General Introduction
‘‘This is a land of exiles,’’ the legendary writer Jorge Luis Borges would respond
with a half smile when asked about Argentine identity. Aside from exhibiting
his taste for eccentricity and puzzling his audience, in his answer Borges was
in fact repeating one of Argentina’s most powerful images: the idea that it is a
modern country built from scratch through liberal economic and social poli-
cies and massive European immigration. Between 1880 and 1920, an enlight-
ened elite of intellectuals and politicians purposely founded a nation modeled
after Europe and the United States on the vast and fertile plains of the Southern
Cone, relegating to the past the rebellious gauchos and nomadic Amerindians
that until then had traversed the land. In 1845, Argentina’s founding father,
Domingo F. Sarmiento, described this process as an epic struggle between
Western civilization and local barbarism. At the turn of the century, steady
growth in export earnings, capital investments, modern technology, and labor
supply at a favorable moment in the international economy helped turn a for-
gotten minor colony of the Spanish Empire into an earthly promised land. In
1910, one hundred years after independence from Spain, Argentina offered con-
vincing proof that modernity could take root and prosper in postcolonial Latin
America. The local elites had replaced a past of poverty, violence, and waste-
lands with a future of prosperity, cosmopolitanism, progress, and economic
opportunity. In an essay celebrating the country’s remarkable achievements,
the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío expressed his conviction that Argentina
would lead the rest of the former Spanish colonies along the path of progress.
To the astonishment and applause of all the nations of theworld, he contended,
Argentina was already flourishing and would soon become strong enough to
compete even with the big brother of the North, the United States. Nobody
seemed to doubt that Argentines would eventually become the ‘‘Yankees of
the
South.’’1
Echoing this perspective, writers at home and abroad have repeatedly por-
trayed Argentina as a homogeneous and exceptional community, remarkably
different from its Latin American counterparts. ‘‘The Argentines differ from
most other Latin American peoples in many respects and from all of them
in some important respects,’’ the American historian Arthur P. Whitaker de-
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