This weekend I decided that I wanted to go and try a new restaurant and so headed into town to one of the local eateries. Now, imagine my surprise when I was handed a menu in English. Interesting, I thought to myself as all of the other patrons of the restaurant seemed to have a different menu and on that menu? Yes, you guessed it, the prices were much much lower. While I was accustomed to this in China and I am now becoming accustomed to this once again in South America I have to ask myself: Is this discrimination?
I have been thinking about racism in Argentina since I have arrived here as it is a country which is filled with such a great divide between classes, races and people in general. It is frequently said that there is no racism in Argentina because the country is basically mono-racial and mono-culture in nature, however, with immigration becoming a greater issue all the time The National Institute against discrimination, xenophobia and Racism recently published figures which claimed that discrimination against foreigners is one of the the most common forms of discrimination in Argentina. The study stated that Bolivians were the number one target followed by Peruvians and Paraguayans. While discrimation against Chinese, Koreans and black people aren’t on the list I can certainly attest to the fact that it certainly exists and that it is expressed most often and through the every day vernacular of people here in Buenos Aires.
This is apparent most obviously in the relationship with the Argentinians and the Chinese who have quite a strong presence here in Buenos Aires. The general relationship between the Asians and the Argentinans appears to be one of mistrust. The very fact that here in Argentina corner shops are called los supermercados chinos or simply “Chinos” (which just means Chinese) seems to me to incate that the Chinese people and the supermarkets that they run have become synonymous with one another. This synoniminity also translates to the Argentinians relationship with the Chinese which seems to be mostly based on mistrust and misunderstandings. Many attitudes and myths prevail here including that the Chinese mafia has a strong hold in Buenos Aires, that the Chinese unplug the freezers at night to save money, that they do not pay their employees fair wages, or that they do not pay taxes or are reimbursed for their taxes by the Chinese government. In fact, it is increasingly difficult for Chinese people to get legitimate visas to come to Buenos Aires due to this prejudice.
Another term that I have heard used a lot here is “Cabecita negra” which literally means little black head) and is a historical racial term which has come t have a wider meaning. The word actually came from the Spanish name of a native bird, the Hooded Siskin. It is used to refer to people who have black hair and medium-dark skin, those who belong to the working class, criminals or lower class Argentinians who live in the villas. Also, nicknames such as “Bolita” Paraggua” or “Boliguayo” are used as everyday expressions for immigrants from neighbouring countries and for me are somewhat telling about the cavalier attitudes to race that are on display in Buenos Aires. Let me clarify and say that when I have heard these terms used although they are clearly meant as disparaging comments the people who have used them clearly do not identity or think of these words as at all racist. While I am the first to say that in some countries, like my own, political correctness has gone overboard I also do feel that such a general acceptance of these terms constitutes as a problem for those people who may feel excluded or discriminated against
Coming back to my initial gripe about foreigners being taken advantage of I have to chime in with my own experiences here and say that I consider that the word “gringo” here is used in a somewhat rude and derogatory manner. While in itself the word just means someone who is non-spanish speaking in Buenos Aires it is a collect term for “foreigners from english speaking countries” in Buenos Aires the word takes on a whole other meaning in itself and the discrimination. The assumption in Argentina seems to be one that exists in many other countries in the world and that is that English speaking people go home at night and roll around in their vaults of money like Scrooge McDuck. The discrimination against gringoes is just as real, albeit different, as that towards other races and nationalities here in Buenos Aires. In fact, recently there was an extensive debate about whether on not a word like gringo is acceptable to use in certain situations due to a jounralist using this vernacular in one of her articles. It is in interesting debate but I am My treatment in the restaurant is sadly not the only place where I have to endure hiked up prices. When I book a hotel room I pay double; when I try to book tickets online in English the prices are higher; when I want to rent an apartment I pay a foreigner price (around double the “Argentinian” cost) and when I want to buy an airline ticket? Well of course the office is government sanctioned to charge me more. Foreigners appear to be nothing more than a cash-cow to be exploited. Of course this exploitation of tourists happens everywhere but nowhere have I felt the sting of it quite so much as here in Argentina.
Of course, in this article I have no way to delve into the complexities of race relations in argentina or any other country and I am certainly not condoning the idea that anyone who uses these phrases are racist or that Argentina is in some way a racist country or in fact more racist than any other country. What is interesting for me is how this kind of discrimination manifests itself in the language and every day lives of the people around me and how much I have actually noticed it since I have been here. The first time I heard these phrases I was in shock but now I have just come to accept that it is a normal way of life to talk this way for the locals. I guess that living before with the absence of this kind of vernacular has made me very sensitive to when I hear it.
I would love to hear some more views on this topic. Do you have an interesting story about tourists being taken advantage of? Have you been a victim of discrimination in your own or another country? Do you think that words which could potentially be deemed as racist be socially acceptable?