Italians v. Spaniards: Which group really ‘Made America’ in Argentina?

December 16, 2020 | Blog
Home > Italians v. Spaniards: Which group really ‘Made America’ in Argentina?

The full article from this post was published in The Economic History Review, and it is now available on early view at this link


by Leticia Arroyo Abad (City University, New York), Noel Maurer (George Washington University) and Blanca Sánchez-Alonso (University Foundation San Pablo CEU)



In 1914, Argentina was the land of immigrants par excellence. Between 1869 and 1895, the country attracted 7 per cent of all gross migration to the New World (Figure 1).   By 1914, almost 30 per cent of the population was foreign born, compared to  Canada (22 per cent), Australia (17 per cent), or the United States (15 per cent).  Buenos Aires became the quintessential immigrant city: the foreign-born exceeded 52 per cent of the population — well above contemporary New York City — and was surpassed in the Americas only by Winnipeg. The majority of immigrants to Buenos Aires (and Argentina), were from Italy and Spain.   Around 1895, Italians and Spaniards comprised 51, and 23 per cent, respectively, of total immigrants to the city.


Figure 1. Map: Trans-Atlantic migration flows, 1869 – 1914. Source: Determinants of International Migrations. Note: Map uses 1880 country boundaries


Argentines used an expression to indicate lack of success in the New World: ‘Hacer la América’, which  translates as ‘making América’,  as in ‘making partner’ or ‘making tenure’.  We know that Belle Époque Argentina was highly successful in letting Europeans make America, but some groups were more successful than others. The Italians managed to outperform the Spanish despite being rather less literate (78 versus 88 per cent) and more agricultural (69 versus 41 pe cent) when they arrived. Moreover, Italians rarely spoke Spanish. Nonetheless,  Italians made America more than the Spanish.  The latter earned between seven and ten per cent less than their Italian competitors, even when controlling for occupational skill content.

Why did this differential emerge? We argue that Italians used community and neighbourhood contacts to secure better remunerated occupations. In contrast,  Spanish networks hampered their integration into the labour market, which prevented them from fully exploiting their comparative advantage.

To test the hypothesis that ethnic networks operated differently across the two groups, we observed the foreign population in the city of Buenos Aires in 1895, and its characteristics such as age, literacy, marital status, occupation, and neighbourhood. We then determined the occupational category in which each group held the largest relative wage advantage. Finally, we measured the effect of an increase in the representation of immigrants within that occupation in a given neighbourhood on the likelihood that one of their countrymen would also be employed in that occupation.

We find that Italians were much more likely to ‘pull’ other Italians into the best paid occupations, whereas Spanish immigrants appear to have discouraged their countrymen from entering more remunerative occupations (Table1). Our results suggest  that individualistic Spanish immigrants viewed each other as competitors for the same jobs, not compatriots to be helped. This hypothesis receives support when we applied  instrumental variables  to the 1869 national census to estimate the share of Italian and Spanish immigrants in the most relatively well-paid occupation per neighbourhood.  The latter estimates  indicate that the benefit  Spanish immigrants,  received from their compatriots remained substantially  smaller than for their Italian competitors.


Table 1.          Determinants of immigrant wage differentials in Buenos Aires in the mid 1890s.

Source: as per article


The received wisdom is that immigrants do better when they speak the host country’s language and share the host country’s culture. The Argentine evidence during the Belle Époque negates this view.  We find that the institutions and networks accessed by Italian migrants, compared to their Spanish counterparts,  made the former more successful  in their ability to make America in Argentina.


To contact the authors:

Leticia Arroyo Abad,, @LArroyoAbad

Noel Maurer,, @noel_maurer

Blanca Sánchez-Alonso,, @bsalonso300