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Probing Porteño Politics

Argentina, Buenos Aires

politics, protest, Buenos Aires

It was nearly dusk in Buenos Aires and I’d exhausted every possible excuse for keeping myself holed up in the studio apartment I’d rented for the month. My internet was connected, my luggage unpacked and I’d even made a call home to let the family know I’d landed safely. Despite my nervousness at being alone in a huge metropolis nearly 4000 miles from home with nothing but a handful of Spanish nouns in my arsenal, the rumblings in my famished stomach insisted that the time had finally come to embark on my Argentine adventures and a quest for food was first on the agenda.


Stepping onto the streets below, I found that my working-class neighborhood on the northern edge of San Telmo was winding down for the day. Many of the bodegas lining the network of avenues had barricaded themselves for the evening and the few pedestrians making their way down the narrow sidewalks did so in a rush. With no particular destination in mind, I headed up the hill towards Plaza de Mayo. From what I could remember of my brief stay a few years earlier, there would be plenty of small cafes for me to grab a quick bite and, hopefully, enough of a tourist scene that my meager attempts at the Castellano dialect would pass.


A few blocks into my trek I heard what seemed to be dozens of voices and drums ahead. Dueling emotions of anxiety and curiosity made me pause for a moment. Perhaps it would be wiser to turn around and head for the small, quiet square of San Telmo? But my reporter’s instinct wouldn’t let my curiosity be overthrown so on I trudged. What greeted me when I finally reached the plaza was something I’d only ever seen on television news broadcasts. Hundreds of protestors, lead by a group rallying atop a beat-up truck outfitted with a microphone and enormous speakers, marched to a steady rhythm of chants with red flags and banners held high. A line of police officers in riot gear stood sentry at every possible access point and local news crews swarmed with cameras. Though at first a bit jarring to my innate American political apathy, the adrenalin was contagious. This was exactly what I’d yearned for when I booked my trip south in hopes of rekindling the inner passion that I’d somehow lost in a year spent covering South Beach nightlife.


I eventually found dinner that evening but, more importantly, I discovered a renewed sense of political involvement that I would carry throughout my trip and that would stay with me even when I finally returned to native soil. The protest—a citizen’s plea for information on the whereabouts of a disappeared man scheduled to take the stand regarding past government atrocities—shaped the rest of my time in Buenos Aires. I picked up a book on Argentine political history for my subte rides, stopped by the Museo Evita and even took a tour of outskirt villas rebuilding after the economic crash of 2001. Where other tourists and ex-pats spent their time taking in tangos, sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes and devouring meat at neighborhood parrillas, I played anthropologist and tried to gather as much information as I could about the country’s tumultuous history. A pursuit, I soon learned, fairly uncommon even among locals. Often my political questions were dismissed with the wave of a hand or, occasionally, a distrustful narrowing of the eyes. This response, by no means unfounded, only served to peak my curiosity further. I slowly learned which political topics were a little too taboo for casual conversation and which subjects the Argentines were most anxious to educate me on. I became, if only for the month, a proud porteña.


Upon my return friends pleaded for tales of my adventures abroad. They wanted stories of mysterious strangers, unexpected customs and exotic cuisine. And though I had my share, the conversation always turned to the politics of the city. I wanted to talk about government programs to aid young artists in their business pursuits, stories of how families bounced back after sudden economic devastation and Argentina’s slow move toward embracing its joviality after decades of dictatorship. And though my exploits may not have been of the debauchery that makes backpacker legend, they extended far deeper than that. That first impression of Buenos Aires—flags and fists raised high, chanting voices carrying for blocks—is one that will stay with me far longer than your usual night of drunken debacles in a faraway city.


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19 Dec 2007

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