by Geoffrey Clarfield (April 2010)
I am looking out across the Rio Plata, the widest river in the world. In the distance I can make out the shores of Uruguay, more than two hundred miles away. The river is light brown. I am told it is a shallow river with hardly a wave or ripple, as far as the eye can see. On weekends residents of Buenos Aires sail its waters for pleasure and return to their yacht clubs for their “asado,” the traditional Argentine barbeque where from modern Canadian standards, enormous amounts of beef are consumed by all assembled. It is a red meat eating nation where there are at least two cows for each of the country’s thirty million people. Vegetarians are few and far between. Not surprisingly, one of Argentina’s latest film successes is about the owner of a restaurant in Buenos Aires. (In Spanish the master of the barbeque is called an “asador” as the master of a bullfight is called a “matador” and there are entire books dedicated to the art.)
This river of silver, Rio Plata, was discovered in 1516, by Juan de Solis, a Spanish explorer. He was the first founder of Santa Maria de Los Buenos Aires. While exploring its shores he was killed by local Indians, who then ate him while his crew watched from their boats.
It took a second expedition under the Spanish nobleman, Pedro de Mendoza, to secure the settlement, although thousands of Indians later assaulted it in a series of violent attacks. For a Canadian traveling in Argentina these stories are a far cry from the club of good cheer, where we are told that the explorer Jacques Cartier feasted with the Indians of the St. Lawrence River, rather than being feasted upon by them. Obviously the Spaniards were not welcome here.
I have just spent a month in Argentina. I swam on its Atlantic beaches and was pounded by its waves. I rode horseback with Gauchos on an Estancia, a typical vast ranch where these Argentine cowboys still wear their high leather boots, pantaloons and carry knives in the back of their belts. Wherever I went I was treated to the asado, or Argentine barbeque and I sampled the country’s endless variety of fine wines.
I walked the streets of Buenos Aires and passed by the childhood house of Argentina’s most famous novelist, Jorge Luis Borges in Palermo Viejo and bought Tango CDs on Corrientes Street. In the book stores on the same street I found a curious work by the Argentine journalist Sergio Kiernan called Argentinean Delusions. It is a description and analysis of Argentine political fantasies, or pathology, mostly revolving around alleged and improbable conspiracies that so many Argentines have or continue to believe in, most of them of a fantastic and improbable nature. Not even a Borges could have invented them; they are that dreamlike (or nightmarish).
I visited the Recoletta cemetery where Evita Peron is buried and discovered that some years back some political opponents of Juan Peron had once successfully stolen some of his body parts in a bizarre political ritual. It captured the national imagination and is explained in a recent book by two leading journalists that merited a lengthy review in the English language Buenos Aires Herald. (By the way, in true patriarchal fashion you can see Evita’s coffin just beyond the door of her crypt under the family name of her father, Duarte-fresh flowers always adorn the door).
I asked a news vendor what he thought about Evita. He compared her to a woman of the night. On Juan Peron, it is better not to repeat what he said. He was less polite in his actual choice of words. I read about Isabel Peron, Juan Peron’s last wife, who lives under arrest in exile in Spain and who is ailing. She was the focus of a major article in a weekly journal and was prominently displayed. As I write, government lawyers are still trying to extradite her from Spain claiming that the assassinations and disappearances that characterized the military regime that deposed her, actually started on her watch with the appropriate executive approvals signed by her. In 2008 Spain turned them down once again.
I visited the inland city of Cordoba in the province where Che Guevara grew up. I became a regular reader of the Buenos Aires Herald and was surprised to read that until two years ago, people had still been disappearing mysteriously, usually kidnapped, but not in any massive or organized fashion as was once the case. Sometimes, they were mysteriously returned by their captors. It was and is part of a political grammar that still remains foreign to me.
I watched television where I discovered a 24 hour Catholic channel that included continuous sermons and prayers. [Catholicism is the official state religion.] I would sometimes fall asleep in my hotel room to the sound of women chanting, “Madre de dios” (mother of God) as they began their prayers to the Virgin Mary.
If I was not too tired I would channel surf between a program that showed Gauchos breaking in horses on the pampas (the plains that go from the coast to the mountains for hundreds of miles) while men sang and played on guitars while standing in the first row of seats in the stadium. On the subways and commuter trains I was entertained by wandering singers, guitarists and accordion players who would stop in the middle of the car, perform a full song, or deliver an oration and hope for donations. They were nearly always followed by children politely begging money from a plastic cup. Another TV program profiled Tango singers of the last one hundred years. I watched Argentines at work and play, I was a guest of many a family and I spoke to them in English and simple Spanish. Near my mother’s cousin’s apartment in an industrial suburb I would fall asleep as I heard the footsteps of a horse and buggy collecting this or that throwaway.
Despite the fact that the history of Argentina is “written in blood” I found Argentineans to be warm, friendly and engaging in a way that is thoroughly different from average Canadian behaviour. It is all about tone of voice, the way they touch each other, the constant hugging and kissing, the obvious love of children (at a restaurant with a singer, three five years olds danced and cavorted on the floor as the singer sang and the audience joined in singing, the children were welcome-it was one in the morning), the sincere intergenerational affection, the back slapping and singing in restaurants and the hours upon hours in cafes which are always filled with friends and family, exploring each other’s lives, sharing each other’s secrets and constantly eating and drinking. Even the most horrific stories are told with feeling and affection. One Argentine woman told me that every family has a “cult of the table” where they meet and eat and live their lives together.
I am taken by the way Argentines live their daily lives and I have a growing affection for them and their way of life. On the other hand, whether you can run a country on the same informal principles is an entirely different question.
I did not visit all parts of Argentina for it is almost as vast as Canada, stretching from the semi tropical Iguazu falls near the Brazilian rainforest, to the icy wastes of the Antarctica. But that was not the only thing that reminded me of home. Argentina is the geographic mirror image of Canada. Canada reaches from the temperate zone to the Arctic. Argentina reaches from the sub tropical through the temperate to the Antarctic. It was and remains a sparsely populated country with a diversity of ecological niches. It has enormous ranches and farming areas which have and continue to generate great wealth, as does Canada but as in Canada, most people live in a few large cities.
Argentina was discovered at the same time as Canada. Sebastian Cabot, one of Canada’s first explorers, also explored its shores. Greater Buenos Aires contains one third of the country’s inhabitants, similar to the demographic situation of Greater Toronto. And each of these two countries have carved out an existence and identity different from that giant country that lies between them, the United States, whose presence has and continues to effect Canada and the countries of South America in many ways.
While Europeans of Spanish descent established their authority here, Europeans of French and British descent did the same in Canada. In the eighteen hundreds, Argentina broke away from Spanish control and became an independent republic. In the mid 1800s Canada likewise achieved Dominion status. In the late eighteen hundreds both countries encouraged massive immigration from southern and eastern Europe and which profoundly changed the fabric of society.
At the turn of the century my grandfather came to Canada after fighting in the Russo Japanese war. His brother went to Argentina. Consider for a moment that the initial conditions of my grandfather and his brother’s immigration were almost the same. In 1900 Argentina and Canada both had booming economies, immigrants were pouring in, and the industrial revolution was coming to the new world. These two democracies promised much to their newly arrived and impoverished immigrant populations.
I wanted to find out, all other things being equal, whether my prospects or the prospects of my second cousins and their children were any better, given the differences between the two countries. It is and was as close to a social experiment as you can get.
Canadian historians often complain that Canada has no charismatic historical heroes. After Cartier and Champlain the mind goes blank and we are at a loss to remember past charismatic leaders and explorers. What Canadian can tell you any one of the names of the men and women who ran the Hudson’s Bay Company, a company whose goal was the fur trade but practically governed Canada for over a century and a half? They are as faceless as the board members of any modern Canadian company like Bombardier. Not so in Argentina.
While sipping on her mate (the national drink) in her house in the small town of Santa Lugares outside of Buenos Aires a friend of my mother’s 82 year old cousin complained to me, “Why did Hollywood portray Evita Peron as a heroine-she was an anti democratic fascist like Franco!” This from a diminutive lady who told me that she had taken to the streets of Buenos Aires in the sixties because she feared that government would send her nieces and nephews to fight in Viet Nam. She was arrested and spent 15 days in jail for peacefully marching outside a government building.
In 1959 when Fidel Castro rid Cuba of what all agree was a corrupt dictatorship my relatives told me that in Argentina he was compared to General San Martin, who along with Simon Bolivar liberated South America from the Spanish yoke in the early 1800s and established republics based on secular liberal principles. Like George Washington before them, both were Masons and opposed the ancient regime with its Zorro like connection between the church and the landowners.
Fidel’s handsome and charismatic alter ego, Ernesto Che Guevara, a medical student from Argentina, was born in Buenos Aires and raised in the province of Cordoba. On the streets of Buenos Aires they still proudly sell postcards and posters of his portrait. The book stores are filled with books in Spanish and English about his life. None of them seem critical. I could find few Argentineans who would find fault with Che or who had any notion of the cruelties that he committed in the name of the revolution. Here it would appear, charisma inevitably triumphs over reason, and history.
In Argentina the 1800s did not see a gradual expansion of the franchise to a growing group of citizens. Instead, the country was racked by factionalism, tension between the elites of Buenos Aires and the conservative church supported men from the rural areas with their vast estates and an interest in a less democratic, more “ancien regime.” This culminated in the dictatorship of General Rosas in the late 1800s whose lasting “achievement” was the massacre of most of Patagonia’s Indians and which ironically opened the pampas to the poor immigrants from Europe in the late 1800s including my great uncle. Charles Darwin met Rosas when he visited Argentina and described his brutal treatment of prisoners and Indians. Darwin was convinced that Rosas would one day rule Argentina and he did.
Almost one hundred years later many Argentineans suffered terribly under the military dictatorship of the 1970s. Thirty thousand Argentineans disappeared during what is called “the dirty war” probably killed by government supported death squads. Curiously, the average Argentinean almost never makes the historical connection between treatment of the natives by Rosas and the ways in which Argentineans often treat their political opponents. It is as if the two happened in two different historical dimensions. Freudians call this psychological defense mechanism, “suppression.” It may also appear to the informed outsider that the European hostility to Argentina’s native peoples has been “displaced” onto political opponents, whether of the “left” or the “right.”
Whereas in Canada there is a constant debate regarding the treatment of Canada’s first nations and its relation to contemporary political morality, in Argentina the discussion has not even begun. The Conquistadores of South America did not come to the continent to trade with the Indians as did the English and French in Canada. They came to conquer or wipe them out.
One essay that describes the political history of Argentina says it all in its title. It is called, “Caudillos, tyrants and demagogues” (a caudillo is a charismatic and authoritarian leader who is at the top of an informal hierarchy of patron client relationships). Rosas was a classic caudillo. His daughter’s life size portrait can be seen in the National Museum of Fine Arts. It shows a portly young woman with black hair parted down the middle, wearing a long white gown with jewelry and, standing in a demure but aristocratic Spanish style - the female counterpart to the conquistador like general. Despite the encouraging liberal democratic tendencies of the present (Mrs.) Kirchner led government it is mildly disturbing to read that Mr. Kirchner successfully groomed his wife to be President of the Republic after his term expired; shades of Evita.
It would seem then that the average Canadian has done much better with a history of nearly faceless leaders. In a recent poll Canadians chose Tommy Douglas as the most notable Canadian leader. Why? Because he introduced socialized medicine to Canada, a far cry from San Martin, Rosas, Che Guevara or Juan Peron. It would seem that even a mildly radical leader as Pierre Elliot Trudeau was far too radical to gain the lasting admiration of the Canadian people.
I have not yet had a chance to look at what is taught in Argentinean schools about 20th century Argentina. I shudder to think what I may discover. Suffice it to say that Argentina did not support the allies during WWII but took a neutral stance like Switzerland and Spain under Franco. After the war many Nazis, who were wanted by the allies for war crimes, found refuge in Argentina.
After a bicycle tour of Buenos Aires I was invited by the tour leader to share a beer with him and the other guides. We were sitting in an outdoor café in La Boca, that colorful slum where houses are made of corrugated iron, painted in bright colors. It is reputed to be the Barrio that gave birth to that distinctively Argentinean art form, the Tango. It is also the home of Argentina’s pride and joy, the Boca soccer club made famous by Diego Maradonna.
My guide was a sophisticated thirty something and worldly young Porteno (resident of Buenos Aires, the “port”) who proudly told me that Argentina has the largest Jewish community outside of New York and Israel and that the present mayor of the city is Jewish. I did not detect a trace of anti Jewish hostility in the manner that he spoke.
Our café was on Garibaldi Street, where Adolph Eichman, the architect of the Holocaust, had hidden before his capture by Israeli secret agents and eventual trial for genocide in Israel. As my guide was a specialist in all touristic sites relating to the history of Buenos Aires I asked him if he could show me Eichman’s house on Garibaldi Street. He looked puzzled and asked me, “Who was Eichman?”
Later in the day I had no difficulty finding the monument to the Jewish and non Jewish Argentineans who died in the terrorist bombing of the Jewish community centre in 1994. Informed sources here believe that it was carried out by Hezbollah with Iranian backing. The government investigation has been pursued with less than democratic enthusiasm. So far, Canadians have been spared such devastation and as some of the Toronto 17 have been jailed for planning to set off terrorist bombs in downtown Toronto, the bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish Community Centre and later the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires shows what happens when a government fails to protect its citizens from radical Islamic terror. An article in the Clarin (equivalent to the Globe) pointed out that there were ten antisemitic incidents a week in Argentina. And, it reported that the making and selling of dolls of Adolph Hitler could not be prosecuted under present laws since each Argentinean had a right to free expression.
I am back on Corrientes Street looking for books and CDs. Above me is an enormous poster. It is a ten foot high portrait of a dazzling young woman in her twenties or thirties, Cecilia Miliones. Cecilia started her career as a semi comic character in local soap operas. She then took a serious interest in singing Tango and gave up acting. She has been singing Tango to full houses and rave reviews.
Like the Tango, she is sultry, sexy, dresses in black and wears spiked heels. On her poster the look on her face is passionate if it is anything. Her smile is hard. She is the latest in a century long series of Tango divas and male performers, the most famous of whom was Carlos Gardel. He died in a plane crash in 1935 at the height of his fame. One of the subway stations in Buenos Aires is named after him. An elderly Porteno laughingly told me that Gardel sounds better with each passing day. I took this to mean that had he lived he would not have been turned into the patron saint of the Tango. [I later discovered that his name has entered Porteno slang - if someone is the best at what he does he is called a Gardel.]
Tango is one thing that Toronto does not have. Toronto lacks a popular art form all its own. Tango has many faces. Tango is the music of Buenos Aires and it defines the Portenos or residents of Buenos Aires similar to the way Flamenco defines the Spaniards of Andalucia. It has an artistic history of more than one hundred years, similar to American Jazz. It has many styles and has gone through different periods. It has fixed and free forms which allow for complex improvisation. It started mysteriously among black Argentineans who just as mysteriously disappeared from Argentine society leaving their African tinged musical legacy as evidence of their founders’ effect.
It started out as an art form played by Argentines of African descent in the brothels by the port before the turn of the century. It was then taken up by the immigrant workers from Spain and Italy who mixed their melodies with instruments brought by German immigrants. Once it proved a hit in Paris the middle classes of Buenos Aires then adopted it as their own because, according to the cultural logic of Argentineans that anything that comes from Paris is valuable and worth cultivating. [Note that the Argentine writer, Alberto Menguel, author of A History of Reading, immigrated to Canada and wrote his masterpiece in the Toronto Public Library with grants from the government. Once famous, he moved to France.]
Tango was reinvented by Astor Piazolla in the sixties. At the time he was thought of as an iconoclastic musical revolutionary and it is told that once a taxi driver refused to give him a ride across town because of his flexible interpretation of the Tango. He is now considered traditional. During the depression Piazolla’s family lived in New York. When Gardel came to sing there on his world wide tour Piazolla’s father insisted that he find Gardel, contact him and give him a gift of a wooden carving. The young Piazolla managed all of this and more. He met Gardel at his hotel, managed to help him translate from Spanish to English and Gardel then asked to meet his father. At the meeting Gardel suggested that Piazolla join him on his world tour since he was a good translator. It was the chance of a lifetime.
Gardel’s father was touched and excited by the offer but ultimately explained to Gardel that Piazolla was just too young to travel and tour with him at this age and maybe it would be better to wait when he was older. Gardel soon died in a plane crash in Bolivia in 1935. Piazolla’s father had saved his life and Piazolla went on to become almost as famous as Gardel, breathing new life into the Tango.
It was my privilege to meet some of the younger musicians of Buenos Aires who are now in their forties and who are once again “deconstructing” Tango and putting it back together again for 21st century listeners. As one Tango guitarist told me, “when an architect redesigns a house sometimes he breaks down a wall or two to let in more light; that is what younger musicians are doing with our Tangos.” The more Tango that I hear the more I want to hear. I admit that I am now hooked.
Tango has African beat, Mediterranean melodies and over the years it has picked up a fair amount of complex European harmony. It is a singer and a dancer’s art and there are Portenos who live to dance the Tango in the various clubs where it is performed. In the barrio called Abasto I passed by the entrance of many a studio that teaches Tango.
I am told that a generation ago it was learnt while dancing, among friends and in the family. Now, in order to dance Tango, Portenos insist that you need to take lessons.
There are basic steps and a wide variety of improvisations. In the Tango the male dancer leads. He is macho and his female partner is lascivious. Very often in a move she will wrap her leg around her partner in what looks like a sexual embrace, briefly exposing her underwear and nylon stockings. It is titillating and no doubt meant to be that way. It makes disco look as innocent as square dancing.
In 1926 the writer Vincente Rossi wrote that Tango comprises,
Strange acrobatics of a human ball curled up in a strange dance, provocative and artistic, which does not stand comparison to any other dance in the world, ever”
Not surprisingly the lyrics of the old Tango give the enterprising anthropologist food for thought. Nowadays, Tango lyrics talk about anything and everything - mobile phones, stress, refrigerators and astronauts. The old lyrics are not just about love and sex, but the kinds of male characters that sang the Tango in days past, also sang about their mothers.
A girlfriend may provide sex but only a mother’s love was for sure. In the classical self pitying tone of old Tango the Porteno laments, “Only a mother forgives us in this life. That is true, the rest is a lie!” It is not hard to connect the prayers on my late night TV praising the Virgin Mary with the old Tango singers lament that he can only trust in his mother. In addition Tango lyrics almost always blame others for the singer’s woes. He is rarely responsible and his troubles are external. Tango lyrics therefore are a far cry from Cole Porter’s song from the thirties period whose refrain is “If I am at the bottom, babe you’re at the top!”
One does not have to be a political scientist to see this theme played out again and again in modern Argentinean political life. For example despite the magnificent beauty of the city there is no master plan because there is no agreement between the city, greater Buenos Aires province and the national government on how to plan for the city’s future.
Each authority blames the other for not cooperating.
And maybe all of this is in some way related to the fact that Tango was born in physical isolation far from Rio de Janeiro and New York. Before the rise of the radio and TV, the poor of Buenos Aires needed some sort of art from to express their transplanted European but hybrid New World life and identity. Tango was the perfect mix and its isolation helped it establish its own framework, which like New York Jazz keeps transforming.
As Toronto and Montreal kept American spirits alive during the prohibition years of the depression, providing them with all the illegal alcohol that they could smuggle across the border, so did Jazz and big bands give their music to Canadian youth and thus preempted the development of a music that might have expressed Toronto in all its immigrant confusion. In the 1930s my parents would go the Palais Royal near the Exhibition grounds and dance to the big bands. What was good enough for New Yorkers was good enough for them. Nevertheless, it was Borges who summarized the history of the Tango in one sentence. In 1930 he wrote,
At the beginning it was an orgiastic mischief, today it is a way of walking.
But there is another Argentina, one that most tourists miss and that is the Argentina of the middle classes. Argentineans may consider themselves as belonging to a “developing country” or participating in a “developing economy” but Argentinean professionals are as good as any in Canada. Here doctors and lawyers train laboriously. They and their colleagues in the engineering field are as good as their counterparts in Europe. This new world desire to get ahead characterizes most of the barrios or neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires. Journalists write well, painters and sculptors abound and Argentinean musicians and authors are as good if not better than many of their counterparts abroad. Many Portenos speak English, French and Italian and intellectually they keep up with trends in Europe and America.
Buenos Aires is a city of readers. It is by extension a world center for the translation of books into Spanish. It was in Buenos Aires that the collected works of Sigmund Freud were first translated into that language. When I ventured my opinion to a Portena that Buenos Aires is the New York of South America she looked at me and said, “No, it is better than New York!”
All of this is supported by extended families that live and socialize in the Italian style (children live at home when they go to University, as in France and Canada). These families live by a work and study ethic where it is shameful to let down immigrant parents who expect their children to have better opportunities than they might have had in Sicily or Southern Spain, before they came to the new world. This is the democratic and republican legacy that San Martin and Bolivar wanted for the Spanish New World, a world of democratic freedom and opportunity. We can call it the “Argentine dream” - upward mobility in a burgeoning economy, in a spacious land of natural wealth and beauty. It is the basis of the resilience of Argentineans and nine years ago it experienced one of its severest challenges.
After a decade of record growth in the nineties and a gradual but steady return to democracy, in the year 2000, Argentina faced a sudden and grave currency crisis which triggered consumer panic and a run on the banks. The banks could not give people their money and the government intervened by arbitrarily seizing the foreign currency savings of most of Argentina’s middle classes. Within a few months thousands of middle class Portenos had lost their life’s savings, their mortgages, and many also lost their own businesses as they were linked to their banks and mortgages.
This almost happened in the US with the recent bank meltdown but, Canadian banks held firm. No doubt, in Argentina, government corruption at high levels had much to do with the crisis. During one month after the beginning of the crisis, Argentina had five presidents.
The extended family kicked in and many people that I met explained to me that if you had a job during that time, you took care of those in your family that could not work. Charitable organizations were overloaded with case work and many people slid into poverty. The already poor became even poorer and now Argentina has at least 3 million people living below the poverty line, many of them in “villages of misery” that have sprung up on vacant lots in and around the city and remind one of the pictures of the favelas of Brazil or Venezuela.
My friends explained to me that there are now five social classes in Argentina. There are the upper classes, a small group of well connected multi millionaires who still hold much of the economic and political power in the country. There is a large but threatened middle class that maintains the European standards of the country in the professions. There is a working class who struggle to make ends meet. There are the poor who can eat but can barely clothe themselves and there are the indigent who have difficulty finding food to eat.
Among the indigent there is a growing problem with drug addiction. “Paco” is the slang name for the kind of crack that the indigent take to get momentary relief from their suffering. Paco gives you a quick high and then lets you down. It stunts the brain so children who take the drug are brain damaged by ten. It is highly addictive and so many of the children die in their early teens. At the same time, it is a major factor behind the growth in interpersonal crime, robberies, attacks and hold ups that are beginning to plague middle class and even upper class neighbourhoods. The government and its social services are at a loss on what do do.
For Portenos this kind of poverty is a new thing and it disturbs them greatly. As one friend said, “The thing that used to make us different was that here the workers did not starve and we had a growing middle class. That is what made us different from Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. Now we are becoming like them!” Canada has no more than 3% of its people who live below the poverty line.
I asked my family and friends how do the middle classes manage the stress and fluctuations of life in Argentina? One woman, a professional singer, and who has visited Canada told me , “We Argentineans have become used to sudden change -political, economic, social and professional. It makes us flexible. I do not know if it is good thing or a bad thing but that is the way we are and have become. When I was in Canada I noticed that everything was organized, everything down to the smallest thing. Ten minutes before my performance I wondered to myself, where is the audience? By the time I got on stage I was relieved to discover that they were all there. As I said, things are organized in your country.” As an afterthought she added, “one of my colleagues left Buenos Aires to become an established graphic artist in Toronto but he has to come back here once a year to breathe the air.” Over lunch a worldly and well traveled Porteno psychiatrist told me,” I know that you have everything in Canada, but it is too well organized. It must be incredibly boring!”
Caught between regimes that fluctuate between democracy and tyranny, in a wealthy land where there are equally extreme fluctuations in currency and the economy and driven by a middle class desire to succeed and become established, it is no wonder that Buenos Aires has the highest number of practicing psychoanalysts in any city of the world. One of its barrios is nick named “Villa Freud” since so many practitioners keep their offices there.
On social occasions it did not take long for people to explain to me, “Oh yes Juan’s grandfather was a Basque who came here and married an Italian, but his wife is Jewish. Then, as a foreign guest they will ask you, “Do you like Argentineans?” Argentineans want you to love them and their country. At the same time they will tell you that they do not really have an identity and that for them this is one of their biggest problems. So, it is not surprising that people look inwards to try and gain some psychic peace. When I asked one Argentinean colleague why psychoanalysis is so popular she smugly answered, “Because Portenos are stuck in the 60s and 70s and psychoanalysis is part of that world view." Others were more sympathetic and reminded me that an Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish and thinks he is an Englishman-analyze that!
Psychoanalysis is one method that helps people integrate the disparate dimensions of the self in a turbulent social world. Its popularity can be explained by the fact that it is one way for Portenos to negotiate between the extreme and conflicted sensualism of the id filled world of the Tango, with its almost knee jerk blame defense mechanism, and the exaggerated and often unfair superego of Church and authoritarian politicians, who themselves most probably enter the church and politics after having experienced or practiced their methods as the children of, or the authoritarian heads of extended patriarchal families. Perhaps this is a core reason why so many people enter therapy. One can only hope that some of the new political leaders having been in analysis, will not model themselves on the caudillos, tyrants and demagogues of the past. Kirchner, despite the fact that he made his wife President after him, may be the first of a new breed.
Psychoanalysis also informs popular culture. One of my bicycle tour guides was a young woman in her twenties with a number of distinct body piercings. When I asked her what she was studying in University she casually said, “Psychology, psychoanalysis, the complete works of Freud and oh yes, I am very interested in Lacan!” In an Argentine film while two of the protagonists are having a lover’s quarrel one says to the other, “I gave up analysis to be with you!”
On the other hand, an interest in Freud may simply be one way that Portenos mark themselves off as different from Argentineans who do not live in Buenos Aires. There is a world of difference between the city and the country here. It is hard to tell. No doubt who is and who is not ultimately happy or sad, is privileged and private information between therapist and analysand.
It is a beautiful day and I decide to take a walk in the botanical gardens and re-read Borges classic short story The Aleph. Everywhere I go there are 19th century marble statues surrounded by water and fountains with bronze sculptures. I could just as well be in Paris. I watch young lovers embracing under trees on wide benches, grandparents walking their grandchildren to the swings and various and sundry Portenos escaping the noise of the city for a few moments quiet.
What do I regret? Had my grandfather come to Argentina I would have still studied music and anthropology. Instead of going to Africa I probably would have done field work among the Indians of the Andes. Instead of playing folk rock I probably would have played the Tango. Had I been born in Argentina my natural affection for people would have probably found an easier way of expressing itself. For sure I would have been a better dancer (I have two left feet). No doubt I would have enjoyed friends and family more than I did growing up in Toronto. Perhaps that is because the weather in Buenos Aires is wonderful. There is no real winter in Buenos Aires and much of life is lived on the streets and in the indoor patios of people’s homes. There is little loneliness in these houses but, there is also little privacy.
On the other hand, I would not have come to experience and celebrate that profound sense of political freedom and privacy that comes from living in a liberal democracy run on English political theories that the British brought to Canada and United States. Had I grown up in Buenos Aires I would not have recognized the relation between Locke, Hobbes and my own fierce sense of individual rights before the law. Had I been born in Argentina I would probably blame America for my country’s problems, like the older Tango singers blaming their girlfriends. Instead of re-reading Freud, I would have been lost in the Parisian complexities of Jacques Lacan, who is all the rage in Latin America.
In Canada I have never feared that I or my loved ones may “disappear in the night.” The older I get the more comfortable I am knowing that my father fought the good fight in WWII in the Canadian army with its democratic allies, whereas Argentina’s conduct during and just after WWII was scandalous. [On a recent walk through a book store I saw a new work documenting the presence of Nazi submarines in southern Argentina before and during WWII - so many skeletons in the closet in this country.] I have little fear of a run on the Canadian banks. I believe perhaps naively, that in Canada my contracts will be honored and any money or property that I have will remain under my control.
All things considered, had I lived my life without every hearing about Juan or Evita Peron, it would not have been a loss. So, despite my love for all things Argentinean and my desire to go back and discover more about their joy in living, I could not live there permanently so, ”Don’t cry for me Argentina.”
Geoffrey Clarfield is an Anthropologist at large.
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