An expat’s guide to Argentina’s linguistic idiosyncrasies


BUENOS AIRES — Foreigners entering Argentine soil are generally intrigued by the linguistic peculiarities of the locals. A nation of immigrants, Argentina is also a country of blatant – albeit benevolent, for the most part – categorizations of its people.

For example, Argentines call anyone in the Middle East a Turco (“Turkish” in English). You may be a fourth generation Lebanese, but you will still be considered a Turco. This is because the Middle Easterners who migrated to the South American nation in the early 20th century had Ottoman passports regardless of their ethnicity. (They were all from the Ottoman or Turkish Empire, which was dissolved in 1922.)

Likewise, whether they are Indonesian, Vietnamese or Japanese, Argentines call all Asians Chinos (“Chinese” in English). You can be a third generation Korean owning a Korean restaurant and serving Korean food, and an Argentinian will always nickname you Chino.

Yanqui (“Non-Hispanic” or “non-Latino”) generally refers to Latin American Americans. In Argentina, this means that anyone with blond hair and light eyes with a white complexion (even a Moroccan, like me!) Yanqui.

Mocking others is so commonplace that former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner made headlines when she mocked Chinese accents during a state visit to China in February 2015.

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

Speak frankly

Although Argentina is a diverse country, “that doesn’t mean its people don’t [others] and include them in broad categories like “Russians” or “Turks”, explains Barbara Guerschman, social anthropologist in Buenos Aires. “What is derogatory is not the categorization itself, but the way it is used. We must therefore take into account the context in which these categories are expressed, ”she explains.

Aigul Safiullina, a Russian content strategist working for an Argentinian fund for tech companies, says she doesn’t shy away from cultural stereotypes about herself. She has lived 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 Argentinian lexicon, “Russian” generally refers to Jews. Many members of Argentina’s Jewish community 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 like it stripped me of my identity. But then I realized it was a show of affection, ”she says. For example, when she is too serious or too frank, her friends often joke: “look at this Russian” or “the Russian in her is out”.

Like Ms. Safiullina, expats eventually get used to the Argentinian 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 manner by friends or classmates. There are people who say it in a derogatory way with a hint of anti-Semitism but luckily I don’t remember ever feeling that way. “

Likewise, after living in Buenos Aires for 11 years, Grant Dull, a Texan who founded an electronic music label, is at peace with porteños. “I have no problem being called gringo. I don’t find that to be a derogatory term. I came to use it myself, ”he explains. In Rome, doing like the Romans is its motto. “People in Latin America have other concerns besides being politically correct … such as day-to-day survival, corrupt governments, unstable economies, unfair wages … At the moment, I am a gringo in Latin America, there is good todoHe says, which means “everything is fine”.

Cross the line?

Still others are more sensitive to cultural differences, especially those from the Middle East.

“I don’t like being called ‘Turkish’ because that’s 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 Argentinian and Lebanese, of the two homelands and of the two cultures. I have nothing against the Turks… but their culture is different from that of the Lebanese, ”she adds. Ms. Kabalan explains that the Lebanese and Turkish cuisine, music, dialects, clothes and ways of thinking are different. “The fact that we don’t pay attention [to people’s origin] and not to call them by the name of the country from which they come, it 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 wiped out between 1915 and 1918 in a genocide, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council. While some Armenians in Argentina might ignore this epithet, many feel offended. “For Armenians and other groups who suffered persecution like the Assyrians and Greeks, to be called ‘Turk’ is considered an insult, given the situation in which they had to emigrate,” explains Kevork Dolmadjian, executive director of the Armenian Cultural Association. in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires.

Who’s who at the street market in San Telmo, Buenos Aires?


PHOTO: Holger Mette / iStock

The situation is also delicate for Latin Americans. Some feel irritated when locals misunderstand their country of origin, as Argentines are known to feel superior to their regional peers – an extension of Europe in South America, “the Paris of the South”. Argentines have a reputation for displaying their European ancestry – mostly Italian and Spanish – to their regional counterparts who often have indigenous origins. “Argentines are Italians who speak Spanish and think they are British,” he jokes.

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

Joking aside

Of course, stereotypes are not unique to Argentina. “It’s a process that takes place in all countries,” notes Ms. Guerschman. And it turns out the people Argentinians laugh at 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, originally from Buenos Aires, once joked: “How does an Argentinian commit suicide? The answer is: he jumps out of his ego ”, reported the daily“ La Nación ”.

Or as another joke says, “What’s the best deal someone can get?” Buy an Argentinian for what he is worth and sell him for what he thinks he is worth.

Kamilia Lahrichi is a Buenos Aires-based foreign correspondent for international media and a freelance producer for The Associated Press. It covers current events in English, French, Spanish and Arabic. She is a United Nations Foundation Press Fellow. She wrote An Expat Guide to the Asado, The Holy Grail of All Pleasures in Argentina for Expat.

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