Very Argentine in Spite of Being English, Mexican, Texan, Filipino & CanadianWednesday, August 21, 2019
On June 2, 1953, when I was 10 years old I remember exactly what I was doing noontime. I was living in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Coghlan, named after an English engineer involved in the early 29th century helping to build railroads.
My mother called me to lunch also saying, “and wash your hands and knees.” This was because I wore short pants. My answer was precisely this, “Not yet because I am listening to the coronation of my queen.”
My youngest daughter Hilary’s godfather was Raúl Guerrero Montemayor. He may have been born in California but he was hermetic about it. His mother was Mexican and his father was Filipino. Raúl had been educated in Switzerland and spoke at least 9 languages with variations such as speaking Hungarian with a Russian accent or (my fave) Spanish with a Filipino one. One day as we were conversing in both English and Spanish he told me, “Soy híbrido, no tengo país.” It seems that he felt he belonged in no country and used that strange word, hybrid.
Those of us who were born in Buenos Aires in the 40s were told that Argentina faced Europe and our connections were with it and not with other countries of Latin America. To this day many parts of Buenos Aires resemble London or Paris. And in our Argentine Spanish we use a few words from Italian, English and French. The financial district of Buenos Aires is called “la city”. Until at least the 60s a football infraction involving the touching of the ball was called “hands” and the ultimate infraction was the “penálty”. Until the late 50s trams were tranvais (pronounced tranvi)
I remember leaving the cavernous Victoria Station- style railway station of Retiro in my early youth and seeing a huge ad that said, “Cemento Portland (USA)". To be cool then was to wear genuine, black market Levis or Lee jeans. I bragged to my friends at school that I had access to Bazooka chewing gum.
Jorge Luís Borges deprecated in most of his writings the ethnic culture of the original inhabitants of Argentina. He is on the record at being amazed (negatively) that Canada would send a totem pole to Argentina as an example of Canadian culture. The totem, at the Retiro Train Station was my first glimpse of the Canada I would inhabit years later. In the last 40 years in Argentina there has been an explosion in interest in music (not tango) called and spelled “folclore”. At long last music that incorporates much of that almost long lost influence of the original inhabitants of Argentina.
Not so much now but “la hora del thé” or tea time (Argentines, especially the Frenchified ones like to use the French word for the Spanish té) was an important custom in my Buenos Aires.
In the late 60s during my stint as a conscript of the Argentine Navy I took advantage of an unwritten custom that if you donated blood and brought the proof you would have the next day off. I made it a rule to go to the British Hospital to be bled. This included a “thé completo” of tea with scones and little sandwiches. Since I would donate on a Thursday I would have a long weekend away from my desk job. It was during those two years in the Argentine Navy that I felt most Argentine especially when thousands of conscripts and I lined up to swear allegiance to our flag. Participation in a military coup months later dampened that idea of what patriotism and nationalism really is.
But it was the presence of my father (he was born in Buenos Aires in the beginning of the 20th century) who was very English that made me feel English. His parents and older brother had been born in Manchester. He talked like someone from that city. Because he drank a lot he would sing in bed (with me) all kinds of English drinking songs. Two I remember most well was “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and “Onward Christian Soldiers”. My parents took me to see lots of Gilbert & Sullivan. During the summer holidays (after Christmas) I was sent to the camp (an Anglo/Argentine variation of the Spanish word campo). One I remember well was called Glen Rest.
While my father was so English my mother threw me into confusion. She had been born in Manila of a Basque father and a Manila-born mother who had been raised in Spain. To top that, she taught physics and chemistry at the very private American School in Belgrano R. She brought all kinds of goodies that made me the king of the street. Stuff like peanut butter, lime Jell-O, a pair ofTexan cowboy boots, Gene Autry cap pistols, and best of all, an Erector Set much cooler than the English Meccano.
In 1955 we moved to Mexico (the height of the Mexican cultural explosion into film and music). I became Mexicanized as I was too embarrassed to keep my different Argentine accent. In 1957 I was shipped to Austin, Texas as a boarder (4 years) in a Catholic high school. Because my teenage years were in Austin, I feel that there is a lot of Texan still in me.
By the time I married Rosemary (I spoke in a complete Mexican accent when I spoke Spanish) in 1968 and moved with our two Mexico City (Tacubaya) daughters to Vancouver in 1975 I was a confusion of nationalities.
For a while I proudly kept my blue leather Argentine passport until it became a lot easier to travel to the US, and even Argentina, with the Canadian alternative.
In 1991 I decided that I wanted to go to Lima to interview and photograph Mario Vargas Llosa who was running for president. To prepare I read his complete literary output of the time in Spanish. It was not difficult to switch from English to Spanish as I had always kept Borges books on my nightstand. But my Vargas Llosa trip made me understand that I could not hide my Latin American heritage.
Going on press junkets to England in the 80s gave me nostalgia for the English colours of Buenos Aires. I rode English trains, all on the wrong side of the tracks just like in Buenos Aires. I felt at home.
Many visits to my former school in Austin made me aware on just how American and Texan I was.
The end to all this happened when I met a couple of Argentine painters (Nora Patrich and Juan Manuel Sánchez) in Vancouver and we worked on a project called Argentine Nostalgia.
It was then that I had this wonderful Eureka moment. Nostalgia is a feeling one has for a place where at that particular moment you are not. It seems to be self-evident. For me it was not.
Now I embark from one country to another and glory at the fact that I belong to all those countries and that Raúl used the wrong word when he said hybrid implying he did not belong anywhere.
And I cannot finish this without saying that some years ago the UBC School of Architecture invited me to participate in a show of Vancouver architecture. My infrared photographs of UBC and Shaughnessy, and portraits of Ned Pratt and Arthur Erickson were up on the wall with photographs from local photographers from the beginning of the 20th century. I was part of that, I was and am a Canadian from Vancouver.
A hint of all that occurred when sometime in 1975 I told Rosemary, “I just heard on CBC Radio that Newfoundland is pronounced Nufen – land.”