This leg of my journey has come to an end and if you are looking to learn more about Asado, the Argentine culture, or my journey please take a look at Asado: A Journey Through Argentine Cuisine. This book is the culmination of all my experiences, writings, recipes, learnings while exploring Argentina and I am both very excited and proud to share it with our readers.
Words to know:
Porteno – Word used to describe people from Buenos Aires
Asado – Argentinian BBQ; a type of meat cut; a cultural institution that I am still exploring
Creole – A person of a former foreign colony, born locally
Parisian – Paris-like
Centro – Center area of Buenos Aires
Estancieros – Wealthy land owners that have “estancias” or large estates in the interior
Conventillos – Multiple dwelling houses
Palacios – Large houses the wealthy built to the north of the center
Complex. It took me a week to decide on that word to accurately describe my reactions to this city. And instead of trying to be all fancy and use synonyms for “complex” through this piece, I will just keep using the word complex. Also, authors better than me can accurately describe the symptoms of Buenos Aires and have been interspersed throughout.
The first bit of writing I did was in a cafe the day I arrived around the corner from my hostel. But saying around the corner is a bit misleading; it took me forever to finally sit down, in part due to how my indecisiveness directly correlates with hunger levels, but mainly because Buenos Aires overwhelmed me on the first day and it took time to synthesize the thoughts of that day. I walked in circles trying to figure the city out, looking for answers, until I finally found El Bar de Julio. The cafe lingered with the a Parisian feel—live guitar accompanied music, with scattered antiques and latin-faced decor; simultaneously, displaying Pepsi branded napkin holders and new age laminate floors. The Creole lady singing built the environment, but only when the owner tapped in for a number was there a strange intimacy I hadn’t experienced before in a cafe. My thoughts during those hours traversed all of my experiences of the day, from the slow ride on the local #8 from the airport to the rural pockets we picked up passengers from. The pockets collaborated to build city outskirts and slowly grew in size and density until we were finally brought to the center. I sat, struggling with both capturing what I’m seeing and experiencing (such as that new country smell when you first exit the airplane onto the ramp) without using another’s experience, as well as, not using other countries as a point of comparison to this one—a pet peeve of mine.
This area, technically considered a mix between the centro and Montserrat, starts to build the historic areas of Buenos Aires. There are majestic buildings, where the political and economic life first emerged in the 1800s, but now offer a grime-y facade due to neglect. The same irony you see in D.C. exists here where homeless camp outside of government buildings. Again, complex, and there’s a history that helps to explain these circumstances.
The Two Worlds
Argentine is two worlds, and to give the big reveal away, these two worlds are also embedded within Asado. Learning the history of Argentina brings to mind the opening by Charles Dickens of A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
The slogan “Paris of the South” gives rise to misconception: homogeneity and wealth, which in reality is only akin to Buenos Aires and few other Eastern provinces. There is another world, that of which has been hidden from most, especially tourists, which started during the colonial times. With the success of Gold and Silver in other regions of South America, the colonial powers started to explore the Rio de la Plata or southern area. 1536 marked the founding of a Spanish settlement, in which Buenos Aires had no real significance; it was the interiors that actually had a larger population at this time. When the English and Portuguese started to put pressure on the Spanish for the area, the provinces were established with Buenos Aires as the capital, one of the only places of prominence that was actually not built on top of an existing, ancient civilization, unlike countries like Peru. With the establishment of BsAs as the capitol, our first two worlds were first created: The Creoles of Buenos and the Amerindians of the Interior.
The key words above are “Buenos” and “Interior”, as these two worlds perpetuate through time. There is this constant struggle between defining what Argentine is, represented by the people of the interior, and what Argentina could be, represented by the progress in BsAs.
1. The Creoles start to push for independence from the Spanish, aligned with their newfound ideologies, belief of the inferior power of the colonies, and desire to have access to the world market from BsAs; at the same time, a new type of life is blossoming in the interior, the Gauchos, “cowboys” who have prospered from exports to the colonials. During the revolution, the independence is in the minds of the elite, but on the battlegrounds, in the hands of the lower classes.
2. After independence, Rosa rolls into power instigating a cycle that will run for the next century: democracy which is mistreated into dictatorship, a military that revolts due to a desire suppress excessiveness, and then a temporary return to that democracy. This dictatorship establishes two prominent parties further building on this complexity, the Federalists—with the belief of provincial autonomy comprised of estancieros and gauchos of the Interior—and Unitarists—with a strong core in Buenos Aires and eye on foreign interests. The rich planned to create the city; the poor created the city life. This is best represented by Tango which was created by the contact of the Creole men with the immigrants—prostitutes, Italian workers, and African dancers—representing and fusion of habanera, Andalusian tango, and milonga.
“It juxtaposes the paradox of a sophisticated and glamorous city attached to a third world with the confusing stereotype of an underdeveloped country with European manners.”
– Gabriela Nouzeiles
3. We enter the the “Golden Age” where on the surface it seems like Argentina had achieved an utopian image described by the liberals Sarmiento and Alberdi. In reality, this period, and rule by oligarchy, represented on of the most conservative times with repression and opposition to thought. Buenos Aires gets its name of “Paris of the South”. The rich bring French architects to construct palacios. The governing oligarchy push for immigration, urbanization, and public education. It seems like prosperity is pouring into the country, but the Interior, the source of the export products, remains unchanged. Even more, veiled is the conditions of those lower classes within the city. Houses of the rich who moved north to their new palaces are converted to into conventillos. The image of prosperity welcomes immigrants, mainly from Italy, who endure brutal living styles. This rise of immigration brings the cultural identity of Argentina into question. Instead of embracing heterogeneity, ironically enough, the Gaucho image is turned to for a symbol of identity for the current Argentina.
“We always have one eye fixed on the progress of nations and the other focused on the heart of our society”
– Esteban Escheverria
4. In a vast over-simplification, the last major era before we reach the present was where Peronism took center stage. Peronism was Juan Domingo Peron’s ideology that initially, key word initially, focused on Public Assistance, Labor, and Welfare. The working class movement seemed to bring the classes together, but isolated the elite and created a new sect of radicals. Unfortunately, this trend of public assistance permeates today in Argentine with a large population living off of subsidies, creating a hole that is hard to dig out of and constitutes a large part of political campaigns.
“As latin americans we have the best stomachs in the world, the most free, eclectic stomachs, able to digest, and digest well, northern lerrings or oriental couscous as well as a broiled small woodcock or one of those epics chorizos from Castilla.”
– Oliverio Girondo
Complex. I really can’t think of a better word and I think it is great that I am finally concluding this piece on the day of elections in this country. If you ask a local who they are voting for, they all first prefix “the lesser of the evils”. Buenos is a place build by intellectuals, that traveled to Europe, and then wanted to create this country into something it’s not. A living example of how different ideals and philosophies can’t all be applied to different situations. There’s an Argentina that exists in the city, and a whole new Argentina that exists outside—with different lives, views, and priorities. But even within the city, there is this disparity between the European-influenced Argentinians (Palermo-ians) who have a visibly unique stride and frequent coffee shops, and then those that live a different life, some still within the same places of the poor past (San Telmo-ians).
Borges’ reflection on the culture of Buenos is that Argentines both simultaneously participate in and reject the cultures of the past. Argentinians live a life without regret of the past and continue to look forward with a fiery passion for politics that matches their passion for football; the people here are honest about the current state of decay and have grown accustomed to rampant inflation. Unlike other countries where you travel and experience not only the history and glimpses of what is in the future, here you are only experiencing what once was. The rise of consumerism and impact of foreign cultures once again brings the question into mind around the future identity of Argentina.
This is such a strange country, but even stranger city (strange not being used in a negative way). In the time I’ve been here, I have met countless people that have returned to this city after their first visit or moved permanently to this country—sometimes ending relationships to move. At a first glance, you wouldn’t really think that was the case. There’s a beauty that’s hard to describe. A beauty I didn’t see at first, and without seeing it I wasn’t able to understand the influence this city has had on others. But now, it’s growing onto me. And I hope that it doesn’t fully suck me in.
If you travel to Recoleta cemetery this complexity comes into light. Despite coming from two different worlds, cultures, or political views, you will find opponents buried beside each other like brothers. Walking down the streets of BsAs, you see a statue of Roca (a man known for eradicating the remaining Amerindian populations) and after a couple turns and streets you will see a prominent statue of his biggest enemy.