a stand still. The government proposed a deal, which the student leaders promptly rejected for being insufficient. Our study abroad program was beginning to prepare alternative means to finish courses started in the UBA, when the toma leaders staged a demonstration and then stormed to Ministry of Education to demand the instant realization of their terms. The government then backed down and the toma was lifted. They won wage increases, the promised repairs of deteriorating facilities, and the payment of all outstanding debt owed to teachers.
The whole experience was like a rollercoaster ride that I never could have imagined while contemplating studying abroad in Argentina back in the US. It was frustrating at times and many peoples final exam schedules were negatively affected by the loss of class time, but looking back, it was exhilarating. I didn't have just the chance to learn about activism while here, I lived through it. I have witnessed other political events during my semester, such as the demonstrations after the death of former president Nestor Kirchner, but none affected me on a personal level quite like this. As a government student, I feel lucky to have had the chance to experience this political passion first hand, in addition to all the other aspects of Argentinean society that I became acquainted with. I cannot believe that this semester is already at its end and that I will soon be on a plane back home. I have certainly come to realize what a vibrant city Buenos Aires is along with the all the subtleties that make up Argentine culture. All too soon I know I will find myself missing my Argentinean friends, family, and of course, the steak. Chau