Why don’t I have any porteño friends? You’re not alone.
During the interviews I conducted for my research on Americans living in Buenos Aires, I asked the participants about their social lives in BA. First of all, while the majority have an Argentine partner, the majority also claimed to have more foreign friends (primarily English-speaking) than local ones.
Expats: the low-hanging fruit
In many cases, this happened by choice. It seems that expats often seek other expats, as they are a kind of “low hanging fruit” (according to one respondent): you both speak English, both share the experience of being foreigners abroad, and also share similar values, political views, educational level and even background. Plus it’s really easy to meet other expats when you’re abroad (read more here: Top 5 ways to meet expats in Buenos Aires).
Also, while meeting other expats is easy, meeting locals is usually more of a challenge (read more here: Top 5 ways to meet locals in Buenos Aires). But I discovered during my interviews with Americans living in Buenos Aires that, according to them, there are several interesting reasons why they struggle to integrate with the locals.
Linguistic and Cultural Barriers
Many Americans in Buenos Aires have difficulty learning the language. Even those that arrive with a decent base of Spanish find themselves struggling to adapt to the local castellano. To make matters worse, most of the Americans I interviewed admitted they speak more English than Spanish on a daily basis, mainly due to their jobs. Add to that their tendency to socialize more with English-speaking foreigners, and what do you get? Serious limitations not only to their opportunities to improve their castellano and integrate more, but also to their motivation to do so.
“Maybe I don’t speak Spanish well enough because I have an accent and I think it makes it harder to form really strong bonds with people. I have a lot of acquaintances I get along with, but they just never passed that point”
“Language is a huge issue even though I don’t think people will say it. I think it is, because you never feel as though you can integrate with the society if you don’t speak the language”
However, we also discovered that even the Americans that speak fluent castellano have difficulty integrating socially. Why?
Well, language barriers aside, we must mention a couple cultural barriers that were pointed about by the Americans that were interviewed. Specifically: the relative degree of independence among young people in Argentina compared to the United States, their feelings about gender roles in Argentina versus the United States, and their lack of cultural knowledge or understanding of porteños due to the fact that they weren’t born here.
Several Americans interviewed mentioned that they perceive that compared to young people in the United States, their porteño peers are “less independent” in their 20s. According several Americans, the Argentines live with their families for longer, rely on their parents for financial support for longer than what’s socially acceptable in the U.S., and delay more in learning the skills necessary to live on their own (for example, cooking and cleaning) than what’s typical in the United States.
On the other hand, many of the Americans interviewed (men and women) feel that in Argentina there is less gender equality and that the feminist movement is further “behind” than in the United States. They said that compared to their home country, in Argentina women are less empowered than men, there is a greater importance placed on image and appearance for women, and women are placed in more servicial and traditional roles than they are in the United States.
“I struggle personally with the gender roles in this country, and feminism is sort of the 70’s in the U.S. where it’s sort of, well, technically women are equal but you have to be sexy all the time. You have to be very “servicial”. You have to be a good catholic girl but you also have to be a sex kitten at all times. I definitely see it in the culture, and I observe that in magazines and the way people act and so that’s something that’s really frustrating for me”
Many of the Americans interviewed also mentioned not being able to relate to many cultural “norms” “customs” “habits” and “childhood experiences” of being a porteño. These cultural differences were usually associated with popular culture, human interaction, social customs, education, sports, politics and many other areas. Meaning, you can learn all about Buenos Aires culture, and you can even adapt as best you can, but unless you grew up in the city, you’ll never be a porteño.
While the language and cultural barriers are important to mention, they are only part of the reason why Americans struggle to integrate socially with locals in Buenos Aires.
Being an “Outsider” in Buenos Aires
Many of the Americans I interviewed expressed that they feel porteños make a distinction between who is a native of the city and who is an “outsider”, which can hinder a foreigner’s ability to integrate.
“People from Buenos aires, they automatically have a certain complex and a certain way that they view outsiders coming into their city. They’re very closed off, and this is what I hear from almost everybody that I meet. A lot of my friends don’t have close porteño friends”
“I don’t think the argentines see the foreign people as being actual people. I’m not exactly sure what they see but they don’t give you the same respect that they would give another Argentine”
“I don’t feel that I’ll ever be 100% integrated with the culture here. I’ll always be a foreigner, always. With my accent, with my traditions, with the way I look, everything. You’ll always be from abroad, you’ll always be foreign, you will never understand as much as someone living here since they were born. You can understand it really well but it’s not the same”
In fact, going back to the cultural barriers, some Americans expressed that it’s not just their own inability to comprehend cultural differences, but also the porteños unwillingness to help them understand (maybe to protect their cultural identity or maybe just because they don’t see why the foreigner would, or should, care), which leads some Americans to feel socially excluded by porteños.
“You make an opinion about their politics here they’re like, “who the hell are you? You’re a foreigner’”
“It’s a lack of cultural understanding or a lack of being part of it. Because if you stood up and said “Oh, este Macri es un puto” or whatever, they would look at you like ‘who is this gringa insulting macri and why does she care?’”
Also, while being an outsider has its difficulties, so does being an American, specifically. The local reception of “yanquis” (yankees) in the context of the Americanization of Buenos Aires (it’s everywhere – the television shows, the movies, the products, the brands, the fast food chains, the language, the trends and fads) can create a wall of stereotypes and preconceived notions about Americans resulting in first impressions tainted by admiration (xenophilia) or hostility (anti-americanism) when locals meet Americans, affecting their ability to get to know the American as an individual.
Closed Porteño Social Circles
Most of the Americans interviewed for this project agree that the main reason they find it difficult to integrate with locals in Buenos Aires is because the typical porteño already has a tight-knit social circle and isn’t looking for new friends.
“I think that most have their friends from elementary or high school and they’re really not looking for new friends”
“I find that people in Buenos Aires have their circle of friends they went to high school with. There’s a pattern that doesn’t exist in the U.S. unless you’re from a small town and didn’t go to University”
“I have no friends from Buenos Aires. I find them to be like my husband- they have their close group of friends and those ties are so strong that that’s how they see friendship, and it’s either that or you’re an acquaintance. I’ve never gotten into a more than acquaintance relationship with a woman from Buenos Aires. I am friends with girls from the interior. Why is that different? Because they didn’t grow up here so they don’t have their friends from when they were 5 years old”
This would explain why, although these Americans have more foreign friends than Argentine ones, the Argentine friends they do have are more often than not from the “provincia” rather than from Buenos Aires. Several Americans interviewed said this could be due to the fact that much like themselves, these Argentines are also “outsiders” in the eyes of the porteños.
“Argentines from Misiones or Neuquen or wherever else, they’re also outsiders. They’re Argentine, but they’re outsiders in this city so they can appreciate someone from another country also having the same experience. The more porteño they are the more closed off they become”
The Revolving Door of Expats
Also, maybe the revolving door of expats in Buenos Aires (read more: My expat friends always leave) doesn’t just affect friendships with expats, but with porteños as well. As one interviewee put it, “…maybe for locals there’s such a gigantic community of foreigners here that are always coming and going that, you know, maybe [the locals think] ‘they’re gonna be here for 2 years and then they’re gonna leave so maybe it’s not worth building a close relationship with them’”