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I bought a bright yellow Sponge Bob finger puppet close to the mausoleum where Evita was laid to rest. This may not seem as odd as you think.
Evita Peron was a champion of children’s rights and the poor. Some of these poor scratch out a living selling American inspired cartoon toys just feet from Argentina’s wealthiest deceased citizens and near Evita herself.
This is Buenos Aires – one can travel from scarcity to the lush life and back, far too easily. I was always searching for a comfortable middle here but I’m not sure that’s what this place was about.
Indeed, there may never be any middle in the Argentine conflagration of military juntas, dirty wars, states of siege, economic collapse and sheer elegance. This is the history and the fuel for the bright lights of this very European city.
We were walking down 9 de Julio Avenue, the widest avenue in the world. With its 14 lanes, this boulevard dwarfs the Champs d’ Elyse. Buenos Aires with its fashionable citizens and sleek facades could easily be Paris. You have to keep reminding yourself you are far, far from Europe.
Except (and this is the heartbreak of Argentina) they had just suffered through another devaluing of their peso. So it was like the nation had just gotten mugged. The exchange rate to the U.S. Dollar rose from 2 to 5 pesos. Which meant our dollars today bought us 5 pesos worth of stuff instead of the 2 just a few days earlier. The nation was having a 60% off sale.
Ironically, this local trauma brought bragging rights for foreigners. We could get sweet deals off the plunge in their currency. And everyone was in on it. Vendors were working the streets, pitching us as we walked, only too happy to throw those sweet deals our way.
So… was I helping anyone by hanging onto my dollars and not exploiting the monetary situation? Would that be some kind of moral high ground? You tell me. I just know I had come to Buenos Aires on assignment, with no thought whatsoever of getting myself a custom made suede jacket for $75, to be ready in just 12 hours’ time.
But... dammit, just 12 hours later they were easing me into a custom tailored suede jacket. Everyone in the shop came out to look and compliment me on the fit. Such is the seduction of a favorable currency.
The Edge Of Town
As I said, we were here to work. We went to the outskirts of the city to film at a soup kitchen. This facility wasn't the sort you’d find on skid row for those out of work or down on their luck. This wasn't America. This soup kitchen only served their soup (and other meals) to the children of the area. The kids sat there laughing and playing but holding their spoons at the ready.
These kids were so poor they relied on their schools to eat during the week. But come the weekend, they had almost no means to be fed. They knew if they came to the kitchen, they would eat. And so we filmed and recorded the acts of kindness provided by an American non-profit who stocked this kitchen, the good people of Airline Ambassadors International.
Not only did the kids get to have a decent meal, they got clothes and toys donated by generous Americans. There were crates of goodwill that had been collected, organized, shipped and delivered by other generous Americans back home. We watched and recorded hundreds of acts of kindness in just a few hours’ time.
This is not something you often get to see. All I could think about was who kept this place going when the Americans left? Would these kids still get their weekend meals?
The good people in charge told me locals were in place to make sure the kitchen would be open and supplied once we were gone. They wanted to reassure me that meals would be served. Children would be fed. All was OK. I thanked them. Then we went back into the city. We had dinner reservations.
Steak & Tango
The steakhouse had a reputation and my hosts wanted to make sure I knew it. There would be a show. Seated at the famous La Brigada, our 2-inch thick steaks were wheeled up to the table. Then, with a practiced brio, the waiter attacked the Argentine tenderloin… with a spoon. The meat parted like butter.
I enjoyed the ceremony and the pride our host and waiter brought to the meal. Plus, no one had cut my steak for me since I was ten. And with a spoon no less. How… unexpected. And smooth.
That’s the thing about Buenos Aires and its citizens, the Portenos – people of the port. They are a smooth crowd. The way they move, the way they dance, even the way they ask each other to dance. You have to see it. From dinner, we moved on to a Milonga, a tango palace.
This place was actually an ordinary Italian restaurant and bar during the day. But at night its transformation into a dreamy court, was aided by a collection of well-dressed dancers - stylish women and men, seamlessly gliding by in special tango shoes.
If you’ve ever seen Argentine tango, you know what a lubricated dance it can be. I mean that in an elegant way. There is nothing silkier. How two people who have never danced with each other can come together and move effortlessly as one, defies description.
And then there’s the cabeceo. Only a dance as buttery as the tango can support the cabeceo – the coy ritual wherein the man asks the woman to dance. From across the room, he sends her a glance, an invitation with his eyes and of course a smile.
Then it’s up to the woman. If she’s not interested she merely looks away. But if it’s a ‘yes’, she uses a mirada – she returns eye contact and offers a smile. As the man approaches, she continues to maintain eye contact. But, should she change her mind, she only has to look away and the whole thing is off.
No one else even knows what happened and the dancers soon move on to other partners. Because that’s the thing here in Buenos Aires – despite defeats or worse, everyone makes the best of it. Here they work hard at having fun. Consider this:
It Was Three In The Morning
A few of us sat at an outdoor café… just across the street from La Recoleta Cemetery, where Evita lay now for over 60 years. I was fading from the day but was amazed at the hum in this neighborhood. The crowds weren’t getting thinner as you’d expect at this hour. No - taxis were pulling up, spilling people into the streets, the bars, the clubs and cafes. Many of them were teenagers … where were their parents?
Then more taxis arrived with parents and small children tumbling out. Little kids all wired and ready to party at 3 am. I guess it was at this moment I realized I didn’t have what it takes to make it in Buenos Aires. I was too sleepy to go on and watched the swinging Portenos in amazement from the window of my cab, as I surrendered to the night.
The next day we set up our cameras at a local hotel where more families descended. These folks probably weren’t out late partying last night. They didn’t have much and couldn’t even afford wheelchairs for their kids who were in need. In fact, some of the dads had to carry their kids in to the ceremony.
Nearby, rows of bright red wheelchairs were neatly set in a line. More generosity from America. And the Ambassadors.
But the gifting of the wheelchairs quickly transformed from ceremonious to raucous. The kids easily commanded their new wheels, as kids do. They were soon racing up and down the hotel’s hallways. Suddenly mobile, they whipped around us, grabbed plates of cake and it was just another party in Buenos Aires.
Before leaving for the U.S., I went back again to Recoleta Cemetery. I wanted more of the finger puppets as gifts and I also wanted to visit Evita one last time.
She came to Buenos Aires as a poor 15-year-old girl and left as the patron saint of Argentina. These two defining orbits of lavish and lack had found their perfect form in Evita, who traversed the journey from scarcity to the lush life.
Eva Peron, nee Duarte came to Buenos Aires to be a movie star. She succeeded in radio, movies and modeling, reaching the pinnacle of the sweet life as the wife of the President.
But coming from extreme poverty, Evita was soon drawn to the nurture of the poor and the sick, women’s suffrage and the care of children. She used her wealth and position to help those in need. Later, as she grew ill, she still spent most of her day tending to those with afflictions worse than her own.
That’s the thing about this soulful, happy and sometimes sad city – it’s those great emotional pools that give this place its power. Like an immense battery, a current seems to flow between the charged poles of the haves and have-nots. These positives and negatives together produce a crazy, unsettled energy to this place.
In 1951, a crowd of two million formed into a mass rally demanding Evita run for Vice President. It was her desire to use that position to do still more for the impoverished. But the rightist military opposed her, preventing this moment from being realized. Evita died the following year.
Sixty years later when a woman was finally elected to the Presidency of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner spoke of Evita’s passion as her own inspiration to this highest office. In Argentina, the generals were ultimately bested.
So… I bought a few more of the kitschy cartoon toys at the cemetery. Though this transaction occurred within eyesight of Evita’s tomb, it didn’t feel like a slight to this special place. These toys at least marginally helped the poor make a living.
This was of course Evita’s mission, for which she is remembered and revered. Therefore, these street vendors are not seen as an affront, even on such hallowed ground. Rather, they are welcomed.
In Argentina, at least, they can tell the difference between a woman of distinction and a brightly colored finger puppet.
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