Gender Identity in Life Histories:
Bulgarian and Spanish Women in Comodoro Rivadavia

By María José Garrido and María Laura Olivares

First Generation
Second Generation
Notes and Bibliography



  Argentina's economic and political conditions from the end of the 19th until the middle of the 20th century attracted migratory waves from different parts of the world. An expanding economy, a high demand for labor force, and the government's receptive attitude towards immigrants were the main contributing factors for this immigration. The three principal immigration groups, in descending order with respect to number were the Italians, the Spanish and Eastern Europeans. Most of this immigration occurred between 1870 and 1920. After this, immigration decreased due to the legal restrictions of the 1930 ‘s and the effects of World War I and World War II.

  Due to the discovery of petroleum in 1907 in Comodoro Rivadavia, located in Patagonia, Argentina, there was a great demand for male workers in this region. Companies such as YPF, the national petroleum company, as well as Petroquímica, Astra, and Diadema created company towns near the city of Comodoro Rivadavia, making petroleum the most important business in this region until the end of the 20th century. 

  Since the establishment of these companies European immigrants formed the majority of the working population. This trend continued in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s resulting in the creation of an ethnically diverse community. One of the unique traits of this area is that it attracted more Spaniards while in other regions of Argentina Italians were in the majority.   In addition, there were significant groups of Eastern Europeans, namely  Bulgarians Czechs, Croatians, and other nationalities. Due to the demands of the labor market, the majority of the immigration population of Comodoro was comprised of men. In this context, the study of gender identities is a significant topic. Of special interest is the study of the often overlooked world of  immigrant women and the changing processes of their lives in this region, which developed around the oil industry --a male-dominated activity. 

  This work deals with the construction of gender among Spanish and Bulgarian female immigrants who came to Comodoro in the 30, 40’s and 50’s and takes into account generational differences. It does not take into account other elements that are considered important in the construction of gender identity such as class, the relationship between genders, political activity, etc., because they are beyond the scope of this paper.  We have used oral interviews about life histories as the basis for our work and have treated them as culturally determined constructions of self-representation and narratives available to the memory of the narrators. (1) These interviews were conducted by students and faculty of Dickinson College and the National University of Patagonia "San Juan Bosco" during January of 2001, as part of the Patagonia Mosaic Program.

  What the women interviewed express in their stories about themselves allows us to observe their self-representation and the construction of gender identity.  This can be understood as a dynamic process in which social models that define the different roles, attitudes, and values ascribed to each gender come into play. Life experiences as well as different positions occupied at different moments in time with relation to the workplace or family life also contribute to this construction. (2)

  Therefore the migratory experience as a life experience is also a factor that influences the construction of these women's identities.  For this reason, we selected the life stories of six women who immigrated to Argentina between the 1930’s and 1950’s who belong to two different generations. Francisca S. and Carmen A., Spaniards, and Maria M., a Bulgarian represent the first generation; they came to Argentina after the age of 18. The second generation considered in this work are women who were born in another country and came to Argentina as very young children (around four or five years old) and were raised there: Maria S. and  Esperanza M. both born in Spain. The only exception is Violeta U., who though born in Argentina to Bulgarian parents, grew up with the strong influence of her parents’ culture and even learned Bulgarian before she learned Spanish.

  We will include a brief analysis of how the native cultures of the first generation assign the roles to each gender in different manners: in official discourse, laws, and the ways the interviewed women see themselves. The first generation gave new meaning to these roles in their receiving society through different social and individual strategies. The second generation was influenced not only by the receiving society but also by the process lived by the first generation.


First generation

  The first generation reflects a traditional subordination to the male social structure in which the spaces in which women were able to act were generally limited to the family and the home. Here the roles of mother, wife, or daughter take precedence over personal autonomy of action or decision.

  These are some quotes that indicate the household chores that occupied the time of the women interviewed and with which they identified.

  For example, Carmen A. said:

        Me in the house and the children at school studying. Me in the
        kitchen  washing the clothes or preparing dinner for when them come and
        each one doing his own thing.

  Similarly, when Francisca S. was asked if her husband would talk about work at home, she replied:

        He got along well with his coworkers .He never said anything and I never had
        anything to say.  It was a close knit company, everyone did his own work and did
        it well and us women we were always in the house.

  The roles of wife and mother were what determined their activity within the house and were what they had to conform to.

  These women immigrated not because of personal agency but rather as part of a family decision that was beneficial to all. One example of this social model is that Spanish law forbade women from leaving the country without their husband or father's permission or company. (3)

  Nevertheless, these social models that the women brought were used as strategies to confront the new conditions in their receiving society. This is due to the fact that the migratory experience is a complex and dynamic process that begins in the place of origin and that does not  end upon arrival in the new country but rather is a continual process of adaptation in which there are continuities and ruptures with the society of origin. (4)

  One of the strategies of adaptation is the construction of ethnicity. In other words, ethnicity is a dynamic cultural construction possible only in relation to others. The immigrants invent it over and over again as a way of confronting the challenges of the receiving society. (5) This manifests itself in the pre-existing social networks made up by members of the same family or paisanos from the same village who had migrated to the place earlier and helped the new immigrants establish themselves. For example, when Carmen A. was asked why her parents decided to immigrate, she responded that they had some brothers there that called for them.

  The existence of social networks is also evident in the choice of spouse. Carmen A. said that her husband was Spanish and was even from the same part of Spain as she, Andalucía.  When asked how they met she said she met him at the house of some Spanish friends in Comodoro Rivadavia.

  As we mentioned previously, gender identity changed meaning and changed according to the situation in which they lived. How is this observed in the case of these women?

   Women of the first generation experienced a type of break with the native society because none of them had worked outside of the home prior to migrating.  Nevertheless, in addition to their household responsibilities, they began activities that helped to sustain the economic well being of the family.

  When asked about her work experience, Francisca S. replied: " Well I did well because I began sewing. I sawed pants for a tailor. I sawed women's clothes, and I was busy because thank God if one does not think  a lot, we pass the time."

  María M. said of her job experience, “I planted all of the fruit trees and when I had something I would grab my car and go out and sell it, here, there and everywhere and everyone got to know me.”

  We see that these women maintained an activity to supplement the family income.  These women did show a certain autonomy when it came to initiating an activity to earn money. 

  They also show autonomy in their desire to remain in Argentina despite the suggestions or proposals of their husbands to return to the countries of their origin. They saw themselves as foreigners who maintained their Spanish or Bulgarian citizenship respectively but felt that they had adapted to their receiving society and that their lives and expectations were complete with respect to what was relevant to them.

  These expectations  are illustrated in this quote from Carmen A.:

        I was able to provide for the education of three children and later after the
        married and married well, they had kids and nice homes and I am happy for
        this. I can ask for nothing more, for me everything is fine.

  Esperanza M. said:

        We came to Argentina and I left behind a lot of things but I am proud of my
        daughters and my grandchildren and my sons-in-law who are the most
        important things in the world to me. And anyway, what are you going to do.

  Therefore, these immigrant women brought with them models of behavior that determined their gender identity or, in other words, the roles that they should fulfill as women: mother or wife. These roles were related to the family and subordinated personal autonomy of action and decision.  Their social models are helpful strategies for confronting the receptive society during the process of immigration. However, the social model is not the only factor that determines gender identity but also the individual experience through which resistance and change occur. Even when resistance and change are tenuous they show a certain degree of autonomy that these women obtain and express in their narratives. 


Second generation

  The women of the second generation grew up and lived with this process of adaptation and the social networks of their parents as immigrants. Therefore, the objective of this analysis is to look for continuities and ruptures with relation to the first generation or, in other words, the impact of a different socio-temporal context, a changed local society and the women's own construction of gender identity.

  The women of the second generation had two influences. One is the world of values and representations of the first generation. The second was the social model of Argentina that reflected differences and greater flexibility  compared to the first generation's social model, especially with respect to the education system and labor force.

  The significance of being an immigrant and the importance of family are the two factors that are consistent between the two generations. This generation lived the migratory experience as the reassigning of meaning of the experience of their parents.

  When asked how life was among their family when they lived in Spain, Maria S. said:

        Well, I remember some things. I came when I was four and I have vague
        memories. Some say that you can't remember anything from when you were so
        young but I think that some things you do. Perhaps because they tell them to you
        and one creates images. I do not know if they are real or invented. When we
        came, it was another disappointment, but mostly for my mother, because when
        one is little, being close to mom and dad is all that matters.

  The women in these narratives continually live with the sense of themselves as foreigners in which a strong connection with the values and customs inherited from their parents is visible in their own experience and their roles as daughters.

  When asked what her mother taught her about the traditions of Spain when she was little, María S. responded:

        I have practically lived in Spain because we had a closed family nucleus which
        was a way of prolonging our way of  life in Spain but within Argentina. We spent
        most of the time with my mother and she would spend all of her time on the

  With respect to her experience as a small child, Violeta U. said: first experience was when I went to elementary school because I first
        learned Bulgarian and later on Spanish because in my house we always spoke 

  And Esperanza M. reflected:

        When one is child difficult things happen to one, especially to immigrants that
        mark one for life.  I think that one suffers a lot, the uprooting, the family.
        Sometimes the nuclear family becomes closer as a result.

  Strong participation in these social networks can also be seen in this generation. For example, Spanish women from this generation chose Spanish men to marry and this shows the continuation of their role as wife. 

  When María S. speaks of her marriage, she explains:

        My sister does not have as deeply entrenched traditions as I because when I
        married a Spanish man I continued with all of the Spanish traditions and my
        sister in other words she got used to the Argentine traditions. 

  Other aspects, however, show important ruptures with respect to the first generation, particularly regarding work. The three women of the second generation have a long history of work outside of the home. Two of them studied and then worked as teachers. A third also studied and is now an administrative employee. They achieved autonomy upon entering the work force. 

  These three women show a great difference from the first generation. They have prepared for a career, worked and have demonstrated a stronger autonomy with respect to their actions and decisions without leaving behind their roles as mothers and wives. Even though they still retain some aspects  of the first generation's understanding of these roles. 

  We can conclude that the women who immigrated to Argentina who belonged to the first generation brought with them forms of seeing and being  a woman according to the social model in which the family and the home played a major role in the definition of the female roles. The immigration experience shows these acquired representations through personal experience as well as through the tools for earning autonomy with respect to actions and decisions for some more than others. The women of the second generation inherited patterns of meaning about what the roles of women should be. Nevertheless, they also broke with some of these patterns because they gained more space and autonomy of action and decision. These women studied and work in addition to being wives and mothers.



  1. Edda Crespo, "Una propuesta metodológica para el estudio de la experiencia de las mujeres vinculadas a la industria petrolera estatal," Revista de Historia Patagónica de Historia Oral, 1, 1 (1996).

 2. The definition of gender identity used in this paper is an adaptation of the analysis presented by Soledad González Montes in Mujeres y relaciones de género en la Antropología Latinoamericana (Mexico: El Colegio de Mexico, 1993), p. 27.

 3. Julio Hernández Borge, "La mujer en la legislación emigratoria española," Estudios Migratorios Latinoamericanos, 39 (August 1998), p. 234.

 4. Concept based on Samuel Baily, Immigrants in the Lands of Promise: Italians in Buenos Aires and New York City, 1870-1914 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999).

 5. Susana Torres, "Huelgas petroleras en Patagonia: immigrantes europeos, clase y etnicidad," presented in the 5tas Jornadas sobre colectividades, 1995.


Primary sources

  Carmen S. Interview by Julia Bergen, María Laura Olivares, and Kristin McLane. 1/15/2001. Patagonia Mosaic 2001, Community Studies Center, Dickinson College.

  Francisca M. and Esperanza S. Interview by María Laura Olivares and Elizabeth Cardillo. 1/18/2001. Patagonia Mosaic 2001, Community Studies Center, Dickinson College.

  María M. Interview by Sonia Ivanoff, Susan Rose, Julia Bergen, Lonna Malmsheimer, and Kristin McLane. 1/15/2001. Patagonia Mosaic 2001, Community Studies Center, Dickinson College.

  María S. Interview by Julia Bergen, María Laura Olivares, and Kristin McLane. Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina. 1/10/2001. Patagonia Mosaic 2001, Community Studies Center, Dickinson College.

  Violeta U. Interview by Lisa Fiorentino, Karla Nieves, and David Stein. Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina. 1/11/2001. Patagonia Mosaic 2001, Community Studies Center, Dickinson College.

Secondary sources 

  Baily, Samuel. Immigrants in the Lands of Promise: Italians in Buenos Aires and New York City, 1870-1914 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999).

  Crespo,  Edda. "Una propuesta metodológica para el estudio de la experiencia de las mujeres vinculadas a la industria petrolera estatal," Revista de Historia Patagónica de Historia Oral, 1, 1 (1996).

  González Montes, Soledad. Mujeres y relaciones de género en la Antropología Latinoamericana (Mexico: El Colegio de Mexico, 1993)

  Hernández Borge, Julio, "La mujer en la legislación emigratoria española," Estudios Migratorios Latinoamericanos, 39 (August 1998).

  Torres, Susana, "Huelgas petroleras en Patagonia: immigrantes europeos, clase y etnicidad," presented in the 5tas Jornadas sobre colectividades, 1995.

  Torres, Susana. "Two Oil Company Towns in Patagonia: European Immigrants, Class, and Ethnicity (1907-1933)." Ph. D. Dissertation, Rutgers University, 1995.


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