For Ivet Kamar
Mateo arrived in Buenos Aires when he was ten years old. Twelve more have gone by since; he has repeatedly convinced himself that it was worth it to rid himself of his Peruvian identity. His evocations of the city of Trujillo hang by a very thin thread, and even that has reached a breaking point. He barely remembers a couple of friends and a view colloquialisms. Were his father not a cook, the familiar smell of his grandmother’s kitchen that hung over his childhood would already have indignantly slipped away. A simple dish for him – cabrito con frijoles, the enigmatic shambar and scrupulous sopa teóloga – become a fascinating spread for me, one that should never be punished with a fast. Given that he is the only one who speaks with a noticeable porteño accent – somehow, the linguistic capital that communicates prestige within some urban circles – Mateo’s mother decided that he should attend to the dinner guests at the tiny family restaurant. It is located on Guatemala street, between Scalabrini Ortiz and Malabia, in the heart of Palermo – better known as Palermo Freud, due to its large number of psychoanalytic clinics.
He spent the last year of elementary school and all of middle and high school bouncing around the public schools in Retiro, Recoleta, and Palermo. He was alway a high achiever in both history and math (a strange combination). At some point, he decided to take a year off. In between doing nothing and vegetating in front of the television watching River Plate games (his favorite team), he told his parents that he would would prefer to run the restaurant rather than pursue a college education. The work would send enough money his way to allow him to visit the shining beaches of Cancún on the Yucatan peninsula, one of his many desires. His parents attended the University of Trujillo. It was clear from their manner of speaking that they were well-educated, products of the Peruvian exodus at the beginning of the century. Mateo will eventually take up studies in hotel management in the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), or something to do with tourism. It’s goes with the times, he says in his dripping accent.
As though to self-satisfy the deeply held love he professes for Argentina, we note in Mateo the pleasure that he derives from listening to himself. He has fallen madly in love with his skilled, heavily emphasized porteño accent. The same thing happened to Hugo Sánchez, a former footballer who played for years for Real Madrid. For him, going back to Mexico would mean rejection and antipathy due to his use of seseo and “undiluted” speech.
We had recently moved into a small studio on Malaria Street, 2000. A hailstorm in Texas altered our itinerary. If it had to be described, we would have been forced to seek out the Biblical hyperboles most common from the dramatic Matthew – the one from the Gospels – who edited together his predictions more than two thousand years ago. After observing the continent, his prophecies acquire a chilling validity. We are especially obliged to draw certain analogies to the elements. Somewhere in the holy book, he prophesied that the sea would overflow, the mountains would crash together, and the stars would fall from the sky like ripe apples, bringing about destruction and death. Political and economic disasters are comparable, and perhaps even further-reaching than the effects of global warming and climate change. The former are brought about by the most erratic and unpopular apocalyptic horsemen of the present times: Trump and Peña Nieto in North America. Daniel Ortega in Central America. Maduro, Macri, and Temer in South America. Nobody in Latin America loses as much sleep over natural disasters as they do over political earthquakes. With this entirely disagreeable backdrop, we reach the afore-described days in Buenos Aires, halfway through June of 2017. Strangely, we are stunned by a warm vapor, sticky and uncomfortable, grabbing us by the neck and putting us a bad mood in the middle of the coldest season, almost like a Brazilian winter.
As we unpacked, we were eager to get about the business of mapping out the area. Lacking familiarity with this part of the neighborhood, we had always moved along the route that took us past Las Heras park toward Libertador Avenue, but not through the zone that stretches from Santa Fe to Córdoba Avenue (an enormous distance). We wanted to find a good butcher, a Bolivian green grocer, a Chinese person from Beijing (or really anywhere, as long as he was Chinese) who could sell us good wine at reasonable prices during times of astronomical inflation. We needed to find another Chinese proprietor, this time of a laundry, ideally nearby; all of this, however, had to be near a Chilean with whom to argue during a cup match. Arguing with a Chilean is an extreme and challenging sport. They are always right. Next, we needed to find a good restaurant where we could substitute out the local menu; eating gnocchi, humitas, locro and milanesas everyday wasn’t a reasonable option for the palate nor the imagination. Finally, we had to find – if not the best – a café that could help us wind down at the end of the day. Every coffee addict knows that when you’re down to half a cup, you have to contemplate life. A unique and magical effect, the passion of the simple man: the landscape before you almost begins to float.
On the corner of Scalabrini Ortiz and Paraguay is found “Varela Varelita,” one of the most emblematic cafés of the neighborhood and of all Buenos Aires, owing to the number of writers who spend every night there socializing until exhaustion finally overtakes them. It is small, and always full. The authors José Bianco and Héctor Libertella are the guardians of “Varela Varelita.” You can read there about the joke that Libertella himself played on the owners, which later became one of the cafe’s founding myths: he made them believe that J&B Whisky was named after Jose Bianco. Now, whenever a customer asks for a glass of that particular drink, the waiter shouts “marche un Pepe Bianco” [Get Peppy Bianco out here!]. Our friend Samuel Monder, a Berkeley philosopher and native of Palermo Freud, became interested in the supposed magic that we perceived in that particular ecosystem. I hope it stays a shitty cafe, because that cements its charm, being a shitty cafe, he repeatedly said.
Just a few blocks from there, along Santa Fe Avenue, we caught sight of what one might term the epicenter and nervous system of the neighborhood. There was a sex shop for one, whose name did not arouse curiosity. The names of the local businesses, on the other other hand, show the brushstrokes of a frenzied genius; publicists had a made a grab at the emblematic characters of world literature. Flaubert, for the cosmetic and jewelry shops; Oscar Wilde, for the unisex clothing shops; and Balzac for the bars and taverns, where thousands of liters of craft beer flow every day, like the waters of El Plata. We went in as cautious as a monk accused of heresy before the Holy Inquisition. The word ‘Hertéticus,’ the name of the sex shop, is derived from Latin and means “I want,” “I choose,” or “I pick,” the young attendant told us with entirely too much intellectual confidence. He quickly asked us in an antiseptic tone, putting on his latex gloves, if we were interested in any particular toy; he would happily explain its function and purpose. These can make a mute person speak, we told him, largely to establish a sort of equal footing before his wide, overwhelming, aphrodisiacal knowledge that he audaciously strutted out in front of our silent monastery. During Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s time in office, sales dropped off considerably. With Macri, they’ve risen nearly one thousand percent, he explained to us. Which toy is most in demand in the neighborhood? We asked with curiosity that ran counter to the “I choose” and “I want” of the extravagant porteño heresy. The young employee showed us to an enormous blackjack eighty centimeters long and ten centimeters thick, enough to split a coconut with a single swing. A bargain: eight thousand Argentine pesos. A fortune.
Before leaving, we tried to convince the illustrious young man to reconsider the name of the shop to put it more in line with the hundreds of businesses that abound in the neighborhood, all of them attractive and inviting. What occurs to you? he asked us. We have three, we told him: the first is Moby Dick, even though it is too academic and self-centered, as you can see. Perhaps something more familiar would go well for you: how about Emily Dick & Son? The last one is somewhat paternalistic for present times: William Fuck-Ner. He wrote them down and told us with his hand raised, as though to say goodbye, let me me think about it.
After exploring other parts of the neighborhood for a second time, we accidentally came to the same corner as Mateo, the young man from Trujillo. He assumed that we were lost because of our vacillation between heading north or south in search of a restaurant that sold authentic non-Argentine food. He guided us along like an expert gaucho, the kind who never gets lost and knows all the shortcuts, toward the small but welcoming family restaurant where we ate a delicious sopa de gallina.
It can be entirely appropriate for a Peruvian to call another Peruvian “peruca” without disturbing political correctness; somehow, sarcasm provides nuance, or the whole thing just cancels itself out. However, if the phrase is said by a non-Peruvian, evoking the saying of President Roosevelt about a lackey who tyrannized some Central American country – “He may be a son a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch” – it helps us to discern the rough faces of hostility and intolerance. The process of alienation from one’s own roots, as Martín Heidegger called it, fortifies the brusque contradiction that exists between the acceptance or the “othering” of the subject.
It was a confession. Otherwise, Palermo would cease to be what it is, one of the most attractive urban psychoanalytic confessionals in all of Latin America. Likewise, the refined concept of ego with continental effects was invented in Buenos Aires at the time of Sarmiento’s Facundo: some are very good, and others are very bad. The good news is that in literature, generally, almost everything is very good. In that same confessional streak, revealing intensely personal perceptions and feelings that are frequently painful, the ill will of Mateo went in the opposite direction as that of the celebrated character Pedro Camacho, from La tía Julia y el escribidor (1977), even though both share the same anger. Pedro Camacho hates Argentines for one of the most basic of reasons: the flight of his wife, likely with roots in Argentina. Camacho says, “Se ha topado usted en la vida con argentinos? Cuando vea uno, cámbiese de vereda, porque la argentinidad, como el sarampión, es cotagiosa.” [Have you ever run into an Argentine? When you see one, cross the street, because Argentinity is as contagious as measles]. With respect to Mateo, his rancor and dislike still hasn’t curdled into a strong anti-Peruvian feeling, similar to the one made manifest for Argentines by Pedro Camacho, the radio show writer. Nevertheless, Mateo recounted a story to us as evidence of the stereotypical generalization like the sort employed by Hollywood to represent and embody a dominant cultural minority through the Mexican character. The gangster as a scourge on the neighborhood, with a red bandana around his head, a tattoo of the Virgen of Guadalupe on his arm; a corner drug dealer of soft drugs and opiates of every kind, a deadly pimp in the most dangerous neighborhoods of Los Angeles. He said that the “perucas” in Buenos Aires sell counterfeit merchandise (he used the word trucha). He accused them of laziness and said you couldn’t trust them. They sell cut-up cocaine (he used the word falopa). Worst of all, some well built men (he said patovicas súper mamados) went into his house while his family was on vacation in Trujillo and took everything they could sell on the black market, including Mateo’s photo album and a collection of old coins that he started with a friend in school who he used to call Russian because of his Jewish ancestry.
A psychoanalyst in Palermo could have diagnosed Mateo and Pedro Camacho, (Bolivian and Peruvian by adoption), with fickle spirits, unruly idiosyncrasies, reckless characters, and truly neurotic rejections of an oppressive Andean melancholy that weighs upon their backs like a cement slab.
Going back to your roots is for old people, Mateo told us with a mix of annoyance and lucidity while he served a sauce made from rocoto, the hottest pepper in Peru. Imagination is the creative and most effective way to organize the experience, we told him. There we have the radio shows that Pedro Camacho wrote with the compulsion of a sufferer of hypergraphia. (“Escribo. Escribo que escribo. Mentalmente me veo escribir que escribo y también puedo verme que escribo”) [I write. I write that I am writing. Mentally, I see myself writing that I write and I can also see myself writing]. In the beginning, his anti-Argentine sentiment was relatively successful; later, it became a monstrosity. The anti-Argentine concept, along with the anti-Peruvian, anti-Mexican, etc., as all the world knows, is a social construction. It is imaginary, not biological, but it biologizes social thought: racism is not based on knowledge of the other, but upon ignorance of oneself.
More than fortunate, honored by mother nature, the sky grew cloudy and it immediately began to rain. The precipitation poetically marked the moment. To coronate the sensation, it occurred to me to say that we had seen it rain in Patagonia. We felt fleeting relief. We hoped for a radical change in temperature. We asked Mateo if he would please close the door. The rain splashes us when it falls, we told him, brushing ourselves off with our hands to dry off and stay warm. You don’t have to get wet to know that it is raining, he told us with a small smile on his face, clearly mimicked, in order to pretend that that high-impact phrase could have been expressed by any of his customers as easily as asking for the extraordinary papas a la huancaínca. It did not matter to us if he took it from a book he had recently read or if he had merely lifted it from someone who really does know what life is all about. That is what all of us do without exception: we are insatiable beings, and we consume from the time we are born until the day we die. But this bastard understood that we would immediately pull out a pencil to scribble down that spirited aphorism that he had expressed at lightning speed; with it, he made clear that the Freudian discussion was over.
Translated by Michael Redzich