Marcelo Borges is an associate professor of history at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and his research interests are the history of Latin America, transatlantic migrations to the Americas, the history of Portuguese migration, and oral history and memory.
Interview held in Lisbon, May 13th, 2009, by Filipa Pinho,
revised for publication in December 2017.
Also available in PDF in the OEm Conversations With series.
Observatory of Emigration (OEm) - We can start with your academic career and what led you to study Portuguese emigration to Argentina ...
Marcelo Borges (MB) - I’m Argentinean, I studied in Argentina and then went to the United States to get my Ph.D. I Finished my doctorate’s degree in 97, in History, and stayed there to work as a teacher. I'm at Dickinson College, which is in Pennsylvania. I finished my PhD and started working as a teacher and researcher right after. My interest in Portuguese immigration in Argentina, which was my original interest, has its reason at a professional level, and somehow, at a personal one. At the professional level I took an early interest in the history of migration because it is a very important topic in the history of Argentina in general, and in particular of social history, because modern Argentina was formed by transatlantic migratory routes. And the reason for the Portuguese, that's where the personal part can enter: I grew up listening to stories of Portuguese migrations in Argentina because my father is of Portuguese origin, and my grandparents and great-grandparents were from Guarda. And then I would hear my grandparents talking about amazing stories about the land and crossing the ocean. I even met my great-grandfather, my grandmother's father, who also liked to tell stories and I found these stories incredible. So at the time, when I started to study, I didn’t make that connection, but I believe there is something that also ... had influence. From the academic point of view, there wasn’t, at the time, any study on the Portuguese experience in Argentina. So I thought that studying the Portuguese immigration was a way to contribute to a broader discussion of the history of migration in Argentina. So that's how I started, 20 years or so ago. When I finished the course, I started with a scholarship to research in Argentina, linked to the University of La Plata, where I had taken the degree course, and it was already about the Portuguese migrations to Argentina. At the time I was trying, in a very ambitious way as the initial things are, to study various communities in Argentina and compare everything, besides going to study the more general data on emigration to Argentina, and I did a part of it. Incidentally, I have just finished an article that is now published in the Portuguese Studies Review, about the three communities I started studying 20 years ago, the first time I actually completed what I had thought. That project was to study Portuguese communities in Argentina in different situations: there is a rural community, of workers who went to the countryside, to work in rural tasks - in fact, there is part of my family that has to do with it - the more industrial part, that has to do with oil in Patagonia, and the more suburban part of the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
OEM – What kind of occupations did the Portuguese have here in Portugal, before emigrating to Argentina?
MB – It was mostly rural occupations, and so it was that mixture of the owner and the rural worker. In the case that I have studied more deeply, which is the emigration from the Algarve to Argentina, when comparing the professions by destination, in this case the community from Algarve (algarvios) who went abroad, 85% of the professions that appear declared, are rural. This is sometimes a bit different when comparing those who went to Brazil, or to the United States, or even to Africa, because, when workers were a very significant presence, there was also a large number of people connected to commerce or artisans, or seafarers, who did not go to Argentina. And there are many algarvios with these professions, who went to Brazil or went to the United States or went to Portuguese Africa. In the case of Argentina were almost all rural workers.
OEm – What eras are we talking about? Are these destinations different eras, or did they coexist?
MB – They coexisted. I am talking about transatlantic migrations during the period of massive migration, between the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first three, four decades of the twentieth century, between 1880-1930. This transatlantic migration is general and there are two ways of approaching it, at least in Argentina. Even more in Brazil, that was a Portuguese colony, but let's put ourselves in Argentina: one way to approach the subject is to consider since when there are Portuguese there. So, on the one hand, there are Portuguese there from the beginning, when Argentina was a Spanish colony. And because in the time of the Iberian union, at the end of the sixteenth century and first half of the seventeenth century, it was very easy for people to mobilize in that space of the Iberian Peninsula and the Iberian Colonies. They were unskilled workers, but there were also very successful people who later became part of the commercial bourgeoisie of the port of Buenos Aires, and married other merchants, and there are some well-known names for the Argentine kids who study national history, as well Heroes of independence, who are of Portuguese origin. Then there are Portuguese established in the eighteenth century, nineteenth century, and continue to emigrate to Argentina in the years of massive migration that begins at the end of the nineteenth century. But there is, in fact, a continuity of this community of the eighteenth century, beginning of the nineteenth century, and this other wave, numerically much larger, that happens in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Where do we see that there is not? Mainly in the regional origins. That ancient community was, as much of the emigration of the time, from the coastal zone and the islands; there is data from colonial censuses and most were from Lisbon and Porto - sometimes the data is also a bit difficult to be sure, because sometimes people said Lisbon and Porto as synonymous of Portugal - and the Azores. And of the zone of the Minho, Viana do Castelo in particular. In turn, with the transatlantic labour migrations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there is a great nucleus from Algarve, which makes the migration to Argentina to have a unique character in the Portuguese continental context because it is the algarvios that went there. In general, more or less 1/3 of the Portuguese emigration to Argentina was from Algarve, and then people from Beira, in particular Guarda (about 20%), and then there’s a bit of everything from the rest of the country and the islands, but not more than 4 or 5% in other areas. Then we see that there is an obvious break between these two historical realities. That second period continued until the 1950s, after a period of family reunification, during the 40s-50s, until the early 1960s when Portuguese flow reoriented to Europe. Then, first Algarve community, then Guarda, and then there are other important regional origins that are located in the widest area of Beira (including Castelo Branco and Viseu) in Minho, and also in Leiria, in that zone of contact between the district of Coimbra and the district of Leiria.
OEm - That, in the years ...?
MB – Twenties, thirties, forties, so in the final part of that phase of massive emigration. And then there are other districts as well, but these are the main areas of origin. I do not believe that there was any difference in strategies, or differences in demographic or professional profiles, by districts of origin of the people who went there. The objectives were similar, they were of a labour migration like most of the transatlantic migration, in the beginning temporary, strongly masculine, but that in the course of that migratory experience, changed. Few people migrated forever. The idea was to go for a few years, save money, send money and buy some more land. This idea was not always fulfilled. And then children were born, or the initial expectations changed, and there is a period of family reunion. It turned out that the men who went there, many of them also were married and the women stayed here managing the property, the savings and the family, the children. But it is obviously a family strategy that the women stayed here and the man went there to work. In fact, one was possible because the other existed. And there was a time when it was necessary to make a decision. This happens a lot in the 1940s, 50, which sent the family to go. Now, when we look at the general numbers of Portuguese emigration to Argentina, there is an interesting fact, which is that many have complied with the original idea of temporary migration for a few years, and have returned. Sometimes they did it several times, they travelled for two, three, four years, and a year or two here, then they got married, they went back, and they did that and they came back, and they stayed in Portugal. And the numbers confirm this, in some way, because if we look at the total migration per year, for Argentina, for example, roughly, between 1855-7, more or less, and for 100 years, went to Argentina more or less 80 thousand Portuguese. Argentine statistics have entries and exits. Then, when we count the Portuguese outflow per year, it is that more or less half of those who were there, stayed, which gives a very clear demonstration of that strategy of temporary migration.
OEm - And the Portuguese who were going to Argentina were going to work on what? In what areas?
MB – That depends a lot on the hosting area. In general migrations were highly local, both in origin and destination. So people did not go to Argentina, they went to a specific destination. Some went to Buenos Aires, but others went to communities in the interior, communities around Buenos Aires, and to Patagonia.
OEm - The algarvios, for example, went where?
MB – The algarvios, for proportionally, being so important, went everywhere. But for the fields, for the smallest and most rural communities of the pampas, it was generally the community from Beira that went there. The algarvios went to Buenos Aires, both for the city and its surroundings. This era - the end of the nineteenth century and even more at the beginning of the twentieth century - is a huge sub-urbanization. The city of Buenos Aires grows in the periphery. But it grows in two ways: there is an industrial part, but there is also an agricultural part, an intensive agriculture to supply the urban market with vegetables and flowers, which is also the case of the algarvios. So, suburb is a mix of urban and rural. And the algarvios did not go to the industry, they went to the part of the suburban agriculture.
OEm - So how would you characterize professional distribution?
MB – In general it can be said that it depended heavily on the networks and the host place. And whoever went to Buenos Aires, did a little of everything. Because as the capital and most important city, Buenos Aires has an important service economy, and the algarvios do the part of commerce and services in general. I am not talking about very skilled occupations, because they, in general, did not have those qualifications. Sometimes they learned, qualified in doing, but did not go with professional qualifications at the beginning.
OEm – And fishing?
MB – Some. It's not that you say "nobody", but overall it's very minority. This is not the case in other countries ...
OEm – And to the outside?
MB – Outward went to these communities outside Buenos Aires, and there are many to grow during the twentieth century. To the suburban part and of agriculture for the urban market, the Portuguese arrived at the right moment. It is that story of opportunity, because many of these communities have been very successful in agricultural production of flowers for gardens, in general. The other area that also develops in the suburban part of Buenos Aires, at this time, is the one of factories of bricks. And this is one of the interesting parts, which is when people will see the numbers of Portuguese immigration in Argentina in general, they see that there are not many - comparatively speaking - but they have a very important presence in certain localities, in communities that end up having a very specific occupational and economic profile, as is the case of brick factories, flowers, and vegetable gardens. You can see the local networks very well in the sectors of activity: The Portuguese community from Algarve are very strong in the flower sector - in a very private community that is Villa Elisa, for example; the community from Minho is that of the bricks; and, for the vegetable gardens, the people from Beira, in particular the area of Serra da Estrela, the county of Almeida, Sabugal, Seia. The other characteristic is the patagonian destination, which is very important for the Portuguese and does not have, proportionally speaking, the same importance within other groups of migrants. It is another example of being in the right place at the right time because there is an initial group of two people who are in Patagonia at the time the oil is discovered for the first time. And they were there because they were from a work team that had been sent from Buenos Aires to, what at that time was a small town, Comodoro Rivadavia, purposely to drill in search of water. And there were two Portuguese who were temporarily working in Buenos Aires, had found employment in that team, and were sent there. This was in 1907 and in 1908 there are already other Algarvios from the same area of S. Brás de Alportel and Loulé to work there (an era from S. Brás de Alportel, another era from Loulé). One of them returned to Portugal and the other stayed there. From there, there is the beginning of a migratory network that has made Comodoro Rivadavia, which is the heart of oil in Argentina, a very important destination for the Portuguese, most of whom are from the Algarve. The operation of these networks is very clear. One third of the Portuguese emigrants who went to Argentina were from Algarve, but at the local level, 80% of the Portuguese in Comodoro Rivadavia are Algarvios. There is another part of Guarda and another significant number of Leiria. The networks are transformed and there are other individuals entering those networks, but those who get the most benefit are those who go in the beginning, if they are successful. Also, people go there if they know they have a chance to get employment and any success for themselves or for the next generation. So, back to your question, what they did there depends a lot on this. And in the case of Comodoro Rivadavia, the economy was oil, so the Portuguese were almost all working on oil. And working on oil, on the hardest work, what is called a "wellhead", which is to be there to assemble those towers when oil is emerging. But those who stayed there ended up having a change in the kind of work they did and there is occupational mobility within the oil industry. And this is very difficult to see from outside or just looking at the general data and statistics. For statistics, the Portuguese work in oil, and continue to work on oil. But when I studied the archives of several companies, I saw that there was an occupational mobility within the oil industry that had to do with qualification at work and this was only possible for those who stayed there an extended time... And then there is an occupational and social mobility very visible at the generational level: children were, at least, skilled workers, that had had access to vocational training for the oil industry or in general, secondary school, while parents had not even finished primary school, and this becomes very clear in the numbers. There is, indeed, an upward social and occupational mobility, a little in the first generation, and very clearly in the first to the second. At the anecdotal level, I can say that it is still more visible to the grandchildren, but in the case of the parents to the children it is evident.
OEm - That, in the first decades of the twentieth century?
MB – Exactly. The second generation begins to emerge in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Then, sometimes the question arises whether emigration has been beneficial. I think that, at least at the very general level, it is obvious, because people will not, if they have a choice, have the whole job of emigrating, that is, at many levels (material, emotional, family, etc.), very costly, if there is no chance of success. Now who defines success? They are. When I see that change, even at the parent-to-child level, they had every reason to have perspectives of success. Because, indeed, they had been successful. And when I see the fact that half of them have returned, that can be taken as failure or success. But if return to land was clearly the goal of most emigrants, then it was a success. We must always put success in the perspective of those who made the journey.
OEm - When you speak of those who have returned, have the returns been diluted in time, or was there any period when there had been concentrated returns?
MB – Of those 40,000, the return period coincides with that of emigration, there is a coincidence, it really is part of that strategy we talked about. There are, although I have not seen numbers and perhaps numerically, it is not as significant as at symbolic level, periods of international crisis and crisis in Argentina, and crises in transportation, which made the return greater. And there are also, and once again we put to the anecdotal level, cases of the second or third generation that have come to Portugal. I've never seen numbers of this, so at the numerical level I do not know, but I know many people.
OEm – Is there any distinctive feature of emigration to Argentina, relatively to others that have been directed towards Latin America?
MB –The only most distinctive feature is the origins. Then there the professional occupations, for example that there was not a major movement of seafarers as to other destinations. Other than that, in the phases, there is a male emigration, followed by a family migration, which are the phases of the other destinations as well. And in the ages, they were young as in the flows to other destinations. In general, late 20's and early 30's. In the case of Algarve, and at that era that we spoke, from the beginning of the twentieth century, the average age I think it was 31 years.
OEm – Which was the predominant immigration in Argentina?
MB – Italian and Spanish. The profile of Portuguese emigration is very similar to the profile of Southern Europe, at least for Latin America. Although at the general level, the numbers of the Portuguese have not been as big as the others, at the local level is completely different story. So when I look at those particular communities that I have studied, there is a very important presence, in part because the emigration continued almost until the 1960s.
OEm –You have a recent book...
MB – The book has the initial base of research for my PhD, and has two parts. One of them, the beginning, presents general data on the history of Portuguese migration to Argentina. But the most crucial part of the book is the analysis of the emigration from Algarve to perceive the transatlantic movements, and in particular the emigration to Argentina, in a broader perspective. The second part of the book focuses on two communities of Portuguese immigrants in Argentina, where the algarvios were the majority, and compares the economic, social and cultural insertion in two completely different contexts: the rural suburban of flower gardens, and oil. And I identify the similarities and differences of insertion within these two communities, in the first and second generation. The book's main argument has to do with how social networks work and work through time. In fact, the title has to do with this, it is called "Chains of gold", which has to do with two things: it makes a metaphorical reference to the networks, but also to one of the ways that the migrants had, when they returned to the show their success, which was the watches with gold chains. Thus the "gold chains" of the title refers to the imaginary of the migrants who were looking for economic opportunity, as to the networks that made the transatlantic route possible.
1 Marcelo Borges (2007), “Portuguese migration in Argentina: transatlantic networks and local experiences”, Portuguese Studies Review, 14 (2), pp. 87-123.
2 Marcelo Borges (2009), Chains of Gold: Portuguese Migration to Argentina in Transatlantic Perspective, Leiden (The Netherlands), Brill.
Cite as Pinho, Filipa (2009), "Migrações locais, tanto na origem como no destino. Entrevista a Marcelo Borges", Observatório da Emigração, 13 de Maio de 2009. http://observatorioemigracao.pt/np4EN/4715.html