Anglo-Argentines: almost as 'British' as the British

When in Buenos Aires, do as the Argentines do:

Eat lunch at the London Grill. Have afternoon tea at the Richmond Tea Room.

Buy men's suits at James Smart. Or women's clothes from Harrods. Have them altered at the London Tailors. Or cleaned at Fleet Street Cleaners.

Take a train, over the British-built railway running on the left track, to suburban Burlingham.

Or stay at the elegant Claridge.

And don't forget a stroll through the tree-shaped Parque Brittania to the tolling of the hour by a miniature Big Ben, the English bell tower.

These outposts of British influence are reminders of just how much Argentina owes to the nation it could soon go to war with over a group of bleak, treeless islands in the South Atlantic.

That long-simmering dispute erupted anew April 2 when Argentina seized the Falkland Islands, which it calls the Islas Malvinas. But the dispute cannot mask the persistent influence of British institutions and culture in Argentina.

Nor can it mask the long British role in Argentine history and in the building of the Argentine nation. Neither can it hide the strong streak of English-speaking Argentines who are descendants of English immigrants in the last century.

The Argentines, about half of whom are of Italian descent, tell a joke on themselves. An Argentine, they say, is an Italian who speaks Spanish but thinks he is English.

After all, it was the British who brought soccer, the national sport, to Argentina. And polo and cricket, too.

It was the British who also brought trout for the cold streams in the southern mountains and merino sheep to populate southern Patagonia. The British built the railways and sent the engineers to run them; the meat packing plants of Rosario and the technicians to operate them; the electricity systems and the skilled personnel to keep them going.

There was, in fact, a migration of some 100,000 English, Scots, Irish, and Welsh pioneers from the early 1800s until World War I, when the flow slowed to a trickle.

The British Foreign Office lists some 17,500 British residents in Argentina. But that figure is low. It includes only those who maintain British passports, ignoring several hundred thousand more--perhaps half a million--who in one way or another are Anglo-Argentines.

Many of them still carry English family names brought over to Argentina by their great-grandparents, although some of these third-and fourth-generation Anglo-Argentines know little English.

But quite a few passionately hold on to British traditions. They belong to British clubs like the Suburban Hurlingham Club or the downtown English Club. They send their children to boarding or day schools like St. George's.

They worship in English at a dozen Anglican churches and at an equal number of Presbyterian churches in the Buenos Aires area, and at dozens more in the countryside. And they read the English-language Buenos Aires Herald, 105 years old and the lone survivor of the three British community papers of 50 years ago.

Whole communities in Patagonia still speak the Welsh that their forebears brought with them 100 years ago. A society in Trelew in Patagonia annually offers a prize for the best poem in Welsh.

In Buenos Aires, there are choral groups for the Anglo- Argentines. The Buenos Aires Garden Club is largely British with a sprinkling of North Americans to give it an international flavor. A British Community Council keeps tabs on the Anglo-Argentine community.

Actually British influence here goes back to a time before there was an Argentina. In 1806, when Argentina was still a vice-regal realm of Spain's fading New World empire, Britain seized Buenos Aires and held it for a month. A similar effort a year later was repulsed.

Ironically, British influence grew in the wake of these invasions and there were English and Irish involved in Argentina's independence struggle. History records at least 500 English adventurers as part of Jose de San Martin's army of liberation. Two of his generals were British.

And the founder of the Argentine Navy, the Navy that played so important a part in the seizure of the Falklands 10 days ago, was an Irishman named William Brown.

The list of Englishmen who built Argentina is long. Most came and stayed. They brought a culture that took hold and that persists.

Time, however, will probably erode much of what is British in Argentine culture, just as much of the English community in Argentina has intermarried with Spanish, Italians, and Germans - an assimilation that continues.

Yet they'll probably still be serving tea at the Richmond Tea Room on Calle Florida long after the current flap over the Falklands fades into history.

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