November 2006

The Slave Route in Argentina

As a follow-up to last week’s post about the early 19th-century associations of Afro-Argentines in Buenos Aires, I want to mention a digitizing project of the national archives: La Ruta del Esclavo.

The project was funded by UNESCO, which provides an introductory overview of slavery in Argentina.

The La Ruta del Esclavo site supposedly provides access to more than 500 digitized documents. Unfortunately, the interface is not very well designed and it’s very difficult to find the digitized images.

To their credit, however, the archives has provided a very detailed listing online as to which documents are in the collection. Providing this degree of metadata is very important to researchers. And, in truth, the descriptive information about a collection is more costly and difficult to develop than the actual digitizing of archival material.

Anyway, it’s a good effort and I suspect, like most libraries and archives, that the Archivo General de la Nación de la República Argentina does not have the resources for digital projects. As a librarian with extensive technological experience I really should get more involved in supporting digital libraries in Argentina.

The African Nations of Buenos Aires

Augunga, Kisama, Maravi, Monyolo, Mina Nagó, Sabalu … these were some of the names of the more than fifty African “nations” that existed in Buenos Aires during the first-half of the 19th century. In addition to the word nación these social groups were known as candombes, tangos, and tambos.

Popular perceptions of candombes is that these were secretive, underground groups focused on dancing and music. But, actually, these groups were recognized by the government and licensed under the name of Asociaciones Africanas. These African Associations essentially served as mutual aid societies that were responsible for, among other things, the education of emacipated slaves.

Religion & Politics

Candombes attended to the spiritual needs of its members, particularly through funeral rites and memory of the dead. Half of the funds of a candombe would be spent on burials and funeral services. Each candombe had a meeting house, which often included a temple or sanctuary. These candombe meeting houses were mostly, if not all, located in the southern parts of Buenos Aires. The meeting house of Sociedad Congo was located on the three hundred block of Av Independecia.

The candombes were highly politicized organizations. The original charter by the Argentine government in 1825 created just ten African associations. But internal conflicts among the groups resulted in more than fifty associations being formed by 1835.

Each candombe had an elected leader, an elder, the padre de nación. In an effort to maintain control over the African Associations, the government charter specified that the elections within each association must be overseen by the police. This control led to a patronage system between police and African leaders. In most cases, elders led an association for only a few years. But, in others, the leadership was much longer. The Nación Benguela was led by Joaquín Arriola for thirty years until 1864 when he was sued by opposing groups within the association.

The African Diaspora

I’ve written before about the decline of the Afro-Argentine population of Buenos Aires. In 1838 approximately one-fourth of the population was of African descent. At that time, approximately one-third had been born in Africa. Slavery in Argentina ended in 1813.

Update: Slavery in Argentina was not actually abolished until 1853. A law passed in 1813 guaranteed freedom to children born to slaves. The associations described here were the those of freed Afro-Argentines.

One study shows that the majority of slaves in Buenos Aires were the areas of the Congo and Angola.

One of the reasons for the internal strife among candombes was that members often came from different regions of Africa. [Ethnicity in studies of the African diaspora is a complicated issue, which I’m not going to address here]. A scholar who researched the names of the African Associations of Buenos Aires identified that 25 had names originating from West Central Africa, 14 from West Africa, and 10 from East Africa. Some bore non-African names (e.g., the group calling itself Bahiana represented former Brazilian slaves). Other groups had Catholic religious names, such as San Baltazar.

Despite the origin of the names, practices of a specific candombe didn’t represent traditional customs of the corresponding place in Africa. The rituals and activities of a candombe resulted from the blending of different groups since not all members shared the same African ancestry. Many smaller groups did not have the resources to form their own associations, so they aligned with another group.

The Uruguayan artist Figari is known for his paintings of candombe scenes. While there are a greater number of accounts of candombes in Montevideo, the African Associations demonstrate the significant role of Afro-Argentines in early 19th century Buenos Aires.

For further reading on this topic, see “To Honor the Ashes of their Forebears”: The Rise and Crisis of African Nations in the Post-Independence State of Buenos Aires, 1820 – 1860 by Oscar Chamosa in The Americas, January 2003 Vol 59, No. 3, pp 347 – 378.

A house on Pavón


Here’s an odd house that I encountered while wandering the streets one Saturday. I’ve seen a few other houses in Buenos Aires of this same style but was surprised to come cross this one on Av Pavón in San Cristóbal.

Speaking of San Cristóbal I’ve also came across this little image gallery of photographs from San Cristóbal. Not a particularly good presentation of the images but it’s a start.

2007 Buenos Aires book fair & book production in Argentina

I noticed that the 2007 edition of the Buenos Aires book fair already has its Web site up: Feria Internacional del Libro de Buenos Aires. It will run from April 16 to May 7.

I’m already excited.

Book production

Buried under the professional section of the site is a page about book production in Argentina. More than 21,000 titles were registered with Argentina agency of the ISBN during 2005, a 15% increase over 2004. Unfortunately, the stats don’t differentiate between new titles and reprints. So, it’s unclear exactly how many new titles are published.

By calculating the numbers on the book fair site, then the average print run for a book in Argentina was 3,520 in 2005. In reality, I suspect that most books receive even fewer printings here.

As for the type of books, 29% are fiction, 27% in the social sciences and the remainder in various non-fiction categories.

What about translations?

A footnote reveals that 4% of the titles were translated into Spanish from another language. So, I calculated that number to be 852 books for 2005. That strikes me as a very low number. Of those titles, 48% were from English, 13% from French, another 13% from Japanese, and around 4% each from German, Italian, and Portuguese. Oddly, 8% of the translated titles were indicated as being translated from Spanish. Huh? Perhaps it’s regional translations, making a book more suitable for readers in Buenos Aires than, say, Madrid. I don’t know.

It doesn’t mention how many of those translated titles are fiction and non-fiction. That would be interesting to know.

And, after just a bit more research, I found more statistics about book production in Argentina. I don’t have time to analyze those now but will post a summary later.

Arrival of the Italian Singers (A history of opera in Buenos Aires, part II)

Continues part I….

Early 1800s a family of singers – husband, wife, brother-in-law – tour the north of Italy, stopping in Piacenza and Reggio Emilia. Performances are becoming more scare as their style of comic opera falls out of fashion for the serious, grander sounds of Rossini. The troupe hears about opportunities in the Americas. The voyage is difficult, still by sail not steam. They play before the royal court in Rio de Janeiro, then head south into the towns of the Rio de la Plata.

The Buenos Aires that they find is not the pseudo-European capital of the later 18th century. The immigration boom has not yet arrived. Early opera productions are not full-length performances, just selections, highlights. Roles depend upon availability, a baritone sings the part of the tenor, a contralto passes herself off as a soprano. This singing family decides to settle in the area eventually becoming teachers, instructing others in the art of music.

The pattern of a family troupe traveling to South America from Italy was repeated throughout the early parts of the 1800s. The singers who came to Argentina in that time were never the leading performers. Buenos Aires received only the ones whose careers were fading, that never really got started, or that were just attempting to make a name for themselves.

Teresa Schieroni and Margherita Garavaglia are two such singers who arrived in Buenos Aires in the late 1820s. From here they traveled on to Chile and Peru before making their way across the Pacific to performances in south Asia. The women were to sail on to Calcutta but there are no reports of their arrival. Like most of us, the pair simply disappeared from history.

Some of the early singers may, in fact, have had very good voices but the opera profession in Italy, then as now, was overcrowded and competitive. Separate circuits developed for Central America and the Caribbean. European performers who traveled to Havana and Caracas rarely made their way to the southern part of the continent.

Serious opera in Buenos Aires languished until the 1850s, coinciding with the fall of Rosas. The mid-century century saw a new society emerging. In 1857 Buenos Aires opened the first Teatro Colón which featured Emma La Grua, one of the first top ranked singers to perform in Argentina. Opera season was starting in Buenos Aires.

What was opera in Buenos Aires like during the late 1800s? Coming in part III.

terrorist, assassin, avenger

A fourteen-year-old Yiddish-speaking boy, born in a shtetl outside of Kiev, forced to work since the age of ten, is shot during the 1905 Russian revolution. Wounded, he spends six months in jail. Three years later he moves to Argentina to join his brother. Within a few months he leaves the Jewish neighborhood of Once, learns Spanish, finds non-Jewish roommates, and gets a job as a machinist in an Italian-owned metal shop. He frequents the Biblioteca Rusa where he absorbs the vigorous discussions promoting anarchism.

Barely a year after his arrival, this teenager witnesses the mayhem of the 1909 May Day demonstrations. The police fire upon the protesters. Anarchists shoot back. At least five dead and dozens wounded. The days that follow are a week of violent reprisals and protests. Semana Roja. Sixty thousand people march to the funerals for those who died on May 1. Riots continue along with demands for the removal of police chief Ramón Falcón.

Tensions continue throughout the year. The 17th of October 1909 starts a month of unparalleled anarchist activity in Buenos Aires. Two immigrants from Barcelona, a twenty-two year-old bricklayer and a bookbinder of the same age, place a bomb in front of the Spanish embassy. Two weeks later another young Russian immigrant attempts to detonate a bomb in the church outside Recoleta cemetery. Meanwhile, our teenager, Simon Radowitzky, closely follows the movements of the police chief.

14 November 1909, Colonel Falcón and his aide twenty-year-old Alberto Lartigau ride through Recoleta. As their car approaches the corner of Callao and Quintana, a bomb is thrown inside. The explosion follows. Neither man is killed instantly. Their injuries are severe. Both will die before nightfall.

Massive arrests follow, mostly Russians and Jews. Simon Radowitzky identified as the assasin. Confusion about his age. Confusion about his name, Radowitzky, Radowitsky, Radowisky. Citing the criminology of the day, the prosecution asserts that the defendant’s physical features, his forehead, his jawline, clearly indicate that he possesses criminal capabilities. Too young for the death penalty. Instead, Simon Radowitzsky is sentenced to life imprisonment.

The anarchist press idealizes Radowitzky, casting him as an icon who avenged the deaths of the workers. He becomes “el juisticiero,” the one who gives justice to the working class. Supporters plan bold attempts for his escape. January 1911 a tunnel is dug under the prison. Thirteen escape, including two would-be presidential assasins, but Radowitzky is delayed and misses the opportunity. Radowitzky is transferred to the prison in Ushuaia to forestall any other escape efforts.

Yet, seven years later, on the eve of the end of the first World War, he goes over the wall and catches a waiting schooner. Freedom is short, three weeks till Chilean authorities capture Radowitzky and return him to prison.

The iconography of Radowitzky continues through the 1920s. Leading anarchist writer Diego Abad de Santillan publishes a book in 1927 titled Simon Radowitzky, el vengador y el mártir. In 1930 Radowitzky is pardoned by Argentine president Hipólito Yrigoyen, a few months before the president is overthrown by a military coup.

Eventually making his way back to Europe, Radowitzky fights in the Spanish civil war. Simon Radowitzky spends the last years of his life, ill and poor, in Mexico where he dies in 1956.

(Further online reading includes Simón Radowitzky ¿mártir o asesino? by Osvaldo Bayer and a brief bio of Simon Radowitzky by Nick Heath).

The house of Girondo
House of Oliverio Girondo

For most who pass along calle Suipacha, the plain, unassuming house next to Palacio Noel goes unnoticed. Thousands of houses and apartments in Buenos Aires posses more charming exteriors. Of course, as with many buildings in the city, you never know what is behind the facade. In this particular house, decades ago, many of the leading artistic figures of Buenos Aires partook in the dancing and drinking offered by their charismatic host, a monumental figure in Argentine literature, the poet Oliverio Girondo. Serving as hostess for these fortnightly soirées, while cultivating her reputation as a coquettish seductress, was his wife the writer Norah Lange.

Oliverio Girondo

Family wealth financed Girondo’s global journeys and bohemian, but comfortable, lifestyle. In the 1920s Girondo lived in Paris and Rome, traveling widely while amassing a vast collection of sculpture, paintings, and reportedly, one of the largest private collections of gold pre-Colombian artifacts. Returning for good to Buenos Aires in 1932, Girondo re-assumed his leadership of the literary avant-garde much to the annoyance of Jorge Luis Borges.

Always scandalous and seeking publicity, Girondo sought ways to shock the bourgeoisie. He promoted his most famous book Espantapajaros (Scarecrow) by hiring a horse-drawn funeral hearse to parade an effigy of a “learned man” along the streets of Buenos Aires. After the stunt the papier-mâché “scarecrow” resided in Girondo’s house. (I’ve heard that after Girondo’s death that the scarecrow ended up with the Museo de la Ciudad but I have no idea if it still exists).

Girondo is hardly known outside the realm of Spanish-language literary readers despite the fact that a Catholic university in Indiana has an extensive collection of his works. Girondo, if not for his life alone, is overdue for discovery by the rest of the world.

Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano

One of my favorite museums in Buenos Aires is the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano Isaac Fernández Blanco. (That’s a long name!) It’s located at Suipacha 1422 and is definitely worth a visit. True to its name, the museum has a nice collection of colonial Spanish-American material which are displayed in a very nice setting within the house.


The ground floor has a mostly religious theme. So, if you’re looking for that colonial feeling which you find in, say, Lima then this is the place to go in Buenos Aires. Be sure to wander down into the basement which also has an interesting assortment of domestic items used by upper class porteños of the day.


The museum regularly sponsors some very good photographic exhibitions. The photo exhibitions generally don’t have anything to do with colonial Spanish-America but provide a good reason to make recurring visits to the museum.

The house itself is worth a visit alone. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is actually a colonial house. It was built in 1921 by architect Martín Noel, but he didn’t live in the main house. That belonged to his brother Carlos who was mayor of Buenos Aires from 1922 – 1927. Martín lived in the front part of the estate, the group of rooms that are part of the front wall. The brothers also had a famous neighbor that I’m going to mention in another post.

More Jacarandas
another jacaranda in Parque Lezama

Robert’s posting about Buenos Aires in bloom inspired me to walk over to Parque Lezama and take a look at the jacaranda trees which are so pretty this time of year.

The city has been doing work on Parque Lezama so it’s becoming nice. Quite a bit of grass has been added to the areas that had turned to dirt and dust. The park is best on a weekday, when it can be a relaxing spot. On the weekends it gets way too crowded and rather bizarre.

I’m not really pleased with these photos. The exposure on the camera didn’t want to cooperate. Anyway, the trees look much nicer in person.

jacaranda in Parque Lezama

An Argentine Bookseller in Rome

Last week I mentioned that the best illustrated version of Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle was a 1942 edition published in Buenos Aires. The librarian within me decided to track down the bibliographic information about this work. The Spanish title is “Viaje de un naturalista alrededor del mundo” and comes out to 617 pages.

I noticed that this version is cited in a number of Spanish articles about Darwin. But the first Spanish translation of Darwin was in 1902 by Constantino Piquer. (The first translation into Italian was 1872 and for those who love trivia, the first translation into Armenian was 1949).

Even though this 1942 Spanish edition was originally published by El Ateneo, a leading bookstore in Buenos Aires, I’m not sure about it’s availability in this city. (Wait, I just learned that supposedly there is a copy at the Biblioteca Manuel Gálvez).Yet, thanks to the wonder of online databases I found it listed with a bookstore in Rome that specializes in Argentine monographs: Libreria El Sur.

Now, I’m very curious about this bookstore in Rome and the Argentine community in Italy. Argentina experienced a significant amount of Italian immigration over the decades. And a lot of those Italians moved back to Italy. So, I assume that one of those families must have opened this bookstore in Rome on Via Sebastiano Veniero. Whenever I go to Rome, it’s going to be a place where I stop for a visit. I’m interested in hearing the story of these Argentine-Italian booksellers.