A Hot South American SummerSunday, July 23, 2006
Over the intense chattering of the cicadas I heard Tía Sarita, one hot siesta afternoon of a South American summer in 1952. From my bed, enveloped by a white mosquito net, I heard her whisper to my mother, "Nena, Alex and Wenceslao are almost of age. Next year we'll have them lie with an india so they will become men." When it cooled, we were awakened for cool watermelon. It had been lowered into a well after lunch. I was nine.
Tia Sarita and my Uncle Tony de Irureta Goyena, with their son Wenceslao, had invited my mother and me to join them on a paddlewheeler, the Guarani, that went up the Paraná River from Buenos Aires to Goya, in the northern, sub-tropical province of Corrientes. From Goya we drove inland at night, to escape the heat, in a flat-bed "Estudevaquer". We were on our backs, the hay beneath us doing little to lessen the bumping of the nonexistent road. Above, the via láctea streaked across the sky, white, like rows and rows of trees that line the boulevards of Buenos Aires, their trunks painted with lime. It was then that I first noticed the Southern Cross.
My siesta was in Santa Teresita, an estancia owned by Tia Sarita's widowed aunt Raquel and her spinster sister Abigail. They were always in black, in perpetual mourning for Raquel's Fernando. From the estancia, a day's ride on a horse in any direction marked the boundaries of Raquel's cattle ranch. It was run like a kingdom, hers.
Looking back on our daily routine at Santa Teresita I now realize it was anything but that. In the morning we swam in the nearby Rio Corrientes, but only after Sixto, the foreman, had splashed around on a horse. The smell of horsflesh allegedly spooked the piraña and the yacarés (alligators) wanting to spoil our fun. Wenceslao (left in photo above with Sarita. I'm the blond one.) and I would often ride in search of the ñandú, the South American cousin of the ostrich. It would have never ocurred to us to eat one nor did we know then that someday the finest wallets and boots could be made from their hide. The swift but dumb bird was killed for its tail feathers which were made into plumeros or dusters exported to the world until vacuum cleaners saved the ñandú from extinction. When we spotted its huge eggs we would gingerly return home with them. The egg, equivalent to a dozen hen's eggs had a very strong smell that Argentines call catinga.
Wenceslao and I would place 3 or 4 sheepskins on our matungos (nags) and cinch them up. This and stirrups is the Argentine saddle. We would ride into the pampa where the ñandú would suddenly run from behind the thistles and the cardoons. We would gallop in hot pursuit swinging our boleadoras fashioned from croquet balls and rope. We never did fell one but we knew that behind the thistles, where the bird had emerged , we would find eggs. The peones or workers in the estancia made cakes and milanesas (breaded veal cutlets) with them. The catinga was so strong we politely rejected all offers.
Of all the workers, Sixto spoke the best Spanish. The rest spoke Guaraní, the melodious language of North Eastern Argentina, Paraguay and Southern Brazil. Consider jacarandá, which correctly pronounced, hacarandá, with a stress in that last syllable, may be one of the sweetest sounding words of all.
Because of his position, Sixto had the finest facón (knife) and mate gourd. from which he sipped his mate. He owned a pair of boots whose canes were pleated to imitate the bellows of the bandoneón. One day he asked permission to speak to my Uncle Tony. The workers wanted more money and would not work from sunup to sundown until their demand was met. Sixto wanted my uncle to intercede. Tia Raquel was adamant about not caving in. Uncle Tony brought all the workers together. He played some Andean music with his recorder and sang songs in Tagalog. Both my mother and he had been born in Manila. Then, treating them like children, he told them the story of the goose that lay the golden egg in his finest Guaraní . Fascinated, they listened to every word. They dispersed and went back to work.
That evening a few cows were slaughtered and an asado was given them by Raquel. Later in the night the workers danced to the Chamamé a Correntino dance. The singing got louder as the effects of the aguardiente took its toll. The next morning Sixto did not ride into the Rio Corrientes. He had been banished for knifing a fellow worker in a fight. The fellow had borrowed his mate without asking. The banishment meant that although Sixto would probably give the authorities a slip he would have to be on the run as a matrero or outlaw.
I never did return to lie with an India having to become a man in the more conventional way. But all it takes is an intense summer heat to fondly remember watermelons, Wenceslao and the Southern Cross.