My Argentina has at least four definitive novels about itself written in the 19th and 20th century (not to forget the short fiction and poems by Borges) but there is another, actually a poem/novel written in 1872, by José Hernández called El Gaucho Martín Fierro. It is all about the pushing back (through war much like in the American West) by the military of the native Argentine population as related about a man, Martín Fierro who is forcibly conscripted. Women are rarely mentioned except in on situation where Hernández mentions “la china del fierro”. In Argentina a china (there were few if any in the 19th century) is an almost derogative term for “his woman” with perhaps a darker complexion.
For me, having been born in Buenos Aires in 1942, places outside of my country were exotic. I thought that Americans lived in an island called Columbia and they had broad shoulders (I had seen photographs of American football players) wearing strange head pieces. Mexico was a place where men slept under cactus while wearing a large hat and in Germany, grown men wore pants.
But the most exotic was the Far East even though I knew my mother and grandmother had been born in the Philippines. But since they were of Spanish/Basque stock they did not look exotic.
I must have been 8 or 9 when my mother took me to lunch at the house of her students who were part of the Chinese delegation to Argentina. I had noticed the girls (they were all girls) before because they seemed to be geniuses in arithmetic. Eating the strange food was my first experience with Chinese food.
My father a journalist for the Buenos Aires Herald in 1950 moonlighted as a translator for the newly established Indian Embassy. Because my father was a daring cook he invited his turbaned buddies from the embassy for a home-cooked curry. That is when my street friends and I saw our first Sikhs.
To any Argentine the furthest place from our county is la Cochinchina. This was the 19th century naming by the French of Vietnam. When we want to insult someone without using obscene words we tell them to go “¡vete a la Cochinchina!” Somehow that country I Spanish sounds like an obscene word.
So when I had my chance to photograph a lovely woman from Vietnam, Lisa Ha, I jumped many times in glee as I would finally remove from my 20th century idea of what was exotic, now in the 21st era of globalization, perhaps a more realistic one.
It could have ended there until a few days ago when I read in my Sunday NY Times Book Review Magazine about a novel by the Argentine female writer Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (who almost won the booker prize for a translated version of her novel in English called The Adventures of the China Iron). You would have thought that her novel in Spanish (written from the point of view of Fierro’s girl) would have been simply called Las Aventuras de la China Fierro. But no! She had to use the word in English “Iron” to make it all more hilarious.
The translators are Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintire. I plan to go to Buenos Aires as soon as I am able to travel so I can buy the novel in Spanish.
Meanwhile I will take comfort with these snaps of the exotic Lisa Ha.