February 9, 2015
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Today seemed to be a battle of icons and it fought itself out in many different visual images and in discussions. There are four icons in Buenos Aires, two are almost universally loved, and two are passionately loved and hated. The four are Eva Peron, Che, Diego Maradona and Pope Francis. Maradona and the Pope are loved, Eva and Che are debated, but their images are part of the landscape of Buenos Aires.
Maradona is the one that some of you may not have heard of. He may have been the greatest football star of the century, although those in Brazil who love Pele will debate that. His image shines forth, mostly in the barrio of La Boca, which was a poor Italia
n immigrant neighborhood, Buenos Aires’ “Little Italy” along what used to be the docks. The docks have moved to a new container port. Now it is a mixture of new immigrants and artists, a place where art, sport and especially tango, seem to naturally meld, a colorful neighborhood of bars, tango halls and football memorabilia shops. Many of the buildings are corrugated metal or concrete block. But the colors make, what would otherwise be a rundown neighborhood, vibrant. The stadium for the Boca Juniors where Maradona was a star is in the middle of the Barrio. This is the immigrant barrio where Tango evolved, merging Spanish, Italian, Afro and Eastern European influences with a musical instrument, the bandoneon, a German diatonic squeeze box, that came off of the ships with sailors.
The Pope is loved. Our tour guide, Sylvia, (American Expresse comped us on a tour) who has an interesting Sephardic-Italian background says what when he was bishop she would see him in subways, on the streets in coffee houses and he was very approachable. He was at odds with the current president, until he was elevated to the papacy and all the controversy over him vanished in universal praise, especially by the president who had been his critic.
Che is more controversial. A common greeting here is “Che” kind of like “chao” but some people ask “he was tight with Fidel but what has he done for Argentina?” Still you see his iconic image in graffiti and in public art.
Eva Duarte Peron, “Evita” is the most common icon you see here. A huge wrought iron sculpture of her on a microphone hanging from a building looms over Avenue 9 de Julio, Buenos Aires main street. There are statues of her around the city, a museum and of course, her grave.
A cemetery is probably the last place I would visit on my own, but the Recoleta Cemetery was the first place on our tour’s itinerary. It is interesting in that the mausoleums reflect changing architectural styles, there are classical, art nouveau, and art deco mausoleums. They have a chapel on top with plaques naming those inside. They have pits underneath that can go down as far as 12 feet with generations of bones and ashes building up. Often the style says something about the family, like a Celtic Cross on one grave. In Europe cemetery space is at a premium. In Denmark you can rent a grave space for 20 years to go to pay respects. At the end of 20 years the body is dug up and someone else gets the space. Here you know, almost from birth, where you will end up. If your family falls on bad times your mausoleum in this cemetery is auctioned off to the newest wealthy family who may or may not clean out the bones, may or may not build a more modern mausoleum/chapel. Sylvia says that in death, as in life, people’s resting place is determined by money. I asked her what she thought Pope Francis would think of this. She dodged the question and I commented that he probably would favor spending money to house the living poor over the wealthy dead. The wealthy relatives can shop all afternoon at the upscale Recoleta Mall right adjacent to the cemetery.
The most visited mausoleum in the Recoleta Cemetery is the Duarte family place. It is where Eva Duerte Peron is buried. There are roses on the chapel door and a constant line of people taking pictures and paying respects. Usually each occupant of a mausoleum has one plaque bearing his or her name. I counted at least 4 for Evita. One was to “Compañera Evita.” One was placed by a labor union.
But the strangest scene in the cemetery was one of the largest mausoleums. It had both a cross and a menorah. Sylvia could relate to this. Her family converted but still maintained some form of cultural identification with Sephardic Judaism. This family was a little more complicated. It was a double hyphenated family surname of wealth and power coming from the three different sides. All were honored in some way on the family tomb.