In May 2011, I was fortunate to have been able to take part in an incredible two-week study tour of Buenos Aires, Argentina, one of my favorite places in the world. The trip was offered as a graduate-level course through the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and was taught by Eve Weinbaum of the UMass Labor Studies program and her husband, Max Page, of the Art, Architecture and Art History Department. Including the Weinbaum/ Page family, 18 of us were on the trip.
We jumped into our tour with both feet – arrived at the airport at 9:30 a.m., trudged through Customs, sat in traffic on the autopista, at the hotel around lunch time, out to buy outlet adaptors for our electronic gadgets, to lunch, to our rooms for 10 minutes, then back to the lobby to meet our first tour guides.
We took many tours in the 13 days in Argentina and Uruguay, but I loved the first more than any other, not because it was the priciest, most extensive I’d ever been on – au contraire. My writer colleague at work would’ve called the tour and its guides “scrappy.” Español/ Spanish 4D is a tiny, seat-of-the-pants business run by three current or former Argentinean university students. The oldest – or at least the most authoritative – was Tatiana Kaler, a short, blond 26-year-old former history major at university. She led the group of advanced Spanish speakers, which consisted of two labor organizers and fluent hispanohablantes of Ecuadorian/ Colombian and Puerto Rican/ Polish heritage, Liz and Jen; a PhD student who was pretty fluent after living in Oaxaca, Mexico for a couple of years, Lee; and me, the Anglo/ gringa/ gavacha/ choose your label who’s been studying Spanish since 9th grade, only to drop it and have to start over again five, 10, 15 years later. Tatiana’s colleagues, Pancho and Lucinda, led the tours for the beginning and intermediate groups.
Tatiana effectively walked the fine line between speaking slowly and clearly enough for Lee and me, and making the content interesting enough for Jen and Liz. As I’m an Argentineophile and had spent the previous 3½ months studying Spanish and 2½ months studying my brains out about the history and culture of the country, I had more than a few questions, beginning on the Subte (subway) with the ungrammatical, “¿Qué linea tiene los trenes con los carros antiguos?” (I was trying to ask which train was the cool one with the beautiful wood-paneled cars from 1913.)
She looked slightly surprised. “La Linea A.”
We got off at the Agüero stop on Linea D and walked quickly up the calle to the Plaza del Lector (Reader’s Square), where a display of enlarged photos, Vietnam 1968, was showing during May and June. The powerful exhibit surprised me a bit, although it wasn’t too shocking to see such a display of US imperialism. I later skimmed the exhibit brochure and learned that the photos were taken by an Argentinean, Ignacio Ezcurra, who was killed in Vietnam in that year, 1968. The folleto said his second son was born six months to the day after Ezcurra disappeared in Saigon. Unfortunately, we rushed through the plaza, so I didn’t get a good look at most of the photos. I thought I’d get back later to see them, but I’ve learned over the years that rule #2 of travel may be, “Look at it/ buy it now, because chances are you will not have time to return.” (Rule #1 is “Always bring plenty of plastic zipper bags.”)
As our time was limited, Tatiana hurried us into la Biblioteca Nacional, where we climbed to the second floor and stopped at a long, narrow mural of black-and-white illustrations, created for Argentina’s 2010 bicentennial by Miguel Rep, a political cartoonist for the center-left daily Página 12 for the last 24 years. She gave us a gloss of national history based on Rep’s mural (an interactive online version can be found here; click on “Acceder al mural” on the right side of the page): http://www.muralbicentenario.encuentro.gov.ar/mural.html I already knew the basics, but was pleased to find that I understood nearly everything she said en castellano.
I liked Rep’s cartoonish drawing style, but the first thing that really caught my eye was the group of appalling caricatures of slaves in the mural; I could not believe how stereotyped they were, with huge lips and other exaggerated features – the kind of thing that hasn’t been seen in the US since the ’40s, perhaps. Not in mainstream popular culture, not during my lifetime, anyway. The last time I’d seen something that blatantly stereotypical was in a Little Black Sambo book my grandmother read to me when I was a child too young to grasp what was wrong, although the illustrations gave me an unsettled feeling. Over the course of our two weeks there, I was disturbed to see that these were not the only hideously racist portrayals of people of African descent in Buenos Aires.
I swallowed my disgust and resumed listening. When Tatiana paused for breath, I pointed to a much kinder caricature in the center of a group of Argentinean artists and asked, “¿Es Carlos Gardel?” – the god of tango singers, who died in a plane crash in 1935. We whipped through Juan and Evita Perón, various coups, and the dictatorship of 1976-83, and landed in the economic crisis of 2001-02, where another little drawing of three people and what looked like a shopping cart grabbed my eye: “¿Son cartoneros?”
I’d been lucky to have seen Ernesto Livon-Grosman’s documentary Cartoneros with a friend at the Northampton Independent Film Festival in 2006, so I knew that these professional recyclers have been working in Buenos Aires since the economic crisis almost 10 years ago. When the unemployment rate was sky-high, tens of thousands of the jobless, including many former members of the middle class, earned money by collecting and reselling cardboard (cartón) and other materials to small businesses in the middle of the recycling supply chain. The government began providing special trains to bring the cartoneros from the outer barrios into the center of Buenos Aires each evening; in order to accommodate their large collection carts, the train cars have no seats. The most famous – or infamous – is known as el tren blanco.
A decade later, somewhere between 4000 and 6000 cartoneros hit the streets every evening to remove flattened boxes from businesses and collect bottles, cans, and other recyclable material. Most cartoneros from outside the city proper work seven to 10 hours a night, returning home between midnight and 3 a.m. Although many children and teenagers do the work with their parents, the average family of cartoneros earns the equivalent of $200-$300 a month. Tatiana described the phenomenon as “un movimiento” — the Movimiento de Trabajadores Excluidos (Excluded Workers’ Movement) has organized 2000 cartoneros into cooperatives to fight organized crime in the recycling business and negotiate higher payments from wholesalers for recycled materials.
But the last time I was in Buenos Aires, in 2009, my volunteer guide had been much less progressive about it, practically spitting out his disgust: “The government should provide job training for those people.” The cartoneros seem to be among the city’s invisible workers, and I get the feeling that much of the middle class is embarrassed by their presence, as if they’re daily reminders of the nation’s economic problems.
After she finished our history-by-mural, Tatiana led us from the biblioteca onto its broad plaza, where we saw another sort of cart: an enormous sculpture of a wooden carro with the side labeled, graffiti-style, “ARGIMEX.” We were puzzled, and Lee asked if it were for Mexicans in Argentina. No, Tatiana said, it was dedicated to the many Argentinean exiles in Mexico – another connection to the dictatorship I hadn’t been expecting. She herded us past the statue of “el Papa,” the Pope, and down the hill to the Plaza Evita and its monument, telling us that the Peróns had lived on the land where la Biblioteca Nacional now stood, but after Perón was deposed in 1955, the government had demolished their palace, fearing it would become a shrine to Evita. We barely had time to take a look and snap a photo or two before heading southeast on Avenida Libertador toward el Cementerio de la Recoleta.
I’d wanted to visit this famous site on my 2009 trip, but somehow never made it. Let’s Go Buenos Aires (2009) offers a nice summary of the cemetery: “The massive, lavish, and often intricately carved tombs represent nearly every architectural period imaginable; miniature Gothic cathedrals and Neoclassical temples stand next to modernist blocks of black marble and Art Deco shrines.” Dusk was approaching, so taking photos was difficult, but it cast a romantic light. We visited the mausoleums of three presidents – Bartolomé Mitre, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, and Julio Argentino Roca, and of course Sarmiento’s arch enemy Juan Manuel de Rosas. On the way to the other tombs, we twice passed a small sign pointing to Sarmiento’s, and I felt compelled to note this aloud both times. Yes, I was overeager, but after my months of study, I was excited to finally be in the city and in the cementerio. Tatiana finally took us down that particular row and spoke for a while, as she had for the others, about Sarmiento’s great contradictions – father of public education, racist loather of gauchos, “aboriginales,” and all things native and barbarie. She explained to us the struggle between the federales and unitarios during the period of civil war between 1814 and 1876.
I was beginning to fade – we’d been on the road since 1:30 p.m. the previous day, and as I don’t rest well on planes, I was running on only a few hours of sleep. On our way out of the cemetery, we ran into a day student of Tatiana’s, a cheerful young Brazilian whose Spanish was quite good; we chatted with him for a few minutes and then parted ways, as we had one more tomb to visit: Eva Perón, who is buried in the Duarte family mausoleum. The aisle was crowded with tourists like us and with pilgrims leaving flowers. I was sorry to leave the cemetery, but what came next was one of my favorite parts of the trip – mostly because it was our first evening there, and the entire journey was spread before me like a banquet. This hour was a tiny feast, gastronomically, but one of those luminous moments that I hope stays with me for the rest of my life.
We reunited with the rest of our compañeros/as outside the cemetery on Calle Junín and walked to la Plaza Intendente Alvear, where Tatiana, Leticia, and Pancho gathered us into a circle on the lawn as the autumn dusk settled over the city. Sitting on a hill that sloped toward Avenida del Libertador, we could see for a couple of blocks, watch the lights come on and people hurrying home from jobs and school. Leti was the cebadora, preparing the mate and explaining the process in English as she she poured hot water over the herbs. I sat next to her and we began chatting – I have a streak of the show-off in me, and I love the local slang, so I probably responded to something she said with “¡Bárbaro!” She laughed, and we continued to chat, when she wasn’t preparing mate, passing it around the circle, and instructing everyone in how to drink it and participate in the ritual and how the practice differs a bit in Uruguay. Leti asked me if I’d been to Argentina before, and I mentioned my 2009 trip. She commented on my Spanish, and I told her about the excellent maestro porteño (teacher from Buenos Aires) my classmates and I had at the language school back home, and about watching ¡Grande, Pa! on the web.
This series, which is more sitcom than telenovela, is about a widower, his three young daughters, and their live-in housekeeper/ nanny and friends. It aired from 1991 to ’95 and garnered the high ratings ever on Argentine TV. Several months before my trip, I’d discovered that it was the perfect language-learning tool for me: characters of various social classes speaking rapidly in porteño Spanish; plots and ploys pedestrian enough to comprehend, but edgy enough to not bore me to sleep. At times it’s sexist as hell, but it’s interesting to watch the daughters struggle with the father in a rapidly changing culture. The actor who plays the papá, Arturo Puig, did a side project in 1991: a US-produced, 52-episode language-learning telenovela, Destinos, which was released just as I began studying Spanish in grad school; it made for the most engaging language course I’ve ever taken. Puig played the romantic male lead, inspiring a generation of high school girls to swoon (or mutter, “Eeuw, what a sugar daddy!”) Since finding the ¡Grande, Pa! blog on the web, I’ve discovered that mentioning the sitcom to Argentineans of a certain age produces raised eyebrows at the least, and sometimes even surprised yelps – whether because the program is such an evocative bit of nostalgia or because they can’t believe a USian knows the show, I’m not quite sure. In any case, I mentioned my frequent viewing to Leticia, adding, “Arturo Puig me cae bien.”
She smiled, surprised, and paid me one of the highest compliments I received on the trip: “¡Sos muy porteña!” I sat there and glowed in the dusk. “This is what I’ve been working so hard for,” I thought, sipping mate and looking down at the lights of Buenos Aires and forward to the adventures awaiting me in the coming two weeks. Tatiana and Pancho passed around slim slices of torta, and for the first time on this trip – but certainly not the last – I savored alternately el amargo y el dulce, the bitter and the sweet.