In 1536, the Spaniard Pedro de Mendoza—under orders by the Spanish kingdom to establish a settlement—and 1,600 of his men camped on a bluff overlooking the Río de la Plata. To the west, and stretching as far as the eye could see, lay the Pampa, a flat plain of rich soil. Relations with the Querandí (an indigenous people who populated this part of the continent) quickly deteriorated, and the Spaniards were forced to leave five years later. More than four decades would pass before the Spaniards attempted to settle the area again.
In 1580, Juan de Garay (c. 1528–1583) and 300 people settled at the mouth of the Río Riachuelo and reestablished the city of Buenos Aires. They discovered that cattle and horses brought by Mendoza's men had multiplied and spread across the Pampa, easing their attempts to settle the area. In time, the domestication of wild horses and cattle and life in the vast Pampa would have a profound impact on the culture of Argentina and Buenos Aires' rise to power.
For 200 years, Buenos Aires remained a sleepy, isolated town, governed by the Viceroyalty of Peru. (A viceroyalty is a province ruled by a governor in the name of the Spanish King.) Buenos Aires' growth was hampered by Spain's rigid trade regulations, which allowed only certain ports to handle goods destined for Spain. Any goods from Argentina traveled over vast distances by land to the Peruvian port of Callao, where they were shipped to Panama and then transferred to ships going to Spain.
The great distance between Lima and Buenos Aires helped Porteños establish their own distinct identity. The isolation and vastness of the Pampa gave rise to a unique culture as well. The Pampa became synonymous with the Gaucho, the celebrated Argentinean cowboy whose image was resurrected as a symbol of national identity.
By the early eighteenth century, the fertile and well-irrigated land west and north of Buenos Aires was producing thousands of tons of cereal and dried beef and thousands of cattle hides. Financed by British capital, smugglers exported the goods through the Port of Buenos Aires to markets in Brazil and the Caribbean Islands, much to the consternation of Spain, which could not stop the illegal trade. In 1776, the Spanish kingdom named Buenos Aires the capital of the new Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. Many factors led to that decision. Chief among them was the growing economic importance of Buenos Aires and the entire region. Spain also sought to deflate British influence and collect more taxes from the growing commerce.
The British, of course, would not give up so easily on Buenos Aires. British troops attempted to invade the city in 1806 and 1807 but were soundly defeated by local forces. Already infused with a strong sense of self-identity, the victories over the British boosted Argentine nationalism among Porteños. By 1808, when French commander Napoleon Bonaparte's forces invaded Spain, the citizens of Buenos Aires began to question their allegiance to the Spanish kingdom. Two years later, in May of 1810, Buenos Aires severed its ties with Spain. But the surrounding provinces did not follow suit until 1816, when they declared their independence and named Buenos Aires the new capital of the United Provinces of Río de la Plata. By then, Buenos Aires had become a dominant force in the region, and neighboring provinces attempted to curve its power. Following a long period of unrest and a power struggle, Buenos Aires emerged even stronger and was named the federal capital of Argentina in 1880. Heavy British investment had sustained growth in the region during this time, and by the late 1880s, Buenos Aires was becoming one of the wealthiest and most important cities in the world. Porteños began to call their city the Paris of South America and embarked on an ambitious construction program. Beautiful mansions and buildings, wide avenues, expensive hotels, and restaurants became permanent fixtures in the city's landscape. The Teatro Colón, an architectural jewel used for ballet, opera, and classical music, opened in 1908 to world acclaim.
With massive immigration from Spain and Italy to keep the factories and farms spinning around the clock, the city's population grew from about 90,000 people in 1851 to 1.3 million people by 1910. By the beginning of World War I (1914–18), Argentina had become one of the world's top exporters of agricultural products, with most of it channeled through the Port of Buenos Aires. Yet, few benefited from the wealth. Large numbers of newcomers were forced into substandard housing. Workers could barely feed their families on low wages. Social unrest in the city reached a boiling point in 1919, when the army attacked metalworkers on strike. The suppression of the workers came to be known as La Semana Trágica (The Tragic Week).
Buenos Aires kept on growing rapidly. By the 1930s, the city embarked on a modernization project, tearing down colonial neighborhoods and narrow streets and replacing them with modern buildings and wide avenues. Suburban communities and Buenos Aires grew closer to each other, becoming a massive metropolis after World War II (1939–45). The mid-twentieth century also marked a dramatic shift in migration. By 1930, international immigration came to a halt. The new migrants were mostly mestizos from northern Argentina. They poured into the city by the thousands. Unable to find suitable housing, they settled in the villas miser-ias around the city.
The centralization of jobs, goods, and services in Buenos Aires brought prosperity to the city at the cost of other cities, where growth simply stopped. In time, it also hurt Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires today is a tired but proud city. It is obsessed with trying to fix its decaying infrastructure, to alleviate its heavy pollution, and to deal with massive poverty and chronic unemployment.