BUENOS AIRES IS the largest city in ARGENTINA, and as part of a federal district, it serves as the country’s capital. The city’s name means “good airs” and derives from the name of a patron saint of navigators known as Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Aire. Measuring 77 square mi (199 square km), the city is located in eastern Argentina, near the South ATLANTIC OCEAN, just south of Argentina’s border with URUGUAY.
In 1536, the Spanish explorer Pedro de Mendoza led an expedition that founded the city of Buenos Aires on the banks of the Río de la Plata. This initial settlement failed after five years because of a lack of supplies and conflicts with the native inhabitants. The Spanish settlers fled Buenos Aires for the fortified city of Asunción. In 1580, Juan de Garay led a new expedition from Asunción that reestablished Buenos Aires. The new settlers began to exploit the pastoral animals that had multiplied since being left by the earlier settlers.
For more than 200 years, Buenos Aires grew slowly. While the city possessed a good port, it was largely excluded from the highly regulated Spanish colonial system of trade. Spain permitted only trade through certain ports in the New World and in SPAIN. As a part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, Buenos Aires was governed from Lima and its port of Callao. Thus, to obtain European goods, porteños, as residents of Buenos Aires are known, had to wait for them to be shipped through Callao and then by oxcart to Buenos Aires, which could take six months. To export their goods, residents of Buenos Aires also had to ship them through Callao and then to spain.
Before the second half of the 18th century, Buenos Aires had little contact with the silver mining regions of the viceroyalty. Instead it developed an economy based on ranching and contraband trade. This contraband trade, especially with Brazil and the Caribbean islands, allowed porteños to thrive. In 1618, the city became the seat of an imperial governorship. By the 18th century, they were exporting cereals, hides, and dried beef. By the mid-1700s, the city’s population had reached 20,000. In 1776, as part of a series of reforms implemented by the Spanish government, Buenos Aires became the capital of the new Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. The city now had administrative authority over much of southern South America. With its new status, legal trade greatly expanded and Buenos Aires prospered from direct trade with Spain and with the mining regions of South America. Economic prosperity also led to increased population, which reached 42,500 in 1810.
In 1806 and 1807, British forces attacked the city. Local militias succeeded in repelling the attackers, contributing to the porteños’ sense of pride and nationalism. In 1808, city residents opposed Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, and in 1810, the town council cut its formal ties with Spain, replacing the Spanish viceroy with a colonial-dominated junta. For the next decade, the city was a center of revolutionary activity. However, the interior provinces did not immediately follow the lead of Buenos Aires. Finally, in 1816, the provinces also declared their independence and Buenos Aires became the capital of the newly independent United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata. Much of the first half of the century was marked by political and military conflict between unitarios and federales. The unitarios were those who favored a strong central government at Buenos Aires, while the federales preferred provincial autonomy. Buenos Aires generally dominated the struggle. In 1880, the city separated from the province of Buenos Aires and became Argentina’s national capital as part of a federal district.
In the second half of the 19th century, Buenos Aires prospered and grew. By 1860, the city had more than 100,000 residents, and by the early 20th century, the population had surpassed one million. Several factors contributed to the transformation of the city, all of which were reflections of the economic prosperity of the surrounding countryside.
One change was the arrival of massive numbers of immigrants from Europe and elsewhere. About 80 percent of the immigrants came from Spain and ITALY. By 1914, half of the city’s population was foreign born. Often unable to buy land in the countryside, many immigrants settled in Buenos Aires, as there was a need for labor in the city’s port, industries, and service sectors. Many older sections of the city came to be dominated by foreigners.
A second change was the flow of wealth into the city. This wealth can be seen in the construction of numerous great mansions in the city. Indeed, Buenos Aires came to be a symbol of great wealth and the phrase “to be rich as an Argentine” could be heard on the streets of Paris. A third change was the spatial change that took place. Buenos Aires sought to copy the model of PARIS, especially as it began to prepare for its centennial celebration in 1910. Thus, the city constructed a subway system and broad avenues like those in the French capital. Other improvements included sanitation, gas, electricity, and water.
By 1914, Buenos Aires had reached a population of over 1.5 million, making it one of the 10 largest cities in the world. About one-fourth of Argentina’s entire population lived in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area, which was seven times larger than the second biggest city in the country. Several key developments marked the 20th century.
First was a change in the source of newcomers to the city. After about 1930, European immigration virtually ended. Migrants from the interior provinces of Argentina filled the city’s labor demands. Others came from the neighboring countries of Uruguay, PARAGUAY, and BOLIVIA. Most of the new arrivals were mestizos. This racial difference led to frequent social conflict. Most of the migrants were poorly educated and had few job skills, making it difficult for the urban economy to employ them. Many of these migrants became supporters of Juan Peron, often viewed as the champion of the poor.
A second, related, change was growing urban poverty. Despite the support of politicians such as Juan Perón, the new migrants remained poor. Most found the inner city too crowded. Instead, they chose to live in the growing shantytowns that surrounded Buenos Aires, known as villas miserias.
A third key development in the 20th century was a change in urban transportation. Like many other modern cities, Buenos Aires came to be dominated by automobiles and buses, replacing the electric streetcar system. However, Buenos Aires lacks a major freeway system. A network was planned after World War II, but it was never built. The building of the Metropolitan Railroad in 1979 helped somewhat. However, by the end of the 20h century, traffic problems and urban gridlock were commonplace in the Argentine capital.
A final development was industrialization. In 1914, the city had 17,000 industrial establishments that employed some 300,000 people. By the 1960s, there were more than 70,000 establishments providing jobs to more than 700,000 porteños. Some 40 percent of all Argentine industry was located in the city. Such industrialization reinforced the flow of migrants to the city. By the end of the 20th century, the metropolitan area had more than 11 million inhabitants, making it one of the largest cities in the world.