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date: 27 May 2017

The Middle Class in Argentina

Summary and Keywords

Since the mid-19th century, Argentine society has undergone significant demographic shifts. The expansion of capitalism and the growing complexity of the state apparatus increased the social importance of occupations that are usually considered to be part of the middle class, especially in the Pampas. There was a rapid increase in salaried labor and income distribution worsened significantly. A consumer society arose amid this climate and a good portion of the new trade opportunities rested in the hands of European immigrants, therein generating a complex panorama of both new and old forms of inequality. At the same time, various middle-class trades began to organize themselves in order to mobilize their specific demands. Nevertheless, they did not develop ties of solidarity between one another, nor a unified “middle class” identity. Such an identity would begin to form much later within the political sphere. Starting in 1919, politicians and intellectuals became concerned about the expansion of revolutionary ideas and labor activism, and in order to counteract this, they began to encourage pride in a middle class identity within the public sphere. The historical evidence suggests that from that time on, some members of the common people began to identify as middle class, thereby slowly transforming the perception of social difference that had up until that moment still been binary. A middle-class identity definitively took root after 1945 as a part of the political experience of the middle strata. Peronism, for its plebeian elements and for the social and symbolic space it granted the lower classes, posed a profound challenge to the concepts of hierarchy and respectability that had existed until then. This challenge paved the way for vast sectors to embrace a middle-class identity and to distinguish themselves from the pueblo peronista, as well as to assert their right to a central role within their country. In this context, the middle-class identity in Argentina assumed some characteristics unique to the region, weaving together narratives of nationhood that placed the middle class, the supposed descendants of European immigrants (the implication being “white”), in a place of preeminence as the champions of “civilization,” and therein, as enemies of Peronism and the cabecitas negras, or the “little black heads,” that supported him.

Keywords: middle class, Peronism, anti-Peronism, unionism, immigration, ethnicity

Origins of the Middle Class: Demographic Aspects

The intense socio-demographic change in Argentina after 1860 was one, but by no means not the only, condition that made the appearance of a middle class possible. The proposed integration of Argentina into the international market as a food supplier, the main focus during the period of national organization, produced a huge societal transformation, both in terms of ethnic composition and occupational structure. With the massive influx of immigrants (especially Europeans), between 1869 and 1895, the total population of the country grew from a little less than 1,800,000 inhabitants to almost four million; by 1914 the number had doubled once again, reaching more than eight million. That same year, almost one-third of the Argentine population (and half of those in Buenos Aires) were foreigners. The enormous economic transformations and the opening of the state apparatus translated into the appearance and expansion of a number of new work and economic opportunities that became apparent more or less between 1860 and 1930, years in which the number of residents in urban centers grew notably. Large numbers of people were required to complete a much broader range of tasks. Salaried workers grew the most, especially day and manual laborers, but the social groups that are today considered to be the “middle class” also grew. Among this group, the non-manual labor salaried workers—store clerks, secretaries, bank employees, telephone operators, foremen, managers, office boys, and the like—were the sectors that grew the most. For example, in 1869 there were at most twelve thousand retail employees and sales assistants in the entire country (almost seven of every one thousand inhabitants worked in one of these jobs); by 1914 the number had risen to more than ninety-five thousand (twelve for every one thousand inhabitants). The majority of these new positions were held by immigrants: in 1914, 52 percent of retail employees and sales assistants were foreigners. This kind of work, in turn, offered new employment opportunities for many women. While in 1869 a very small percentage of retail employees and store clerks were female, by 1914, the percentage had grown to almost 12 percent and that figure would continue to grow in the years that followed.1

Something similar happened with public employees. Approximately four of every one thousand inhabitants were employed in public administration in 1869; by 1914 the number had grown to almost fourteen per one thousand. Unlike the retail employees discussed above, by 1914 those born in the country were a significant majority of 82 percent. Women played a much smaller role: in 1914 they hardly made up less than 6 percent of all civil servants. Furthermore, the large growth of the education system required more teachers, professors, school administrators, tutors, and so on. These kinds of educators barely numbered 2,307 in the entire country in 1869, and by 1914 there were more than 31,000 (almost four for every one thousand inhabitants, while in the first date listed they numbered only one for every thousand). By the beginning of the 20th century, the large majority of these employees were Argentine and female.

Outside the sphere of salaried workers, other occupations and social categories also grew. The number of landowners in general increased continuously during the turn of the century: between 1895 and 1914 they grew from 103 landowners for every thousand inhabitants to 136 (a truly modest growth, taking into account the enormous expanses of land that were privatized during this period). In the region of the Pampas there was surprising agricultural development in the hands of a few small landowners and colonos, although the majority were chacareros, small farmers, without land of their own (the majority of them the descendants of immigrants). These tenants would gradually acquire properties beginning in the 1920s.

In the city, the immense urban development opened up new opportunities for trade and industry, which allowed for a significant number of small tradesmen and manufacturers to settle there. In 1869, approximately twenty-two of every one thousand inhabitants were occupied in commercial activities (fourteen of them identified as “merchants,” and therefore could be considered self-employed). In 1914 the numbers had grown to thirty-seven and twenty-one, respectively, for every one thousand. Expressed in absolute numbers, there were at that time more than 173,000 merchants in the entire country, of which almost 68 percent were foreigners (and less than 6 percent women); the vast majority were small- or medium-scale businesses. The industrial production also went through large-scale expansions. The 1895 census counted few more than twenty-two thousand establishments of all sizes. In 1914 the number had more than doubled: of the nearly forty-nine thousand establishments that were counted, close to nineteen thousand were for “non-manufacturing” industries: bakeries, cafes, tailors, laundries, custom shoe stores, hair dressers, non-mechanized carpenters and blacksmiths, printers, and so on. The overwhelming majority of these establishments were without doubt small- to medium-scale operations. As was the case with trade, these new business owners tended to be mostly foreigners. In the city there were also opportunities for freelance or contract work as tailors, chauffeurs, shoe menders, and tradesmen as well as for work inspired by the growing cultural industry represented by writers, journalists, actors, broadcasters, and others.

Finally, both the new state and private occupations required a growing number of university professionals. In 1869 there were only 439 lawyers, 458 doctors, 70 architects, and 194 engineers in the entire country; there were .65 professionals in these specialties for every one thousand inhabitants. By 1914 the ratio had grown remarkably, reaching 1.54 professionals for every one thousand inhabitants. In the following decades, the percentage would continue to grow. There was not an even distribution of native Argentines and immigrants within these professions. In 1914, while the majority of lawyers were Argentines, the architects were predominately immigrants; in the other two professions—doctors and engineers—the ratio of Argentines to immigrants was more evenly balanced. Professional women were still a rarity.

This intense process of occupational creation and expansion was accompanied by an extensive growth in salaried work. As a result, an increasingly large portion of the population shifted from doing independent or freelance work to positions as salaried dependents. With respect to the middle strata, the categories that best represent a growth in demographics and social status were neither professionals, nor small business owners, but rather salaried employees (bank, state, communications, education, and health employees, etc.) who made up more than half of the people that sociologists would consider the middle class by 1960 (while in 1869 they made up barely 3.4 percent of the total population).

Today, the common view (partially shared by the academic field as well) indicates that those years were characterized by a powerful movement toward upward mobility open to anyone and everyone. Nevertheless, the new opportunities—for both independent and salaried labor—were not enjoyed equally by everyone. As we have seen, the best work opportunities tended to remain in the hands of the immigrants. Even so, not all immigrants managed to rise in social status; in fact, many of those who held advantageous positions had held similar positions in their countries of origin, rather than being the poorest of immigrants.2 There were plenty of opportunities to climb the social ladder, especially in small steps (however, rising to the upper class for native Argentines and immigrants alike seems to have been easier in the middle of the 19th century than toward the end). When compared with the recently arrived immigrants, those born in Argentina were at a distinct disadvantage (and had the statistics differentiated between Argentines born of recent immigrants and those of Creole descent, the differences would have been even greater). There are no statistics that distinguish between phenotypes, but everything indicates that Creoles with darker skin were at the greatest disadvantage.

On the other hand, the demographics of the middle strata differed greatly according to geographic area. In general, their presence was much smaller in the regions that benefited the least from the development projects carried out by the elite. Table 1 demonstrates some of the notable differences between three very different situations: the area most benefited by those projects (the City of Buenos Aires), a most disadvantaged area (Catamarca), and a region with middling statistics (Córdoba):

The data in Table 1 indicate the number of individuals in each profession for every one thousand inhabitants for each district.

Table 1. The Demographics of Various Occupations and Activities in Different Regions of the Country, 1914.


National Average

City of Buenos Aires

Province of Cordoba

Province of Catamarca






Retail Employees or Sales Assistants





Public Employees










Some of the disadvantages in the provinces outside of Buenos Aires were accentuated rather than mitigated during those years.

Finally, in terms of the distribution of wealth or income, economic growth came on the back of a growing financial divide between the rich and the poor (not so much because the poor became poorer in absolute terms, but rather because the wealthy accumulated even more wealth at an accelerated rate which kept them above the average level of the population).3 It is calculated that by the mid-19th century the wealthiest inhabitants in the pampa regions enjoyed an income that was sixty-eight times greater than that of the poorest inhabitants. By 1910 this number had grown to an astonishing 933.4

Access to education, however, followed an inverse pattern, and was markedly democratized. In 1869, more than 78 percent of the population was illiterate, but by 1947, this statistic had shrunk to little more than 13 percent. High school education made large advances during this period and society became much more literate in general. At the beginning of the 20th century, specifically after the university reforms of 1918, there was a major increase in access to universities for those who did not belong to the elite, mainly in Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Santa Fe, and Entre Rios.

To summarize, during these years, new and formerly underdeveloped occupations grew, and along with them, the steps on the scale separating the poor from the wealthy multiplied. The demographic weight of the middle strata, especially salaried workers, grew markedly, offering thousands of people unheard of opportunities for upward mobility. It is unclear, however, whether or not these changes in occupational structures translated to a real shift in power relations toward greater equality and social balance. Simultaneously, a significantly greater portion of the population—including those in the middle strata—lost opportunities for independent work and became salaried employees. The range of income distribution became markedly regressive. Additionally, the new opportunities were distributed very unequally according to differences in ethnicity, geography, and gender.

Living Conditions and Organizational Strategies

Among the different sectors that would be considered middle class today and which grew in those years, the income levels, the working conditions, and the relative social status varied enormously. 5 In the first decades of the 20th century, objective living conditions were extremely heterogeneous, not only between occupations but also within each individual field. Many worked as salaried dependents while others worked independently and were employers. Some business owners, professionals, and officials had high incomes, while others, such as employees (and even owners) of small stores might earn salaries comparable to those of a manual worker. For professionals, the prestige of a diploma brought them closer to the world of the elite than the sordid environment of a neighborhood bar owner. Of the white collar workers, some worked for the state and others within the private sector; although they did not necessarily earn more, teachers enjoyed the respectable social status conferred by their vocation, while a white-collar office worker had to look for more “private” means to acquire respectability. There were few points of contact between the objective interests of a small farmer and the owner of a clothing store or a bank employee. For some, salary increases depended on extracting concessions from an employer, while for others, the key was to increase their business earnings, reduce their tax payments, and avoid unfair competition. From a strictly objective point of view, there is ultimately insufficient homogeneity to support the assertion that all of these occupations belonged to the same social class.

The organizational trajectories of each sector, in fact, had very few points of contact. Between the last few years of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century, the different sectors that would later come to be called “middle class” began to organize and form unions to defend their interests. University professionals were among the first. The doctors of the city of Buenos Aires inspired the first local associations in the mid-19thcentury and in 1891 they founded the Asociación Médica Argentina. The beginnings of this unionization had more to do with a need to control the administration and state regulation of the medical monopoly, than with group solidarity or strictly economic demands. The union’s demands for better salaries and limits on the matriculation of new doctors only began in the 1930s, led by new medical circles and colleges (which came together in 1941 to form the Federación Médica de la República Argentina). Other professions followed a roughly similar path, and starting in 1911 there were joint initiatives between various university graduates to demand specific state policies for this sector. Their demand tactics rarely went beyond petitioning the authorities, and there were no alliances of solidarity with other sectors within the middle strata.

Teachers began to unionize toward the beginning of the 20th century with much difficulty. One of the first important organizations was the Asociación de Maestros de la Provincia de Buenos Aires, founded in 1900 with mutual aid, educational, and union goals. They respectfully petitioned the authorities for measures that would ensure their job security, a pay scale (that is to say, pre-established steps and raises determined by position and seniority), teacher participation in the design of educational policy, and, occasionally, they protested low salaries. In several provinces similar movements were reported at the beginning of the 20th century. Among the various attempts, the most consistent effort to organize at the national level was the Confederación Nacional de Maestros, founded in the capital in 1916. Their concerns at the time included unemployment among teachers, low salaries, and the implementation of a pay scale, together with more strictly pedagogical matters. Their principal strategy was to petition authorities and to pressure legislators. In the first three decades there were only two teacher strikes (in 1919 and 1921) mobilized by local organizations. In the few cases that teachers sought alliances outside of their field they did so with the labor movement.

In the varied field of private sector employees, the most dynamic were the retail employees, who began to unionize in Buenos Aires in 1881, demanding Sundays off. The Federación Dependientes de Comercio was founded in 1903. It brought together associations of several provinces and during that period it organized the first significant strikes demanding Sunday holidays, eight hour shifts, a ban on workers younger than fourteen years old, and a ban on housing employees within the store buildings themselves as an “unhygienic and immoral” practice. In 1919, as part of an important wave of strikes, the powerful Federación de Empleados de Comercio was created and was at once the main union for retail employees, which soon after came to be led by socialists. From the beginning and during all of those years, retail employees distinctly identified as the “proletariat” and played a fundamental role in the development of the labor movement. In fact, most likely under the influence of anarchists and socialists, from very early on the union tradition in Argentina was made up of organizations specific to both laborers and white collar within each industry, such as the Federación de Obreros y Empleados Ferroviarios, the Federación de Obreros y Empleados Telefónicos, and others, which tended to be dominated by manual laborers. Additionally, the first union federations, such as the FOA (later the FORA) founded in 1901, was open to “all salaried workers” (excluding those who worked in liberal professions) and included among their adherents some unions exclusively made up of white collar, a characteristic of Argentine unions that has continued into the present day.

Other trade unions followed different trajectories. Bank employees, for example, began to organize themselves in 1912 and demanded the creation of a pension fund. In 1919, taking up this demand and adding job security to their list, they launched what would be the first bank strike within the country. In 1921 they created the Asociación Bancaria (AB), the main trade union within the field even today. At that time, union activity included the creation of mutual benefits for employees (among others, medical visits and further course-based education and training), recreational activities such as dances and picnics, plans for the creation of a vacation site, a fight for job security, and the implementation of a pay scale. They organized public rallies and put pressure on parliament. During this period, the AB maintained few ties of solidarity with the labor unions and did not affiliate with the Confederación General del Trabajo (General Confederation of Labor or CGT) (they would do this much later). The identities put into play during this era were ambiguous: in some of their public texts at the end of the 1920s, bank employees identified as being part of the “middle class.” But in the proclamations and later documents they generally identified as “workers.” The higher-class public employees followed a similar trajectory and unionized in the Liga de Empleados Civiles Nacionales, who also identified as “middle class,” at least on one occasion in 1931. (Lower-class state employees, on the contrary, identified with the Asociación Trabajadores del Estado (ATE), founded in 1925, as a labor group affiliated with the CGT, from 1931 onward)

The sector of small urban business owners was also very heterogeneous. Among the first to unionize were the grocers, who founded the Centro de Almaceneros de Buenos Aires (CA) in 1892. In the following years, other cities followed suite and by 1937 the Federación Argentina de Centros de Almaceneros had been created. From early on, the grocers proved to be intensely active campaigners, with a surprising variety of strategic alliances and tactics for exerting pressure. In the first years, their demands were limited almost exclusively to the reduction of taxes on trade. What was probably the first significant tradesmen strike and protest in Argentina took place in June of 1899. Protesting high taxes, the business owners of Buenos Aires and various provinces around the country, including grocers and the CA, closed their doors and took to the streets. In 1909 similar protests occurred in Cordoba and in Rosario, where the business owners received the active support of the labor movement. Their tactics and demands changed in the decades that followed, as the main concerns of the movement shifted from taxes to focus on unfair competition from large chain stores and the adverse effects of state policies which lowered prices and extended workers’ rights. Additionally, the grocers mobilized some remarkable electoral activism together with the leadership of other occupational sectors, such as the Comité del Comercio Minorista, which had three council members in the Buenos Aires elections of 1897, and the Unión de Contribuyentes (1928–1942), which also won thousands of votes and a few seats among council members in the Buenos Aires City legislature. In the 1920s and 30s, there was also a genuine movement toward unionization between grocers and small business owners from different sectors, from bars and coal yards to butchers and hair dressers. When it came time to present themselves publically, shopkeepers envisioned a society divided in two—employers and employees—and without a doubt they identified as part of the “employing class” (even when they sometimes had to contend with the proprietors of chain stores). In contrast, other organizations of proprietors preferred to identify themselves as part of the “working people” (as was the case with the organizations of butchers and bus owners).

With respect to rural producers, there were regional organizations that had been organizing since the late 19th century. Founded in 1912 in Santa Fe as a part of a large wave of strikes among chacareros against the abuses of landowners, the Federación Agraria Argentina (FAA) managed to spread nationwide. After its founding and until the 1930s, the FAA expanded throughout a good part of the country and was responsible for other waves of strikes, but later, as farmers became landowners, they abandoned this tactic. With respect to the identities in play, the FAA presented itself as part of the “people” and, fundamentally, as a representative of the “farming class.” The only tie of solidarity that linked the FAA to the urban sectors came in 1920, for a short period with the labor movement.

In summary, the trajectories of unionization of the various sectors that are usually considered middle class reveal that there were no extensive networks of solidarity that tied them to one another, nor did they embrace broad identities (such as “middle class”) that could unify them. In fact, with the exception of the initial stages of unionization among bank workers and higher ranking civil servants, there were no signs that they felt fundamentally “middle class” at all. On the contrary, many signs point in the opposite direction—that is to say, toward a lack of solidary within the middle strata and a convergence with other classes—both in terms of strategic alliances with other social sectors and in the methods they employed to mobilize their demands as well as their identities. On one hand, several of the unions associated themselves with the labor movement and with their strike tactics, and even adopted a “labor” identity that diluted any social distinction that could exist between them (for example, retail employees or the low-ranking civil servants of ATE). The gravitation of the powerful Argentine union movement and the ideas of the left were fundamental in this orientation. On the other hand, for other organizations it was clear that their interests were generally identified with the employing class (for example the grocers), or that they had specific characteristics that made it unnecessary or inconvenient to associate with other sectors (like the professionals). It is important to clarify that these conclusions do not refer to the identity or to the sense of solidarity between the middle strata in general, but rather exclusively in relation to the specific context of their association with union defense goals. They can tell us nothing about how a medic, a chacarero, or a bank employee might have identified on a personal level or outside of this context.

Political and Subjective Aspects

Beyond the differences that existed between the unions, and parallel to the demographic and occupational changes already outlined, money and “culture” acquired a place of privilege as indicators of social status, rendering other criterion which had formerly been considered to be more important irrelevant, such as being “known” within the highest social circles or belonging to a family with patrician ties. It’s not that these criteria were replaced by money and “culture”; rather it was a subtle shift between the relative social importance of each one. Toward the end of the 19th century, a true “consumer society” rapidly formed in the most affluent areas of the country. Advertising connected widely marketed products with specific “lifestyles” and for many, shopping gained crucial importance as a means of distinction. The mass phenomenon of fashion appeared, which now not only involved elite consumers, but also began to establish trends among even lower social classes.6 With the turn of the century, the consumption of cultural goods, certain services, and the use of leisure time were all indicators of social rank. The same applied to housing and the management of certain “cultural” standards (which ranged from specific knowledge, to the way people carried their bodies and presented themselves in public).

The differential access to work opportunities, opportunities for consumption, and the new standards of distinction that the urban space offered created visible differences between the inhabitants that did not belong to the most affluent classes. It is unclear that these differences delineated obvious class boundaries, however. Numerous indicators show that there was a clear sense of social hierarchy among the middle strata: a professional was perceived (and felt) incomparably superior to a shopkeeper; a civil servant thought himself above any other wage-earning profession; a bank employee enjoyed greater social esteem than a retail employee; and at the same time there were retail employees who were considered to be superior to many with similar jobs, such as store clerks. And all of them, naturally, saw themselves as superior to manual laborers (and obviously they also understood very well that they did not belong to high society). The evidence suggests that this sense of hierarchy was more like a continuous gradient, a social ladder on which it was not clear that there was a border that divided the common people into a “lower” and a “middle” class.

When it came to distinguishing social classes, the typical binary image of the previous century predominated among the elites, which contrasted a “ruling,” “cultured,” or “decent” class on one hand, with a “plebian,” “working class,” or simply a “mob” on the other. It is not that they did not recognize that there were people that did not fit within either of those two categories. By the beginning of the 20th century it was already clear that Argentine society had ceased to be clearly divisible into two perfectly separated classes, but the intermediate space between the upper class and the poorest of the poor was unstable and mobile enough to be considered a separate class in its own right. When seen from the perspective of an elite man, a resident of this intermediate sector could be a “cousin” of a well-off family fallen into disgrace or a guarango, an uncouth person from the lower class with social pretensions. From the point of view of the working class, someone who climbed the social ladder could appear—as has been expressed in numerous tango lyrics—to be an engrupido, a smooth-talker, seeking to set himself apart from the rest of the working class. In any case, both could be considered as cases of individuals who were socially “out of place.” And if they were socially out of place, then it made little sense to consider them a new class (that is to say, to give them their own space within the social hierarchy). Moreover, as a recent study has pointed out, “populist” visions predominated in the first half of the century in mass culture which envisioned a “people” en masse, set against the world of the rich and powerful.7 What’s more, the very term “middle class” was used very infrequently before the 1920s and it is possible that its meaning was not well known outside the sphere of intellectuals and politicians. Up until the beginning of the 1940s, the main essays describing Argentine society did not indicate its presence, and in fact, some intellectuals would argue that there was still no middle class in Argentina.

A tripartite image of society—and with it the notion that there is an existent “Argentine middle class”—was only introduced into the national culture beginning in 1919, and was done so through the political sphere. Indeed, it was a group of intellectuals, politicians, and academics all concerned with the future of the country who put this expression into circulation, adopting it from discussions taking place throughout Europe. The first moment it began to be publically circulated outside of strictly academic settings was in 1919, during the height of labor activism, and a year which opened with a people’s uprising of unheard proportions in Buenos Aires, remembered as the “Semana Trágica,” the tragic week. After the bloodbath that put an end to it, the waves of strikes continued for several months, involving various non-labor groups. Teachers from Mendoza made a general strike and marched elbow to elbow with the workers singing The Internationale. Actors, chacareros, telephone operators, store and bank employees from numerous localities also mobilized. Even high-school students from Buenos Aires and other cities declared a strike and marched in the streets hoisting red banners. In this context, fearing the spread of revolutionary ideas among these sectors, liberal-progressive politicians such as Joaquín V. González as well as politicians on the extreme right, such as Manuel Carlés launched the first public appeals to a “middle class.” As is clear from their speeches and newspaper articles, they hoped to instill a sense of class superiority among white collar employees, as a means of detaching them from the labor movement’s demands. Soon after, liberal and conservative political forces, newspaper columnists, and some catholic social militants began to allude to a “middle class” and their problems, almost always with the same “counterinsurgent” intentions (that is to say, thinking of ways to contain the revolutionary tendencies of the labor movement). Contrary to the usual public perception, the Unión Cívica Radical always maintained a “people’s party” identity and was only marginally concerned with the “middle class.”

It’s difficult to evaluate to what extent these ideas and appeals influenced the self-perception of the common people. As has already been mentioned, there are many indicators that even at the beginning of the 1940s it was still not clear for many people in the country if a middle class existed, and that the use of this expression was still very limited. In any case, there were signs that after 1920 a path to a middle class identity slowly began to open up, although it was still on shaky ground. The appearance of characters explicitly identified as such in theater, in literature, and in commercials after that year were a sort of indirect proof that at least some people identified as middle class.8 Recent works have proposed the hypothesis that women may have played a particularly active role in adopting a “middle class” identity.9

“Middle Class” as Identity: The Peronist Era

A specifically middle-class identity expanded and took root after 1945, due to the experiences of the middle class after the emergence of Peronism. There are indicators that during this period, a broad portion of the population adopted the identity as their own and that reference to a “middle class” acquired specifically local and emotionally powerful connotations.

During the Peron years, the protagonism of blatant and occasionally insolent plebs, and the means by which they obtained their new prerogatives, profoundly irritated even those that had nothing to lose from a strictly economic perspective. In addition to intense political opposition, a broad anti-Peronist social reaction took shape starting in 1945 and grew stronger over the years that followed. Its central motivation was to restore the hierarchies that had always placed the educated, “decent,” propertied, perceived as having “European” features, in a superior place, recognizing them with some social preeminence, even if it was minimal. This desire created a common ground for people of diverse social backgrounds and political orientations to come together. This hierarchical reaction brought the wealthy together with people of modest financial means, business owners with employees, aristocratic families with immigrants, distinguished intellectuals with tradesmen of limited education. Radicals, liberals, conservatives, Catholics, progressive democrats, nationalists, socialists and even many communists: all of them had suddenly come together with at least one common goal, to somehow restrain the Peronist outpouring.

The confluence of all of these sectors and political orientations was unheard of in Argentine history. One of the effects of the formation of this new social bonding centered around the rejection of Peronism was that the line of separation between those who were perceived as “decent” people (even if of modest incomes) and those who were not became much more explicit and fixed than it had been before. Just as the government sought to establish a different confluence of classes placing the worker first, an eagerness to distinguish oneself from the masses was, for many, more pressing than ever. In the cultural sphere, this relationship became noticeable in the growth in open expressions of racism—directed against the so-called cabecitas negras or “little black heads” who supported Perón—and in the persistent and prevailing denouncements of “ignorance” and “immorality” that all anti-Peronists participated in to some extent.

The unexpected defeat in 1946 was genuinely traumatic for the anti-Peronists. Before, they had been convinced that Perón was only supported by a handful of undesirables who did not represent the true Argentine people. But after the elections they were forced to recognize that the nation was divided in two. This recognition pushed them, from that moment onward, to employ more extensive strategies to defeat the social and political movements animated by the lower classes. And it was within these debates and strategies focused on the best manner to confront Peronism that a renewed interest in the middle class arose. Politicians and intellectuals proposed to foster pride in a middle class identity as a means of carving out a part of the population that could offer mass support to counter the undeniable working-class backing of Peronism. Although they were not the only ones to do so, the group that most contributed to spreading and making the middle class identity attractive in these years were the Catholic militants (especially Acción Católica) from the beginning of the confrontation between Perón and the Catholic Church in the early 1950s. They made the most of the possibilities suggested years before by several politicians and intellectuals. Indeed, they worked tirelessly to appeal to the middle class through their newspapers, sermons, conferences, and in their “Social Weeks.” The middle-class identity, encouraged by the Catholic Church, presented itself proudly as a guardian of “morality” and a bastion of democracy, which helped the church to resist government attacks, transforming it for the moment into a true magnet which attracted the majority of the anti-Peronistas between 1954 and 1955.

A similar interest created an audience especially predisposed to appreciate the works of some academics such as Gino Germani and José Luis Romero. These authors offered “scientific evidence” affirming the idea that the people were divided into a “middle class” and a “lower class,” and that the time had come for the former to assume a leadership role. The interpretation of Argentine history as a process of social modernization and integration vigorously driven by European immigrants but marked by a few fleeting moments of turmoil in the incorporation of the “masses,” implicitly asserted that a “modern” and “normal” country had a strong middle class and exercised political rights in accordance with the principles of liberal democracy. Inversely, in these historical narratives, the origin of the problems in Argentina are situated within the lower class and Creole (mestizo and or “traditional”) masses, still poorly integrated, whose contemporary expression was Peronism. Backed by the authority of a “scientific” truth and disseminated through universities and schools, the mode in which Germani and Romero depicted the Argentine past and present would be enormously influential in the configuration of a national identity, and subsequently, the identity of the middle class. Their accounts of the past would supply the middle class with a sense of a historical purpose, political orientation, and a pride for their starring role in the progress and democratization of the country. Moreover, the statistics put forth by Germani beginning in 1942 proposed not only that the middle class was one of the main groups within Argentine society—a new concept for the time—but also that it was demographically significant, close to half of the population.

Apart from the world of politicians and intellectuals, broad sectors of the population at that time had excellent motivations to be receptive to these kinds of messages. Identifying with the middle class made sense for everyone who had felt in some sense imposed upon by the Peronist masses or offended by the government speeches that situated the worker as the “ideal Argentine.” The identity of the middle class, with its implicit assumptions—decency, culture, and “whiteness” (which was made clear through an insistence on immigrant and not Creole origins)—permitted them to distinguish themselves from the mass of Peron’s followers. At the same time, the middle-class identity helped them to avoid the label of “anti-patriotic oligarchy” with which the leader hoped to brand all who opposed him. As members of a middle class that was considered fundamental for the progress of the country, no one could deny them consideration as part of the Argentine nation in their own right.

Thus, in accordance with the specific context from which it arose, the identity of the middle class in Argentina acquired distinctive characteristics. The feelings associated with the middle class had points of comparison with those found in other countries: a certain financial position, the prestige associated with not performing manual labor, ideals of an “ordered” and decent life, concepts of “culture” and merit and the idea that they represented a “balanced middle” politically speaking. But to all this the Argentine middle class added other characteristics specific to its local context. The identity of the middle class acquired specific racial and political connotations in its origins: the middle class was by default considered to be white and anti-Peronist (although there were of course many people within the middle strata who were Peronists and who had non-European features)10.

Discussion of the Literature

The first research into the history of the middle class in Argentina was initiated in the 1940s in the field of sociology. In line with international approaches to this discipline, Gino Germani offered an a priori definition of its demographics, grouping together all of the occupational categories that did not belong to the lower classes (defined by manual labor) or the elite. At the same time, he proposed a historical narrative that turned on the concept of “modernization.” Thus, Germani was the first to group the census data into a tripartite class system in order to affirm that after 1869, Argentina quickly shifted from being a typically “traditional” society with a small upper class and an overwhelming majority in the lower classes, into a “modern” society characterized by the presence of a powerful middle class. By 1914, according to the sociologist, more than 30 percent of the Argentine population were middle class, a percentage that would expand to 44.5 percent in 1960. Its growth, the result of overwhelming social ascension, was the fundamental driving force behind the political democratization and the cultural modernization that transformed Argentina into a more “essentially egalitarian” society (and thereby similar to the developed northern nations and different from the majority of Latin American countries).11

Much later, historians became interested in the middle strata (there are few distinguished works prior to the 1990s). Since then, valuable research has accumulated taking different perspectives on the lives and interactions of the middle strata (immigration, voluntary associations, leisure time, family, cultural consumption, and the shifting role of women in society, etc.).12 Nevertheless, these specific approaches did not take up the most general question regarding the formation of a middle class, and accepted the schema set down by Germani as essentially valid. With respect to analytical and methodological frameworks, “the middle class” continued to be a residual a priori category.

In the last years of the first decade of the 2000s, in line with a renewal of research into the middle class on an international level that had grown out of the mid-1990s, some historians proposed alternative approaches.13 On one hand, they argue that the existence of a middle class cannot be proved from abstract schemas, as Germani had attempted, but rather that it should be the object of an empirical demonstration that manages to prove not only that there are a set of specific characteristics shared by a group of people, but also that this group of people identified themselves as a more or less homogenous group situated between an upper and lower class. Instead of assuming the a priori existence of a middle class and then studying their standards of behavior, these works sought to understand the sociopolitical and discursive processes through which a “middle class” was made within a specific context. These works called Germani’s historical account into question in terms of its ideological character, specifically the sense of social and “racial” superiority implicit in a narrative of “modernization” which situated the population with European origins as the protagonists, the middle strata in particular. With respect to more recent periods, these perspectives have also attacked “objectivist” approaches, calling attention to the relationship between political conflicts and the ideas about what the middle class is (or should be) and its place within the nation. These new historiographical perspectives have drawn from similar movements of theoretical and methodological renovation within the fields of anthropology and sociology.14 Not all historians, however, have taken up these new approaches. On the contrary, some in the local historiographical field continue to produce works based in objectivist approaches following the model set out by Germani.15

Primary Sources

The middle class as an object of study involves sources of all kinds, present in general reference repositories, archives, libraries, and newspaper archives. It is worth mentioning two kinds of sources that are difficult to access.

The sources connected to the life of each of the middle strata unions are very scattered. The best (and at times the only) collections are not general repositories, but rather held within the unions themselves. The professional unions and the unions of small rural producers are the most robust. The most difficult to access are those that correspond to the unions of small business owners, which are privately owned or housed with organizations that are difficult to access throughout the country (one of the best collections is in the Liga de Almaceneros, Autoservicistas Minoristas y Anexos in the city of Buenos Aires). The employee unions are also particularly difficult to document, especially in their early years (except for the bankers who have preserved excellent collections in the libraries of the Central Bank of the Republic of Argentina). These organizations generally have incomplete collections; one of the most extensive repositories is the CeDInCI.

There are some surveys of self-perception and values of the middle strata as far back as the 1960s. Although the results have been described in scientific articles and in the press, some of the raw data is still available to be reinterpreted. The oldest can be found today in the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research. Other early relevant collections can be found in the Colecciones Especiales y Archivos section of the library of the University of San Andrés and the Gino Germani Research Institute at the University of Buenos Aires.

Further Reading

Aboy, Rosa. “Departamentos para las clases medias: organizaciones espaciales y prácticas de domesticidad en Buenos Aires, 1930.” Estudios Interdisciplinarios de América Latina y el Caribe 25.2 (2014): 31–58.Find this resource:

Adamovsky, Ezequiel. Historia de la clase media argentina: Apogeo y decadencia de una ilusión, 1919–2003. 7th rev. ed. Buenos Aires: Booket/Planeta, 2015.Find this resource:

Adamovsky, Ezequiel, and Valeria Arza. “Para una historia del concepto de ‘clase media’: un modelo cuantitativo aplicado a la revista Caras y Caretas, 1898–1939 (y algunas consideraciones para el debate).” Desarrollo Económico 51.204 (2012): 445–473.Find this resource:

Cosse, Isabella, ed. “Dossier: Clases medias, sociedad y política en la América Latina contemporánea.” Contemporánea (Montevideo) 5 (2014): 13–104.Find this resource:

Elena, Eduardo. Dignifying Argentina: Peronism, Citizenship, and Mass Consumption. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Garguin, Enrique. “‘Los argentinos descendemos de los barcos.’ The Racial Articulation of Middle-Class Identity in Argentina (1920-1960).” Latin American & Caribbean Ethnic Studies 2.2 (2007): 161–184.Find this resource:

Garguin, Enrique. “Intersecciones entre clase y género en la construcción social del magisterio: La Asociación de Maestros de la Provincia de Buenos Aires durante las primeras décadas del siglo XX.” In Clases medias: nuevos enfoques desde la sociología, la historia y la antropología. Edited by Ezequiel Adamovsky, Sergio E. Visacovsky, and Patricia Beatriz Vargas, 167–191. Buenos Aires: Ariel, 2014.Find this resource:

Heiman, Rachel, Carla Freeman, and Mark Liechty, eds. The Global Middle Classes: Theorizing Through Ethnography. Santa Fe, NM: School of Advanced Research Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Karush, Matthew. Culture of Class: Radio and Cinema in the Making of a Divided Argentina, 1920–1946. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

López, A. Ricardo, and Barbara Weinstein, eds. The Making of the Middle Class: Toward a Transnational History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Míguez, Eduardo. “Familias de clase media: la formación de un modelo.” In Historia de la vida privada en Argentina. Edited by Fernando Devoto and Marta Madero, 21–45. Buenos Aires: Taurus, 1999.Find this resource:

Milanesio, Natalia. Workers Go Shopping in Argentina: The Rise of Popular Consumer Culture. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Pérez, Inés. El hogar tecnificado: familias, género y vida cotidiana 1940–1970. Buenos Aires: Biblos, 2012.Find this resource:

Reina, Rubén E. Paraná: Social Boundaries in an Argentine City. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973.Find this resource:

Tevik, Jon. Porteñologics: El significado del gusto y la moralidad en la clase media profesional porteña. Buenos Aires: Antropofagia, 2006.Find this resource:

Ubelaker Andrade, Lisa. “La revista más leída del undo. Selecciones del Reader's Digest y culturas de clase media, 1940–1960.” Contemporánea (Montevideo) 5 (2014): 21–42.Find this resource:

Visacovsky, Sergio, and Enrique Garguin, eds. Moralidades, economías e identidades de clase media: estudios históricos y etnográficos. Buenos Aires: Antropofagia, 2009.Find this resource:


(1.) Ezequiel Adamovsky, Historia de la clase media argentina: Apogeo y decadencia de una ilusión, 1919–2003, 7th rev. ed. (Buenos Aires: Booket/Planeta, 2015), 40–53. Unless indicated otherwise, the rest of the citations from this section are from this source.

(2.) See Mariela G. Ceva, “Movilidad social y movilidad espacial en tres grupos de inmigrantes durante el período de entreguerras: un análisis a partir de los archivos de fábrica.” Estudios Migratorios Latinoamericanos 19 (1991): 345–361; María Liliana Da Orden, Inmigración española, familia y movilidad social en la Argentina moderna: una mirada desde Mar del Plata (1890–1930) (Buenos Aires: Biblos, 2005); Mark D. Szuchman, Mobility and Integration in Urban Argentina: Córdoba in the Liberal Era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980), 176.

(3.) See Jorge Gelman and Daniel Santilli, De Rivadavia a Rosas: desigualdad y crecimiento económico (Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno, 2006).

(4.) Roy Hora, “La evolución de la desigualdad en la Argentina del siglo XIX: una agenda en construcción.” Desarrollo Económico 187 (2007): 487–501.

(5.) The statistics for this section come from Adamovsky, Historia de la clase media argentina, 123–178.

(6.) Fernando Rocchi, “Consumir es un placer: la industria y la expansión de la demanda en Buenos Aires a la vuelta del siglo pasado,” Desarrollo Económico 148 (1998): 533–558; Susana Saulquin, La moda en Argentina (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1990).

(7.) Matthew Karush, Culture of Class: Radio and Cinema in the Making of a Divided Argentina, 1920–1946 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).

(8.) The information on predominating views of society, political appeals, and their initial reception comes from Adamovsky, Historia de la clase media argentina, 22–28 and 179–236.

(9.) Enrique Garguin, “Intersecciones entre clase y género en la construcción social del magisterio: La Asociación de Maestros de la Provincia de Buenos Aires durante las primeras décadas del siglo XX,” in Clases medias: nuevos enfoques desde la sociología, la historia y la antropología, ed. Ezequiel Adamovsky, Sergio E. Visacovsky, and Patricia Beatriz Vargas, 167–191 (Buenos Aires: Ariel, 2014).

(10.) The information from this section comes from Adamovsky, Historia de la clase media argentina, 243–372; Enrique Garguin, “‘Los argentinos descendemos de los barcos’. The Racial Articulation of Middle-Class Identity in Argentina (1920–1960),” Latin American & Caribbean Ethnic Studies 2.2 (2007): 161–184.

(11.) Gino Germani, “La estratificación social y su evolución histórica en Argentina,” in Argentina conflictiva, ed. Juan Marsal, 86–113 (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1972).

(12.) Examples (but not an exhaustive list) are: Fernando Devoto and Eduardo Míguez, eds., Asociacionismo, trabajo e identidad étnica: los italianos en América Latina en una perspectiva comparada (Buenos Aires: CEMLA, 1992); Eduardo Míguez, “Familias de clase media: la formación de un modelo,” in Historia de la vida privada en Argentina, ed. Fernando Devoto and Marta Madero, 21–45 (Buenos Aires: Taurus, 1999); Rocchi, “Consumir es un placer”; Ricardo González Leandri, “La nueva identidad de los sectores populares,” in Nueva historia argentina, 10 vols., 7: 201–238 (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 2000–2002); Roberto Di Stefano et al., De las cofradías a las organizaciones de la sociedad civil: Historia de la iniciativa asociativa en Argentina 1776–1990 (Buenos Aires: Edilab/Gadis, 2002).

(13.) The principal works of this Latin American renewal are Brian P. Owensby, Intimate Ironies: Modernity and the Making of Middle-Class Lives in Brazil (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999); David S. Parker, The Idea of the Middle Class: White-Collar Workers and Peruvian Society, 1900–1950 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998); George I. García Quesada, Formación de la clase media en Costa Rica: economía, sociabilidad y discursos políticos (1890–1950) (San José, Costa Rica: Arlekin, 2014); Louise E. Walker, Waking from the Dream: Mexico’s Middle Classes after 1968 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013); A. Ricardo López and Barbara Weinstein, eds. The Making of the Middle Class: Toward a Transnational History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012). For works that refer specifically to Argentina see the next footnote.

(14.) A sampling of these new perspectives see Adamovsky, Historia de la clase media argentina; Enrique Garguin: “Los argentinos descendemos”; Sergio Visacovsky and Enrique Garguin, eds., Moralidades, economías e identidades de clase media: estudios históricos y etnográficos (Buenos Aires: Antropofagia, 2009); Rosa Aboy, “Departamentos para las clases medias: organizaciones espaciales y prácticas de domesticidad en Buenos Aires, 1930.” Estudios Interdisciplinarios de América Latina y el Caribe 25.2 (2014): 31–58; Isabella Cosse, Mafalda: historia social y política (Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2014); Ezequiel Adamovsky, Sergio Visacovsky, and Patricia Vargas, eds., Clases medias: Nuevos enfoques desde la sociología, la historia y la antropología (Buenos Aires: Ariel, 2014).

(15.) See, for example, Roy Hora and Leandro Losada, “Clases altas y medias en la Argentina, 1880–1930: notas para una agenda de investigación,” Desarrollo Económico 200 (2011): 611–630.