The reason many people migrated to Argentina throughout the ages was because even a lowly corpse cart pusher could make it into a middle class. It was a rich, promising land. And in many ways still is.
Sometimes they act like their culture is superior. It’s understandable. Argentinians find all they need in their own country. They don’t have to move to Bolivia or Chile for the desert, search for ancient artifacts in Peru, listen to highest-caliber music stars from Mexico, taste supreme quality wine from France, or go to the Rockies or Alps for an adventure in the mountains. They’ve seen it all at home. And probably bigger. That’s what I call a strong culture.
Argentinians seem a scarred society. Repressed. Traumatized and recovering from a decade-long military dictatorship that saw tens of thousands disappear. Maybe if I came here straight from Lithuania I wouldn‘t have noticed, but the stark contrast between, say, Canadian willingness to talk to strangers and Argentinian caution was obvious. Going to a bar or a concert to meet new people isn‘t as easy as, say, in London (UK) or London (Ontario). Argentinians tend to socialize in their own circles, without small-talk with strangers, dark or blond.
The trauma isn‘t overt. Argentinians are as smiley and cheerful as any Latin Americans, easily spending long evenings with friends and family over a glass of malbec, straining the structural integrity of the table with kilograms of beef fresh off the parrilla. The disease eating their collective conscious is present in their leadership and the decisions it takes. The country has never undergone its version of denazification. That is to say the public structures have never been purged of apparatchiks, many of the regime’s loyal servants kept their positions and possessions and society has never obtained closure. Protests demanding justice for victims are held every week unbroken, even though democracy‘s alive and secure. Thus there is little support or trust in the politicians.
Reasons for distrust are complex and can‘t be attributed solely to the 30k dead or missing students, dissidents, activists and children. While the bullet holes in the central buildings are a grim reminder of the Dirty War, the constantly rising prices and people falling below the poverty line speak much louder.
The problem with Argentina is simple, though not easy to fix – Argentina lacks a vision. People don‘t believe in the future. They can‘t (won‘t?) imagine their country prosperous and livable. I‘m not judging. You don‘t think about remodeling the kitchen when the roof is on fire. But without an idea WHERE to go there aren‘t any suggestions HOW to get there. A perfectly reasonable reaction, given their prosecuted thieving ex-president became a vice-president after the last elections.
Although Argentinians are plagued by many of the same problems eastern Europeans are, their response is far less somber. Is it surprising? When there‘s so much to do, taste and see, it‘s easy to forget the rest of the world. So even though culture always changes, there are some constants you may notice. Here‘s a distilled overview of these pillars of contemporary Argentinian culture.
Mate – a smoke break for the non-smokers
Seemingly every public space design choice in Argentina is dictated by its usefulness or practicality when drinking yerba mate. You notice people with a thermos, a bag of tea, an ovoid-shaped cup and a metal straw (bombilla). Tea is referred to as yerba, the cup – mate (some also call it calabasa, which is the material it‘s made of. The cups come in different shapes and materials too, but dried pumpkin/leather and wooden hold the flavor the best).
I‘m sure I‘m biased towards the thing as I‘ve gained yet another addiction, but I‘ll be damned if it isn‘t the golden standard for both calming and energizing drinks. Public spaces, such as parks, squares and sidewalks have features making it perfect for a cup of green brain juice – some shade under a tree, a balustrade for a table, a convenient set of steps. But what is yerba mate exactly?
The plant grows in Argentina (the main producer being Misiones province). It‘s been drunk by indigenous for millennia and has been valued for its flavor and medicinal properties. Good for stomach, blood pressure, energy levels and general health. It gets you moving without kicking you hard. But I‘ll say, that‘s not really why Argentinians drink it so much. If (when) you get into the habit, you quickly discover it‘s not as much about the drink itself as it is about the ritual. The slow moment you share with your friends and family. The powerful magic of time manipulation.
Everybody has their favorite brand or way of drinking. Sweet, salty, pure, with a snack, before (instead of) food. To me the most interesting and attractive part of yerba mate is the ever-changing flavor. Water a few degrees warmer makes a huge difference. So does the container and the yerba. Buying the same looking package from the same brand doesn‘t guarantee the same experience. Although drinking it is inherently randomized, all options are good.
Cerati – the first Latin American rock superstar
If there‘s one Argentinian musician you should know, it‘s Gustavo Cerati. I‘m obviously biased, I confess to have fallen in love with his arguably best album, Bocanada, as soon as I got it on my Discover weekly. Not without reason. Cerati, along with his group Soda Stereo, were the first rock group that toured the entire continent and gathered full stadiums. He is still largely unknown in Europe or USA, even though his death in 2014 brought tributes from world music heavyweights, such as Coldplay, Shakira or U2. Not only was he a talented musician, he was also the symbol of rock lifestyle who came about at a pivotal moment in history. Sodamania (the period when Soda Stereo were at the height of popularity) marked the end of an era. Dictatorship had fallen and people wanted… nay, DESERVED to party. When the group went on hiatus, Cerati continued his solo career. He gave us 7 solo albums, each different, each fresh to this day. So if rock‘s not your jam, there‘s plenty of other genres to enjoy. He was as eclectic as it gets and his 1992 work sounds as if it was produced in 2019.
Of course, Cerati isn‘t the only fish in town. Given that music is a subjective thing, I‘ll abstain from giving you references. It‘s just a Google search away, best discovered individually. But whatever your taste, you‘re more than likely to discover an amazing Argentinian musician/band you‘ll save on your playlist.
Jorge Luis Borges and the culture of gauchos
Any essay discussing a nation’s culture must include information about literature. However, keeping up with my goal of making this primer practical, I must keep it short enough. Sure, there‘s many internationally acclaimed Argentinian authors. But if we‘re talking about THE writer, I suggest this one…
Jorge Luis Borges was among the first through the floodgates, known as magical realism. After the success of one Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez with his One Hundred Years of Solitude, the period known as Latin American Boom took place (60s and 70s). Thus Borges, acclaimed at home, gained an international reputation.
He operates classic writing style with a precision of a hummingbird. The descriptions are graphic, but not needlessly baroque. The topics are all over the place – society, mythology, history. The perspective he takes – that of a top Hollywood screenwriter. I find his and his group mates work a beautiful introduction to the culture of Argentina. He talks about the different layers of society, reminding us we never really value life enough. Be it as a hardened gaucho, a wealthy landowner, a petty intellectual or a simple courtesan.
What are gauchos? In simplest words, they’re the Argentinian (or Rioplatanese, because also Uruguay and Brasil) equivalent of cowboys. The frontier people. The cattle ranchers, farmers and smugglers, pushing the Argentine border in its many wars and many climates. As far as gauchos go, there are two main characters in their national myth:
- Martín Fierro – he’s the title character of a XIX-century poem by José Hernández. The poem is to Argentina what Don Quixote is to Spain – one of the cornerstones of their foundation myth. Martín Fierro is also the name of a highly influential XX-century literary magazine, which gathered the avant-garde of Argentine literature (the Florida Group a.k.a. Martin Fierro group).
- Antonio “Gauchito” Gil – even if fewer people know him by name, most Argentines know him by his delicate, tired face. Simply put, he’s their answer to Robin Hood. With more superpowers and more balls. In truth he’s the first Argentine saint outlaw superhero who personifies the intermixing of gaucho culture with Christianity, the cult of death, wars for independence and complicated ethnic relations.
As far as oversimplifications go, we can’t go on without mentioning other grand figures, like Adolfo Bioy Casares, Julio Cortázar or Victoria Ocampo. The entirety of the literary tradition of a nation cannot be expressed with just 4 names. And with a nation that loves to read as much as Argentines (because I don’t see other explanations for the little book kiosks on every corner), there are countless other authors. But I can’t recommend more without reading them first. That would go against the mission statement of this blog. But I’m sure the comment section can help.
Meat – famous for a reason
Argentina is famous for its high quality meat. It would be easy to just list my favorite foods (or, what‘s more likely, copy paste them mindlessly from other blogs, because who has the resources to try each and every one of items at least twice for comparison and remember if they were good?). But that‘s not the point. It certainly is culture, but there is a reason why fainá – a kind of homemade pizza with potato – is not the bedrock of Argentinian identity. Meat on the other hand…
Meat is as important to Argentinians as, say, beer to Germans, or sauna to Lithuanians. People of every country in the world consume meat. But this is the first place I visited where seemingly every person is able to roast the meat on a fire to – at the very least – a delicious level. Regular participation in family/friend gatherings sharpened their tastes to an incomparable level. At this point it‘s a societal instinct.
If you hang out with an Argentinian long enough you‘ll end up in an asado. This is a time when Argentinians restock on protein, earn their bellies and strengthen social bonds. It‘s a ritual to fight off insufficient cholesterol and excessive sobriety. This is prevalent throughout the cities and the countryside. It‘s as if the inspectors required a parrilla in every house before granting a construction permit. Rooftops of Buenos Aires almost always have a parrilla or a dedicated space for one.
|Parrilla is a structure of metal, stone, brick and/or cement, found on roadsides, restaurants, in every Argentinian backyard and half the rooftops. It doubles as a BBQ grill and a shrine to the gods of hunger.|
Maybe one day I‘ll update this article with more insights. Maybe next time none of these things will count for anything.
And maybe I missed something important? Unleash your rage in the comments!