My wife and I went for a few days to Buenos Aires, visiting our daughter Elizabeth, who spent the summer (their winter!) working as an intern for an NGO. She was a great and gracious guide.
Argentine culture is distinguished by a number of ubiquitous elements. Monopolizing TV is an activity in which men in funny shorts try to kick a black-and-white round object. I never figured that out. I was also puzzled by the prevalence of Che Guevara images until I recalled that he was Argentine-born. Also frequently seen was Mafalda, a cartoon character resembling the Little Lulu of my childhood comics. And tango images.
Perhaps surprisingly in this electronic age, reading and literature appear very much alive and well in Buenos Aires, judging from the number of bookstores, and kiosks on practically every block selling newspapers and magazines as well as books. Writers are venerated far more than anywhere else I’ve seen, real cult figures; the premier one being Jorge Luis Borges, who was everywhere, despite being a DWM who wrote somewhat weird works and never got a Nobel Prize. There was a very nice Borges Cultural Center that we visited.
But they don’t read only their own writers. It was amazing to see the vast numbers of books that have been translated into Spanish. (How many books get translated into Arabic? A tiny trickle in comparison. This speaks volumes about the respective cultures.)
Buenos Aires also richly fed my connoisseur’s taste for political graffiti. Mostly left wing of course; classical liberalism has never gained much traction in Latin America, where “the right” generally means “military.” Many graffitos were neatly produced from stencils. One I appreciated said “Free Liu” with a string of Chinese characters. Another read “Tenemos Hambre Por Libertad.” (We are hungry for liberty.) At any rate, it was clear that freedom of expression is thriving.
And then – yes, above all other cultural features – Evita. Eva Peron, who died sixty years ago at 33 seems to occupy a place in the popular imagination, as a civic saint, without any parallel I can think of. This is actively promoted by the government, which is still dominated by the Peronist party.* The Presidential Palace itself is in part a shrine to Evita; and outside the Congress building one saw a series of surrealistic hagiographic Evita paintings, one of which features her spanking, over her knee, a naked child with the head of Lenin.
Elizabeth commented that Argentina feels like a country whose best days are behind it. Indeed, around a century ago, it stood far higher in the rankings of rich nations. Buenos Aires still has many tall buildings in Belle Epoque style, but also some shabbiness. Our hotel was very modern and nice, but the view from our window was seedy and rubbish-strewn. The country has long failed to get its economic act together, as exemplified by the impossibility of changing Argentine money into Dollars; an inflation problem for which the government’s main strategy is cooking the numbers; a paternalistic state sector tied in with labor unions; and a bad attitude toward free trade.
If you want the Argentine “full Monty,” Elizabeth has produced a super blog giving more extensive impressions of life there. Click here.
* Husband Juan Peron was president from 1946 till overthrown in a 1955 coup. As a kid collecting autographs in 1967 I wrote to him asking his view of the Argentine government. He replied that his exile in Spain was conditional on his political silence. Yet his letter nevertheless went on to a lengthy and blistering critique of Argentina’s politicians. In 1972, near 80, Peron returned triumphantly and was elected president again, but died soon after. Anyhow, I consider that his personal letter puts me within two degrees of separation from Evita.