First posted in March 2012.
In May 2011, I took part in an incredible two-week study tour of Buenos Aires, Argentina. 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 tour.
When I recall, more than nine months later, our Buenos Aires study tour, I’m struck most by how much we managed to cram into two weeks. “Hit the ground running” is the cliché that applies – we had about 15 minutes of rest in our first 13 hours in the city, after a 12-hour flight from New York City, proceeded by bus and van rides totaling seven hours. (I was much more disturbed by the lack of a shower in the 72 hours I’d been [mostly] awake than by the lack of sleep.)
In our 12 1/2 days in the city, we took more tours than I take in an average year. In chronological order (deep breath!):
- Two with the Spanish instructors of Español 4-D, of sites in the Recoleta and Palermo neighborhoods. http://www.espanol4d.com/i_home.html
- The ESMA, the largest and arguably most infamous of Argentina’s clandestine prisons and torture centers during the 1976-83 military dictatorship (see my blog post, “Death Flights”).
- A brief walk through Puerto Madero, the old port area rehabbed and turned into an expensive tourist draw (complete with Hooters, much to my everlasting disgust) and steel-and-glass-towers center for multinational corporations (disgusting in a similar fashion). This tour was a quick visual lesson on the lows and highs of Menemismo, the neoliberal deforms of the 1990s, with our architecture professor, Max Page.
- A van tour with Eternautas (http://www.eternautas.com/), a group that formed at the University of Buenos Aires to offer tours with some historical depth, including architecture, culture, and economics. Eternautas is named for a famous Argentine comic – graphic novel, really – by Héctor Germán Oesterheld, about a small group of Argentines who work together to survive a nuclear attack and alien invasion. Oesterheld was disappeared by the military dictatorship in 1977. This tour included a long stop at the headquarters of CGT, Confederación General de Trabajo, the national federation of trade unions, where Eva Perón used to have an office from which she ran her Fundación Eva Perón. This is now a two-room museum crammed with Evita memorabilia, from the sublime to the shamelessly cursi (cheesy). But it was hard to be critical when our guide, a small man in his 80s, shed tears while recalling attending Eva’s funeral procession when he was young. (He was one of two million people packing the streets at the end of that July in 1952.)
- A guided walk around Parque de la Memoria, a city-run park on the Río de la Plata that includes an art gallery and outdoor sculpture depicting artists’ responses to the dictatorship. The centerpiece is a series of walls reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., with the names of more than 9000 people murdered or disappeared by the dictatorship. http://www.parquedelamemoria.org.ar/
- Three fábricas recuperadas, reopened by the workers after the owners filed for bankruptcy (often fraudulently) and left the factories sitting idle during the economic crisis of the late ’90s through 2002: IMPA, Industrias Metalúrgicas y Plásticas Argentina, which manufactures metal tubes for cosmetics (toothpaste, for example) and disposable aluminum pie pans; Grissinopoli, a breadstick factory; and Chilavert, a printer.
- The National Congress, a gorgeous Greco-Roman neo-classical building.
- Two guided walks around the Recoleta neighborhood with Sergio Kiernan, who writes a weekly column on architecture and historic preservation for Página 12, Buenos Aires’ center-left daily newspaper.
- Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. A very common day trip from Buenos Aires; unfortunately, gray skies turned to drizzle turned to torrential downpour by nightfall. When the rain started in earnest, we hired a small tour operator with a van who worked with a local taxi driver. I’m not sure which guide was more entertaining, but chatting with them sure beat wandering some of the dusty little museums.
- The headquarters of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, which then included a café, meeting areas, classrooms for their popular education school, and a small library. http://www.madres.org/navegar/nav.php?idsitio=15&idcat=30&idindex=50
- The Museum of the External Debt, at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) School of Economics. Granted, external debt isn’t the sexiest tourist-grabbing topic, but it’s a crucial subject for a nation like Argentina, perpetually in limbo between the so-called Global North and Global South. A few years ago, this was a scrappy little spot in the basement with handcrafted displays, but it came out of hiding when the UBA finished constructing a new Economics building; now it’s full of slick displays and the student guides hand out color comic books with titles like “In Debt 2: The Empires Strike Back” to the high school students who tour the little museum.
- Ate about 14 lunches and dinners together in cafés and restaurants.
- Participated in a discussion at the Labor Studies Center with the director and a member of an organization for unemployed and underemployed workers.
- “Played wallflowers” at a famous afternoon milonga, or tango dance hall, the Confitería Ideal.
- Attended the FLIA, Feria del Libro Independiente y Alternativa, Autogestiva, Autónoma, Abierta, y Anarchista, or Independent Book Fair for short. There we met with members of Eloísa Cartonera, a small publishing collective that sells poetry, fiction, and nonfiction chapbooks bound in hand-painted covers made of cartón, corrugated cardboard they purchase from cartoneros who collect the recyclables from Buenos Aires’ streets. http://www.eloisacartonera.com.ar/ENGversion.html
- Viewed portions of two independent films screened by their directors: Carolina Andreetti’s Había una Casa. Calle Recuero 1970, documenting an art performance about one of the tens of thousands of houses that was demolished by the government to build a freeway through Buenos Aires in the ’70s – another form of disappearance by the dictatorship – and Julian d’Angiolillo’s Hacerme feriante, a look La Salada, the largest informal market in Latin America, where immigrants produce and sell unlicensed copies of designer clothes and DVDs in a former Perón-era summer getaway.
- Met U.S. independent journalist Marie Trigona at another recuperated business, the Hotel Bauen, for a discussion and screening of short films by a collective with which she worked, Grupo Alívo. http://bauenhotel.com.ar/
With small or medium-sized groups, I:
- Attended a soccer game at the largest stadium in the country. I’m not a sports fan, to say the least, but a big fútbol game truly is a cultural experience. ¡Vamos, vamos, vamos River Plate!
- Grabbed empanadas and ice cream.
- Shopped at el Ataneo Gran Splendid, one of the world’s most sumptuous bookstores, located in an old opera house.
- Took a guided tour of Palacio Barolo, an amazing building constructed in the early ’20s with a design based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. http://pbarolo.disoma.com.ar/sitio/en
And on my own, I:
- Attended an orchestra concert at the Teatro Colón, one of the most beautiful and acoustically perfect opera houses in the world.
- Wandered the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo in Palermo. Quite the impressive and eclectic collection – this was a family mansion and includes rooms decorated by European designers at the turn of the last century: a Renaissance Hall, Louis XIV dining room, Regency ballroom. What struck me the most was that the family ended up selling the home not many years after moving in, after one member died of cancer.
- Went to eat a late dinner after the soccer game, and ended up at a wonderful peña (folklore show) at a restaurant in Palermo. http://lapaila-restaurante.com.ar/
- Walked off the tourist maps and into a working-class neighborhood to see a film with an ensemble cast, including an Argentine actor for whom I’d had the hots for 20 years. (Yes, that dates me; no, he hasn’t aged that well, but he still has a voice that melts butter.) In the process, I learned quite a bit about Buenos Aires theater customs (¿Qué sabía yo?)
And perhaps most important: with one of our professors, I sat in the public gallery of one of the federal courtrooms to listen to testimony in the trial of former military members being charged in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of other Argentines at the ESMA. I felt like a witness to very important history.
Quite an intense journey. Perhaps my next trip will be slightly more relaxing…
Eve Weinberg’s account of the trip is on this blog: