On December 8th, 2002, I set out for home for the first time in eleven months. I had spent the year in Argentina, where I had hoped to achieve fluency in Spanish, and experience a culture that has fascinated me ever since I first read Jorge Luis Borges’ tale “The Library of Babel” (I cannot vouch for the quality of the translation at this link) some ten years ago. Borges, a polymath whose writings aspire to a universality that ignores political borders, can hardly be said to represent Argentina. But I was so floored by this story about a vast library whose books contained every possible combination of the letters of a given alphabet, that I could not help but want to know more about the place that spawned this strange writer. Even less typical of Argentina, perhaps, was the time I chose to go. I arrived in Argentina less than a month after riots in Buenos Aires left more than 20 civilians dead and forced the resignation of ineffectual president Fernando de la Rua, and less than one week before a sharp devaluation of the Argentine peso turned my dollars into gold. For almost an entire year I lived quite well in the provincial capital of Córdoba for a fraction of what it would have cost to live in a similarly enjoyable city in the U.S., and yet the media routinely referred to this time as the “worst crisis in the history of Argentina.”
For all the anomalous aspects of how my experience of Argentina began, it seems to me that this crisis threw into relief certain perennial characteristics of Argentine society. For example, it is said that Buenos Aires has four times the number of psychoanalysts per capita than that supposed capitol of neurosis, New York. While the number of people who can afford therapeutic treatment here is dwindling, one imagines that the stress caused by trying to make ends meet in the present context ensures that interest remains high. Tango itself–certainly the most globally recognizable of all Argentina’s cultural facets–is said to be an expression of Argentine melancholy. An important source of this melancholy is the sense of exile from the Old World that Argentines–the vast majority of them descendants of European immigrants–experienced upon their arrival to this distant austral outpost.
Argentina is still a society whose gaze is forever fixed northward. For some reason–perhaps for their unwillingness to identify with the indigenous populations that inhabit neighboring countries–Argentines have scorned the generous patrimony represented by the country’s richly varied geography. Two-thirds of the citizens of this sparsely populated republic–the eighth largest country in the world–live in the province of Buenos Aires. To the porteños–the inhabitants of the seaside capital–it’s as if moving to the interior would mean giving up hope on the possibility of boarding a ship for a brighter future. Now, a huge number of Argentines–particularly young, educated ones–really are leaving. In my experience in the university city of Córdoba, I met very few Argentines who weren’t actively searching for opportunities to emigrate (at least temporarily), and a fair number who succeeded in finding them, both in Europe and the United States, in spite of increasingly insurmountable visa restrictions.
None of this, of course, accounts for my love of this country. Whatever may be the character flaws engendered by the collective malaise I’ve suggested above, I could not imagine experiencing such astonishing genersosity and good will from any other people: not the Chileans, who are now achieving the same modernization that Argentina has long aspired to, not the famously sanguine and good-natured Brazilians, and certainly not the more indigenous Bolivians and Paraguayans, with their intrinsic (and probably justified) mistrust of outsiders. In light of this experience, I would feel sheepish about offering such a negative evaluation of the Argentine character if I didn’t have confidence that most thoughtful Argentines (and the proportion of Argentines who can be described in such a way is far larger than in my own country) would agree with it.
In any event, I didn’t achieve my goal of Spanish fluency. In November, I took a test at the University of Buenos Aires, where I was certified only as an “intermediate” Spanish speaker. To continue to make strides toward my goal of fluency, I have decided to spend at least the first half of 2003 in Mexico.
In some readily apparent aspects, these two Latin American countries could not be more different. Argentine national pride may seem formidable, but its negative character–an attitude that says “we Argentines are all in this ordeal together, so we may as well pull together”–seems to preclude its being a genuine expression of anything like patriotism. To current generations at least, definitive cultural expressions like tango seem to be promoted only for the benefit of tourists. And it’s difficult to attach any particular cultural significance to the otherwise pleasant tradition of the afternoon mate. For their identity, more than one Argentine has told me, “Argentines have always looked to Europe.” It would be difficult to imagine demonstrations of flag-waving enthusiasm such as those found in Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Mexican communities in the U.S. if Argentines were to arrive to American shores in such large numbers.
Mexicans of mixed descent–mestizos, who form the vast majority of Mexico’s population–are oftentimes no less eager to deny the indigneous portion of their heritage than Argentines are to deny that they share common cause with their largely indigenous South American neighbors. Still, perhaps because most Mexicans really do have indigenous blood coarsing through their veins, their relationship to the indigenous reality of Latin America is more ambiguous. I have in my pocket a ten-peso coin (worth a little less than one U.S. dollar). On what I suppose would be considered the “heads” side is a beautiful Aztec-inspired design while on the “tails” side I see the classic eagle-seizing-snake insignia familiar from the Mexican flag, a symbol that evokes Mexico’s status as a modern democratic republic. It is unlikely that even the small number of “pure” whites in Mexico to whom economic advantage disproportionately redounds (to say the least) would object to such a display of pride in their country’s mixed ethnic composition.
Perhaps, too, the relative illustriousness of Mexican history has something to do with their firm attachment to their territory, as opposed to the Argentines’ insistence on feeling themselves exiles. Upon entering the Palacio Municipal in front of Guadalajara’s lovely Plaza de Armas, the tourist is confronted with a literally breathtaking mural–painted by a famous muralist named José Clemente Orozco–which captures the essence of the contribution of Miguel Hidalgo, a priest who lead epically bloody campaigns during Mexico’s battle for independence, to the country’s formation. The Orozco mural in itself inspires me to learn more about Mexican history in a way that never happened in Argentina. Knowing that the country would be dramatically reshaped by its famous revolution in the early twentieth century is further incentive.
In spite of the economic reality that sends so many Mexicans north of the border, Mexico strikes me as a country far more secure in its own identity and proud of its own history and traditions than Argentina. But I’ve been here for just five days. Whether, after I spend more time here, I’ll feel justified in passing judgment on the essence of a nation of tens of millions–as I suppose I have with Argentina–remains to be seen.