A Blending of European and Latin American Influences in Buenos Aires

By: Annie Dale

October 19, 2012

I have yet to eat a taco in Argentina. I have yet to see a sombrero or a brightly woven poncho. Mariachi bands are unheard of here, and tequila does not flow freely. So I guess this is not the traditional Hollywood-portrayed Latin America I thought I was coming into before I arrived.

I was shocked when, on the 12 hour plane ride into the Buenos Aires airport, a fellow flyer told me that Buenos Aires is considered “the Paris of South America.” How could a huge city in a country like Argentina in an area surrounded with underdevelopment and poverty be considered comparable to Paris, France? From this disbelief comes my extreme culture shock and, to an even greater extent, culture confusion.

Clearly Buenos Aires is not the Latin America I imagined. Instead of tacos and rice I find myself eating croissants and sipping lattes. A bartender will look at you weirdly for ordering a tequila shot, for they are much more accustomed to serving up Argentina’s national drink of Fernet (a bitter dark liquor) and Coca-Cola. This, my friends, cannot be Latin America.

The European influence in Buenos Aires is imposing and undeniable. Established by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, the city of Buenos Aires has long been guided by European customs and trends. The architecture, the food, the landscaping, and, mostly, the people of Buenos Aires are in many ways exact replicas of that which you can find in a major European city, such as Paris.

A European blogger, Susanne Kruza, writes of her observations while exploring a popular weekend market in the beautiful Plaza Francia and Recoleta Cemetery in the heart of Buenos Aires: “The marble sarcophagi, the grey crypts with rooftops that cover angelic statues and crosses... all that reminds me of something and it seems as if I've been here before, though I know that I haven't. And it makes me wonder. Then suddenly, it comes to my mind: the Wonderland I've entered bears an astonishing similarity to the cemetery of Montmartre. And all at once I feel as if I'm in Paris.”

In fact, the architecture of the whole neighborhood is completely European influenced. Kruza took note of “the villas where rich families once settled down, the Palais de Glace, the neo-gothic Engineering School, luxury apartments, mansions, grand monuments, wide avenues and expensive boutiques such as Cartier and Louis Vuitton.” After spending over three months in this city I have realized now how foolish I was to think I was coming into a city defined by what I thought, and what Hollywood tells me, are Latin American standards.

However, as I sit in the small cafes that are characteristic of Buenos Aires, sip my latte, and eat my croissant with jam, I am crudely distracted by the incessant, overpowering, and stifling odor of cigarette smoke. Every single person in this restaurant is smoking like a chimney. I can reason that smoking can obviously be considered a European characteristic; however the quantity of smokers in this city is astonishing. Furthermore, from outside I hear the constant screaming of dark-skinned men selling socks, stolen DVDs, and neon shoe laces on the street corners. I see the homeless men stagger across the crosswalks being nearly pummeled by speeding beat-up trucks.

Does this sound more like Latin America? My aforementioned culture confusion comes from the clash of influences from Europe and the fact that, despite its reputation as “the Paris of South America,” Buenos Aires still is a large Latin American metropolitan city riddled with crime, poverty, and underdevelopment in what most would consider a third world country. As I walk down the streets of this city it is impossible for me to look up and appreciate the European architecture, as I am forced to constantly keep my eyes on the ground to avoid stepping in the huge and abundant piles of dog feces and still-burning cigarette butts.

Buenos Aires may not be the perfect representation of what some might consider a Latin American city. Spicy food is hard to find, Nike and Lacoste are more common than any hand-woven garments, and gourmet chocolate and expensive souffles are available in almost every street corner cafe. However, Buenos Aires is a perfect representation of the syncretism between European influence and history and the inevitable influence of the Latin American way of life and all that comes with it.

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A Blending of European and Latin American Influences in Buenos Aires