From Café to Maté

The daily ritual of sharing coffee or café amongst friends and family to the Portuguese is as important as the ceremony of drinking maté to the Argentine. Much more than a comparison based on a rhyming couplet, the non-alcoholic tea maté composed of yerba, a natural leafed herb resembling that of leaf tea, is a national pastime and important custom in Argentina. Requiring the use of a communal gourd and straw, mate is more than a drink according to Kristen Ruggiero, “it is a social leveler, an expression of community and of the sharing instincts in society” (151). Usually within a group there is one mate maker, responsible to carry a flask, gourd, straw and yerba to make mate and refill the cup with an appropriate amount of warm water. It is a right of passage into the favor of another’s company and a compliment to be invited to share maté.

Metaphorically, one could conjecture upon the origins of the national obsession with mate, as that stemming from the immigrant nature of the country’s population; for maté is one cup, many drinkers. In the peak period of the world’s overseas migration, 1821-1932, six countries absorbed 90 percent of the total immigrants, and among these six, Argentina ranked second in the number of immigrants, with a total of 6,405,000. (1) Laying on the expanse between the Antarctic tundra of the south to the tropical jungles of the north and the dry, arid pampas in the mid-east, Argentina is one country with many immigrants from all over the world. One country, one national identity. Of the approximately 37 million people residing in Argentina today, all are connected to the immigrant experience in one way or another. Whether they are immigrants themselves, descendants of immigrants, or indigenous “Argentines” who assimilated with the thousands of immigrants over the past 150 years, the meaning of the designation, “Argentine” is inextricably intertwined with the nation’s history and culture, both affected by migration.

Located on the Patagonian coast 2,000 km south of Buenos Aries, Comodoro Rivadavia is a town founded and populated by immigrants. An Italian immigrant named Francisco Pietrobelli is commonly proclaimed as the founding figure of the town when it was nationally recognized in February, 1901. Initially, its primary socioeconomic existence relied on its status as a shipping port for agricultural and livestock products from the surrounding inland areas; however, upon the discovery of oil in 1907, Comodoro Rivadavia became much more than a trading port. National and private oil companies and towns sprang up as a result of oil production and exploration, and would therein fuel widespread changes to the town. Pumping oil out of the ground required both skilled and unskilled labor, and as oil production increased and the indigenous labor resources diminished, the country looked toward migration to bolster their labor needs. In a 1905 census of Comodoro Rivadavia, 94 percent of adult inhabitants were of foreign origin (Torres 43). The population was small in the early years of Comodoro’s existence and would continue to grow only slightly until both an oil and labor boom in the 1920’s. In 1917, the area of Comodoro held 3,232 inhabitants (1,300 in the town, 1,932 in the oil company towns); three years later, in 1920, a regional census reported 2,179 residences in Comodoro and 2,219 in the company towns. By 1930, however, the total population figures of the area was more than 10,000 inhabitants, and in 1944, Comodoro Rivadavia alone had 10,741 people (Torres qtd. In Borges 274). Migration is the primary reason behind the growth in population over a short period of time.

From a population of 312 in 1905 to more than 75,000 in 2001, Comodoro Rivadavia is a town grounded in the immigrant experience as a function of its economic development; “Comodoro Rivadavia was the center of an industrial and mining area which developed under the impulse of petroleum production” (Borges 270). Until the complete privatization of the oil industry in the early nineties, (2)every aspect of life in Comodoro was dominated by the oil industry in the town of Comodoro itself and the outlying company towns of the oil industries. (3)While the first migrants to the area were pioneers in the establishment of the shipping industry, the second wave were mostly single, male labor migrants contracted to work in the company towns mostly short term with plans to earn money, buy property and return home (Borges 332). Several factors including an increase in oil production, improvements in technology, better labor policies and the improvement and expansion of residential areas led to the third pattern of migration, that of families. What Borges terms “delayed family migration” is a pattern whereby the male laborer would work at the oil company, make money, but instead of returning home to spend it or even send it home, the laborer remained and brought either his already established family or a new wife over to join him (332). Figures of the female and child population in the National Company town between the years 1917 and 1926 illustrate the consolidation of social and ethnic networks keeping the men in the area; thereby increasing the need for women immigration to establish families. In 1917, only 17 percent of the national company town were women, increasing to 23 percent in 1921 and a greater 43 percent in 1926, only five years later (Torres 48). The subject of female migration is the least studied and researched in the area leaving an important and gaping hole in the immigrant experience. (4)

Because Comodoro Rivadavia was an area defined by its mining and oil industries, it was also a very masculine defined space that women needed to negotiate once family settlement and planning began in the area. The work of Nancy Forrrestal and Linda Shopes among others emphasizes the impossibility of separating the study of men and women, because; “men, as well as women make the history of gender relations, masculinity as well as femininity is constructed in ‘particular social and temporal settings,’ not only in the workplace but also in the home and in the community.”

The space of Portuguese women immigrants in oil company towns around Comodoro, including the town itself was the subject of a three week research oral history project during January 5-21, 2001. Oral history data was collected through the process of video and digital sound taped interviews with five women on four separate occasions (one interview included two women). All five of these women were Portuguese immigrants arriving at different stages in the century as well as different periods in their lives. Our research was chiefly concerned with the manner in which these women place themselves in a history of immigration and feminine assimilation in oil company environments, and to that end, how they specifically confront the issue of identity. Through our analysis of these oral histories, we will suggest that, influenced by differences in immigrant age and time period, these Portuguese women immigrants identified their “self” within the larger context of a family, and it is through the family strategies adopted that they gained or invented a different sense of self in a new country. The symbol and metaphor of the family embodied both “creative coping” mechanisms of negotiating the future but also a means to preserve a rich cultural past. Prior to a discussion of our analysis, it is necessary to ground the interviews in a contextual framework of their use as historical evidence and the variables involved in such collection.

A Subjective Bag of Understanding (5)

The methodology of gathering oral history texts can be seen within a new frame of understanding historical evidence that has risen out of the work of a phenomenological approach to the use of subjective documents – documents that reveal a privileged author and his/her view of past – and allied methods of hermeneutics instead of a purely objectivist approach to oral history. (6) Scholars such as Virginia Yans-McLaughlin and Nancy Shopes, among others, tend to view the collection and examination of oral history texts as a process between the informant and the interviewer. It is the process of usurping the past in the present influenced by both parties in attendance at the interview. According to Yans-McLaughlin, it is now understood by a small group of ethnographers, sociologists and historians as “ ‘a social act,’ a ‘dialogue,’ and a ‘circular feedback’ process in which the investigator and the informant continually influence one another” (Yans-McLaughlin 257). Therefore when attempting to understand an interview situation, it is imperative that one look at three basic factors; the context of the interview, the interview situation itself, and an understanding of the background experiences and views — what we will term “baggage” — that an interviewer or informant brings to the interview site.

We traveled down to Comodoro Rivadavia in early January of 2001 as part of a larger group of students and faculty studying immigration and development of oil company towns in the area. The selectively chosen group of students brought a diverse range of skills and experiences – there were German graduate students, second through fourth year undergraduate students reading in the subject areas of Latin American History to English, American Studies, Spanish and History. Over more than a two week period, simultaneous gathering of information about the area and the subject areas in question — women, life, labor, oil company towns, family life—was encouraged by the advising team of professors from both countries. Each interview was set up for a specific time and place – usually their home in the afternoon – and the two us and Professor Marcelo Borges would find transportation to the area in question. Depending on the contact for the interview itself, a narrow or wide range of background information would be known upon arrival. For instance, Jasmin Sanchez was staying with our first informant during her two weeks of study and research, therefore their relationship was a maternal caring relationship as well as one of more intimate friendship. n contrast, our final interview with Francisca V. and Maria Joao B. was set up by happenstance and we all arrived on the scene with relatively no information concerning either our purpose of interviewing them or their identities, other than the fact they were Portuguese immigrants. In comparison to the latter interview, the former did not require an in-depth explanation of our purpose of the interview and the expected outcome of the testimonies and the video-tapes. In a country with a recent history of widespread suspicion of subversive activities against the government or any state assembly, it was important for many of these people to note the future path of their testimonies. While an explanation of the context of the interview itself was important, more often than not, any fears dissipated or exponentially increased through the interview situation.

Because we asked topical questions concerning life, family, marriage, and migration experience considered highly personal, we tried to minimize the disturbance to the “natural” environment of the home. Out of the five women interviewed, those with the most information concerning the context of our research showed us into very formal rooms in the house, such as the dining room in the case of Luzia D. or the living room in the case of Francisca V. and Maria Joao B. In both cases the women had food and tea prepared for consumption before or after the interview itself. On the other hand, both Maria M. and Catarina B. ushered us into the kitchen, consciously prepared as a place to conduct the interview. (7) Place is first and foremost one of the most obvious factors in the presentation of one’s self, the image one wishes to portray to the interviewer, but also to the camera.

The use of a small but noticeable camera to digitally tape every interview added another variable to the interview situation. Under the lens of the camera, the women were not only “presenting” themselves to us, the interviewers, but also to an unknown audience, presumably located sometime and place in the future. Whereas an interviewer may miss subtle movements and words, a camera will not, thereby creating an environment of permanence; what is said is literally being “recorded.” To ease concerns over the use of such equipment, never seen before in some cases, we explained the present and future expected use of the tapes, asked their permission to record them, and replayed portions of the interview for the informant at the end. Despite such endeavors, we are very conscious of our presence and the presence of the camera as factors when analyzing the portrayal of the “self” on the part of the informant.

While the presence of the camera is important, it was moved behind the head and physical body of the primary questioner in the interview. The typical set up for every interview centered Angela Reynolds running the video equipment remaining as silent and unobtrusive as possible during the interview itself, Marcelo Borges as the primary questioner (in all but Luzia D. interview), and Jasmin Sánchez sitting to the side and asking questions periodically. The fact that two females between the ages of 19 and 21 were present under the guidance of a young professor helped ease the sometimes tense interview situation. Not only were we students trying to learn about their lives but we were at the age of many of the children or grandchildren of the informants. For instance, when discussing dating, marriage, family life and work, many of the informants would address Jasmin in an explanatory tone, speaking slowly at times and addressing her as “hijita” or little daughter, a term of endearment.(8) No where was this more apparent than the interview conducted between Francisca V. and Maria Joao B. Borges and Sánchez were sitting equidistant from the two women arranged as four in a circle with the camera to the side. During the discussion of (what the informants appeared to consider) traditionally feminine topics, such as dating, marriage, and family life, both women would address Sánchez or Reynolds behind the camera instead of the questioner, a male. Marcelo Borges being both a professor and native of Argentina represented the learned background necessary to ground the interviews in many cases, while Reynolds and Sánchez brought the open minds of students and questions of anyone our own age concerning dating, dancing, arrival, thoughts and family life that would be traditionally considered “feminine” topics within a Western, European tradition. The interviews were conducted with a flexible set of questions and specific interest in topics such as arrival, experience, assimilation, language, education and leisure of the women interviewed. Overall the combination created a balance of knowledge and ignorance within the interview situation itself.

The final set of factors important to the collection of oral histories, is the background experiences of the questioners and the informants, literally what cultural or ideological “baggage” that may affect the environment of the interview site, and more importantly, the evidence collected. Puerto Rican by birth and upbringing, Jasmin Sánchez was fluent in both the Spanish language and Latino style of conversation, while Angela Reynolds retained intermediate collegiate language skills but strong historical contextual skills in the area. Over a two week period, Jasmin Sánchez and Angela Reynolds worked with Argentine native and Professor of History, Marcelo Borges, to conduct four interviews of five different women (one with two best friends). Portuguese immigration was the topic of Borges’ dissertation which guaranteed an in-depth knowledge of the migratory history of the Portuguese to Latin America as well as knowledge of Portuguese which became very important during some interviews as the informants would slip in between the use of the two languages, using neither exclusively. Again, mirroring the balance attempted in the physical situation of the interview, the three interviewers balanced a diverse background of interests and research areas contributing to a more open and free flowing topical conversation.

Overall neither the context situation nor background experience of the informants or the questioners in the interview can be viewed in a vacuum because one necessarily fuses with the other creating the complete environment. The many factors and variables introduced in the interview context and situation creates a subjective bag of understanding out of which we try to sift through in order to analyze the feminine immigrant subject. It was the goal of the investigation to explore the borders of the construction of a feminine immigrant subject, meaning the “self” that is neither solely identified with the country or origin nor the receiving society but lies somewhere in-between both spaces.

The basis of our analysis begins with Stuart Hall’s paper, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” where he identifies the concept of cultural identity is a process of “becoming” or “being”, one’s identity being a function of the presence of the “other.” Therefore, he adds, people tend to reconstruct this identity through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth, or what Hall assigns as “an inner expropriation of cultural identity (Hall 226).” Placed in front of a camera and asked to tell their lives to total strangers met in the ten minutes preceding could be viewed as leading the interviewee to a process of writing or re-writing their own oral history. To what extent did the knowledge of the context of our research influence the order and type of descriptions presented? Initially, Francisca V. prepared a great deal of factual information and dates to rattle off to us assuming the information we were interested in collecting, not realizing we were interested in her story alone. Her story could and may include the factual dates but such was not our primary purpose. In fact both Maria Joao B. and Francisca V. responded in presentation form to answer the opening question, giving a complete picture of a life. In and of itself such an easy rattling off of dates and details in a tight coherent manner led us to speculate later on the information consciously not presented in the course of the answers. Such a query can be traced through each one of the interviews but it became apparent in some more than others. The process of writing or re-writing a story implies a certain conscious effort to relate the past to the present, who I think I was then, who I wanted myself to be then, and who I am now in relation to those past events; in fact, it is the past that these women are writing in the present.

Common to every interview was a confused understanding of why three people would travel all the way from the United States to interview women about all aspects of life in an oil company town: why not simply ask their husbands? After all it was on the basis of labor and male workers the town was originally conceived and expanded in the first couple of decades in the century. Therein lay our purpose of being and doing: to find out what it meant to be a female immigrant subject in a multi-cultural masculine – in terms of the heavy, tough labor requirements associated with men — oil company town?

Yans-McLaughlin identifies four interrelated ways to analyze an oral history pertinent to our discussion of the “self” presentation of five immigrant Portuguese women:: one, the way in which the speaker organizes the past, present, and future time in the interview process; two, the way in which the speaker describes him/herself in the past; three, the way in which the speaker describes or more importantly fails to describe certain interactions with people or objects in the past; four, the interaction between the two sets of scripts set forth by the interviewer and the interviewee. Oral history interviews must be grounded within and forge a path through the problem of identity, for the immigrant and assimilation experiences of all five women produced a new woman as a hybrid between the past and present, between drinking café and maté, between her role as woman and mother. Through their stories, one can chart the struggle to create a new space where women can articulate an answer to the question, who are you?

An investigation into immigration in the area can be broken down into three broad categories of factors; time of migration, socioeconomic situation in country of origin and receiving society, and individual or collective decisions made. Using the variables of time of arrival and age of arrival, we explore Portuguese women immigrants, four of five whom originate in the same region of Algarve in the district of Faro, one hailing from the outskirts of Lisbon.

Who Are You?

When the Caterpillar and Alice first meet in Lewis Carroll’s tale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the words spoken are in the form of the question, “Who are you?” (1). Accusatory in tone, it is described as less than an encouraging opening for a conversation. Why is this so? Certainly it should be easy to reply ‘I am Alice, who are you?,’ but this is not the case, instead her reply is tenuous, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then”(1). The changes Alice experiences are those of time, place and physical appearance resulting in a questioning of her identity. By contrast, regardless of the many shapes and sizes the Caterpillar may form, he will remain the same person, and not “feel it a little queer” as Alice suggests. The questions ‘who am I?,’ ‘what am I?,’ ‘where is the ‘real’ me?’ share a common search for essence; the notion that a person has an inherent existence, a being. If the 24 hour cycle of the day can be viewed as a mini-life cycle, then an immigrant subject could spend the first four hours in one place, move to another place for the next six and then be asked the question, who are you? The trails and travails of Alice’s character in the land of wonderland is exemplary of the process of identification the immigrant subject must negotiate multiple times depending on place and time.

Luzia D., a 67 year-old mother of three discusses her feeling of not belonging to any one tradition, one life. Her use of descriptors change during a 63 minute interview between the short exclamation, “I am Portuguese. I am not Argentine” to the final observation, “And now I forget that I am not Argentine. But one loses so much when one leaves one’s country. One loses everything. And even almost your identity. One loses it.” From the conscious wording of “even almost your identity,” one can infer a struggle to retain a past and gain a future in the present for Luzia D., who was she? A woman? A mother? A daughter? A wife? In the process of her interview she explains in detail the movement from one to the other providing us with a clue of how exactly to explore the female immigrant subject.

So what is the story of these women who told three strangers their stories on sunny afternoons in Patagonia? The five interviews can be divided by three patterns of migration that coincide with three similar labor based developments. While the first workers in Comodoro Rivadavia were pioneer workers, the first the explore the new land and set up the shipping industry, the second wave consisted of single male workers contracted specifically for the oil companies in the area as well as the shipping industry. As the oil companies began to expand in reaction to increased oil demand and production, some of these single male workers stopped sending money home to a family and buying land in favor of moving the whole family to the area. Immigrating with their families in 1925 and 1926, best friends Francisca V. and Maria Joao B. moved into the working camps at KM 8 oil fields where their fathers actively worked for a couple of years previous. Furthermore, Maria M. immigrated with her mother and sister (joining her father after more than 13 years of on and off separation) in 1937 when she was ten years old. The next pattern to emerge is distinct only by age. The older laborers would encourage young wage earners to follow the international labor pool, usually arriving single and then either returning to their home after a couple of years in order to marry a woman and start a new family. After taking care of the farmland bought and planning for the economic means to support a family in Portugal with money sent from Argentina, Catarina B. arrived independently at the age of 23 in 1938 to meet her husband – he returned to Portugal to marry her and then returned once again to Argentina.

While there appears to be little to no difference between the first and second patterns of migration identified above, the point is that within that time period Comodoro Rivadavia and the outlying area would have changed dramatically, not to mention the economics of both the original and the receiving society. Furthermore, Francisca V. and Maria Joao B. immigrated as part of a cohesive family unit (amongst the first families in the company town), Maria M. less so feeling little to no connection with her sometime present father figure, and Catarina B. immigrated as an established adult in Portugal under the completely different circumstances of marriage, the preemption of family. Lastly, the final distinction of migration is grounded in the idea of an international “marriage market” facilitating the formation of families under changing circumstances. Gone was the tradition of returning to Portugal to marry, instead there was a system of proxy and letter writing that dominated, ergo a woman may arrive in Argentina to marry a man she has not seen in five or more years. An example of the final stage is Luzia D., an independent working nurse in the years before her marriage at the age of 28 in 1962. She was betrothed to her husband years before their marriage by proxy in Portugal. After years of letter writing and sending money, the husband sent a letter of call –or marriage proposal – for his new bride to join him. (9) Five women from the same region in Portugal immigrated directly to Comodoro Rivadavia between the years 1925 and 1963, in three different waves of immigration.

The larger issue such patterns of immigration present is the difference in the place, literally the first sight off the boat for these women. The roles of women in an oil company town are inextricably tied to the social structures within the company itself. For instance, Comodoro Rivadavia was originally designed and founded in 1901 as a trading port and a site of oil exploration: oil was first discovered in 1907. The first settlers of the oil towns around Comodoro were men who drank at the local bar, stayed in all male, single dormitories and practiced sports as a recreational activity. As the industries began to grow, more immigrants, both married and single began to settle down; some men lived in a cycle of work and return to their native country until settlement was inevitable. As a function of a mostly male population, the social structures within the oil company towns, and that of Comodoro to a lesser extent, were male dominated. When the first women arrived there was simply no precedence for their living arrangements, education and social activities. When she arrived in Comodoro Rivadavia, Catarina B. had to stay at her husband’s friend’s house, since her husband had been living a singles barrack. In fact, when some companies were recruiting in the 1920’s there was a strict stipulation against employment for family men simply because there was a shortage of family housing. In many of the interviews, the question, why interview me? and not my husband, he worked in the oil company, I simply worked at home was presented in a variety of manners. Returning to the idea that the study of a society cannot be separated by gender, the truth is that is the 33 year span of study, women influenced the society and the development of communities just as much as men.

Comodoro Rivadavia is a place and a society that changed radically in three decades surviving different labor laws and movements not to mention vastly different governing practices of the whole state. In 1925, Comodoro Rivadavia was little more than a commercial port and a trading location, the majority of people worked and lived within the smaller oil company towns and camps on the outskirts of town. In the mid to late thirties forward, as the story of Maria M. demonstrates, more people began moving into Comodoro. Thus the land dictating circumstances of adaptation and assimilation for these women differed significantly depending on time of immigration. In order to negotiate these female stories, it is not only important to note what stage of immigration they traveled between, where they arrived, but also what age the women were when they left their country of origin. That is to say, these women who emigrated and their respective conditions of migration are of such a great variety that, the illusion of comprising them in their totality, transforms into an impossible task (Zaldivar 291). Therefore within a female life cycle belonging to a larger social structure of a family, we will divide our comments to those involving the roles the women chose to portray as daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.

Age of arrival is an essential factor in examining the oral historical evidence. Depending on the age, the immigrant is exposed to different circumstances. These circumstances can range from that of being a daughter to being a wife. The role a daughter plays in the process of assimilation differs from that of a wife or an independent woman – implying a great deal more agency in the decision to immigrate. The variable of age determines the development of individual concepts of agency under the auspices of an initial society or a receiving society. Age is a variable directly related to that of perceived knowledge and agency as a woman, wife, mother, or daughter in the superstructure of the family. For example, both Francisca V. and Maria Joao B. immigrated to the area of Comodoro Rivadavia when they were three and four respectively, therefore not only are their memories of Portugal limited, but their memory is first and foremost that of a daughter. All knowledge of their origin would be second hand information passed down through the family in the form of stories or pictures. They were very clear to mention the place they were born but did not seem to express the personal feelings toward leaving their country present in the other interviews. Being so young, they were educated in an Argentine oil company school where most of their classmates were also immigrants. Maria Joao B. describes the school setting, “we were all classmates; we were Russians, Poles, Germans…there were everything.” Thus, they did not have to question their belonging into a foreign society, especially one composed mainly of immigrants; it was simply a case of learning to share the maté.

On the other hand, arriving when she was ten, María M. was on the verge of a secondary education, therein developing more depth perception of the receiving society and her place within. María M. explains her situation of arrival, “my father came in 1924. He was here for ten years and then sent for us.” Paying closer attention to her arrival situation, she elaborates, “we have suffered a lot. We did not know our father because when he came I was very young and my sister was not yet born. She was born after my dad came. I was ten years old. We suffered a lot, because the differences of what we lived. We were a very big family.” Even at the young age of ten, the comparative difference between the choice of Maria M. to portray her arrival with more emotion and value than the former two is demonstrative of the affect of age/experience on the immigrant’s perception of self. Being too young when her father left from Portugal, Maria expresses her lack of security in moving to a place where, “they immigrated but they did not want to because this was the end of the world.” As Maria M. is recalling this event, her childhood feelings shine through her depiction of the Patagonia and the connection to the “end of the world,” a place to which she was a stranger to even her own father. She was split between connections to the security of home and the insecurity of the future, strange place; however, she still remained one of a family with her sister, mother and father.

Yet, being ten years old in 1938, her experiences and memories are still portrayed through the eyes of a child as well as a daughter following the family. She was mesmerized by the lights of Comodoro arriving at night, “[A]nd when we arrived we saw the lights and we were happy. How pretty is Comodoro!,” only to change her mind the next day, “in the morning we got up early and saw a deception. […] Pretty houses. Pretty things. There were neither. Pure mountains. There were three or four houses and nothing else. It was all dirt.” Maria M. clearly arrived into an industrial and growing community; however, untrusting of the receiving culture after her first 24 hour experience, she retreated into a world of games with her sister and was not bothered by her ‘self’ or place until she entered school: the role of daughter and sister emerged as the dominant expression of her childhood days. Repeatedly throughout the interview, María M. mentions her family as the only family in an all single-male camp of oil company workers, she was the first family in the area of men. Isolated growing up with only her sister as a companion and playmate, ending most observations with the idea of “playing.” In response to a question concerning the opinions held in Portugal of workers such as her father – migrant workers spending years abroad working to send money home – she begins a reply, stops and pleads ignorance under the idea of age: “No, no we were very … All we wanted to do is play. In those times we were very innocent, tiny little things. We didn’t know. No, we didn’t care what happened.” In the discussion of her mother’s illness on the trip to Argentina, she briefly mentions it and then returns to the idea of her sister and herself playing on the boat and not really paying attention to the events occurring around them.

Despite her interest in playing all the time, the problem of her identity as both Argentine and Portuguese first appeared in the school she began to attend two years after initially moving to the Diadema oil company town because of lack of transportation to the education facilities for the whole area. María M. experienced problems of language and custom when she began to attend the company school in the town of Comodoro, some 20 kilometers away. She describes the language barrier and difficulties she experienced her first day of school, “I remember that I arrived a little country girl, of course. I did not know how to talk. I always stayed in the corner, quiet. And I remember that the teacher sent me to make a sentence. I did not know what a sentence was. That I do not forget.” It is very curious that she still retains her sense of being Portuguese and her language to this day, but defines herself as an Argentine.

Maria M.’s role as a daughter progresses to that of a wife, briefly, and then the more important mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. When the interview is disrupted twice by telephone calls from her children, she smiles and laughs exclaiming that everyone is interested in talking to her at once, then remarking she has very good children who maintain the communication ties of the family. At one point she explains her ties to Argentina as one of family, having lost everything from Portugal –everything being defined solely through family members: “well, I don’t have any body there [Portugal]. Not here, not there. However, here I have my children and grandchildren because my family are all dead: my sister, my mother, my father […] before we were a small family, but now I have a large family […] we are a family, thanks be to God, a beautiful family.” Maria M. is a woman who presents her past and her present as that inextricably tied with the relations of family members and the family itself in Argentina. Regarding family as her only real claim in one country or another, she still defines herself as, “always and forever I am Portuguese.”
Whereas Catarina B. immigrated at the age of 23, her experiences were different than those narrated by Maria Joao B., Francisca V., and Maria M. Again, the difference in age reflected in portrayal of self separates her from the previously mentioned women. Catarina was an active participant in her immigration process. Leaving Portugal to join her husband, Catarina B. talks about a procedure she encountered as a married woman emigrating, “I had to go through the process of a carta de llamada. My husband had to send a carta de llamada. I got married in Portugal and I got married here…You know my husband was single the first time. He went again and got married, but he returned as single to be able to enter YPF again.” Departure from Portugal as a married woman reveals part of the structure Catarina B. had to encounter when arriving in Comodoro Rivadavia, which was composed of several oil company towns. Consequently, Catarina held some insight into the role of a wife that was awaiting her in Argentina: it was a family structure with her position as wife, neither daughter nor sister. Having to marry a second time to legitimate the marriage, Catarina B. demonstrates her willingness to negotiate with this structure: a place where she expected to work and live, “before coming, I did my things and nothing else. I had a bit of land. I cultivated wheat. I cut the wheat. I never worked outside.” Catarina B. emphasized how she never had to work outside of her home, because, for her, working outside the home meant her husband was not adequately supporting the family. Nonetheless the pure act of saving money, buying land and caring for the future implies some form of economic and family planning on the part of both Catarina and her husband simultaneously but also independently. For Catarina, the boundaries of the definition of work does not include actions on the part of the family including cooking, sewing, cleaning, managing money, saving, taking care of land, etc. because each detail is subsumed under the concept and identity of the family.

Furthermore it is curious to note her subsequent expectation turned reality to remain at home and care for the family and house allowed her to retain her Portuguese language longer than the other women. This became palpable when she expresses, “I always talked in Portuguese. Always in Portuguese. Now it has become Portuguese and Spanish. I do not know Spanish, but I go to the store to buy and they give me the things. Therefore, they understand something.” During the interview her language moves in and out of Portuguese and Spanish unconsciously, symbolic of her fused identity between both. It is interesting to note that Catarina B. maintains she established a domestic role as a Portuguese woman and wife in Comodoro, the developing city where seclusion was more of a reality than a camp setting made possible; however in reality the process of “becoming” a Portuguese woman and then wife began in Portugal. In a family structure, though it is the advent of children and the creation of a bigger family than two which stabilizes one’s role of wife and mother.

Finally arrived Luzia D. in her late twenties, fully educated beyond the secondary level and more established in her language, role and questioning of the receiving society some thirty three years after the initial arrival of our interviewees. Luzia D. married by proxy and then received a carta de llamada from her husband. She describes the purpose of marrying by proxy and the necessity of a carta de llamada, “I married by proxy in Portugal…He [my husband] gives the power to another person to act as the groom.” Then, Luzia D. explains, “I came alone. He [my husband] sent a ‘carta de llamada,’ a letter of call. A carta de llamada is to see that I do not come like that, that I have my husband here and that he will be in charge of me.” Luzia, on the other hand, describes the reasons for immigrating differently from Catarina B.:

My husband had aunts here [in Argentina]. He had his father’s sister and his mother’s sister, one in Miramar and the other in Mar de la Plata. Then, one they wrote to him. I do not know the reason, but they asked him if he wanted to come. Since the Portuguese always has an adventurous spirit, I think that they immigrate because of the adventuresome spirit. The Portuguese were always adventurous. Then, I think that that’s why I was also happy to come. Sure, one never knows what they are going to encounter.

Luzia D. portrays immigration as a risk taking experience. The rationalizations that she makes allow her to satisfy the necessities of her origin, as the search for new horizons and the aspirations to discover and know the foreign, the idealized future (Zaldivar 292). Not knowing what she was going to encounter, Luzia D. portrays immigrants as pioneers. Consequently, her identity as an Argentine was a function of her family and the ties of children, her identity as a Portuguesa was a function of her professional education, career, and extended family. Continuing to explain exactly why she will not return to a land where she feels the freedom “to breath the land. To breath the air,” she discusses the dilemma of the immigrant to stay in a place you have grown accustomed to or leave for the place you call home, even though home may have changed dramatically. She explains, “[p]ossibly, the immigrant comes with ideas to return to Portugal, but after s/he makes a new life birthing children, there is already no point of return. Because now if s/he returns to Portugal, they cannot leave without the children. It is enough I immigrated once.” The only ties to her Argentine identity is that of her daughters and their children; she has identified herself through her family and her role as a mother and a “worker” of the home. Luzia D. analysis her situation and says:

When I got here I had no idea of the Patagonia…I thought that there were green fields, very green, that everything was green. I came and found that everything was cut and dry. When it rained, I did not see anything green. It was dry. Then, I stayed a bit disillusioned, because I saw dry fields and dead cows by the walks.
Well, then I started getting used to it. I became accustomed to it. I have never become accustomed to the wind of the Patagonia. Not yet!

This illustrates the negotiation of place, identity and self in the environment that still occurs today for Luzia D.. She realizes that she has to become accustomed to living in Argentina because she values what she knows, specifically her family life.

There was a common thread running through the interviews that addressed work in some manner or form; work inside the home, outside the home, before and after immigration etc. One of the more powerful examples of the question, why me? is illustrated through the interviewee’s portrayal of their definition of work. It is interesting to note that none of the women viewed working in the home as a job in the traditional sense, rather it was simply a function of circumstance and reality. Donna Gabaccia offers some further explanation about the differing viewpoints of these women:

For the last two centuries, differing traditional notions of proper womanly behavior within families have confronted broadly similar economic transformations introduced by capitalism, along with political changes sparked by the demands of nations and empires for taxes and loyalty (From the Other Side, 26).

Part of the social structure influencing the lives of the women immigrants was an emphasis on the female identity as that which is micro in scale connected to her role as a mother and wife, and not macro, dealing with activity outside of the home.

Juxtaposing the two narratives of Catarina B., who arrived in Comodoro in 1938, and Luzia D. who arrived direct in 1963, reveals an interesting distinction between what should be considered as work. Catarina B. found no difficulty adapting to a structure defined by a male dominant role. She would often repeat that she never had to work outside of the home, “not in Portugal, not in Argentina.” Since Catarina B. relied on her husband as the source of income for the family, she found the necessity to save the money her husband would give her. She says, “I saved the money to buy this house and another one that I have, because I was never extravagant. I saved the money…I was in Argentina alone, alone with my husband and I knew how to manage well.” Proud in the reality of not having to work outside of the home, Catarina B. still functioned as a burgeoning businesswoman, saving money and buying property, and yet, never considered such actions as “work”, perhaps because they were part of a family strategy. Fifteen years later, Luzia D., a professional nurse marries and moves to Argentina, having her first child 10 months after her arrival. When asked why she never returned to work, she replied, “Today [my children] tell me, but Mom you were so stupid, why didn’t you work? […] I didn’t know anyone here. Thus I could not go out to work. […] Besides, if I could go to work, I did not have the confidence to leave [my children] with a person I did not know.” Intriguingly, Luzia classified herself as a mother and wife who worked in the family business, but who did not work in a traditional sense, that of a professional. (10) Luzia defined her work as belonging to her family, business included and not a function of her individual self. The definitions of the term or classification of “work” for these five women depended on a plethora of variables, age, time of arrival and education being three of the most prevalent.

Furthermore, Donna Gabbaccia provides some further insight into the complex relationship between men and women in a family setting and a communal setting defined by an industry of manual labor.

Husbands bring to their families the constraints of an erratic work schedule and a concept of manliness based on the ‘toughness’ of the industry. Their wives maneuver around these constraints by adapting to the work schedule and tempering the emotional hardness of their husband’s lives (From the Other Side, 191).

The degree of agency each one of these women experienced and continue to experience is embedded in a larger question of the complex structure of power relations between men and women. During the ritual of maté drinking according to Ruggerio, “the maker of mate must in addition be aware of how he serves the gourd around the group. Age, sex, guest-status, and social status must all be observed” (152). Grafting the interviews of five Portuguese female immigrants between the years 1925 and 1963, the social status incorporating the role of women and the agency they required and inquired in the new land is a worthy question for exploration. What is part of their overarching self-definition, what we will call identity is a need to constantly address themselves as part of “something”, some family or marriage, one bond or another. The inquiry as to why we decided to interview them is the exact opposite to their answer to whom they are, part of something bigger.

When we set out to “capture” the stories of these women along with Marcelo Borges, we thought we would be accomplishing just that, literally taking the stories of these women. Contrary to our naïve expectations, the idea of these women as individual identities could not be divorced from the surrounding environment from whence they came and whence they arrived, their age, their marital status and their family. For women such as Francisca V., Maria Joao B., and Maria M. (to a lesser extent), their process of immigration and definition of themselves as an immigrant is tied to the idea of an old family. Having settled and married in and around Comodoro, their “new” and present families are Argentine pure and simple. On the other hand, for Catarina B. and Luzia D. being an immigrant was synonymous to the role of wife and expectant family player once secure in the new land. There was more of a drive and a given purpose to create and develop a family for the latter two women who defined themselves as residents of Argentina but citizens of Portugal.


The negotiation of the “self” for a female immigrant subject is an always-already process of “becoming” and “being” under the guise of a state, an economic system, a family structure or a social structure. For the five women interviewed in Patagonia in January of 2001, the process of remembering the female immigrant experience was tied inextricably to the idea of family. The concept of family can embody many forms of identity at once. There is the traditional idea of a group of people living under one roof constituting a household under the rule of one individual. Other connotations such as the notion of blood connections or historical lineage bonding one person to another in a family appear more conducive to the immigrant role; once the immigrant becomes an emigrant from their country they are a stranger in some ways to that land, a wandering diasporic spirit who needs to negotiate their place some where else. There are ties of blood, ideology, religion, heritage, among others that unite people under a common declaration of being one thing or another. For the five female Portuguese immigrants to Comodoro, they are connected as people who struggle to live as someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s mother and someone’s grandmother.

Argentina is a land of pieces united into a whole; it is a community of maté drinkers. Women are one of a very important and influential group in the community shaping and molding it through their actions and presence for more than a century, becoming accustomed to a place and a system despite differences. Like the gourd of maté, “the common cold and other contagious diseases are not valid reasons to refuse, and if offered by outsiders, such excuses are brushed aside”. Regardless of class or gender, all the women at the table drink out of the same cup, regardless of whether they prefer the taste of café or not.


  1. “Argentina.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 21 March 2001.
  2. From the beginning of drilling in and around Comodoro Rivadavia there were both private European companies from countries such as Germany as well as a national state company, YPF; however, in the long term companies such as YPF became grounded to such an extent in the national consciousness that the privatization in the early 90’s was seen as a serious loss by many.
  3. For purposes of fluid exploration of the topic, we want to ensure the reader understands that Comodoro Rivadavia is a town that grew out of the neighboring “company oil towns” in the surrounding areas. Comodoro was initially a trading port but the boundaries between company town and trading port were slowly fused through the expansion of trade and population over the years.
  4. From our research there has been very little written on waves of female migration and assimilation in Argentina from any ethnic group, more attention has been paid to Italian immigrants than any other ethnic group.
  5. Term used by Yan’s McLaughlin in her 1990 Introduction to Immigration Reconsidered: History, Sociology, and Politics. Ed. Virginia Yans-McLaughlin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990: “The phenomenological approach explicitly recognizes the “status of the text or the object of interpretation” –Life historym oral interview, and so on – as a ‘subjective bag of understandings’” (Yans-Mclaughlin 257).
  6.  Ibid.
  7.  In cases such as Maria M., there were several symbols of Portugal apparent in the kitchen environment such as a vase of the national flower of Portugal on the table, or designs on the walls, pictures, etc.
  8. Interviews with Maria M., Luzia D., Maria Joao B., and Francisca V.
  9. Marriage by proxy, also known as “casarse por poder” was a common practice throughout Europe that arose out of the mass international migration of male labor populations. When the men wanted to marry, they looked to their homeland for a suitable bride, choosing one, having her married by name only and then sending for her by a letter of guarantee, “carta de llamada” literally a letter of call. Borges, 1997.
  10. One of the weakness in this research was our inability to return for a second follow up interview with many of these women. The mention of a family business was caught but never followed up with further questioning by any of us leaving a gaping hole in our research.


Primary Sources
Catarina B. Interview by Marcelo Borges, Jasmin Sánchez, and Angela Reynolds. Comodoro Rivadavia, Chubut, Argentina. 17 January 2001. Patagonia Mosaic 2001, Community Studies Center, Dickinson College.

Francisca V. Interview by Marcelo Borges, Jasmin Sánchez, and Angela Reynolds. Km 8, Chubut, Argentina. 19 January 2001. Patagonia Mosaic 2001, Community Studies Center, Dickinson College.

Luzia D. Interview by Jasmin Sánchez, Marcelo Borges, María José Garrido, Colleen Heller, Angela Reynolds, and Susan Rose. Rada Tilly, Chubut, Argentina. 15 January 2001. Patagonia Mosaic 2001, Community Studies Center, Dickinson College.

Maria Joao B. Interview by Marcelo Borges, Jasmin Sánchez, and Angela Reynolds. Km 8, Chubut, Argentina. 19 January 2001. Patagonia Mosaic 2001, Community Studies Center, Dickinson College.

Maria M. Interview by Marcelo Borges, Jasmin Sánchez, and Angela Reynolds. Comodoro Rivadavia, Chubut, Argentina. 12 January 2001. Patagonia Mosaic 2001, Community Studies Center, Dickinson College.

Secondary Sources
Baily, Samuel L. “Cross-Cultural Comparison and the Writing of Migration History: Some Thoughts on How to Study Italians in the New World.” Immigration Reconsidered: History, Sociology, and Politics. Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, ed.. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Borges, Marcelo J. “Portuguese in Two Worlds: A Historical Study of Migration from Algarve to Argentina.” Ph. D. Dissertation. Rutgers University, New Jersey: New Brunswick, 1997.

Gabaccia, Donna. From the Other Side: Women, Gender and Immigrant Life in the U. S., 1820-1990. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Green, Nancy. “The Comparative Method and Poststructural Structuralism – New Perspectives for Migration Studies.” Journal of American Ethnic History. Vol.1, Issue 4, Summer 1994.

Olson, Karen et al. “Crossing Boudnaries, Building Bridges: Doing Oral History among Working Class Women and Men.” Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History. Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai, eds.. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Ruggiero, Kristin. And Here the World Ends. The Life of an Argentine Village. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Torres, Susana Beatriz. “Two Oil Company Towns in Patagonia: Europeans Immigrants, Class and Ethnicity (1907-1933).” Ph. D. Dissertation. Rutgers University, New Jersey: New Brunswick, 1995.

Weatherford, Doris. Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America, 1840 – 1930. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1995.

Yans-McLaughlin, Virginia. “Metaphors of Self in History: Sybjectivity, Oral Narrative, and Immigration Studies.” Immigration Reconsidered: History, Sociology, and Politics. Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, ed.. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Zaldivar H., Paula. “La Italia en sueños: imágenes, sentimientos e identidad de tres mujeres italianas inmigrantes en Chile.” Estudios Migratorios Latinoamericanos, vol. 4, 12, August 1989.

Appendix I: Profiles

(This section is under construction.)

Appendix II: In Their Own Words

(This section is under construction.)