Buenos Aires Flaneur: The View from the Streets

By Kristen McCleary 

Strolling through Buenos Aires in the twenty-first century, the city might be read as an alternative text to that of established Argentine national history. The streets, walls, and tunnels of the city itself form the backdrop from which passersby create and narrate their own histories of the city from the words and images written upon them. How does the city itself form an urban narrative?

nunca mas street image

Angel Rama’s The Lettered City (1996) is a key work that shows how Latin American elite use the written word to define and reproduce power in urban centers. For Rama, the naming of city streets “demonstrates how utterly the rational lettered city determines the structures of the material city.”[1] In this blog, I will highlight the ways in which the non-elites recognize and push back against this narrative of power through the naming of streets and the inclusion of names of everyday people in public spaces.   The recognition and reclaiming of street, sidewalks, and other public spaces by non-elites reflects a continual movement in literature as well as in human rights work towards an increasing democratization of public space. The city itself is a text—a primary source that urban historians might consider evaluating.

The actual names of streets, as Rama notes, do reflect national history. In the older parts of the city’s center, they often highlight a male elite narrative: (Antonio Luis) Beruti, (Juan José) Castelli, (Domingo) French, and (Manuel) Belgrano, for example, are all names of leaders of the independence movement there. But throughout the popular culture of the city, there has been an awareness of this monolithic view of the powerful elite and the naming of city streets. Alberto Vacarezza’s 1919 play, El Barrio de los Judios (The Neighborhood of the Jews), a sainete (short comedic play of customs) about Jewish immigrants to Buenos Aires is set in the Jewish neighborhood of Once. Mauricio, a recent immigrant, enthusiastically assimilates into Argentina: “Here there is no more religion than that of love, and here, there is nothing more Argentine than Santos Vega, San Martín, Rivadavia, Paseo de Julio, and Belgrano!” Mauricio has listed off the name of a famous gaucho (cowboy), Santos Vega, and three national heroes, San Martín, Rivadavia, and Belgrano, all of whom also have well-known streets named after them. Mauricio’s mentioning of Paseo de Julio, a street only, is a humorous jab at how he has misread the nation’s history by assuming all street names were iconic male war figures.

These comedic plays emphasized lunfardo, the street slang or coded language derived from regional dialects of immigrants transplanted to Buenos Aires.[2] Plays thus transformed the linguistic landscape of the city by moving words from the immigrant community like araca, piñata, ranun, piernun, and bronca from the arrabales, or city outskirts where the words were born, into central Buenos Aires through theater.[3] In El barrio de los Judíos, for example, Samuel verifies his daughter Olga’s Argentine-ness by invoking a specific street intersection which would be easily recognized by a porteño audience: “Yes, indeed she was born at Talcahuano and Lavalia [sic Lavalle] in 1899, at three in the morning.” Plays frequently referred to such locales as the Gathés y Chavez department store, the traditional Café Richmond on Florida Street, Bric y Brac pawn shop, the Parque Japones amusement park, the Tigre river delta, and the local zoo, as well as particular theaters, underscoring the important role that shopping and other leisure time activities played in society. This emphasis on specific geographic locations served to emphasize the urban identity of audience members, while it also educated non-porteños about Buenos Aires during an era of massive immigration, when three out of four adult members of the city were foreign-born.

Jorge Luis Borges’ (1899-1986) mentor, Macedonio Fernández (1874-1952), was an urban novelist who wrestled with concepts of self and identity in the twentieth century. He also critiqued this monolithic naming device where masculine ‘heroes’ were almost always behind the city’s street names. In his novel, Museo, a character, the President, muses that streets and monuments ought to be named for virtues rather than for people:

Cities with better taste would have streets called Rain, Awakening, Mother, Brother, The Call, Live Without Never, You Shall Return, Farewell, Wait for Me Always, Homecoming, Loving Family, Kiss, Friend, Greeting, Dream, Yet Again, Insomnia, Perhaps, Makeover, Forgetfulness, Endeavor, Come Back to Me, Gathering, Live in Fantasy, Fantasy Pin, Flowering Hedge, … [4]

In such a masculine urban context, it might seem almost as unlikely that streets might be named after women as they would for emotions, but that is what happened with the mid-1990s renovation of the former port district, Puerto Madero. In all of Buenos Aires, only fifty-nine streets are named after women, the majority of them located here. The naming system of city streets deliberately calls attention to the historical absence of women on the city’s streets and in the city’s history. The port area fell into disuse in the 1940s and was revived in the 1990s. In 1994, the city council voted to name the streets after women in an attempt to re-orient the political power of the nation towards that half of the population who had been invisible in the public sites of the city. The neighborhood now highlights the name of pioneering women such as Cecilia Grierson, a doctor and female rights activist, and the first woman in South America to earn a medical degree (1889); Azucena Villaflor, one of the original mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who was arrested, imprisoned, and killed in the notorious night-flights that the military carried out from the Naval Mechanics Officers School (or ESMA, as it is known by its Spanish initials); filmmaker Maria Luisa Bemberg; and many others. The famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s Bridge of the Woman, (Puente de la Mujer) also resulted from this urban renovation.

If women have been historically neglected in urban narratives, with perhaps the exception of their role as prostitutes who quite literally walk the streets, street art has embraced both the iconic human rights group Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and Ni Una Menos (Not One Woman Less), the new social movement that campaigns against gender based violence.

 

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Buenos Aires is one of the few cities in the world where graffiti—or, more to the point, street art—is legal. Since the return to democracy in 1984, the nation has eschewed censorship because it was one of the primary tools of repression exerted over the population during the last military dictatorship. Throughout the city there are visual murals that pay homage to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. In particular, murals in the neighborhood of La Boca give testament to the power and strength of the first social group to confront the military dictatorship in 1976.

Historically referred to as the “Dirty War,” human rights activists and scholars now apply the terms ‘state terrorism’ and ‘genocide’ to the period of military rule from 1976-1983. [insert photo of the names of state terrorism here] Taking a lesson from Chile, where Augusto Pinochet drew both international condemnation for his violent suppression of dissent and Cold War era support from the United States, Argentina’s military avoided public displays of power and violence when they overthrew the crumbling government of Isabel Peron on March 24, 1976, while also earning U.S. backing. The military junta carried out arrests clandestinely and suspended the right to habeas corpus. Thus, the idea that people could be ‘disappeared’ entered the Spanish lexicon. Marguerite Feitlowitz writes, “The terrorist state [of Argentina] created two worlds—one public and one clandestine, each with its own encoded discourse.”[5]

30,000.jpgWho was disappeared? Primarily students, union leaders, and supporters of Juan Domingo Perón. Perónism, as Perón’s political style of populism came to be known, advocated a Third Way of trying to carve out a space between socialism and capitalism. While Perón came to power via the military in 1943 as one of a Group of United Officers, in 1955 he was overthrown by the military. He returned to power in 1973 and died in office in 1974. These were fractious years in the political history of Argentina.

Students on the left in the 1970s (and most students were on the left) embraced Peronism’s promise of social justice. They were also drawn to Marxist ideas and Peronist organizations, like the Montoñeros, that engaged in urban guerrilla warfare tactics. The military attempted to portray the “Dirty War” as one in which they were fighting against leftist guerrilla organizations. Most scholarship has dismissed this “theory of the two demons” arguing that by the time Perón returned from exile in Spain, the urban guerrilla movement had already been defeated. Contemporarily, the Argentine military has been viewed as an agency that carried out state-sponsored terror on the Argentine left.[6]

The radicalization of students and the popularity of Peronism with young people explains why students were often the targets of disappearances by the military regime. Stay-at-home mothers who adhered to a traditional patriarchal family structure were the first members of civil society to politically and publically organize against the regime, as they tried to find out what had happened to their children who had simply not come home one day—they had disappeared. The first mothers began to recognize one another as they regularly visited hospitals, police commissaries, and even jails, in desperate attempts to locate their children.

On April 30, 1977, a group of mothers, led by Azucena Villaflor, met on the Plaza de Mayo, which faced the Casa Rosada, the seat of the government, to demand information about their children. Embracing the very public space of the city’s principal plaza, the mothers walked in order to avoid being detained for loitering or for public assembly, which was illegal at the time. The mothers at first wore pañales, diapers made of gauze, on their heads to symbolize their roles as mothers. They later changed the flimsy pañal for a sturdier but still symbolic white pañuelo, or headscarf, and also carried posters of their missing children and the date on which they were “disappeared.” Villaflor’s daughter disappeared in 1977. In 2005, the Argentine Forensic Association identified her body and that of four other women who had been victims of the infamous ‘night flights’ where a helicopter dropped drugged detainees from ESMA (Naval Mechanics Officer School) into the Río de la Plata. Once they washed ashore dead, locals buried them.

DSC01044In 1986 the group splintered into two with the Línea Fundadora remaining focused on finding out what happened to their disappeared family members, and the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo evolving into a larger and more politically radical social justice movement headed by Hebe de Bonafini. Human rights activists estimate that anywhere between 15,000 and 30,000 people were killed during the military dictatorship. While the military dismissed the mothers as Las Locas (the crazy ones), they remain icons of resistance to many Argentines. The image of their headscarves can be seen throughout the city.

las malvinas son argentina

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boca moms fist detenidos

 

If in the nineteenth century urban street names were dedicated to glorifying an elite citizenry, in the 21st century human rights activists are invoking the forgotten names of victims of events like Argentina’s military. The human rights activist group Barrios x La Memoria y Justicia (Neighborhoods for Memory and Justice) have been laying memory tiles throughout Buenos Aires; already over 500 have been set into the capital’s streets. In the neighborhood of Palermo, a plaque reminds passersby that Carlos Prats, a Chilean general who was also the Vice President of Chile under Salvador Allende, and his wife, Sofia, were killed there by a radio-controlled car bomb on September 30, 1974.

names in streetsigns 2015The block in downtown Buenos Aires surrounded by Perú, Moreno, Bolívar and Adolfo Alsina Streets has traditionally been known as Manzana de las Luces—which stands for “The Block of Enlightenment” in Spanish. With the city’s first university and a Jesuit church located there, it served as the educational and religious center during the colonial era,.. The remnants of this Block of Enlightenment remain, including the city’s famous prep school, Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires. Passersby will see one of the most visceral reminders in the city regarding the political chaos unleashed during the era of military rule. Name plaques were placed there in 2014 to pay homage to the 108 students from the highly respected Argentine prep school Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires, who were disappeared and/or killed between 1973 and 1976.[7]

carlos prats

Other public spaces that pay homage to the marginalized voices of Buenos Aires include new stations of the city’s underground metro system, known as the subte in Spanish [an abbreviation for subteraneo or underground]. In March 2017, the long awaited north-south extension of the subte opened. The station at Santa Fe and Pueyrredon, is one of the only, if not the only, subway station to be named after a gay activist, Carlos Jáuregui (1957-1996). Jáuregui worked tirelessly to support the rights of and gain equality for the LGBT community in Argentina, and headed several organizations dedicated to these pursuits. In 1992 he organized the first gay pride march in Buenos Aires. He was also a historian who specialized in Medieval Studies. He died of AIDS in 1996. The subway station contains murals of Jáuregui and celebrates the LGBT community as just another community in Buenos Aires. The stairs to the subway stop are rainbow colors.[8]

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The subte also memorializes other tragedies in the nation’s history. For example, Line H also has a station dedicated to the 164 youth who were killed on December 30, 2004 at a rock concert. That night a rock group, Callejeros, had barely begun its concert at the nightclub República de Cromañón when pyrotechnics from its light show jumped from the stage to the walls and ceilings of the venue. Cromañón was overcrowded and its emergency exits were insufficient to rapidly evacuation of audience members. The subte station dedicates art to the memory of the youth who died. They are symbolized by the depiction of tennis shoes that were found in the remains of the fire. Right next to the station are the burnt out remains of the nightclub, left open like an archaeological site, where passers-by can be witness to the tragedy.

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Parque de la Memoria (Memory Park), located near the University of Buenos Aires, displays the names of the thousands of Argentines who were killed or disappeared during the military dictatorship for all to see. The name plaques are deliberately moveable so that when new victims are identified they can be included in the public space devoted to remembering the victims of state terror. [insert photo here]

Just like the history of the nation itself, Argentina’s streets and public spaces offer a changing view of history—one which demands that all voices are included. In 2018, the city of Buenos Aires is dedicating a park in its center (at the meeting of Rivadavia and Esmeralda streets) named after Roberto Arlt, the city’s great urban author of the early twentieth century, to the theme of sexual diversity, celebrating people who are bi, gay and trans.

As Jorge Luis Borges wrote, the soul of Buenos Aires is in its streets

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At Tacuari and Venezuela

 

la biela me and n - 1.jpgKristen McCleary is an Associate Professor of history at James Madison University. She is currently finishing her book manuscript, “Engendering the Urban Sphere: Theater and Society in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1880-1920.” She has published a number of articles about popular culture in Argentina on topics ranging from the transformation of carnival celebrations in Buenos Aires, to the performance of masculinity on the city’s stages, to narratives of theater fires as a way in which to understand processes of urban modernization in Buenos Aires. Her courses on Latin America focus on visual and popular culture, gender, and social change. She has co-directed a study abroad program to Buenos Aires, Argentina since 2008.

[1] Angel Rama, The Lettered City, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 26-7.

[2] Athos Espíndola, Diccionario del lunfardo, Buenos Aires: Planeta, 2002.

[3] La Unión, April 26, 1919. The term araca is a word of alert or alarm. It was often juxtaposed with cana, slang for cop, and the term was viewed as particularly derogative. Piñata was a diminutive of the word piña, which meant “slap” or “punch.” According to the Diccionario del lunfardo, ranun derived from the word rana, a person with street smarts who was also full of life and fun; the “un” ending shows the word has a Genovese influence. While a piernun usually referred to a woman with exceptionally nice legs, pierna [literally “leg”] referred to a person who also had great street smarts and was cool under pressure. Bronca remains a common Argentine expression referring to anger: Me da bronca is the equivalent of “It makes me angry.”

[4] Todd S. Garth, The Self of the City: Macedonio Fernández, the Argentine Avant-Garde and Modernity in Buenos Aires, Lewisberg: Bucknell University Press, 2005, 164-165.

[5] Marguerite Feitlowitz, Lexicon of Terror : Argentina and the Legacies of Torture (Revised and Updated with a New Epilogue), Oxford University Press, USA, 2011, p. 2.

[6] Daniel Feierstein and Douglas Andrew Town. “Explaining Genocidal Social Practices in Argentina: The Problem of Causation.” In Genocide as Social Practice: Reorganizing Society under the Nazis and Argentina’s Military Juntas, 131-60. New Brunswick, New Jersey; London: Rutgers University Press, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wq9vn.13. The theory of the two demons is explained here where the Argentine military u

[7] https://www.citylab.com/equity/2017/04/memory-tiles-sidewalks-buenos-aires/523602/

[8] http://www.joemygod.com/2017/03/23/argentina-buenos-aires-becomes-worlds-first-city-name-subway-station-lgbt-activist/

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