By Gaither Stewart.
Once again I am back in Buenos Aires. From my two brief visits here years ago only vague memories of this Paris-like Latin American city remain. Though a brutal military dictatorship came and left in the interim, this is still the New World … though for me it seems to be located in the Old. Instead of in a downtown hotel as before, I am living in an apartment in the centrally located barrio of La Recoleta, an area of expensive boutiques and elegant hotels and sumptuous apartment buildings. Nearby is the monumental Cementerio de Recoleta where lie many Argentine notables including Eva “Evita” Peron and Nicolas Rodriguez Pena, for whom my street is named. Lunching outside at the famous Café La Biela (the rod that links certain parts of an automobile), under the spreading branches of the internationally known, 18th century gum tree, one can watch the beautiful people of well-to-do Buenos Aires come and go. Though this was once the café of the automobile racing crowd, hence its name, it was also the favorite café of Jorge Luis Borges and two generations of intellectuals and artists. Today it is the café of a certain chic Buenos Aires.
The 2006 version of Buenos Aires at the Café Biela shows no visible effects of the economic crisis the nation has only recently emerged from. Yet, underneath, the scars are there, not only from the economic crisis but especially from the moral crisis caused by the years of the dictatorship from 1976-1983. People of this rich barrio, like many Germans after WWII, are uncertain about what went wrong in a nation that permitted the horror of at least thirty thousand desaparecidos and the moral degeneration the terror engendered. As much as Beautiful Buenos Aires wants come to terms with that past, it is still an elusive operation. Who is guilty is still an open question in Argentina.
One fourth of Argentina’s forty million people lives in Greater Buenos Aires, three million of them in the city itself. It is one of the major urban centers in the world. Buenos Aires is a concentrate of Argentina as Paris is of France. The problems of the nation are the problems of Buenos Aires. The problems of Buenos Aires are the problems of the nation.
Original Spanish settlers wanted to create a European city here around the great natural port. Greedy Spanish colonialists were cruel as have been all colonialists down through history. Despite claims about the “good of bringing civilization to savages,” there has never been any altruism in colonialism. Those sixteenth century colonialists wanted neither to assimilate others nor to be assimilated. They succeeded: they conveniently annihilated the natives, or so they believed, and established a European city.
My barrio here could be Paris or Madrid. It could be the Upper East Side in New York. White skins predominate. Though officially less than one per cent of Argentina’s population is of indigenous descent since the new Spanish arrivals simply “eliminated” the people they found here, and though a majority of people in north Buenos Aires are of European stock, the number of apparent mestizos even in chic Recoleta and Palermo continues to surprise me.
Yesterday I walked to the Retiro train station to take a look, for it is at train stations that one sees best the cross sections of a country. And they were there, in big numbers: the Indios and mestizos, the half-breeds and quarter-breeds. Maybe some are Bolivians or Indios from Brazil but most are Argentines.
In wandering around the huge city I find that an even greater number of persons have certain particular but elusive features—a square facial structure and thick cheekbones—in which I seem to see traces of man’s North Asian period that followed the diaspora of the first men from Africa, the original mother and motherland of all of us.
Although this is not the place for an anthropological survey, I am as usual on the qui vive for what links us all. I always hope to pinpoint the prototype of Man. I am continually searching for the Man in which I believe we all converge. On the plane from Rome to Buenos Aires, sitting among mainly Argentines, I saw in many faces what I thought was that original Man. Strangely and inexplicably those features were especially in the faces of white-skinned women. In these first days in Buenos Aires I have therefore intensified my search, convinced I will see the original Man here. I stop in crowds and peer into passing faces and sometimes I believe I see him.
There he is! There is Man!
The man from Siberia who never faltered, who never deviated from his southern course toward the bottom of the world, who filtered southwards down the still unnamed continent and became the “indigenous” Man, the first man in Argentina. Somehow he survived the Spanish invasion and the mass extermination. He both assimilated his Spanish executioner and was himself secretly assimilated. Again and again he mixed with the new blood arriving in waves from Europe, from Italy and Germany. Argentines marking the arrival of the Spanish five centuries ago on the Day with the ugly name of “Day of the Race” on October 12 wonder how best to call what happened here at the mouth of what they called the Rio de la Plata: Discovery? Meeting of cultures? Usurpation? Conquest?
They are right to wonder. None of the names apply.
To backtrack a bit, I think of the early men from Africa who had first migrated to the northeast to Siberia, then across the straits to Alaska and then set out on their trek to the south. Some dropped out along the way. Some turned east to become the Cherokees and the Sioux. Others stopped in Mexico to become the Toltecs and the Olmecs. Others stopped in Peru and became the Incas. Finally Man arrived in Argentina, the end of the line. Until one day he, the survivor, met his lost brothers arriving from Europe. He met himself.
By then they had changed in appearance and in speech and did not recognize or understand each other. And they still do not know each other any more than they know themselves. Man is lonely in the universe. He is lonely without his long lost brother. He feels nostalgia and wonders who he is.
I stand outside the Retiro Station and watch my brothers pass. Try as I might I do not recognize them. Yet I know intellectually that we are both men from the same mysterious and disputed origins. We have been separated by the walls of history.
What is man, forever in search of himself and his lost brother, to think in the face of walls. Of the Berlin Wall? Of the wall surrounding the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto? Of Israel’s wall to keep out their Arab brothers? Of America’s construction of a thousand mile wall to separate itself from its brothers to the south? What are we to think of genocides of our brothers?