Elif ÖZMENEK - BUENOS AIRES - Turkish Daily News
Part 1 of 2
DAY I Los Turcos
I was trying to communicate with a cab driver in Buenos Aires. It is quite amazing how one can develop a language if need be. The driver who wants to practice asked me where I was from with his broken English. With the same intention I replied in Spanish: El Turco. He looked at me from the mirror not believing a blond can be a Turk he said in Argentina a lot Los Turcos.
As far as I knew the number of Turks in Buenos Aires was not more than 50 and even that was generous. Therefore I thought what the cab driver was saying was a language problem. Then as I talked to several other people in Buenos Aires I realized that Argentines call anybody who migrated with the Ottoman documents as Los Turcos. Argentina has a large Arabic community, made up mostly of immigrants from Syria and Lebanon. Many have gained prominent status in national business and politics, including former president Carlos Menem, the son of Syrian settlers from the province of La Rioja also known as the El Turco.
Most of the Arab Argentines are Christian of the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, rather than Muslims who represent a small portion of Arab Argentines. The migration from the Ottoman Empire started around 1800s and accelerated during World War I. The second migration from Anatolia took place around World War II. Mostly Armenians and Sephardic Jews sought refuge in Argentina who enjoyed increasing prosperity and prominence those days with swelling population to sevenfold. Most Los Turcos who live in Argentina lost their Turkish citizenship, however, a majority of them or even their grand children can still speak Turkish.
The Sephardic Jews in Buenos Aires established a neighborhood called Izmirliler Mahallesi. It is in the Vila Crespo, which is one of the wealthiest districts in the city. Old residents of the neighborhood vividly remember the Izmir Café and Sark Kösesi Kahvesi with authentic Anatolian decorations, two major coffeehouses that shut down after their owners passed away. A majority of the Sephardics love Turkey dearly remembering a country, the Ottoman Empire then, that welcomed their ancestors who fled Spain in 1492. However, the second and third generation of Sephardics is moving out of the Vila Crespo district as their relation with their own past fades away the elderly ones complain. In 1994 there was an attack on the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (Argentine Israelite Mutual Association) building in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. It was Argentina's deadliest bombing. Most Jews state their appreciation that Turkey was one of the first countries who condemn the attacks carried out by Hezbollah. The Turkish diplomats say that the Jews even that are not Sephardics or Eskinazis, the Jews migrated from Anatolia, in Argentina support Turkey in many political and economical matters.
The majority of the Armenian community here in Buenos Aires can also speak Turkish. You can witness that they speak Turkish among themselves, says a friend of mine who lives in the city. As soon as they realize that you are Turkish most of them refuse to speak in Turkish. Although most of the Armenians think what happened in 1915 was genocide some are against to label a historical event as such. Migirdiç Bilir is one those people. His family left Turkey in 1957. Bilir did his military service in Erzurum-Turkey. He believes that it was the British who started a feud between Armenians and Turks who lived together in peace for centuries. His feelings for British are so strong that in 1982 during the Falkland Islands War Bilir wanted to fight with Argentines against the Britain. However, Bilir who was born in 1926 was not accepted to the military due to his age. A minority of Armenians still keep their ties with the Turkish community in Buenos Aires. On every Oct. 29, the Republic Day of Turkey, a group Armenians used to leave a garland with red and white carnations symbolizing the Turkish flag in front of the Turkish Embassy. However, as the genocide resolution became a political matter in the Argentinean Parliament those who followed this tradition started to receive threats within their own community and eventually stopped it.
Unfortunately the Turkish Republic never made any effort to keep strong ties with either the Armenian or Sephardic Jewish community here in Argentina. If they did Turkey could have been one of the most influential countries in Latin America. Now as the first generation that migrated from the Turkish Republic start to pass away one by one so does the Turkish cultural influence in Argentina.