This morning as I sipped my coffee and read ProPublica journalist Sebastian Rotella’s comprehensive article (link below) about the latest democratic crisis in a place that’s now my second home, I was struck by his phrase “Argentina, a country for which I have great fondness.” My blog’s regular readers, and travelers who drop in from all over the world to read a post or two, know that I have similar feelings, to say the least.
In the past few years I’ve spent a total of three months — as much vacation time as a very good U.S. clerical job affords — exploring the nation that captured my attention many years ago in my grad school Spanish courses. I’ve wandered the country and its “sister nation,” Uruguay, a bit, made some friends, and bored my US friends silly with my stories. Sleeping and awake, I wear three or four silver-and-semi-precious-stone rings I’ve purchased at Buenos Aires’ weekly street fairs; some of these gems are hand-crafted, and all are constant, treasured reminders of my time there. I’ve spent four years reading about and studying the country’s history, sociology, language dialect, music and other popular culture; I’ve watched more than 200 Argentine films and own about 45 of them on DVD. I passed a summer translating into English a book by an Argentine journalist, and my vacation days last spring traveling to Chicago and Austin to meet the author and academics who might be interested in teaching the book, and I’ll spend this spring writing the book proposal.
This immersion has taught me a great deal, but my optimism about active grassroots social movements and the country’s return to democracy also made me far too loyal, causing me to set aside my natural anarchist skepticism about governments, politicians, leaders, and any organized group that gets too comfortable with power. For a long time I resisted difficult truths about Argentina, annoying friends who’d grown up there and fled, or stayed and dealt with the daily grind in Buenos Aires, Córdoba, tiny towns in the provinces. Finally last August, on my sixth visit in the past five years, reality struck. I’d spent last summer overwhelmed by packing and moving and unpacking my home in the U.S., and I was ready to enjoy my first real vacation in Buenos Aires, instead of an intensive university course or a fact-finding mission. The taxi driver dropped me at the door of my favorite bed and breakfast, where I’d stayed twice before and met many lovely travelers from all over the world; I moved into “my” room and began unpacking, then messaging friends to make plans. I was thrilled to be back in one of my favorite cities and countries.
My casual friends (or close acquaintances) with whom I had dinner the following night, however, had finally given up on the place: they announced that as soon as they could sell their apartment and family business, they were moving to Europe. This shocked me, although they’d complained in previous years about Argentina’s corruption, even spouting conspiracy theories that made me roll my eyes in private — my favorite was that la presidenta, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and her son had had their husband and father, former president Néstor Kirchner, shot in the head with a discreet, small-caliber bullet. (Kirchner suffered from angina and died of heart failure in 2010.) In August the wife of my couple-friends repeated the murder fable; to prevent myself from assuming that “yeah, right” look that would reveal me as maleducada, I quickly asked why Cristina and Maxi would do such a thing.
My friend gave me a grave look. “Poder.”
All conspiracy theories aside, my friends were fed up with the economics of Argentina. Extreme inflation is a recurring problem, and for reasons not even experts can fathom, the economy seems to nosedive every decade or so. My closest Argentine friends are economic exiles, those who were fortunate enough to have the brains and educational opportunities to try their luck in the United States when it was impossible to make a living in their native nation. The country has so many exiles, in recent years the romantic comedy film genre has consisted of stories of young couples breaking up and reuniting as they leave for and return from Spain, Canada, and the U.S.
My husband and wife buddies’ other complaints were so similar to those of my own extended family members back in the States, I could’ve made their speech myself, had I had a little English-to-Spanish translation prep time: “These kids today dress like slobs, have no respect for anyone or anything, cover everything on the streets with ugly, meaningless graffiti, have babies out of wedlock, and live on welfare payments, so they have no incentive to look for jobs. They think everything should be handed to them; they don’t want to work for it.” This is all the federal government’s fault, of course. The only Argentine twist I could discern was “Everything was better when Perón was president.” (Not something you’ll hear from all Argentines, by any means, but one of my friends grew up working-class and Juan Perón’s policies greatly increased her family’s quality of life — with no welfare payments involved.)
My friends’ business wasn’t doing well; they were broke and depressed and seemed to spend the bulk of their time surfing the web. Granted, it was the dead of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, so this wasn’t unusual behavior. But I felt a sort of pall when I was around them, as if they were simply holding on by their fingernails until they could get the hell out and begin life anew in Europe. Then one night the other shoe dropped: they received a phone call saying that her brother and other family members had been in an auto accident in her home province, and her mother had been killed. Her husband stayed in Buenos Aires to keep the business running while she took a bus all day to her brother and sister-in-law’s for the funeral, then immediately turned around and returned to the city (one thing Argentina does superbly is comfortable, affordable long-distance bus service).
I will skip the gory details about her meltdown later that week and ensuing awkwardness on my part. I considered a tourist trek to some other province(s) to give them some time alone, but I had the sense they wanted me and their other friends, who were staying in their apartment, to keep them company. (Patagonia is on my bucket list, but only in summer.) I took them out to one of their favorite restaurants on my last night in the country, and we had a nice time.
But I finally started to see Argentina through a resident’s eyes rather than a visitor’s, and they were right: it wasn’t pretty. A pettier example: my friends weren’t exaggerating the graffiti. In previous years I’d seen a lot of political tagging, which young people spray-painted mostly during marches to the Plaza de Mayo, the main square where the Casa Rosada, the equivalent of the U.S. White House, is located. Maintenance workers were sent out in the following days to clean most of the slogans off the buildings, if not the bus shelters and the small, 100-year-old, cast-iron billboards that dot the city center. This year, it looked as if no one had cleaned any spray paint off of anything for months; I’d never seen the tourist and business districts looking so shabby.
Friends from all over have enjoyed teasing me about being a vegetarian in the land of barbecued meat, although I’ve never had a problem finding plenty to eat in Buenos Aires. But last August, for the first time, I could taste the inflation rate: cafés whose food I’d savored in previous southern winters had a staff shortage and longer wait times, and the cooks were stir-frying aging cabbage instead of fresh vegetables and legumes. In a couple of places I was served moldy cheese on my veggie burgers. Rather than self-righteously sending these plates back to the kitchen, I just nibbled around the cheese and felt sad — for my friends, for other small-business owners, for everyone trying to survive and thrive in this country that feels very “Global North” in so many respects, yet isn’t. As a visiting lecturer in college Spanish classes, I had taught the history of the 2001 economic crisis, but it was another thing to see for myself what it meant when inflation increased and your paycheck didn’t, to see prices double at the supermarket and pharmacy. I’ve seen a zillion films about auto accidents en la ruta — it’s horrifyingly common, but it got up close and personal when my friend’s mother died that way.
And then there’s the never-ending corruption. Although I thought the “who killed Néstor” urban myth was idiotic, the more I read and viewed about his widow and her administration, the more I had to admit that their hands were by no means clean. I didn’t feel the need to improve my Spanish by getting into the gory details served up by her critics — until five weeks ago, when Alberto Nisman, the special prosecutor investigating the 1994 terrorist bombing that killed 85 people at Buenos Aires’ Jewish community center, the AMIA, was found dead in his apartment with a gunshot wound. Watching President Fernández bungle the situation makes me cringe, and has killed any remaining respect I had for her and her administration. I gave them a pass for years, saying things like, “Well, this is what happens in a country that’s had a functioning democracy for only 31 years.” Now I’m simply discouraged and baffled (although I strongly believe that Nisman did not commit suicide).
It hurts me when this country I’ve come to love goes through growing pains — or perhaps is simply revealed once again to be its same old violent, corrupt, agonizingly screwed-up self. As I write this, I picture my Argentine friends and acquaintances going on the defensive, gathering their anti-U.S. arguments — and they’re absolutely right. The United States of America is no better and no worse; the country of my birth is simply much wealthier, powerful, and better organized than so many of the smaller nations it exploits, beats to a pulp, steals resources from. The nation of my birth was and is built on genocide and slavery. I’ve had deep problems with my country since I was 12 or 13, old enough to begin to understand its history and form moral views. Anyone who follows the news knows all too well how the USA has treated people of color and the poor since the religious fanatics fled Europe and landed on these shores. And when Fernández mentions to the media that other countries have “clandestine prisons and people detained without trial,” she’s correct — the U.S. has no moral high ground on which to stand and point fingers at Argentina or any other nation.
Perhaps the struggles between government and judicial factions, political parties, “intelligence” agencies, police forces, and corporate-owned media are simply less clandestine in Argentina than in the United States, or perhaps it’s easier to understand the corruption and political filth in my country and language of origin, but I’m finally throwing in the towel and admitting that the more I study Argentina, the less I understand. A few years ago, after my second or third trip to that nation, an acquaintance said, “You must really like it there!” She was rather taken aback at my response: “Well, I just decided to have a love/hate relationship with two countries instead of one.”
This is the nature of travel, as opposed to tourism: if we are thinking, caring people who decide to go deep, to truly get to know another culture, it’s inevitable that we see and feel the flaws, the failures, and the pain of that place. It becomes part of us in a way that doesn’t happen when we breeze through on a quick tour and go home, never to return. (I also think this is much more the case for those of us who learn the native language — especially those of us who’ve been in love with that language for decades.)
I just recalled a tiny detail from my arrival six months ago: the song on the radio as my taxi sat stuck in evening rush-hour traffic between the ferry terminal and my B & B was Mercedes Sosa’s best rendition of “Gracias a la vida.” Chilean singer and composer Violeta Parra wrote it about a man and a people she loved, but it was one of Sosa’s emblematic songs of the era of Latin American military dictatorships, and I’ve always associated it with the long, vast tragedy that Argentina sometimes seems to be.
ProPublica journalist Sebastian Rotella explains the Nisman death and background: