Buenos Aires: The Paris of South America

Words & Photos by Hayley Swinson  


 

A man wearing a white shirt, neckerchief, and loose blue pants gallops on horseback at breakneck speed, standing in his stirrups, arm outstretched, reaching with his pen-like stick to catch a ring suspended from a crossbar between two posts. The man’s colleagues watch with amusement and anticipation. There are four of them altogether, Argentine cowboys called gauchos, and they take turns trying for the ring, a game called Corrida de Sortija, beginning their approach out of sight of the audience, preceded by the sound of their horses’ hooves.

     We are on the Estancia La Porteña, a ranch in Buenos Aires Province, an hour’s drive from Argentina’s capital city. I have come to this country with Queens University of Charlotte for a two-week creative writing residency, part of my Masters of Fine Arts degree. While we are here, we will learn how to dance tango, eat Argentine barbecue and drink Yerba maté, experience gaucho culture, read the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Silvina Ocampo, and discover Evita Perón’s legacy.

     In our seminars, I have learned enough about Argentina’s history to recognize how closely it mirrors our own: Argentina is a former European colony whose government has a federalist framework and a large capital city, Buenos Aires, surrounded by a far less populated countryside with a cowboy culture. In the early 20th century, Buenos Aires experienced a significant influx of European immigrants—second only to New York City at that time—and a huge economic boom. They imported culture—especially architecture—from Paris, and began to develop their own national identity. Today, Buenos Aires is about the size of Los Angeles and is sometimes referred to as “The Paris of South America.”

     But the country was, and always has been, plagued by civil unrest and disagreement among the ruling elite. In the country’s short history, there have been six military coups, the most recent dictatorship ending in 1983. Even today, there is distrust and skepticism towards the government, and politicians are expected to fight dirty. When I brought up the 2016 indictment of former President Cristina de Kirchner on corruption charges, one Argentine, Mare, said to me, “They are always impeaching each other. One doesn’t like what the other one does, and so they try to impeach.” She shrugs, as if to say, what politicians do and think, is not relevant to me.

     And yet there is a deep-seated tradition of civil protest. Once a week for the last several decades, the mothers of disappeared youth and activists from the time of the last dictatorship, The Dirty War, march in the Plaza de Mayo in front of the presidential building—La Casa Rosada—toting signs and pictures, chanting and singing songs, demanding that their children not be forgotten. Other demonstrators have camped for years in the same square, protesting the mistreatment of soldiers who fought in the Falklands war against Great Britain. Argentines are not afraid of dissent.

     There is, though, a sense of acceptance among the porteños—the word used to describe the citizens of Buenos Aires, a port city—a “do what you want as long as you’re not affecting me” attitude that is not exactly hospitable, but neither is it discouraging. “You just have to be nice to people,” Mare says. “If you are nice, then they will be nice back.”

     While many people in B.A. do speak English, the vast majority of ordinary folks speak only Spanish. Much like the United States, Argentina covers a variety of landscapes—from mountains to plains to beaches to rivers—and many Argentines do not feel the need to travel outside the country. Mare says it depends on your family. “If your family travels a lot outside like mine does, then you travel more outside, too.”

     On a rainy, miserable day we walk through La Recoleta Cemetery, the surrounding stone mausoleums and statues blending with the gray sky above. Our guide stops us in front of the tomb of General Pedro E. Aramburu, a former president who had come to power through a military coup, ousting Juan Perón, the populist husband of Evita. Aramburu had been assassinated by Peronists in 1970, and his body was held for ransom until Evita’s body was returned. What a coincidence, I cannot help but think, that Evita and Aramburu found their final resting places within walking distance of each other. And what a perfect representation of Argentinian sentiment, to find that fresh roses grace the markers of both graves.


The best time to visit Argentina is in their spring (Sept-Nov) or fall (Mar-May). Do not miss: The Plaza de Mayo, San Telmo’s Sunday Market, La Recoleta Cemetery, La Boca barrio, and a day trip to an estancia. Best souvenirs: silver and leather goods, Yerba maté gourds, wine.