A few evenings ago, I was excited to return from the office and find in my mailbox the anthology of Argentine comic strip writer Héctor Germán Oesterheld’s work I’d ordered recently. I immediately flopped down to read the second version of El Eternauta – unusual for me, given that I’m not a huge comics fan. I haven’t even gotten around to reading some of the most famous graphic novels published in the United States. But I’ve been curious about El Eternauta as a cultural symbol since I learned about it two years ago, and I’ve discovered that it’s less accessible to USians than many other aspects of Argentine culture such as food, language, and film.
The first version of El Eternauta was published from 1957 to ’59; Oesterheld created a more overtly political version that was published in 1969. According to my reading, there’s plenty of disagreement among Argentines about which version of the comic strip has more literary merit, which reminds me of every argument I’ve heard in the last 30 years about whether strong political stances distort or destroy good art. Oesterheld’s new comic strip, El Eternauta II, was illustrated by Francisco Solano López and published in late 1976, roughly nine months after the military coup d’etat.
In brief, El Eternauta is about a nuclear attack by aliens on the earth – obviously a common theme in 1950s popular culture. But as our Graffitimundo Buenos Aires street art tour guide, Ana, noted, tongue firmly in cheek, Oesterheld’s nuclear winter was unusual in that the aliens of that era always seemed to launch their assaults on the United States, and this was the first such attack on Argentina. “Eternauta” is a combination of the Spanish word for astronaut and the word for eternity. The protagonist, Juan Salvo, and his close friends and family members manage to survive by working together – thus the hero is the collective, a popular philosophy among young people around the world in the 1960s and ’70s.
This is the theme that inspired the Argentine political left’s later adoption of the Eternauta as a symbol, but Oesterheld’s personal fate and that of his adult children has also led to his being deeply respected: he and his four daughters, who ranged in age from 18 to 25, his sons-in-law, and two of his grandsons were disappeared by the military junta’s killing machine. Two of Elsa and Germán Oesterheld’s daughters were pregnant when the military kidnapped them; the babies were apparently born “in captivity,” as the English-language media says (I cannot bear this phrase, as it reminds me of zoo animals) and are among the approximately 400 missing grandchildren still being sought by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and other human rights activists. The two grandsons who were toddlers when kidnapped were found and raised by their paternal grandparents (Fernando) and Elsa Sánchez de Oesterheld (Martín).
I became aware of El Eternauta the symbol in 2011, when my graduate school class from the University of Massachusetts Amherst took an in-depth tour of Buenos Aires with a group of Argentine professional historians, Eternautas. My Spanish was at an intermediate level, but I’d never heard of an “eternauta,” so I looked it up on the web and learned about the comic strips.
The tour group described itself on its website: “Eternautas is a company run by historians graduated from the University of Buenos Aires, who have been managing it since March 1999. The perspective of tourism adopted by Eternautas focuses on tailor-made cultural circuits which intend to convey the history, the architectural features, the cultural codes, the political and economic nuclei, and the social and demographic data of the various tourist destinations. All these itineraries interact closely with their urban context, as they aim to provide [travelers] with the opportunity not only to enjoy their visit, but also to have an understanding of the characteristics of the sites visited.”
This description suffers from one of the pitfalls of direct translation: it makes the tours sound a lot stiffer than they are. Our graduate-student guide, Diego, knew his stuff, and he did a show-and-tell about everything from the bullet holes left in the building wall from the attack on civilians by the military opposing Juan Perón in 1959, to the activists who covered the famous 70-meter (220-foot) obelisk in the center of Buenos Aires’ main avenue with a gigantic pink condom in 2005 to commemorate World AIDS Day.
A few days after the tour, as our little mob of 18 students, professors, and their children walked home late at night from another dinner in Palermo, I spotted what I thought was Juan Salvo stenciled on a building wall. “¡El Eternauta!” I exclaimed, but no one heard me – and, it turns out, I was only half right.
In 2003, Néstor Kirchner, the governor of Santa Cruz, the southernmost province of Argentina, was elected to the presidency. I’ve heard enough arguments to choke a horse, as my mother used to say, about whether Kirchner and his successor as president, his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, are too far to the left, too far to the right, too centrist, saviors, saints, or bloody thieves. What seems clear to me is that Néstor was the first president, since Raúl Alfonsín made the initial attempt in the early 1980s, to reform the Argentine supreme court and help create the mechanisms and climate necessary to bring to trial the members of the military and of death squads who were guilty of kidnapping, raping, torturing, and killing civilians and stealing infants born in their concentration camps, among other crimes against humanity. Néstor Kirchner’s administration finally ended impunity for an extremely powerful group of Argentines – the military leaders who had been convicted in the 1980s had been pardoned by the previous president, Carlos Menem, and/or had been living under “house arrest” in wealthy neighborhoods (plenty of them were seen, and videotaped, wandering the local malls and streets).
Plenty of observers maintain that Néstor courted human rights groups to bolster his support on the left, as he’d won the presidential election with only a bit more than 22 percent of the vote, followed by Carlos Menem’s resignation from the runoff election process. (Five College Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and instructor at Hampshire and Mt. Holyoke Colleges in recent years, Cora Fernández Anderson, wrote her dissertation on, among other topics, Néstor Kirchner’s pragmatic reasons for the pursuit of prosecution for these Argentine military criminals. I can’t get the link to her work to function on this blog, but it can be located via search engine.) Whatever his motives, millions of us see the trials and prison sentences as a step forward. Naturally, the families and friends of the detenidos-desaparecidos (the detained and disappeared) who had worked for nearly 30 years for some form of justice for their lost loved ones and had been rebuffed – or at best, ignored – were more than a little grateful to be welcomed into the Casa Rosada, the Argentine equivalent of the U.S. White House.
In 2009, left-wing Peronist groups began to use the image I saw on the wall that night in Palermo, the Nestornauta (or Eternéstor). Kirchner died in 2010 at the age of 60, and shortly after that, a kirchnerista organization, La Cámpora, distributed stencils to facilitate the creation of this graffito. The Nestornauta began to show up all over Buenos Aires.
When Elsa Sánchez de Oesterheld was in Paris in September 2011 to take part in the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) ceremony awarding a peace prize to the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, she told the Argentine center-left newspaper Página/12 that she was happy about the Nestornauta: “Néstor was crazy about El Eternauta. He said it inspired his ideas, and I love that it’s associated with him.” However, our Graffitimundo guide, Ana, mentioned that the rights to the image were now in dispute, and apparently Elsa Oesterheld and representatives of La Cámpora are battling it out – whether in court, Ana didn’t say.
I’m curious about this, although I can find nothing on the web about it. And I have another question that’s been bothering me since I returned from Buenos Aires two months ago: If the Eternauta is a symbol for the Argentine left of collective action, why is the drawing used on all the walls, T-shirts, and banners of Juan Salvo alone, without any of the comic strip’s other characters?
TV Pública Argentina mini-series German: Últimas viñetas. The episodes don’t have English subtitles, but even if you don’t understand Spanish, the opening segment is worth watching for its clever design. https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=german+ultimas+vi%C3%B1etas&oq=german+ultimas+vi%C3%B1etas&gs_l=youtube.12…0.0.0.1580422.214.171.124.0.0.0.0.0..0.0…0.0…1ac..11.youtube.
sobre historieta blog: More information, in Spanish, about El Eternauta: http://sobrehistorieta.wordpress.com/?s=eternauta
Eternautas tours (English and Spanish): http://www.eternautas.com/