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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 12:235–244.


The Hungarian Diaspora Overseas

Some Research Problems and an Identity Paradigm of the Hungarian Community in Argentina1


1. Introduction

In this paper I intend to discuss the difficulties recurrent in qualitative and quantitative research about the Hungarian overseas diaspora. Using the case of Argentina as an example, I shall discuss several problems of determining with some precision the number of Hungarians arriving in Argentina in different periods. Then I shall present the problem of defining identity in emic terms, the difficulties of developing qualitative research on identity, and an identity paradigm existent in the Hungarian community of Buenos Aires.

From the end of the last century the process of European overseas migration became particularly intense. Although the migration fever started out in Western and Northern Europe, by the time of the first decade of the twentieth century the majority of overseas migrants were leaving from three principle regions: Italy, Russia, and the Austro–Hungarian Monarchy. It is that time period that the Hungarian overseas diaspora dates back to.2 The early period of Hungarian overseas migration at the turn of the century was followed by subsequent migratory waves during the 1920s, the late 1930s, during the post- war period, and after the failed revolution of 1956.

Some figures borrowed from human geographer Károly Kocsis’ book on the ethnic geography of the Hungarian minorities give an approximate idea of the present day dimensions of the Hungarian overseas migrant population. According to Kocsis, there are 450.000 Hungarians in the US, 73.000 in Canada, 36.000 in Australia. About 300.000 altogether in Western Europe.3 A more important piece of information from the point of view of my research is that there are 100.000 Hungarians in Latin America, the bulk of whom close to 60.000 are accommodated by Brazil, while most of rest, some 40.000 Hungarians live in Argentina.4


2. The problem of calculation

Numbers are cited only because they are very closely connected to one of the two problems addressed in this paper. The first problem concerns the difficulties of calculating the number of overseas immigrants who belonged to the Hungarian ethnic group from the end of the 19th century up to the present day. This problem arose during the research carried out on the Hungarian community of Argentina. The cultural anthropological study focused on aspects of contemporary Hungarian life (ethnic identity, institutions and informal networks) in the capital, Buenos Aires. Nevertheless, lacking informed estimates it was necessary to survey the numerical aspects of the subsequent waves of ethnic Hungarian immigrants to Argentina. I shall illustrate the problems related with numbers by the example of Argentina, but the same types of problems are faced when studying Hungarian overseas migration elsewhere.

Hungarian official statistics on emigration to Argentina are insufficient, so the researcher has to rely on data of the Argentinean immigration authorities.5 Data is uneven and scarce and raises different types of difficulties during the subsequent periods.

2.1. The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy

During the existence of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Monarchy a shared problem for researchers studying the overseas migration of Hungarians (and not only Hungarians but also Slovaks, Serbs, Slovenes, Croats, Germans etc.) comes from its rather heterogeneous ethnic composition. It is very difficult to tell actually which migrants belonged to the Hungarian ethnic group. It is also very difficult to attempt any distinctions between the ethnically diverse citizens of the monarchy since in Argentinean statistical records they generally figure as Austrians or Austro-Hungarians. The Argentine immigration authorities only paid attention to the immigrants’ country of origin. As a consequence, Hungarians were over represented in the statistical data even in the limited number of years when the Argentinean immigration authorities did register the difference between the immigrants coming from Austria and Hungary-Slavonia, the two great administrative units of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

The proportion of Hungarians on Chart I. is the highest possible estimate that uses Julianna Puskás’ considerations on Monarchy migration to the US and also takes into account possible migrant workers.6

In this field joint regional-international projects would be needed to clear up the specific proportions of each ethnic group. This is not a new research problem: it was Péter Hanák who pointed out in 1984 at the opening of a conference on overseas migration that this problem should be studied in international co-operation between the present day countries of the despatching and the receiving regions.

2.2. After the Trianon Treaty

After the Trianon Peace Treaty of 1920 many Hungarian migrants figure as Czechoslovaks, Rumanians, and Yugoslavs while ethnic Hungarians are under- represented by Argentinean immigration figures. According to official Hungarian statistics very few people left from the newly tailored Hungarian state. On the other hand, the Hungarian population of the neighbouring countries of Hungary left in disproportionally large numbers trying to escape a minority situation in their native land. International academic co–operation would help resolve this problem, as indicated above (2. 1.).

2.3. The unexplored dimensions of Jewish migration

The 1930s brought restrictions on international migration throughout the world, including North and South America. The official Argentinean immigration statistics, for instance, kept no record of Hungarian immigrants to Argentina during the 1930s, so the number of immigrants from Hungary did not reach the limit to be included under the separate “Hungarian” heading.7

The lack of official data, however, hides the thousands of Jewish immigrants who left Europe for the Americas before and during World War II. Jewish immigration to the US in the 1930s has been studied more extensively while the situation in other American countries is less clear. Contrary to the widely accepted negative view of the role the US played during the pre-war period, W. D. Rubinstein discusses in considerable detail the different ways Jew could and did enter that country.8 Similarly, Rubinstein argues that despite official policies to restrict (Jewish) immigration between 1933–39, several Latin American countries received Jews fleeing from pre-war Europe in large numbers. “Latin America took a surprising number of refugees, despite its remoteness and the enactment of explicitly or implicitly anti-Semitic measures in many countries. Scant information exists, however, as to the precise figure, with estimates ranging from 37.000 to 84.000 for all of South and Central America, with 52.000 as the median estimate. By country, the best estimates of Jewish migration during these years are as follows: Argentina, 20–30.000; Brazil, 12–15.000; Chile, 12.500; Colombia, 5000 (plus “non-Aryan Christians”); Cuba, 10–12.000; (...) with smaller numbers coming to other countries.”9

Hungarians in Argentina argue that numerous groups of Hungarian Jews arrived in Argentina especially towards the end of the decade.10 Most of them, however, entered the country illegally, staying on with short transit visas, entering by land or riverboats, and they do not figure in the official Argentinean immigration statistics.11

This is another area where international co-operation with research institutes and also with Jewish organisations may prove to be fruitful.


3. Hungarian overseas diaspora studies

Certain, mainly historical-demographic aspects of the Hungarian migration towards the New World and Australia have been studied and to a certain degree covered by social scientists. Julianna Puskás prepared an exhaustive study on Hungarian migrants in the US between 1890 and 1940. A historical-anthropological reconstruction of the Chicago Hungarians has been prepared by Zoltán Fejős. Egon Kuncz wrote the history of the Hungarians in Australia from the beginnings to the early 1990s. Several volumes of migration related documents have also been published.

3. 1. Identity studies

Based on the available literature it is very difficult, however, to speak in general terms about the ethnic identity of Hungarian overseas immigrant groups. Cultural or ethnic identities can only be discussed reasonably if we define them in emic terms, in direct relation with one particular community and at a particular moment of its life. In order to talk about the Hungarian overseas immigrants’ identity generally, these particular segments have to be compared and interpreted.

It is not easy to do so, however, since not much has been written on this topic. While preparing my field trip to Argentina I read the previous research done in this field. Since few studies existed about the Hungarians of Latin America, I was searching for examples from the US and Canada.

Except the historical-demographic studies mentioned above, it was mostly Hungarian folklorists and ethnographers who carried out research among Hungarian immigrants in the US during the 1980s. (Linda Dégh, Mihály Hoppál, Zoltán Fejõs, etc.) They focused on the transformation of peasant cultural elements, and on how these elements became key materials in the construction of Hungarian identity abroad. They drew attention to the phenomenon of traditionalising folklore and festive customs which were taken over by immigrant Hungarians of fairly diverse social and cultural backgrounds. Hungarian migrant culture was seen by them as a vast and unexplored source of ethnographic and folklore information. The emphasis on elements of peasant culture and their transformation seems to have been a smooth start in the delicate area of the study of overseas migration in the early 1980s.


4. Hungarian communities in Argentina

4.1. The waves of Hungarian immigration

When the different waves of Hungarian immigration to Argentina is studied, one can see that the entire 20th century Hungarian history is reflected in the Hungarian communities that have once existed there. The turn-of-the-century influx of Hungarians stopped during the First World War to continue intensively in the 1920s, especially from those territories that ceased to be under Hungarian sovereignty.

Jewish Hungarians also arrived in Argentina from the earliest times of the massive immigration to Argentina. Hungarian Jews had always had organisations of their own. However, it was not until the 1930s, that the Jewish Hungarian community started to keep a distance from the rest of the Hungarians in Argentina. As mentioned above (2. 3.), during the 1930s tens of thousands of Jews (among them many Hungarian-speaking Jews) entered the country. Although they were political refugees, most of them crossed the border as illegal immigrants. Their arrival transformed the organisational structure of Hungarian Jewish institutions united under the name of AMZSE (Association of Hungarian-speaking Jews in Argentina) in 1939.

After the Second World War, between 1946 and 1951, a new wave of Hungarian political refugees, over five thousand persons arrived escaping from Soviet occupation. Most of them were middle and higher middle class professionals, and many of them arrived with their families. They integrated into the middle and higher middle classes of Argentinean society fairly rapidly and as a group more successfully than any previous Hungarian immigrant group. A sizeable segment of this group settled down together in Olivos, a middle class suburb in the north of the city of Buenos Aires. This group cherished loyalties to the pre-war Hungarian nation state and declared itself to be strongly anti-communist.

Finally, the last wave of about two thousand people arrived after the failed revolution of 1956. The association of the post-war immigrants absorbed most members of this group.

4.2. Research on the Hungarian community of Olivos

When I started my fieldwork in Buenos Aires I had a look at a copy of the local Hungarian periodical, a monthly paper that listed the active Hungarian institutions on its back cover. Later I found out that the overwhelming majority of the different items on the lengthy list of institutions were actually all closely connected to the association created by the post-war immigrants. They maintain the Hungarian school and organise a Sunday school, run the Hungarian monthly paper, house the only Hungarian restaurant in the city; they receive formally the representatives of the Hungarian state and they are consulted in Argentina on issues related to Hungary and the Hungarians. They actually manage most aspects of Hungarian life in Buenos Aires.

4. 3. The identity and integration paradigm of the community (1946–1989)

When the post-World War II Hungarian migrants arrived in Argentina they thought that the situation in Hungary would change soon and that in a few years they could return. They felt that they had been forced out of Hungary, that they actually had no other alternative than to leave. They also thought that they would return as soon as the political conditions would allow them to do so. The identity of second generation Hungarians born or raised in Argentina from Hungarian parents was also based on the unquestionable fact of the exile: “we were born in Argentina accidentally because our parents could not return; when Hungary is ‘liberated’ again we shall return immediately”.

This notion that I prefer to call an emic identity paradigm became part and parcel of the identity of the post-war Hungarian community of Buenos Aires. It had direct consequences on the community’s behaviour and cultural profile. The fact that they defined themselves as political refugees unable to return to their country of origin, endowed the post-war immigrant group with an extraordinarily strong sense of solidarity and internal coherence.

Endogamy has never appeared as an explicit norm among the post-war immigrants. However there have been numerous marriages between Hungarians of not only the first, but also of the second generation. Alternatively, they also preferred marriage with other first or second generation European immigrants mainly with Germans, but also, to some extent, with Poles whom the Hungarians found familiar. The Hungarian scouts have had joint activities with the Polish scouts of Argentina and this explains in part the existence of mixed marriages. Almost all first generation immigrants speak German, while most second and third generation young Hungarian Argentineans are sent to German schools in Buenos Aires. They attribute much importance to the study of Hungarian language, literature, and history at the Sunday school for children and within the Hungarian scout movement in Olivos.

Although the post-war Hungarian immigrants thought they lived in Argentina only temporarily, expressions of their unquestioned gratitude towards the country that received them could be observed. At New Year’s Eve celebrations, for instance, Hungarians in Hungary sing the national anthem ad midnight, whereas this custom is absent in Argentina. The Hungarian community of Buenos Aires, on the other hand, sings both anthems at midnight, first the Argentinean and then the Hungarian one. Argentina is also present in the above-mentioned paradigm in the role of the generous country that received them in a difficult moment.

During the four and a half decades following the Second World War the Hungarian community of the Club Hungária in the north of Buenos Aires was quite closed towards the outside world in an evidently defensive position. Occasional visitors from Hungary were received with suspicion, because of fears of Hungarian communist government intelligence. There are several narratives circulating within the community about the communist state’s attempts to penetrate and control the community. These stories have also been used to justify the community’s excessively defensive and cautious attitude towards the outside world.

While the people who had gathered around the Hungária Club maintained their Hungarian identity, children and grandchildren of other first generation Hungarians drifted away from the community and abandoned their Hungarian roots. As a result, by 1989/1990, although very intimately interconnected, the community of the Hungária Club became more and more reduced in size. With the democratisation of Hungary the main reason for the generally defensive attitude expressed by the community disappeared. Consequently, a strong tension developed between members who wanted to keep the club closed to the outside world and others, who saw the necessity of opening it up.

It was in that moment of tension that the Hungarian choir, a new unit of the Hungária Club was created. The Coral Hungária has incorporated very different elements: many “lost” second generation Hungarians who do not speak Hungarian well, some new Hungarian immigrants coming mainly from Rumania and the Ukraine, Hungarians who work in Argentina temporarily, family members of Hungarian diplomats. Several members of the choir were not members of the Hungarian club of Olivos. Once in 1999 the directress of the choir came up with the idea of organising a concert to raise financial support for the club. The directorial board of the club had a heated debate on whether or not they should authorise the event that was about to take place in the clubhouse on a Friday evening. Two antagonistic views clashed in the debate: some wanted to open up the club for a wider public while others wanted to keep it for the former members only. The latter group spoke disdainfully about the choir and thought that no fundraising event is necessary. “Are we so poor that we need a special appeal to raise funds?” Several choir members went up the committee room and interrupted the board’s meeting protesting vehemently. At that point the president of the club intended to mediate and said: “As a matter of fact the financial situation of the club is not the best, and any financial support would be welcome.” These two opinions synthesise the views present in the directorial board of the club, one half of it trying to maintain the club almost like a family as it has always been, and the other searching for ways to open it up and thus guarantee its survival.

Until the end of the 1980s the community kept virtually no direct contact with Hungary. Some family visits had been paid, letters had been exchanged with friends and family members, roots were searched, but official contacts were almost completely non-existent. The Hungarian Embassy in Buenos Aires maintained contacts with the then more active Hungarian circle of Valentin Alsina, a working class suburb in the south of Buenos Aires.12

The arrival of the 1990 Hungarian elections produced a 180 degrees turn in the collective opinion of the Club Hungária. They recognised the newly elected Hungarian government as legitimate and established formal and official relations with the Hungarian Embassy. (Some months before the Eastern European changes the Hungarian ambassador, uninvited, decided to participate in the March 15 celebrations – the commemoration of the 1848 revolution – organised in the Hungária Club centre. He was identified and sent away from the event.) Some months later the new ambassador was received at the airport on his arrival and was formally invited to the Hungária Club.

4.4. The myth of eternal return

The political changes of the 1990s in East-Central Europe had unexpected consequences for the eastern-European communities abroad. It became possible to maintain open contacts with Hungary. Now the Hungarians born in Argentina can actually spend shorter-longer time periods in the land that they have known only from relatives’ stories and Sunday-school textbooks. They can go and study Hungarian in Hungary. There are student exchange programmes. The Hungarian club in Olivos receives Hungarian officials and groups (ballets, folk ensembles, chamber orchestras, politicians, etc.). For the first time it has become a real possibility to return to Hungary. However, the majority has preferred to stay in Argentina.

The new reality faces the community with a substantial dilemma: how to react? The change in the paradigm has generated a series of problems. For decades the Hungarians of Argentina thought that their return would only depend on the political situation in Hungary. Now they have had to realise that in Argentina they possess solid networks of social relations, friends and family, and economic security.


5. Conclusion

I have discussed two questions related with the Hungarian overseas diaspora as I faced them during a research on the Hungarian community of Buenos Aires. The first one – trying to establish the approximate number of Hungarian immigrants that arrived in one particular country – is very difficult to handle for an individual researcher and the numbers can only be considered as approximations. Inter-regional and international co-operation would prove to be more fruitful. This is not a new idea, and such attempts have already been made, the most recent one of them is co-ordinated by the Latin American Studies Centre of Charles University and focuses on central European immigrants in Latin America.

The second problem – the present day ethnic identity of the Hungarian community in Buenos Aires – is a segment presented from a work in progress. I have intended to show the problems of discussing identity in emic terms and also showed how the post-war Hungarian immigrants, defining themselves as political exiles, produced an identity paradigm in the analysed community. This paradigm was also shaped and practically crystallised by the political situation in Hungary during the four and a half decades after the Second World War. It made the community adopt defensive behaviour and kept it closed towards the outside world which contributed to the preservation of their Hungariannes. The democratic changes occurring in Hungary at the beginning of the 1990s were very warmly received in Buenos Aires, but they also had some practical-traumatic effects namely, the necessity to redefine their relationship not only to Hungary but also to Argentina and face the risks of opening up the community.




I have carried out ten months of field research on the Hungarian community in Argentina since 1998. This still unfinished research is headed towards my doctoral thesis in anthropology at Eötvös University in Budapest, Hungary.


Julianna Puskás discusses several aspects of this topic in much detail, generally with a special focus on Hungarian immigration to North America. Puskás, Julianna (ed.), Overseas migration from East-Central and South-Eastern Europe 1880–1940. Akadémiai Kiadó. Budapest, 1990.; Puskás, Julianna, Kivándorló magyarok az Egyesült Államokban 1880–1940. Akadémiai Kiadó. Budapest, 1982.


Károly, Kocsis–Eszter Kocsis–Hódosi, Ethnic Geography of the Hungarian Minorities in the Carpathian Basin. MTA Földrajztudományi Intézet–Akadémiai Kisebbségkutató Mûhely. Budapest, 1998.


Csap, Lajos–Csapó, Endre–Kardos, Béla–Kunckelné Fényes, Ildikó–Piller, Gedeon, A világ magyarsága. Latin–Amerika, Dél–Afrika, Ausztrália. A Magyarok Világszövetsége kiadványa. Budapest, 1998.


Trans-Atlantic shipping lists also exist, although their data raises further research problems even when they can be accessed.


For more detail on this see: Puskás, Julianna, Kivándorló magyarok az Egyesült Államokban 1880–1940. Akadémiai Kiadó. Budapest, 1982. pp. 61–76.


Unlike Yugoslavia, whose net immigration balance between 1931–1939 was 14 persons. Source: Entradas, salidas y saldos de pasajeros. Biblioteca de la Dirección Nacional de Migraciones. Buneos Aires.


William D. Rubinstein, The Myth of Rescue. London, 2000.


Rubinstein, 2000:37.


Ladislao Kurucz, Los húngaros en la Argentina. Buenos Aires, 1999.


For more detail on this see: Graciela Swiderski–Jorge Luis Farjat, La Inmigracion. Buenos Aires, 1999.


Interview with Márton Klein, ambassador of Hungary in Argentina in 1986–1990. (February 1999.)