I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked this question in the last four months. I’m going to try to answer it here because it’s a sensible query, given the almost 200 countries and many indigenous nations and territories in the world in which I could have become interested. Even given my 40-year interest in learning Spanish, there are 20 hispanohablante countries and one U.S. colony, plenty of them geographically closer to the States than Argentina.
I’d also like to address the question because several of my classmates in my last quarter of Spanish classes asked me, and I’ve been embarrassed that I was unable to respond much beyond, “No sé.” Not only was my Spanish not quite adequate to the task, but also I felt extremely self-conscious about listing my reasons for visiting Argentina again while our sensitive, intelligent porteño instructor was listening, ready to assist our conversation groups with any vocabulary questions we might have. (“Porteño/a” is the term used for those who live in or are natives of Buenos Aires, the port city.)
The simple answer I give, now that I’ve done two slide presentations about my second trip to Buenos Aires and acquaintances are asking how I became interested in the country, is that when I studied Spanish in graduate school 18 years ago, one of my instructors was from Rosario, Argentina’s third most populous city. She and I hit it off, I remained curious about her native country, and I finally got the chance to go in 2009 when the U.S. was in a recession and airfares to South America dropped 40%. But the more complex explanation involves personal and national identity, language acquisition, career aspirations, and culture in its many facets. It doesn’t fit into a 5-minute Spanish class exercise.
I could say I fell in love – not in any conventional sense of the phrase, but in various ways at different times. At first, 18 years ago, I was merely infatuated. I was trying to finish my master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Colorado; at the time the program was two years long and had a requirement of two years of college-level study of a second language. This proved difficult for those of us who’d once studied a language and since forgotten most of what we’d learned, but in my 4th semester I signed up for Spanish because I’d enjoyed it in high school.
Ours was among the first classes in the country to use a new language-learning program, a 52-episode telenovela, Destinos, developed by several linguists who taught college-level Spanish and produced by WGBH, the Boston public TV station. Destinos was cheesy, cute, a bit forced, and incredibly effective. High school students today sneer at this program, but it was cutting-edge when the world wide web was a toddler. The plot was as thin as any telenovela’s: a Mexican American lawyer from Los Angeles, Raquel Rodriguez (gives everyone a chance to trill those R’s, right?), is hired by the Mexican family of a wealthy old man in ill health who wants to resolve the great mystery of his life. Don Fernando has just discovered that his first wife, thought to have been killed in the Spanish civil war, lived to give birth to their son. Raquel follows the trail from Mexico to Spain to Argentina to Puerto Rico and back to Mexico, learning along the way about the language, art, history, and other aspects of the culture in these places. Yes, her late-’80s clothes were appalling and some of the acting was pretty overwrought, but overall the production team did an admirable job on a tight budget. More important, Destinos taught Spanish effectively. As reviewer Venus-25 pointed out on Internet Movie Database, “No one came out of my high school French class able to have a conversation; after this program I was negotiating over antique blouses in a Madrid flea market.”
Many of us who’ve used the program to get to a decent level of conversational Spanish agree that the most interesting episodes take place in Buenos Aires. The plot zips along faster than it does later in Puerto Rico and Mexico, the location shots are atmospheric, and the romantic story line is more interesting than those for other couples in the series. Raquel’s love interest, the psychiatrist Arturo Iglesias, is played by Arturo Puig, who was at the peak of his acting career in Argentina. I wasn’t infatuated with either Arturo, although I agreed with his fictional Mexican relatives who declared the character “culto” and “muy guapo.” Being an equal-opportunity bisexual, I also found Liliana Abud, the actor who played Raquel, quite attractive, and I did fall for the romantic subplot – hell, who wouldn’t like an adorable person with whom to tango and whisper sweet nothings under the stars?
But back on planet earth, I was more intrigued by what I read in the Destinos textbook about Argentina. The parallels with the United States seemed obvious: a vast country, the second-largest on the continent, isolated by various geographic features, colonized by a European empire in the 1600s and populated largely by immigrants from a number of European nations; civil war in the 1800s with some similar struggles between regions of the country and methods of governance; military slaughter of the indigenous people later that century and relegation of the survivors to the nation’s margins; an educated, literate population with a love of the arts; a dark past that no one wanted to discuss… Yes, a few sentences in the book could’ve been written by the Buenos Aires tourism board, but I was more fascinated by what wasn’t glossed over. I became convinced that the similarities and differences could teach me something about my own country, with which I’d had a contentious relationship since I was old enough to recognize the gap between reality and patriotic propaganda.
I already knew quite a bit about Mexican and Chicano culture from my other studies, and I was newly interested in Argentina. I was also head over heels, ga-ga, nutso, totally screamingly in love with Spanish for the first time since high school. I adored everything about the language – its logic, its vocabulary, its word origins, the challenges of correct pronunciation, and most of all its sound. And I was in love with a lot of other activities and processes in my life at the time, although I was half-dead with exhaustion all semester. Grad school was one of the highest highs and lowest lows I’d experienced in my almost-30 years. At times I enjoyed teaching undergraduates, but as a shy person I found it difficult to stand in front of groups of them and speak several times a week. I was taking too many credit hours – the Spanish class alone met eight hours a week – and was relying heavily on my lesson plans from previous semesters. I was also finishing my master’s thesis, my poetry book, that semester, and was sending poems to literary journals and applying for grants and writing residencies, with a good deal of success. This was thrilling, but made for a great deal of additional work. Having decided not to apply to the PhD program in literature, I was in my last full semester of grad school and afraid of what might come next in my life, but I was still riding the high of creating my own art. I’d been in love with the English language about as long as I had with Spanish, and my growth as a poet and an adult in the previous two years had surprised me.
I was also in love with my new-found queer identity, and the LGBT community in Boulder. I’d called myself bisexual or lesbian for 12 years, but I’d never had so many gay male pals as I did in that city, and some of them seemed to understand my gender orientation better than I. Queer seemed to fit me like a glove, although it was more of a contentious term in those days than it is now. In April of that semester, the third enormous (300,000 people), national March on Washington for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Equal Rights and Liberation was held on the National Mall. I flew to D.C. with more than a dozen friends from Boulder and met up with another dozen from my hometown in Western New York, elated to be with nearly all of the members of my queer extended family. I came back fired up and came out to the classes I was teaching, to my professors, to anyone who would listen. It was a huge deal in Colorado in those days – the year before, right-wing fundamentalist groups had sponsored a state referendum outlawing civil rights for lesbian, gay, and bisexual citizens, and the law, passed by a narrow margin, was still three years away from being ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
A few days after returning from the whirlwind visit to DC, I defended my master’s thesis. One of our Spanish instructors, also a grad student, had the entire class applaud me the next day, as she had for all of the students in our class who’d had an academic triumph that semester. A couple of weeks later I collected my “true A” (as opposed to a grade the instructors had curved) in the course, submitted my thesis, and went off to a scholarship at the Aspen Writers’ Conference and a successful career as a poet, I hoped.
Ah, but in the fall I had one more semester of accelerated Spanish, an incomplete to make up in a fiction course, and the struggle to piece together a living – my teaching assistantship with tuition waiver had run out after two years, and I’d borrowed money from my mother and stepfather to pay my school expenses. Suddenly, instead of writing poetry and doing my Spanish homework until midnight in the university library, I was trying to figure out how to squeeze said homework into the time between training new teaching assistants and working at dreadful temp jobs. Destinos was gone – we’d completed the 52 episodes, 52 chapters, and two workbooks in one exhilarating semester – replaced by a grammar text so dull, I’ve long since forgotten it. My new Spanish TA seemed nice enough, but the excitement of using a new program to learn a (relatively) new language – se fue. The college seniors and grad students who were my engaged sister and brother learners had been replaced by a bunch of sophomore boys who sat in the back rows and snickered. I started to despair – my writing residencies were months away, and I thought I’d go nuts if I had to do another exercise on the subjunctive.
Then, toward the middle of the semester, our TA – I’ll call her Ángela – began teaching us some Argentinean and Uruguayan literature. (I’m sure she wasn’t enjoying teaching the subjunctive, either.) By the end of the course, we’d read and discussed poetry by Alfonsina Storni, Mario Benedetti, and others I can’t recall, listened to poems that had been set to music, and seen two well-known films about the 1976-’83 dictatorship, Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and The Official Story. Literature, music, film, and politics are among my greatest interests. I began to look forward again to Spanish class, and I introduced our teacher to the work of a Chilean poet I liked, Marjorie Agosín, who had written about the brutal dictatorships in her country and Ángela’s. After I came out of the closet in one of the essays assigned for homework, Ángela loaned me one of her favorite tapes, Somos mucho más que dos, one of two albums recorded by the pop duo Sandra Mihanovich and Celeste Carballo. I’m relatively certain they were the only out lesbian singing group in Argentina in the late ’80s, and I’m not sure there’s been one since, although I’m not an expert on folclórico or rock nacional. I played that tape almost to the breaking point, and I still listen to the title song on YouTube embarrassingly often.
By the end of the semester, I’d cranked out the fiction coursework, found a steady part-time job, earned another A in Spanish, and developed a crush on Ángela. I tried to not take it too seriously – by age 30 I realized that many of my infatuations didn’t last longer than a month – but it didn’t help my fluency to feel tongue-tied around her. When exams and final papers were wrapping up, she asked me out for coffee, and I tried to follow what sounded to me like rapid-fire castellano (although I could use some of the voseo verb forms from the region, I wasn’t used to the rioplatense accent).
Suddenly one word grabbed my attention: “marido.” OK, I’d been 99.9 percent sure that she was heterosexual, but geez, she had a husband? Damn. I tried to laugh it off, but my little queer heart was crushed for a couple of days. Conversationally, though, I rallied: “¿Tu marido está en Mexico?” Yes, he was working on some project with the poor while she was in Colorado finishing her PhD. Sigh.
Sixteen years later, when I finally had enough time and money simultaneously to allow a visit to Argentina, I’d mostly forgotten Ángela, but not my profound curiosity about the similarities and differences between that country and the U.S., and the brutality of the dictatorship. It took another two years and an intense study tour, however, to learn the answers to some of my questions.
Sandra y Celeste, “Somos mucho más que dos”: