Argentine Language Idiosyncrasies

BUENOS AIRES—Foreigners stepping onto Argentine soil are usually puzzled by locals’ language idiosyncrasies. A nation of immigrants, Argentina is also a country of blatant—albeit kindhearted, for the most part—broad categorizations of its people.

For example, Argentines call anyone from the Middle East a Turco (“Turk” in English). You can be a fourth-generation Lebanese, but you will still be considered a Turco. This stems from the fact that Middle Easterners who emigrated to the South American nation in the early 20th century had Ottoman passports regardless of their ethnic origin. (They all came from the Ottoman or Turkish Empire, which was dissolved in 1922.)

Similarly, whether Indonesian, Vietnamese or Japanese, Argentines call all AsiansChinos (“Chinese” in English). You can be a third-generation Korean owning a Korean restaurant and serving Korean food, and an Argentine will still dub you Chino.

Yanqui (“non-Hispanic” or “non-Latino”) usually refers to Americans in Latin America. In Argentina, it means any blond-haired and light-eyed individual with a white complexion (even a Moroccan, like me!) is coined a Yanqui.

Lampooning others is so commonplace that ​Argentina’s former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner made the headlines when she mocked Chinese accents during a state visit to China in February 2015.

But it’s fair to say that Argentines’ way of speaking doesn’t spring from ignorance. The capital, Buenos Aires, has more bookstores per inhabitant than any other city in the world, according to a recent study by the World Cities Culture Forum. There are 734 bookshops for 2.8 million porteños (natives of Buenos Aires) or 25 bookshops for every 100,000 inhabitants. In addition, the nation has one of the highest literacy rates—98%—according to the 2013 World Bank data, the latest figures available for the country.

Speaking Candidly

Although Argentina is a diverse country, “this does not mean that its people do not categorize [others] and include them into broad categories like ‘Russians’ or ‘Turks,’” says Barbara Guerschman, a social anthropologist in Buenos Aires. “What is derogatory is not the categorization itself, but how it is used. So one must take into account the context in which these categories are expressed,” she explains.

Aigul Safiullina, a Russian content strategist working for an Argentine fund for tech companies, says she doesn’t mind cultural stereotypes about herself. She has been living in Buenos Aires for five years. “I’m used to people calling me ‘Russian,’ ‘little Russian’ (Rusita in Spanish) or Rusi because my name is very difficult [to pronounce] for many,” she says.

In the Argentine lexicon, “Russian” typically refers to Jews. Many from the Jewish community in Argentina emigrated from Russia and eastern Europe. Ms. Safiullina was born in a Muslim region under the Soviet Union. “At first, I didn’t like it because I felt it was stripping away my identity. But then I realized that it was a display of affection,” she says. For example, when she is too serious or outspoken, her friends would often joke: “look at this Russian” or “the Russian in her came out.”

Like Ms. Safiullina, expatriates eventually get used to the Argentine way of speaking.

Hugo Fryszberg, a member of the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, explains that “In my experience, when people called me ‘Russian’ or Rusito, it was always in a respectful and even caring way by friends or school mates. There are people saying it in a derogatory manner with a hint of anti-Semitism but luckily, I don’t remember ever having felt that.”

Similarly, after living 11 years in Buenos Aires, Grant Dull, a Texan who founded an electronic music record label, is at peace with porteños. “I have no problem being called a gringo. I don’t find it to be a derogatory term. I’ve come to use it myself,” he explains. When in Rome, do as the Romans, is his motto. “People in Latin America have other things to worry about beyond being politically correct … like everyday survival, corrupt governments, unstable economies, unfair wages … For the time being, I’m agringo in Latin America, y esta todo bien,” he says, meaning “all is good.”

Crossing the Line?

Yet others are more sensitive to cultural differences, especially natives from the Middle East.

“I do not like being called ‘Turk’ because this is not my identity,” says Amal Khalil Kabalan, a second-generation Lebanese who works for the family business Halal Catering Argentina in the capital. “I am proud to be Argentine and Lebanese, from both homelands and both cultures. I have nothing against Turks … but their culture is different than the Lebanese one,” she adds. Ms. Kabalan explains that Lebanese and Turkish food, music, dialects, clothing and ways of thinking are dissimilar. “The fact that we don’t pay attention [to people’s origin] and don’t call them by the name of the country they come from is, above all, a lack of respect,” she concludes.

Argentines also nickname Armenians Turcos, despite the fact that 2 million Armenians living in Turkey were eliminated between 1915 and 1918 in a genocide, according to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. While some Argentine Armenians might disregard this epithet, many feel offended. “For Armenians and other groups who suffered from persecution like the Assyrians and the Greeks, being called a ‘Turk’ is deemed an insult, given the situation in which they had to emigrate,” explains Kevork Dolmadjian, Executive Director of the Armenian Cultural Association in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

The situation is tricky for Latin Americans, too. Some feel irritated when locals mistake their country of origin because Argentines are known for feeling superior to their regional peers— an extension of Europe in South America,  “the Paris of the South.” Argentines have a reputation for flaunting their European ancestry—mainly Italian and Spanish—to their regional counterparts who often have indigenous origins. “Argentines are Italians who speak Spanish who think they are British,” goes the jest.

“This is clearly a major problem. History and colonization have been responsible for stripping the Latino-American away from the most precious thing he’s ever had: his identity,” argues David Albán, an Ecuadorian film and music producer in Buenos Aires. Argentines call him “Colombian” or “Peruvian,”  he says, because he’s dark-skinned. Buenos Aires often feels like a city outside Latin America “where there is discrimination against ‘Latinos,’ who are considered a single and vague ethnic group,” Mr. Albán says.

All Joking Aside

Of course, stereotyping isn’t unique to Argentina. “This is a process that happens in every country,” notes Ms. Guerschman. And as it turns out, the people Argentines mock the most are … themselves.

Thanks to Messi, Maradona, Pope Francis and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands (all Argentines), Argentines are a proud people. As Pope Francis, a native of Buenos Aires, once joked: “How does an Argentine commit suicide? The answer is: He jumps out of his ego,” the daily newspaper “La Nación” reported.

Or as another joke goes: “What’s the best deal someone can make? Buying an Argentine for what he’s worth and selling him for what he thinks he’s worth.”

This article was published in The Wall Street Journal on December 29, 2015. Link here


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *