10 July 2008

Las Madres

The Littles are half Argentine. Their dad was born in Buenos Aires, and lived there until his parents emigrated to the United States when he was five years old. Grandma Nelly was an only child, but Grandpa Richard was the youngest of seven children. My kids have history and extended family in Argentina, and I wanted to see some of it for myself. Their dad dug up an old picture and the address of his father's house-- Puntas Arenas 1861. It's in the Paternal Barrio, a straight shot west about twenty minutes from our hotel in Palermo. It's well outside central Buenos Aires, so Lorena (we love this woman!) gave us a more extensive map, called a taxi, and instructed the driver to take us to the house, give us a few minutes to get out and take pictures, and then take us on to our next destination. The picture we'd seen of the house looked so much like the beautiful old houses we've seen in San Telmo. When we found it, we were surprised to see that it looked nothing like the picture. We double checked the address. Punta Arenas 1861 has had a complete facelift.

We got back in the cab, and headed to Cementerio Chacarita. Grandpa Richard's family has a mauseoleum there. It's an imposing sight; it's as beautiful a cemetery as Recoleta, but much larger. The archivo, which had as many books as a small library, was closed. We had no way to look up Grandpa's family's "address," so we just went for a walk and hoped we'd find it. We knew it was pointless-- it was sort of like walking up and down random Manhattan streets in hopes of spotting a single familiar name on a single familiar mailbox. We never found Grandpa's family, but near the entrance, we spotted Grandma's maiden name on a mausoleum. A relative? We'll ask her when we get back to Los Angeles.

Chacarita has its famous residents, but it's a living, breathing cemetery. Most of the visitors we saw today were there to pay respects to a relative, not a celebrity. We saw a procession of cars pull up, presumably for a funeral. There are florists near the entrance, but I noticed that unlike at Recoleta or in the States, where visitors leave flowers in bud vases and empty soda bottles, they simply tuck them into the tombs at Chacarita. Vases, or any other vessels that hold water, are forbidden at Chacarita. Still water provides a happy home for mosquitoes, and mosquitoes here spread Dengue fever. The flowers for the dead don't live as long at Chacarita, but they're safer for the living.

We left Chacarita, and took a cab to Plaza de Mayo. The U.S. State Department website had one strict warning for Americans who visit Argentina: avoid political protests. We timed our visit to Plaza de Mayo, the political center of Buenos Aires, to coincide with a left wing march. Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo have marched in protest every Thursday afternoon at 3:30 for thirty years. Las Madres is an association of mothers who formed to protest the disappearance of their adult children during the Argentine "Dirty War"-- a military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983. Initially, we were very interested in the Mamas and their cause. What could be more odious than a dictatorship that abducts people during the night, tortures them, murders them, and never even returns the bodies? As we learned more about the Mamas, our affection diminished. Many of them have been radicalized by their experiences; they're not just little old ladies in headscarves who protest egregious human rights abuses anymore... they're hardcore socialists. The banner they carry says "distribute the wealth." One of their founders, Hebe de Bonafini, has publicly stated her support for the September 11th hijackers. We saw a lot of tourists in the square before the march (which is actually more of a leisurely stroll) and many gave Las Madres donations. That really hardened my feelings about charity: I do not ever, under any circumstances, donate so much as a dollar to a cause just because someone holds out his hand. Your money has power, and it's your political voice; be sure you agree with how it will be used before you hand it over.

The Mamas inspired much stronger feelings in me than I expected. All fired up, I took Steve's hand and headed to Munchi's to chill out over a couple of cones of delicious Argentine helado.

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