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.


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.


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

How to speak with the dead?

“What is the use of writing poetry during a period of unrestrained fascism?”

disappeared madres

Over this past month I’ve been reading and re-reading an essay by the poet Marjorie Agosín titled “How to Speak with the Dead? A Poet’s Notebook” (Human Rights Quarterly 15 (1993)214-223).

In the essay Agosín raises complex questions on writing about victims and survivors of state terrorism. “Up to what point is it feasible to make poetry about the tortured body?” How do we ask someone what it means to be the mother of a disappeared or a political prisoner? “Why should I see them cry?”

Writer in a foreign land & the inability to represent pain

Though she was born in the U.S., Agosín was raised in Chile until her family returned to North America after Pinochet came to power.

While most authors by their nature are introspective, Agosín exhibits an unusual level of self-awareness about the limits of writing in representing and adequately portraying the suffering of those who experienced traumatic, violent social conflict.

She talks about Latin American writers, like herself (“We are and are not the disappeared”), who go into exile and “recover memory and nostalgia through the temporary and borrowed scenery of an imaginary landscape.” Distance may appear to offer objectivity but it also further distorts the writer’s own perspective. “They write as survivors.”

Fiction or Non-Fiction

One of the issues I’ve been struggling with is whether it’s better to read fiction or non-fiction about the disappeared and the last dictatorship. (Of course, a reader doesn’t have to choose and can read both, but a writer must choose.) Can fiction adequately represent the horrors? In what ways are fiction writers limited in their portrayal of these realities? Conversely, do writers of fiction have more latitude than writers of non-fiction when it comes to exploring these themes? Which fiction writers should take on this material? Should fictional accounts of these emotionally charged topics be limited to those who lived through the times, have some first-hand experiences? What are the dangers of appropriating the difficult lives of others for one’s own fictional world? Or is it merely the skill of the writer? Is the literary imagination of any writer open to convey, or at least, attempt to enter this dark world of loss and memory? Would those attempts seem false, contrived?

Would it not be better simply to read non-fiction accounts of these times? Are not the testimonials of survivors more moving than any fictional accounts?

Often, I thought that non-fiction provides a clearer insight, more true. Yet, non-fiction also has its flaws, the biases of its writers, even those purporting to be objective. (Just reading what is written in most foreign newspapers about Buenos Aires should be enough for most residents of this city to realize that non-fiction is not a depiction of the truth but simply one writer’s perspective.) We must read, examine, and absorb various accounts of any topic before reaching conclusions (and even then our thoughts may continue to shift and change). Perhaps it’s the process itself – reading, writing, reflecting – that is ultimately important, more so than our actual beliefs.

(And with that swirling vagueness perhaps I’ve just rambled, somersaulted, crashed into my own pseudointellectual pomposity).

Agosín points out that literature seems less real and is easier to read precisely because we realize that it is not real, fiction camouflages repression and torture. Agosín describes her own obsession with identifying and writing about the disappeared to the point where she felt like she lost objectivity. “Now I ask myself, with what right did I speak of them? Why did I appropriate their zones and the theme of pain? What model did I follow to speak about the dead?”

“The boldness and nudity of the poem”

That line is Agosín’s. Poetry, for her, is the only way that she can access these issues. She writes, “I believe that poetry, with its atemporal qualities, its symbolic language that identifies, yet at the same time negates, allows me to create a zone of ambivalence.”

Agosín goes on to describe what she considers her failed, “nightmarish”, attempt to write a book about René Eppelbaum, one of the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Agosín’s intentions were to write a political discourse, a history but she says, “My attempt at reproducing the pain of a woman whose three children had been disappeared by the State became an impossibility.” So, Agosín returned to poetry to write about a woman “who did not want to be history, but nevertheless was history.”

With unexpected candor Agosín states that her poem was received very negatively by Eppelbaum. Agosín says, “In making her human, I took away the Plaza and left her along with her dead.”

Many more questions

Agosín’s essays raises many more questions than it answers, much more than can be addressed in this post. In Buenos Aires the disappeared and the last dictatorship are never very far from the present. Occasionally, I hear a few people assert that the past should be left in the past and that it’s time to move forward, continue rebuilding the country. Regardless of one’s perspective, the questions always will remain, the past is part of the identity.

Towards the end of Agosín’s notebook examining how to speak with the dead is this paragraph:

“In my experience, I could only formulate questions without answers. Is there a coherent self that can write and speak of political repression? Or does the being that writes, due to the nature of the topic, remain a fragment, distanced from the course of history? Would it be possible for the literature of political violence to defy the political conscience of the society that allows violence? How to avoid the creation of myth around the individual without offending? What is the correct distance between the victims and she who writes about them? How does one speak of the fear? How to speak about being a testimonial writer without ever having been imprisoned.”

A Borges Inspired Codex

While browsing around the Web today I came across this posting about the Codex Seraphianus, a possibly Borges inspired encyclopedia of a foreign world described in an unknown language by an Italian architect of the name Luigi Serafini while living in a small apartment in Rome.

Codex Seraphianus

Is the codex the product of a consuming passion or does it hold some other secret? Well, while so many are talking about Oprah and studying The Secret, I for one, think that the real secret may rest within these pages, a world which can be explored through Flickr.

In addition to Borges there is another connection to this city and the codex: Buenos Aires native Alberto Manguel who was present at the discovery of the codex.


Strange, I look out the window and there’s snow….very, very little…in Tennessee we would barely call it a flurry but here in Buenos Aires it’s almost … enchanting. Well, I’m going up to the terrace…maybe I’ll have a photo for later.

Okay, you can’t really tell much from these photos (you have to look really close) but there was a nice little snow flurry here on the edge of San Telmo & Barracas this afternoon. TN, the cable news station, said that it was the first time that it snowed in Buenos Aires since 1928, though they didn’t seem to know for sure. At one point, they said 1928, then they said 1918 a couple of times, then they said 1928.

The flurries got a little heavier in the evening. A walk around San Telmo revealed a lot of people out enjoying the unexpected snow, Parque Lezama was full of people taking photos.