(Photo by DMWyllie)
Do you ever wonder why people from Buenos Aires are locally referred to as ¨porteños¨? The answer is simple; it is because Buenos Aires is a port city. It was founded on the river where the port would be, and then it progressively expanded around it, as did the country. Thus, the historical relevance of the port is of great importance and also key in understanding the geographic and economic distribution of Argentina, and the cultural identity in some of its aspects.
In 1536 Pedro de Mendoza, a Spanish conquistador, founded Buenos Aires city on the banks of the Riachuelo (where La Boca is today), which drains into the Rio de La Plata river basin. Many other rivers drain into the basin as well and it was a straight access to the Atlantic ocean, so it was a key location. During this period however, it didn’t officially function as a port because the Spanish crown forbade it; its role was to be a strategic point from which to conquer the whole Rio de la Plata area with the benefit of having low tides and high riverbanks, which made it difficult for warships to approach.
It wasn’t until 1776, when the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata was formed, that the area really began to develop. The port, which was allready being used for clandestine commerce (and- it is suspected- to transport South American silver to Spain), expanded. At the same time, England was industrializing and was in need of raw materials and markets to sell to, so goods started to flow through the port. In fact, it was such a strategic location and was expanding at such a rate that many European powers were interested in occupying it. In the early 1800’s the British invaded it twice, without success, as the locals defended their city, sparking a sense of national identity that would lead to the Argentine independence in 1810.
From independence onwards the port continued to grow and was a protagonist of the migratory currents in the 1850’s, promoted by the first Argentine constitution, and later in the post world war periods. Centralis (“Unitarian”) policies from the founding years, concentrated economic activities around Buenos Aires and the port; the nation expanded around it, with much of its immigration settling in the city rather than populating the rest of the country as had been expected. Thousands of immigrants populated the port and surrounding areas where they lived in conventillos (tenements). This moment in Argentine history defined the local identity and is reflected in tangos, in Quinquela Martin’s art and in literature.
For practical purposes, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the port was moved to where Puerto Madero is now. Later it expanded to Puerto Nuevo where the port operates today.