Somos un nacion atada con alambre.
[We are a nation held together by wire.]
Martin recalls a story about when his father was in elementary school. A government program was instituted in schools to encourage the children to save money. They would make deposits into a bank and the savings would be reflected on a chart in class. The boy was so invested in it he would walk instead of taking the public bus and sometimes would skip lunch to save up. It was reflected and celebrated on the classroom wall.
Then, one day, that political party lost power.
The Argentine peso lost value.
The program and several banks disappeared.
Along with the kids’ savings.
If you ask any Argentine, they have the most beautiful and diverse country on the planet, the greatest futbol team and player ever (MESSI!), and if God were human, he would be Argentine. They also deeply mistrust their government and think other Argentines are lazy.
There is a lot the United States can learn from our fellow Americans. We can start by remembering we are not the only Americans, and while nations across the globe watch the United States, we can learn from their experiences as well.
There is a deepening social and political division coming to the forefront in the United States. From out here it appears that many people are choosing camps and digging trenches. When I shared this observation in dismay with Argentines they shrug casually, “Oh, yes, that is called ‘La Grieta’.” The name they have given to the division in social and political ideology, one of “us vs. them.” Their acknowledgment of the division, which I so deeply dread, felt almost flippant.
Then I was reminded, they have memory of the Dirty War (1974-1983) during which it is contended that 30,000 people disappeared. To this day, we see news reports of families being reunited after 40 years because of a government run, elective blood test program to identify children whose parents were killed or “disappeared” during that war in which the babies were given to parents who were loyal to the Triple A (Argentine Anticommunist Alliance). The disappearance of the children is what gave rise to the Madres de Plaza de Mayo.
The mothers and grandmothers who stood in the 1980s demanding reunion of their broken families were a powerful force against the political tyranny, because who can open fire on a plaza of unarmed women? After the fall of the regime, they continued to fight for their understanding of social justice, at least managing a federally funded housing program, Sueños Compartidos until 2011 when it was switched back to government control due to irregularities found in management of finances.
Hebe de Bonafini, one of the founding mothers who bravely began this movement, demanding to know what became of her sons and daughter-in-law who disappeared during that time, has pressed forward with brazen political action and statements. She has aligned with former Argentine President Cristina Kirchner (wife of deceased former President Néstor Kirchner, who together form the ideology of ‘Kirchnerismo’ and who to this day continue to try to regain political power) decries the new Argentine President, Macri; she has had a long letter writing fight with Popes; and she took a dump behind the altar of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires in 2008 (see link to Hebe’s name for a clearer explanation of these events).
An ongoing political front, regarding prison sentencing and handling of crimes against humanity committed during the regime.
She is an embodiment of the kind of strength and iron will it takes to stand up against an oppressive regime. Now, without an equal or greater opposing force, she seems to spew wildly like a firefighter’s hose, after the fire is out, aiming itself at the Pope or any political event or leader who does not hold her same values. And when the political values in Argentina shift, they make a 180*.
We saw, time and again, tourism and building complexes begun and abandoned. Or the fiber optic cables which have been laid throughout the region but run no internet and are decaying before even having been used. Political parties do not follow through on projects begun by opposing parties, instead dedicating their energy to dismantling those undertakings. This has yielded a pervasive “get what you can while you can” mentality.
When I talked about saving up money for this trip and about retirement savings, one Argentine friend said, “that must be nice.” We stared at each other for a beat.
“Let me put it this way,” he explained, “I could spend my entire life saving up for a trip or to retire. I wouldn’t put it in a bank because they would disappear with it or would not let me withdrawal it when I want. Even if I did, my life savings could, overnight, become so worthless it won’t even buy a tea bag.”
There is a cycle of economic crisis in Argentina. Everyone remembers the crashes, and from those I’ve asked, they can list at least three in the last several decades. They also talk about sensing that another crash is coming. These are the larger political and economic cycles, but these also make for smaller cycles.
This mistrust of funds being available and of holding value from day to day means that when pay day rolls around the line for the ATM stretches around the block. Everyone withdraws their entire check in cash. Then the supermarkets swarm. Where credit cards are accepted, they offer to divide your grocery bill into 12 easy payments. Then, everything goes quiet. The ATMs are out of cash (a huge inconvenience as long term visitors). People begin trading or obtaining goods from kiosks or smaller markets where they can buy on credit.
An output I have observed from these constant political and economic fluctuations is a resilient and crafty people who know how to enjoy the here and now. They are not obsessed with the “almighty dollar,” because they know it isn’t.
They are creative in finding ways around impediments, be they legal or physical. Until recently, there was a very strong black market for the US Dollar called “Dollar Blue.” We traded our US bills to friends or, I kid you not, a tiny windowless room in the back of a Chinese restaurant.
Argentines have a particularly thick skin. It is tough to get by so the people are tough. Several times as I observed interactions my sensitive mid-west self had to ask whether people were fighting or joking. Always they were joking.
Also, they don’t see cheating the same way we do. I dare you to play cards with them. I taught a group of them to play “BS” and whenever I took the deck and looked through it, every single person had lied with their cards, every time. Even if they didn’t have to. They laughed at my incredulity.
Another example was, during an enduro race we unwittingly walked into, the locals watching took us under their wing, they talked about the longstanding champion of the race, an older local guy who always finished covered in dirt and twigs.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because, he knew all the shortcuts around the race course,” they explained as if it was the most obvious thing.
That experience belied another truth we learned and got to experience from Argentines, they know how to take care of themselves and anyone they choose to take under their wing, and if you are adopted, you will be well cared for indeed. They will give to a fault and it is the recipient’s responsibility to insist when enough is enough.
They will give of everything they have and will not breathe the unspoken rule that as a guest, bring a gift and contribute as you can. If you have the fortune to travel in this beautiful country, bear that in mind. If you are coming from the US, you have access to all sorts of goodies and gifts which are hard to come by, ranging from jelly beans to Garmin InReaches.
To wrap this up, a final observation is that Argentines are great at jerry-rigging. Fence posts made from rail road ties from the abandoned rail line. We saw cars from the 60s still on the road. Cars that have been driven hard their entire lives, still chugging away, belching clouds of black smoke, windows in a permanent position, parts held on by wire.
I will always love Argentina and the Argentines, because they showed me what it is to survive amidst political tumult.