July 2007


Adding some color to the city’s walls

Over the past week I’ve noticed some colorful figures sprouting up on the walls of San Telmo and Barracas.


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Here’s a couple of Web sites relating to the artwork: www.elodio.tk and www.grolou.tk, which actually redirects to a Flickr page with photos of all the murals.

And while you can browse through the photos of the murals on Flickr you should really see it for yourself. The colors are very vibrant. If you’re in Buenos Aires, then it’s a very good excuse for wandering around Barracas.


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A Yankee Engineer in Argentina

A hundred years ago one of the most prominent civil engineers in the U.S. was Elmer Corthell. At the beginning of the last century he journeyed to Buenos Aires at the request of the Argentine government to consult on further development of the river and harbor. The history of the port in Buenos Aires is really quite fascinating, particularly the competing battle between Luis Huergo and Eduardo Madero but that’s another story, a post for some other day.

Madero won the first round but Puerto Madero turned out not to be very functional. Corthell was one of the engineers brought in to advise how to fix it and after two years of study suggested a set of jetties. Eventually the entire port would be scrapped in favor of a new one designed by Huergo a little further up the river.

After Corthell returned to the U.S. in 1902 he gave a lecture to the American Geographical Society, which was basically a report about his stay in Argentina. Corthell was very kind in his description of Argentina and never alluded to the political follies that prompted the Argentine government to award the port to Madero (a businessman, not an engineer) in the first place.

In his report Corthell does mention that Puerto Madero was actually designed and constructed by experienced English firms. He absolves everyone of blame by pointing out that the port was designed to accommodate only 2 million tons. But when Puerto Madero opened in 1899 the tonnage of vessels arriving and departing was 3,800,000 tons and in just two years, by 1901, the growth had more than doubled to 8,661,299 tons. (Perhaps long-term planning has never been a strong point for Argentine governments?)

Corthell gives high marks to Argentina. He said, “Argentine engineers and the methods pursued by them are equal to those of any country.”

Corthell’s lecture to the geographic society are filled with tidbits of information that would interest learned men of the day, such as the fact that in 1902 Argentina had over 60 breweries and 182 distilleries. Or, that in 1899 the tax on matches alone was $2,000,000.

As for daily life in Buenos Aires, Corthell said that French, Italian, English, and were “spoken almost everywhere”:

The manner of living is Continental-a cup of coffee with a roll in the early morning; breakfast at 11 to 12.30 (which is a meal in courses), and dinner at 7.30, the principal meal of the day. This is the custom among all classes,high and low. And there is another custom (it is strange how soon you fall into it): tea or coffee or mate (a species of steeped herb-yerba-pressed into a peculiar little gourd used as a bowl and drawn out of it with a hollow silver tube called a mate stick). This 4 o’clock drink is as necessary as any meal.

After he left Argentina Corthell wasn’t through with South America. A few years later he would travel to Brazil to build the port facilities in Rio Grande. And as a librarian I must close with acknowledging that in 1911 Corthell donated more than 6,000 books, drawings, and pamphlets that he had gathered over his 40 year career to establish the engineering library at Brown University.

Those Feminine Anarchists…

When I think of late 19th century anarchists I tend to imagine some slovenly dressed, ratty haired, vaguely Russian looking dude. But there were some women among those hell raisers and they even had a newspaper, La Voz de la Mujer.

So I learned from reading “No God, No Boss, No Husband: Anarchist Feminism in Nineteenth-Century Argentina” by Maxine Molyneux. (Latin American Perspectives, Vol 13, No. 1 (Winter 1986) 119 – 145).

The anarchist movement in the Buenos Aires of the 1890s stemmed from sectors of the city’s European immigrant communities. Molyneux describes La Voz de la Mujer as being “one of the first expressions of what was to be Argentina’s Anarchist heyday“. Indeed, the fact that there was such a large anarchist movement indicates that Buenos Aires was never really just the city of elegance that my blog’s title so wistfully evokes.

First appearing on January 8, 1896 La Voz de la Mujer was published 9 times over the course of 1896 with more than 1,000 copies printed for each issue. Each issue was four pages printed on 26cm x 36cm paper. The newspaper was short-lived, ceasing publication just after one year.

A few years ago a facsimile edition of the paper was published by the Universidad Nacional de Quilmes. Molyneux says very little about the publishers of La Voz de la Mujer, alluding that since the focus was anarchism then the originators were rather publicity shy. A beautiful actress was rumored to be one of the editors.

Many of the articles were signed though most likely all were pseudonyms. And what were some of the values promoted through La Voz de la Mujer?

  • Abolition of marriage
  • An end to unequal and restricted opportunities for women
  • Ending discrimination against women in the workplace
  • Eradicating domestic slavery
  • Equal access to education

Vice & Free Love in Buenos Aires

At the time Buenos Aires was already on its way to becoming the vice capital of Latin America (a list on which it probably still ranks fairly high). As a feminist voice it’s not surprising that La Voz de la Mujer was sympathetic towards the plight of prostitutes: “The editors held that prostitution was forced on women through poverty, men’s rapacity, and the lack of realistic alternatives for earning their living.”

Free love was one concept promoted by La Voz de la Mujer, though that didn’t equate to sexual abandon. And not all anarchists were of the same mind. There’s the story of one male anarchist who shot his lover five times as she attempted to leave him. Fortunately for her, he was a bad shot (perhaps not having read his anarchist training manual too closely) and she survived.

Molyneaux tells us that the editors of La Voz de la Mujer felt that “‘Degenerate’ sex, including masturbation, was associated with the enemy, especially priests and the bourgeoisie, who were berated as homosexuals and pederasts.” Obviously there were limits to the open-mindedness of even feminist anarchists in 1896, but they did like attacking the Church.

Here’s a rather interesting story appearing in La Voz de la Mujer that a “Luisa Violeta” claimed to be autobiographical. The setting is a confessional, a priest, and Luisa:

The priest rebukes her for not attending mass. She explains that her mother has been
ill and she has had to care for her, but the priest will have none of it: “Disgraceful
girl, don’t you know that it is the soul first and then the body . . . ?” In the course of the confession Luisa asks forgiveness for masturbating, a subject that provokes a keen interest on the other side of the grille. The priest wants to know exactly what parts of her body she touches and whether she performs these acts alone; then he asks her whether she was taught to do this by someone else. She retorts that it was none other than the priest himself. At this point, he invites her into his cubicle and tries to rape her.

Voices Replaced

While it’s a colorful bit of the city’s history La Voz de la Mujer had little impact on the Buenos Aires of its day. Over the years more women would come along but they would be socialists rather than anarchists. And more than a hundred years later women are still found in the social militancy of Buenos Aires.

women social militants

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