Ben Shirley looks at the two opposing sides on Plaza Independencia.
In 1861 a powerful earthquake shook the Cuyo region and destroyed most of the original city of Mendoza. A French engineer called Carlos Thays was in charge of the reconstruction and he included five plazas in the city centre, to act as reassuring safe zones for the survivors. The central Plaza Independencia covers four blocks in the heart of the city and was originally a park complete with artificial lake and horse rides for children. A school for the wealthy townspeople was built (completed in 1911) on the western edge, next to it the Plaza Hotel (now the Hyatt) and the city’s main theatre.
Major remodeling work began in 1940. Built underground in the centre of the square is a small theatre which opened in 1968, and next to it a museum of modern art. These days, arts and crafts are on sale from stalls around the plaza. It is in every way the focal point for Mendocinos and tourists alike.
From either side of the square runs Avenida Mitre. Southwards to the seat of local government and the administrative centre and northwards into the urban sprawl of Las Heras. Bartolomé Mitre was a journalist, politician and army officer who took the presidency by force in 1862. He waged a war against Paraguay, in alliance with Brazil and Uruguay, opened Argentina’s borders to international trade and wrote a lot of Argentina’s official history.
Down the central strip of Avenida Mitre, on the south side of the square, there is the ‘Promenade of the Arab Republic of Syria’ and similarly on the north side, the ‘Promenade of the State of Israel’. They officially run for just one block either side of the Plaza and were created in the context of the 50th anniversary of the creation of Israel when Carlos Menem, of Syrian descent, was president.
Nowadays Syria lies in ruins after 5 years of civil war and Israel is surrounded by strife and regional tensions. Why were these nations given such an incredible place of honour here in the symbolic and cultural centre of Mendoza? The question is an awkward one given the death and destruction in the Middle East but the possible answers are fascinating and it shines a light on the strong but seldom recognised influence of the Middle East in Argentina.
On Israel’s promenade the monument is a ten foot tall Menorah, one of the symbols of the Jewish faith. The 3 commemorative plaques all mention the Jewish Community of Mendoza as well as the Israeli Consulate. The link is slightly different on the Syrian ‘Paseo’ where neither plaque mentions the Syrian consulate and only one alludes to Islam and which is from the Islamic Arabian Society. The second plaque comes from the Arabian Argentina Sport and Recreation Club. The monument here is reminiscent of Mecca; a rectangular black cube with red trimmings, with an ornamental arabesque pagoda roof.
There are 14 million Jews worldwide with 600,000 in South America, approximately 360,000 of whom live in Argentina, the most of any country in South America (Brazil is next with 120,000). Of the 8 billion people on the planet, 1.8 billion, nearly one quarter, are Muslim. It is apparently the world’s fastest growing religion. One website claims there are 7 million Muslims living in South America and an estimated 700,000 in Argentina (and 1.5 million in Brazil). Household names such as Shakira and Carlos Slim all claim Arab descent and there is even a prominent football team in Chile called Club Deportivo Palestino.
There are 600 families connected to the An Nur mosque in Mendoza’s city centre on the Alameda section of San Martin Street. The Syrian consulate is a few blocks away, above the fabric shop ran by the consul, Dr. Mustafa Saada. This area is crowded with descendants of Syrian immigrants.
Indeed Argentina is crowded with descendants of Syrian immigrants. The most conservative estimates say 9% of the population is of Arab descent, 4 million people, and at the beginning of the 20th century the Syrian-Lebanese community was the third largest after the Spanish and Italian. Lebanese and Syrians were grouped together by Argentine authorities and the tradition of putting these two nations together continues today. In the Middle East the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the beginning of the fall of the Ottoman Empire caused massive changes in the dynamics of the area and created a permanent flow of migration to the New World.
Here in Mendoza the Arab immigrants were used for agricultural expansion in the east of the province. In San Martin, Junin and Rivadiavia, stories of immigrants killed for their life savings in Arabian gold are now part of the folklore. As well as helping build the new city, the labourers dug vineyards and irrigation systems in what is now the most intensive wine producing region in South America.
Before open conflict began in 2011, Syria was linked to Argentina in another fundamental way; the arab republic was a massive importer of yierba mate. In 2009 Syria bought 70% of yierba exported by Argentina. They consider it as much a national tradition as here in the Southern Cone, the only difference being they drink from individual glasses with straws, not a communal gourd as Latinos do.
Historically Syria was home to a large Jewish population. When the Diaspora was expelled from Spain at the end of the 14th century large communities were established in Damascus and Allepo. As the Ottoman Empire was disbanded many of these Jews came to Argentina. The immigrants and their community thrived in the commercial hive of activity that was Buenos Aries. Their unity and industry kept the community and faith alive and strong. Today there are over 50 orthodox synagogues in the Capital Federal, servicing a large and powerful Jewish population.
In Mendoza the Jewish diaspora officially numbers only 4,000, a population that has not grown since the 1950s. The Jewish community is connected with all areas of industry, and especially the wine industry. The Flichman winery was founded in 1910 by Sami Flichman who had arrived in Mendoza in 1894. It is still ran by his sons and grandsons today. The Jewish banking dynasty, and old-world winemakers extraordinaire, the Rothschilds, have a bodega in Mendoza’s Valle De Uco where they produce premium quality Kosher wine.
As well as the Menorah monument in the plaza, Judaism is represented by the Israeli Cultural Center on Maipú Street and the Israeli Charitable Society on España Street. The cultural centre is a cheap but charming, slightly randown building with a dance hall and stage and a rich cultural calendar in permanent activity. The charitable society organizes fundraisers for kids in hospitals, pregnant mothers in need and other worthy causes. It is a large, looming and expensively constructed building with a synagogue next door and a re-enforced security bunker with three policemen at the entrance.
The French Prime Minister, Francois Hollande, visited Argentina recently hoping to take advantage of the relaxation of international trade control by the new president. He also suggested to Mauricio Macri that Argentina should take charge in mediating a peace in Syria. Macri made no reaction to the idea, perhaps knowing something already. They should all come to drink mate here in the Plaza Independencia and see what can be arranged.