Letter from Buenos Aires
Part I: Argentina’s culture and art endure grim economic times
At the end of August, the IMF approved $5 billion in loans to Argentina, simultaneously pulling the beleaguered economy from the brink of meltdown and deepening the nation’s already enormous international debt. With another $3 billion in loans pending in autumn if the De la Rúa government sustains its zero deficit programs, Argentineans continue to struggle through a seemingly inexorable recession. The following is excerpted from the writer’s stay in Buenos Aires during early August, with more to follow in the next Rail.
Driving out from the central city on Avenida Rivadavia, Buenos Aires’ bisector and longest avenue, the Sunday traffic adheres laxly to lane markings. Compact Renaults and VWs waft among Peugeots, Alfas, the occasional ’70s Ford Futura, and the ubiquitous ’60s Falcons. Some of the Falcons are well-maintained, some decrepit. Any one of them might’ve been a green squad car for the teams in civilian clothing that hauled tens of thousands of Argentineans off to detention and disappearance during the last dictatorship’s Dirty War.
Ford built those models well. Numerous paint jobs and encroaching rust notwithstanding, they continue to service the populace of this sprawling capital, many of whom are making Sunday transits in autos or in the colorful, boldly maneuvered collectivos of B.A.’s competing bus services. Rivadavia originates at Puerto Madero, a renovated sector along the Rio de la Plata's port district, where huge, disused brick shipping warehouses now hold lofts and post restaurants. The Libertad, the Argentine Navy’s training frigate, is moored along the warehouse wharves, resting between its ambassadorial excursions to tall ship festivities, such as last year’s Independence Day extravaganza in New York harbor.
The avenue continues up the rise as the city builds from the docks (“La ciudad da la espalda al rio” was the expression my host reiterated: the city gives its back to the river), then through a brief incarnation as Avenue 25 de Mayo, where the Casa Rosada’s (the Pink House, the presidential offices) broad façade faces the white belfry of the Cabildo (the colonial government building, now a museum) across from the Plaza de Mayo, with it’s bleach white freedom spire.
After several jogs the name changes, the thoroughfare slopes slowly towards Avenida General Paz, the ring highway that delineates the metropolis and its expansive western outskirts. Passing through suburbs placarded—as are the greater buildings in the central city—with real estate signs (Vende, For sale; Aquila, For Rent), the route out here is lined with purveyors of housing materials and appliances: paints, lumber, kitchen fittings and plumbing, flooring, wall coverings.
The roadway then narrows into a sector of refrigeration wholesalers that borders the meatpacking district at Mataderos. From here, in the sprawl of greater Buenos Aires, the route will narrow further, continuing along contiguous roadways out into the province of Buenos Aires, and to the fringe of Pampas, passing through smaller towns such as Lincoln, where my host was a boy and a man once told him that the nearby road would take one, for hundreds of kilometers without erring, to the Federal Capital and, eventually, to Rivadavia’s grand central blocks.
Here in Mataderos, low gray and pale buildings cluster under the wire winter sky, forming the city blocks in all directions. Most of the secondary streets around Parque J.B. Alberdi’s greenery and soccer fields are surfaced in brick. Vendors line those streets on the park’s periphery roasting choripan and asado, the plump sausages and choice ribs of typical Argentine cuisine. For blocks around, the asado’s mandatory sheath of fat burbles, and grill smoke billows and lofts from patiently tended coals, the haze and aroma of grilled meat hanging low in the blue midday. Crowds ease and press among the vendors along Avenida de los Corrales, the wide median of which holds booths selling gourds for mate, the tea-like Argentinian hot beverage, and ponchos of merino wool, handcrafted silver, alpaca and hardwoods, asado knives, sundry antiques and crafts.
Crowds are thickest at the T-intersection where Corrales terminates at the Recova. A band performs from the broad bandstand set on risers before the old packing plant, the Frigirifico’s Lisandro de la Torre. These main buildings of the old cattle market were constructed by the English in the 19th century as they developed vast herds of shorthorn, black angus, and Hereford cattle in the provinces (the railroads also were constructed at that time to service provincial estancias). The friarcades, flesh and white walls, and ballustraded balconies rise up into canopies of broadleaf foliage.
In the shade of big, torch-form tipas trees, La Feria do Mataderos is in full swing, early afternoon on a winter day in August. On stage, a grinning guy with a hollow bodied guitar chords sedately, rawly, as the two bandmates to his right pick intertwined melodies on charagnos, stringed instruments with sounds boxes from the mulits, an armadillo-like beast from the north of the nation. These charangos emit terse, poignant timbres like those of a mandolin or Green bouzouki. Two drummers round out the band, thumping waist-mounted, barrel shaped congas, or rapping a stick on the rims in curious, intermittent rhythms. Dancers in paired lines stretch in a wide gap through crowded bystanders, dressed in thick sweaters, somber waistcoats, scarves and caps. Among the dancers are gauchos wearing short, wide riding pants, medallioned vests and the brief brimmed hats of the herdsman, their women in similar attire or in loose, layered, flora dresses. Faces deeply lined, craggy features, a great hooked nose or massive ear, thick weathered hair gnarled about their skulls as if indifferent to the Pampas’ wind and elements. Stern gazes across the divide when the dancers face their partners, an exchange of flourishes, then the lines approach, eyes intent on one another, consuming, challenging with a ferocity fixing the precocious to the erotic, leading in with hips and raised arms to a bending, face-to-face proximity, the partners melding suddenly, tenderly. With little touching and enormous feeling, the near turns form an orbit described by the dance, not its accompaniment, then the lines recede and the music reverts to its casual theme, onlookers applauding the close en-counter. The songs, named for the dances, are called out from the bandstand by one of the charangueros as he switches over to or back from his vioin: “El Gato,” “La Chacarera,” “La Escondida,” the last culminating the procession before the band takes a break. In the Escondida, couples in the long lines pull out gauzy pastel kerchiefs and flutter, flap, lash, interlace theirs with that of their partner. Shoulders broadened, torsos elevated on the hips until the dancers drop at the waist, signaling abrupt, precise, elaborate footwork in swoops matched by their partners’ broad smiles. The rhythm pauses, the crowd’s clapping resumes the music’s pulse and leads the dancers out of a near hold. Their lines sway apart, kerchiefs drawn and fretted in personal patterns: one dancer holds hers behind her head, another passes his beneath his partner’s chin, that one brings it again and again before her face then his face, some holding them in both hands overhead as the lines reverse again, some dangling them low over their hips.
A riding competition being held nearby, the Carrera de Sortijas, draws a parallel to the dancers’ concentrated focus. The Calle Lisandro de la Torre runs out along the corral’s low, whitewashed wall, with dirt strewn down the median early in the morning to prepare for these competitions. This earthen path serves as the runway as each horse and rider takes its turn.
Fifty meters down the way, a bar is suspended at four meters height from metal tripods flanking the road. At this bar’s center dangles a red polyethylene tube that serves the sprung post for the competition’s prize ring. The ring’s master, a gaucho on a white stallion, readjusts or replaces the silver ring (the circumference of a 50 centavo coin) according to the results of the previous attempt, carefully aligning the ring to the perpendicular conjunction of pole-to-track. Though this alignment is sometimes done with a mocking solemnity, his placement will be crucial to each competitor’s effort.
Down by the packing plant’s west wing, the next rider steps his or her steed away from the distant pole, then edges toward the road’s temporary dirt track, gazes over a shoulder and digs heels into the horse’s ribs. Hauled around by the reins, the horse leaps sideways onto the track, haunches reversing with sprung momentum then pounding into a gallop up the roadway, towards the pole and it’s centered, suspended ring. With a stylus or dart the length of a pencil clamped in their teeth, the strongest riders post up in the stirrups as they reach full gallop, then slap once with a belt or crop on the flank of their charging mount. Thighs locked, reins gripped in one hand (and hat often fluttering to the road far behind), they pluck the stylus from between their teeth and aim it on their line of sight at the rapidly arriving ring.
With seconds to go before horse and rider charge beneath the pole, an intimate and concise moment occurs. Aim is taken, by some with furrowed intensity, by others with a seeming casualness. Though for the spectators lining the road it’s all a brash and clattering pass, with the horse’s mane and tail streaming and dirt spewing from the hooves, for the rider a certain ideal stillness, created by the gaze, links the ring’s visual appearance to the stylus nib. Controlling the charging horse, one’s shuddering balance and one’s concentration on that ring which must sweep up even as it is seen, requires an ability to pinion speed and arrival, drawing the ring to the bib without relegating either to exclusive focus. It goes without saying that there are a lot of successful passes.
A foreman, a man who works my host’s property on the east boundary of the Pampas, is a local champion in the Carrera de Sortijas. The two men would stand out on the land, my host tells me, talking of the farm’s prospects, of the neighboring herds or the acres of sunflowers rising in late summer to stand higher than a human. The foreman would turn towards the distant farmhouse, which my host saw as little more than a fluke of his eyesight along the implacable horizon, and the foreman would say:
“Ah, X has happened by for a visit.”
Taking leave of one another once their discussion was resolved, the foreman would turn his horse and return to his home, to receive the guest he’d named at a point from which my host would have had to drive some while to even perceive that distant third party.
To be continued...