The Jewish gauchos of Argentina

Different waves of immigrants from around the world brought their language, culture and traditions to Argentina. These factors intermingled and helped create the country’s identity. One of those groups that helped shape our culture was that of the Russian Jews, who became known as the Jewish gauchos.

In 1889, a group of Russian Jews decided to escaped the certainty of violence of the pogroms in the Ukraine for the uncertainty of a new life in a faraway land. They travelled first to Paris, where they bought some tracts of land, sight unseen, in Argentina.

A building in Moises Ville, Argentina

Upon arriving in the country, they learned that the deal had fallen through and the promises of housing and agricultural implements were not kept. They had nothing and nowhere to go. They were forced to sleep in railway sheds in appalling conditions. Railway workers and passengers would give them food out of pity. Due to the unhygienic conditions and poor diet, disease broke out. Sixty children died of typhoid fever. As they didn’t have coffins or a plot of land for burials, the children’s bodies were kept in oil drums.

After a while, a few Italian colonists took on this community and took them to their colony and gave them shelter, food and even some land. Parents had brought along those oils drums and  were able to give their children a proper burial in what became the first Jewish cemetery of the region. Thus was the first Jewish colony created.

Meanwhile, in Paris, philanthropist and millionaire Baron Maurice de Hirsch and his wife Clara created the Jewish Colonization Association in memory of their son. The association’s goal was to help Jews escape from Europe and settle in peace in South America.

The Jewish Colonization Association acquired thousands of acres in Argentina, in the provinces of Santa Fe, Buenos Aires and Entre Rios and also absorbed the earlier colony. The association also brought more colonists, mainly from Russia, and provided them with land, a house and tools. These pioneers grew wheat, alfalfa, flax, rye and vegetables and also raised dairy cattle.

A school in Moises Ville

These new colonies later grew into rural towns where everyone was welcome. In Buenos Aires, Colonia Mauricio, named after Baron de Hirsch, had a flourmill, a hospital a bath and a slaughterhouse. Colonia Clara, named after Baroness de Hirsch, was founded in 1894 in the province of Entre Rios.

The oldest and largest colony was Moisés Ville, founded in 1890 by the firsts Jewish colonists ever to arrive, before the Jewish Colonization Association was founded. In 1999, Moisés Villewas declared a Historic Town and included in the national register of historic places.

In spite of its economic success, the younger generations left the town for the cities to get a university education. They became established professionals and never returned. The colony became depopulated, slowly but surely.

Nowadays, few descendants of those first pioneers, who overcame disease and adversity to flourish, still live in Moisés Ville. But the memory of those brave Jews who risked everything in their search for freedom and peace is still alive in the quiet streets.

Below is a video (in Spanish only, no subtitles) that promotes the town of Moisés Ville as a tourist destination. It’s part of the Jewish Colonies Trail.


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September 25, 2013 Comments disabled

The Jesuits in Argentina: Alta Gracia Mission

The Jesuits arrived in what is now Argentina in November 1585, first to Santiago del Estero and then south to Córdoba and east to Paraguay. They came from the Alto Perú area (modern day Perú) to Christianize and educate the local native population. They founded the Province of Paraguay  -which comprised what is now Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia and Argentina-, an important social, economic and cultural network.

Thne church of Alta Gracia was built in the Baroque style


July 4, 2013 Comments disabled

Historic Plaza de Mayo

Due to its strategic location, Plaza de Mayo has been the focal point of Argentinean political life from early on. The plaza is surrounded by the presidential palace (Casa Rosada, or Pink House), the historic Cabildo (town hall), the headquarters of Nación Bank, ministerial buildings, the cathedral, the secret service building, the Internal Revenue offices and the modern town hall.

View of Plaza de Mayo from the Cabildo. At the far end is the presidential palace, or Pink House


June 14, 2013 Comments disabled

Italy is younger than you think!

When I talk about Italy, one of the comments I get the most from my friends around the world is the following: “ North and South- two different countries, right?”

They probably refer to their own experience while travelling, or maybe just to the cliché of the north of Italy being the productive efficient area of the nation, and the south being the lazy and relaxed one.

While trying to ensure people that the cliché is just a cliché, not reflecting the reality, I also admit that yes- North and South are two different countries in one.

And actually, it is more complex than that.


May 8, 2013 Comments disabled

The Costa Rican Colorful Oxcart

Costa Rican oxcarts (Photo by Manu Martin)

La Carreta, “The oxcart” in English, was designated National Labor Symbol on March 22nd, 1988. During the nineteenth century, with extensive coffee plantations around the country, it was necessary to have a vehicle that could actually pass through muddy places, beaches, hills, curves, rocky mountains and deep small rivers. That’s when this rustic, wooden, strong cart was created.

As the coffee industry of Costa Rica increased, so did the need to use the oxcart to produce and export the coffee beans. Thus, the first shipment of coffee to London was transported from the coffee plantations to Costa Rica’s main ports by oxcart in 1843. Oxcarts carried coffee to the province of Puntarenas on a small road between 1844 and 1846. A curious fact is that oxcarts were originally pulled by people, not oxen. However, as the need for transporting goods grew, the loads became too heavy and the people were replaced by oxen.

"Coffee and sugarcane gave birth to our oxcart" (Photo by Manu Martin)

The oxcart also served as an ideal transportation for family trips and other types of social activities such as weddings and funerals, and even for medical assistance. It is interesting to know that before the railway was built, which connected San José with Puntarenas, many families used the oxcarts to spend summer days in the coast. The round trip consisted of 4 ½ days to get there, 2 days in the beach and other 4 ½ days to return!

The golden age of oxcarts is said to go from 1850 to 1935. The custom of originally decorating and painting these carts began in the early twentieth century, when cowherds decided to add life to oxcarts by hand painting them with bright colors and geometrical figures.  In 1903, people decided to start enhancing the carts by decorating the circle wheels, and in 1915, the entire wheels were painted and decorated to create a distinct look among families. After World War II, the oxcart became obsolete due to new inventions; being replaced by trains, tractors and trucks. It has been used since then as an ornamental object.

Oxcarts in the past (Photo by Manu Martin)

The oxcart is not only used in Costa Rica, but also in Central America. However, the Costa Rican oxcart is unique because it is the only one decorated in such an original way with colorful patterns and shapes, and even flowers, stars and animals. Although the oxcarts can present evident similarities, there are never two oxcarts painted exactly the same since all of them contain changes in color tones and figures. This art has been passed from generation to generation up to the present time.

Original oxcart with painted animals and flowers (Photo by Manu Martin)

The town of Sarchí, located in the province of Alajuela, is the great traditional center for manufacturing and decorating carretas. That’s why it is common to see beautifully painted oxcarts in gardens and in the more than 200 stores, where a wonderful variety of oxcarts can be found, offering all kinds of sizes and colors. The largest and oldest oxcart factory is also found in this place: the Joaquín Chaverri Oxcart Factory was built in 1902 and is considered to be the birthplace of oxcart handicrafts in Costa Rica. In front of the church of Sarchí you can also see the world’s largest painted oxcart, which was built in 2006 in order to get the name of the town into The Guinness Book of World Records. It is an amazingly beautiful oxcart!

One of the many stores in Sarchí (Photo by Nuria Villalobos)

Corridor in Sarchí where oxcarts get painted (Photo by Manu Martin)

The World's Largest Painted Oxcart

The oxcarts are nowadays used in parades and festivals around the country. The most famous one takes place on the second Sunday of every March in San Antonio de Escazú, a town in San José. The Oxcart Drivers Day, Día de los Boyeros in Spanish, has been celebrated for 30 years. This year, over 200 yuntas (sets) of oxen and beautifully decorated and colorful oxcarts participated in the event. The boyeros or oxcart men use a traditional prod or chuzo to keep the oxen moving and under control as they climb uphill to San Antonio. Besides the parade, where the priest blesses the oxcarts, the festival also offers visitors a good variety of typical food and traditional music.

The Oxcart Drivers Day in Escazú (Photo by ticoindex.com)

After learning so much about the oxcart, it is easy to understand its importance in the Costa Rican culture. As María Alvarado says in her article about the typical oxcart, it is one of the most genuine folkloric manifestations of the country as it represents the simplicity and aspirations of rural Costa Rican people, who have become artisans thanks to it. La carreta symbolizes humility, patience, sacrifice and endurance in an effort to pursue goals in a pacific manner. The national progress is linked to the oxcart, which imposes respect in virtue of its glorious past. The typical oxcart was declared Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO on November 24th, 2005.

Oxcart with boyero (Photo by Manu Martin)

Beautiful oxen with cart (Photo by Nuria Villalobos)

So, if you are ever in Costa Rica, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Sarchí or Escazú, get on an oxcart to take a picture or buy a miniature oxcart somewhere. It will always remind you of how the Costa Rica you know today was forged.

Tourists on oxcart (Photo by Manu Martin)

The Oxcart: National Symbol of Costa Rica (Photo by Manu Martin)

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March 29, 2013 8 comments

Canada’s Birthday

The History

In the 1800′s Canada was a series of divided areas. With Upper Canada populated with settlers from France and Lower Canada with settlers from England, the colony stood on opposites sides of many issues- including wars in Europe between their home countries. Different regions surfaced, including Acadia on the East Coast which was predominantly French, and Manitoba inland which was created by the fur trade.

These areas all had their own system of government or political parties. Further, at this young stage, the Canadian colonies were already spread over such a diverse area of lands that they held individualized resources and needs. This enhanced the tensions between each other.

It was finally in 1867- Yes, Canada is still so young in comparison- that the founding fathers of Canada created the Confederation. At the helm, was our first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald. Together, 4 provinces formed to become a major part of the Canada we know today. They were Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.

Manitoba, on the other hand, held off another 3 years before they finally joined the country at the same time as the Northwest Territories. From then on, it was a slow process of adding British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Yukon Territory, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and finally Newfoundland. They joined one at a time, dating as recently as 1949. In fact, recently, in 1999, a piece of the Northwest Territories separated itself and became Canada’s third territory, Nunavut. These 13 regions create the entirety of Canada.

The Celebration

Mounties raising the flag

It was July 1st, 1867 that Canada was born. We still celebrate the country’s birthday with the aptly named Canada Day each year. It is a national holiday with most people receiving an extra day off of work. Often this longer weekend is simply referred to ‘the July long’.

Children are usually recently out of school and families often take this time to travel out of town. Road trips, camping, and any outdoor experience are common. It is the official kick-off to our summer enjoyment.

My personal favourite Canada Day celebration happened up North in the village of Haines Junction, Yukon. The whole town came to be in or to watch a parade right down the main street. Their main street also happens to be a stretch of the Alaska Highway. Thus, this popular summer highway was barricaded and closed for the duration of the parade. Of course, in this village of ~500 people, a parade does not take very long. There was also a huge barbeque lunch serving hamburgers and hot dogs. It seemed that everyone attended.

Other common events include concerts, family-oriented events in parks, and fireworks at night. And, we cannot forget, everyone wears as much red and white and maple leafs as they can.


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The Royal Canadian Mounted Police

The 4-way stop courtesy

Aisha Ashraf, a British expat in Canada

June 29, 2012 Comments disabled