Sophia Scorcia

In Italian

It should not come as a surprise that Italians had a notable influence on Argentinian culture. In the late 19th century, a large wave of Italian immigrants left Italy in the hopes of finding more opportunities and a better life in Argentina. Between 1881 and 1910, for example, 2.3 million immigrants arrived in Argentina through the Port of Buenos Aires.[i] In fact, the number of immigrants arriving in Argentina was so high that Italian immigrants made up 40% of the population of Buenos Aires between 1880 and 1930.[ii] With this incontrovertible presence, it follows that Argentinian culture, and specifically the rioplatense (referring to the Rio de la Plata region) culture of Buenos Aires, absorbed elements of Italian culture and became something new and different. The same thing happened in regards to language—the different dialects that Italian immigrants brought with them to Argentina mixed with rioplatense Spanish, creating a new spoken language: cocoliche. Nowadays, cocoliche no longer exists because the language is thought to have disappeared after the first wave of Italian immigration.[iii] However, this language played an important role in the life and culture of 19th century and early 20th century Argentina, and it was particularly important in the evolution of popular theatre.

Cocoliche evolved because Italian immigrants needed to communicate. The immigrants that arrived at the end of the 1800s spoke regional dialects and were often illiterate; therefore, they not only did not speak Spanish, but they also did not have a complete mastery of their own national language.[iv] According to scholar Alejandro Patat, “I limiti tra l’italiano e lo spagnolo diventano diffusi nella interlingua del parlante cocoliche, che non si rende conto dell’interferenza di una lingua sull’altra e della reciproca contaminazione; dunque, la perdita della consapevolezza della propria lingua non viene accompagnata dall’acquisito della consapevolezza dell’altra” [the limits between Italian and Spanish become scattered in the interlanguage of the cocoliche speaker, who is not aware of the interference of one language on the other and of the reciprocal contamination; therefore, the loss of awareness of one’s own language is not accompanied by the acquisition and awareness of the other].[v] In other words, cocoliche was not a formal language that was purposefully constructed and taught—it developed instead in a more passive manner, and simply because immigrants needed to survive in a new country.

There is also another type of language that developed in Argentina because of the influence of Italianisms—lunfardo. Cocoliche “si colloca in una posizione variabile tra l’italiano e lo spagnolo” [is situated in a variable position between Italian and Spanish] in its mix of the two languages in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar structures, while lunfardo “appartiene interamente allo spagnolo rioplatense” [belongs completely to rioplatense Spanish].[vi] In lunfardo, Italianisms appear in various ways. The clearest way that they appear is in cases in which the original meaning of an Italian word remains the same and replaces the Spanish word.[vii] The word “negocio” from the Italian “negozio,” (store) for example, is used in lunfardo rather than the Spanish word “tienda.”[viii] There are other cases, however, in which some Italian words received “una nuova accezione quando rientra nel parlato colloquiale” [a new acceptation when they reentered colloquial speech].[ix] For example, the lunfardo verb “manyar” comes from the Italian verb “mangiare” (to eat) and means the same thing (to eat) in cocoliche, but in lunfardo the verb “manyar” has a more metaphorical meaning and refers to an intellectual consumption rather than a physical one—“manyar” means “to understand” or “to realize.”[x] Furthermore, some Italian words took on a new metaphorical meaning when they became part of lunfardo idiomatic expressions, like “dar un pesto a alguien” (“dare una bastonata a qualcuno,” “give someone a beating”), or “tener polenta” (“essere attivo, creative, o energetico,” “to be active, creative, or energetic).[xi] Overall, lunfardo is a way of speaking rioplatense Spanish and was consciously created and spoken, while cocoliche was unconsciously created by immigrants who spoke the language without realizing they had mixed elements of Italian and Spanish.

It is difficult to explain all of the peculiarities of cocoliche (and also to understand them without a background in linguistics), but Edmondo De Amicis provides us with a brief explanation of the language in his book Sull’oceano (1889): “si mescolano elementi morfologici spagnoli e italiani nella stessa parola, e parole spagnole ed italiane nella stessa frase, oltre ai cambiamenti semantici e ai calchi” [Spanish and Italian morphological elements combine in the same word, and Spanish and Italian words in the same sentence, in addition to loan words semantic changes].[xii] Another important aspect to understand about cocoliche is that it was mainly a spoken language until various playwrights used it in their work, specifically in the 1880s in a type of theatre known as sainete.[xiii]


What is sainete?


A version of El Conventillo de la Paloma, a sainete by Alberto Vacarezza

The sainete is a type of theater originating from Spain, and is part of the genre known as génere chico (short genre). Generally, a sainete is made up of one act, it is generally funny and charming in nature, and the plot often revolves around a lover’s conflict and concludes with a happy ending.[xiv] It arrived in Argentina with the arrival of Spanish immigrants, and it rapidly became an important part of Argentina’s national theatre.[xv] The development of the sainete is part of the overall development of popular theatre, which represented an alternative to elite art and theatre. There was a notable division between the cultures of the upper classes and that of the lower classes, and this divide was also visible in theatre; the Teatro Colón, for example, is a theater that offered a more refined kind of art. The Teatro Colón was rebuilt in the late 1800s and officially opened in 1908, and it staged important operas with Europe’s most famous singers and musicians, attracting a rich and aristocratic audience. Alternatively, popular theaters such as the Pasatiempo theatre produced performances that attracted a popular audience, performances such as the dramas of the Spanish género chico. In spite of the fact that the Pasatiempo theater was a theater for the people, however, it earned more money than any other theater in Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century.[xvi] The Pasatiempo was also important in the history of the sainete. In 1889, the theater was divided into three separate sections with each section offering a different one act play, and eventually other theaters began doing the same thing (creating mini-theaters within the larger theater). Consequently, the demand for performances to fill these mini-theaters increased, allowing the sainete to develop as a theatrical form.[xvii]

However, even though the sainete was generally funny, it also explored important themes that represented aspects of everyday life for the lower class. Sainetes were often set in conventilos, tenement buildings where many immigrants and working class people lived, but the conventillo also influenced the plot of the plays. For example, one of the first sainetes written by Nemesio Trejo (a very important sainete author), Los óleos del chico (The Boy’s Christening) dramatized life for the working class and spoke about problems such as high rents and low wages.[xviii] Moreover, in another one of Trejo’s famous sainetes from 1907, Los Inquilinos (The Tenents), the main plot point revolved around a strike in the conventillos—most importantly, however, is the fact that the strikers emerged victorious at the end of the play. This saintete was a clear representation of the rent strike that took place in 1907 in conventillos throughout Buenos Aires.

Evictions in the conventillos, 1907 Photograph. Inventory 18196. From the Archivio General de la Nación Argentina


Sainetes written by Alberto Vacarezza—another important author that wrote over 200 sainetes—also explored sociocultural themes and dramatized the culture zeitgeist of the era.[xix] In other words, the sainetes reflected the habits and behavious of the age and “responded immediately to the concerns, struggles, and history of its audience.”[xx] The grotesco criollo, another Argentinian genre of theater characterized by the works of Armando Discépolo, has this in common with the sainete in the sense that grotesco criollo plays “approfondisc[ono] la tematica sociale e familiare dell’immigrato” [delve into the social and familial experience of the immigrant].[xxi] In conclusion, therefore, popular theater did not only represent a to have fun or escape reality, but it also represented an opportunity for the working classes to take on the reality of their lives and to be the heroes of their own story.


“Cover of a reprint of one of many sainetes written about life in the Argentine tenements” Cited in Judith Evans, “Setting the Stage for Struggle: Popular Theater in Buenos Aires, 1890-1914,” Radical History Review 21 (Fall 1979): 53.


What does the Italian immigrant have to do with the sainete?

            The figure of the Italian immigrant entered into the sainete with the theatrical productions of the Podestá Brothers. The Podestá brothers was a theatrical company comprised of rioplatense actors and founded by the brothers of the Podestá brothers, sons of Genovese immigrants that arrived in Buenos Aires but later moved to Motevideo in Uruguay. Their company dominated the circo criollo genre, the most widespread form of popular theatre in Argentina in the 19th century, and it connected the circo to the sainete in the 1880s and 1890s.[xxii] In 1884, the Podestá company produced a pantomimed performance that told the story of Juan Moreira, a famous novel written by Ricardo Gutiérrez in 1879, and eventually José Podestá also wrote a script for the perofmrance. In 1888, the most famous character that José Podestá ever created became a part of the performance—the cocoliche character named Pepino el 88.[xxiii] The term “cocoliche” comes from the lastname of a Calabrese immigrant—his real last name was Coccoliccio—who worked for the Podestá brothers, and this man and his method of talking gave the inspiration to José Podestá to create a clownish Italian character.[xxiv]

José Podestá in his role of Pepino el 88

Pepino el 88 was a comical and clownish character that represented an Italian bozal. The term “bozal” refers to an immigrant who does not display a mastery of the local language, and this incapacity to speak is visible in the character of Pepino el 88, who speaks cocoliche.[xxv] The production of Juan Moreira and Jose Podestá’s performance of Pepino el 88 broadcast the image of the cocoliche character, so much so that “la presenza dell’immigrato italiano e del suo cocoliche assume[va] una rilevanza significativa” [the Italian immigrant and his cocoliche took on a significant relevance] in the sainete, become a fundamental aspect of this type of theatre.[xxvi] In fact, the figure of the Italian and “la sua parlata si cristallizza come convenzione del genere” [his speech crystallized into a convention of the genre].[xxvii] The Italian immigrant, in other words, held such a prominent place in rioplatense culture and society and his behaviors and method of speaking were so widespread and understood that the figure of the Italian played a considerable role in the construction of this national Argentinian theatre.

However, the representation of the Italian immigrant was, above all, a negative and stereotypical one. The Italian was represented like a foreigner, someone different from the others, who tries to integrate himself into the local society but is not able to do so—he is represented “come soggetto estraneo al tessuto sociale preesistente e, in una visione estremista, come elemento pericoloso che avrebbe portato alla dissoluzione stessa della nazione” [like a foreign subject in the preexisting social fabric and, in an extremist vision, like a dangerous presence that would bring about the very break-up of the nation.”[xxviii] This representation is directly linked to the first example of the Italian figure in Argentinian theatre, that of Pepino el 88 and the production of Juan Moreira. In this performance, it was not only the speech that distinguished Pepino el 88’s character, but also his attempt to imitate the language and behaviors of Moreira, the main character and the true criollo (Argentinian).[xxix] Juan Moreira tells the tale of Moreira himself, a gaucho running from the law, and Pepino el 88 is an “Italian-trying-to-be-criollo”—an imitator, a wannabe criollo.[xxx] In regards to culture and the construction of Argentinian nationalism, the gaucho is considered the representative figure of Argentinian identity. Therefore, the gaucho in the play, Moreira, ““percepisce lo straniero come un intruso da cui si sente minacciato, soprattutto nella sua libertà sopra un territorio sterminato nel quale poteva vivere fino a quel momento come un nomade e che l’operosità degli immigranti cominciava a trasformare” [perceives the foreigner as an intrusion that he feels threatened by, mainly in regards to his liberty over an immense territory in which he was able to live like a nomad up until that point and that the hard work of immigrants began to transform].[xxxi] In this sense, the Italian represents a foreigner who threatens the national identity with his clownish actions and his bastardized Spanish.


El Conventillo de la paloma, 1929

sainete written by Alberto Vacarezza

In this sainete, the Italian character is Miguel

There are aspects of cocoliche in the words, verbs, and grammar of Miguel’s speech pattern. For example:

  • Miguel uses the word “zorromaco,” which means “heart” in cocoliche
  • He uses the word “cazzotto” (punch, blow), an Italian word, instead of the Spanish word (golpe)
  • He says: “¡Siete…lo animale piú bruto che hai visto al mondo.”  A play on the Spanish word for the number 7, “siete,” and the second person plural conjugation of the Italian verb “essere”
  •  He adds the letter “e” to the end of verbs in order to Italianize them, like “hablare” (instead of the Spanish “hablar”), “prevenire” (instead of the Spanish “prevenir”), and “ire” (instead of the Spanish “ir”)


Therefore, we find ourselves in front of an interesting paradox in the study of the sainete and the Italian immigrant. On one hand, an analysis of sainetes shows us that the presence of Italians in Argentina was incredibly important and influential, because the Italian migratory identity became incorporated into Argentinian literature and theatre; in fact, “quasi tutti gli scrittori argentini dalla metà dell’Ottocento a oggi hanno creato personaggi, situazioni, oggetti, spazi italiani all’interno delle loro trame e delle loro storie” [almost all Argentinian writers from the middle of the 1800s until today created Italian characters, situations, objects, and spaces within their plots and stories.][xxxii] Moreover, considering that the sainetes dramatized everyday life and the audience identified with the characters and the language in the plays, the presence of the Italian figure illustrates the fact that there were numerous Italian immigrants that attended productions of sainetes and saw their own lives represented in the story. On the other hand, however, an analysis of sainetes shows us that the Italian immigrant was seen as something external as compared to the Argentinian identity. The Italian character and his behaviors, his speech, and his attempt to become a true Argentinian is made fun of, and it is clear that this character is a foreigner that does not factor into the national body. Perhaps this is not true for all Italian immigrants, but rather only for those of the first generation of immigrants who wanted to maintain their Italian identity and connection with their homeland. For example, in a 1910 staged version of Los amores de Giacumina, a story that tells the tale of the daughter of Genovese immigrants and her various relationships, the character of Giacumina speaks rioplatense Spanish without any trace of cocoliche, possibly signifying that even though immigrants were not able to become true Argentinians, their children were able to.[xxxiii] Nevertheless, the personification of the Italian immigrant is truly negative and pessimistic.

Theatre is a very particular artform because it imitates real life in front of the audience’s eyes through staging and performance, and it creates a very intimate and vulnerable connection between the actors and the audience. Theatre can change the way a person thinks and sees the world and consequently prompt genuine social transformation, but it can also perpetuate and broadcast dangerous stereotypes. The Argentinian sainete does both of these things. It represents the life, experiences, and struggles of the working class and imagines a world in which lower class people—who are often ostracized and abandoned—are triumphant, but at the same time it perpetuates an understanding of the immigrant experience that upholds the idea that immigrants are never able to integrate themselves into the culture of their adopted country.



[i] Judith Evans, “Setting the Stage for Struggle: Popular Theater in Buenos Aires, 1890-1914,” Radical History Review 21 (Fall 1979): 50.

[ii] Grazia Fresu, “I migranti Italiani nel teatro argentino parlavano cocoliche (mix di dialetti italiani e spagnolo),” La macchina sognante,

[iii] Juan Antonia Ennis, “Italian-Spanish Contact in Early 20th Century Argentina,” journal of Language Contact 8 (2015): 115.

[iv] Fresu, “I migranti Italiani nel teatro argentino parlavano cocoliche (mix di dialetti italiani e spagnolo).”

[v] Alejandro Patat e Angela Di Tullio, “Argentina,” in Vida nueva: La lingua e la cultura italiana in America Latina (Macerata, Italy: Quoadlibet Srl, 2012), 44.

[vi] Patat e Di Tullio, “Argentina,” 48.

[vii] Patat e Di Tullio, “Argentina,” 50.

[viii] Patat e Di Tullio, “Argentina,” 50

[ix] Patat e Di Tullio, “Argentina,” 50.

[x] Patat e Di Tullio, “Argentina,” 50.

[xi] Patat e Di Tullio, “Argentina,” 58.

[xii] Cited in Patat and Di Tullio, “Argentina,” 45. For a more comprehensive understanding of the specifics of cocoliche, see: Ennis, “Italian-Spanish Contact in Early 20th Century Argentina,” specifically pages 134-139; Ulysse Le Bihan, “Italianismos en el habla de la Argentina: herencia de la inmigración italiana: Cocoliche y lunfardo,” Dissertation (Università di Oslo, 2011).

[xiii] Fresu, “I migranti Italiani nel teatro argentino parlavano cocoliche (mix di dialetti italiani e spagnolo).”

[xiv] Le Bihan, “Italianismos en el habla de la Argentina: herencia de la inmigración italiana,” 18.

[xv] Le Bihan, “Italianismos en el habla de la Argentina: herencia de la inmigración italiana,” 17.

[xvi] Evans, “Setting the Stage for Struggle” 50-51.

[xvii] Evans, “Setting the Stage for Struggle,” 51.

[xviii] Evans, “Setting the Stage for Struggle,” 52.

[xix] Angélica J. Huízar, “Alberto Vacarezza entre el tango y el sainete: Ideología en el conventillo,” Hispamérica 36, no. 107 (August 2007): 103.

[xx] Le Bihan, “Italianismos en el habla de la Argentina: herencia de la inmigración italiana,” 18; “Evans, “Setting the Stage for Struggle,” 54.

[xxi] Patat e Di Tullio, “Argentina,” 45, footnote 1; Fresu, “I migrant Italiani nel teatro argentine parlavano cocoliche (mix di dialetti italiani e spagnolo).”

[xxii] Evans, “Setting the Stage for Struggle,” 51.

[xxiii] Ennis, “Italian-Spanish Contact in Early 20th Century Argentina,” 127-128; Evans, “Setting the Stage for Struggle,” 51.

[xxiv] Patat e Di Tullio, “Argentina,” 45; Fresu, “I migranti Italiani nel teatro argentino parlavano cocoliche (mix di dialetti italiani e spagnolo).”

[xxv] Ennis, “Italian-Spanish Contact in Early 20th Century Argentina,” 128, footnote 14.

[xxvi] Patat e Di Tullio, “Argentina,” 45.

[xxvii] Patat e Di Tullio, “Argentina,” 45.

[xxviii] Patat e Di Tullio, “Argentina,” 33.

[xxix] Ennis, “Italian-Spanish Contact in Early 20th Century Argentina,” 128-129.

[xxx] Evans, “Setting the Stage for Struggle,” 51.

[xxxi] Fresu, “I migranti Italiani nel teatro argentino parlavano cocoliche (mix di dialetti italiani e spagnolo).”

[xxxii] Patat e Di Tullio, “Argentina,” 35.

[xxxiii] Ennis, “Italian-Spanish Contact in Early 20th Century Argentina,” 132.