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Argentina: Living With Cruelty

Mujica’s church was a big, unheated concrete shed. It had no overt religious emblems, or none that I remember; and there was nothing ecclesiastical in its divisions of space. It offered music: an amplified Argentine song—no hint of God or religion in that, either.

Mujica was there in his shed, and he seemed to be very much part of the same production. He was a big man, busy and serious and frowning. The black leather jacket he was wearing bulked out his arms and chest. His hair was thin and his eyes were angry. Daniel, who had met him before, at once fell into an attitude of deference, going quiet and still and keeping his eyes fixed on the great man. Mujica was pleased to be sought out; but I felt he was a bit of an actor and—to prove himself in front of Daniel—was going to make trouble.

Soon enough I gave him cause. I asked about the Priests for the Third World. He said, with some irony, that he also “happened to be” a Peronist; and then he added, irony quite overtaking him, touched at the end with a little rage, that as a Peronist he was not as concerned as some people were with economic growth.

I asked how many people there were in the villa miseria. He said, in his oblique way, that for every one who left, two came. I pressed him to give a figure. He said a few years ago there were only 40,000; now there were 70,000. (Daniel had told me 30,000.) Because of the folly of the government there was no work in the interior, Mujica said; that was why the Indians kept coming down from the north.

I wondered how he could square this with his rejection, as a Peronist, of the idea of economic growth. I wasn’t making a debating point. Argentina in 1972 was confusing for a visitor; and I didn’t know what Peronism meant.

Mujica became enraged. He said he had better things to do, and he wasn’t going to waste his time talking to a norteamericano, an American. He turned away from Daniel and me and, switching from rage to upper-class affability (as if to show us what we had missed), he walked toward a black-caped, frightened-looking Bolivian family group, no one more than five feet tall, who had just come into the concrete shed. He opened his arms as though he was about to crush them all to his leather-jacketed breast.

If I had known—what Daniel knew—that Mujica had guerrilla links, I might have approached him differently. As it was, I thought I had come to the end of this particular Priest for the Third World. It was, besides, cold and damp in the shed. It was late May, the Argentine winter; the evening mist from the River Plate was beginning to be noticeable in the dim electric light. And the Argentine song on Mujica’s sound system was really very loud.

I told Daniel we should leave. He looked unhappy. He was more on Mujica’s side than mine. He said I should at least stay and tell the Father that I wasn’t an American. I felt that if I didn’t do as Daniel asked I would be damaging his credit with Mujica. So I waited. When Mujica was finished with the Bolivians, they went and sat meekly on a bench and looked down at the concrete floor, praying in the faint mist.

Daniel, overcoated, standing still, his eyes now fixed on Mujica’s back, said to me, “Go and tell him.”

I went and said to the leather-jacketed back, “Father, I am not an American.”

He turned around; he was abashed. His eyes softened; but then, as we talked again, and I asked a little more about Peronism, his angry manner returned.

He said, “Only an Argentine can understand Peronism.” Peronists weren’t only the middle-class people I had been meeting: all the Indians in the Palermo villa miseria were Peronists. “I can talk to you for five years, and still you wouldn’t understand Peronism.”

As he explained it, Peronism contained both Castroism and Maoism. In Mao’s China they had turned their backs on the industrial society and were more concerned with “the development of the human spirit.” That was true of Castroism as well, and Peronism in Argentina had a similar goal. But there were enemies. He recited them (while his black-clad Bolivians prayed in his sanctuary): the oligarchy, the military, and American imperialism, expressed in Argentina through its economic control. These enemies were sucking the country dry.

From the abstraction of “the development of the human spirit” as a goal, which could forgive itself anything, Mujica had no trouble making a leap to the idea of the enemy, someone just there, and the very concrete idea of physical punishment. In this, Mujica was like the Jewish Peronist lawyer I had met who could categorize the enemies of the Argentine people in an almost Aristotelian way. “Fundamentally,” the lawyer said, “the enemies are American imperialism and its native allies. These allies are: the oligarchy, the dependent bourgeoisie, international Zionism, the sepoy left. By sepoys I mean the Communist Party and socialism in general.”

Many people had little lists of enemies like this, and if you put a few of the lists together, then nearly everybody in Argentina turned out to be somebody’s enemy.

A woman friend of Daniel’s wife had a racial list. She said to me one evening at dinner, “If only we had more Nordic blood, more people from Europe—I don’t mean Poles. If only we had more Germans, more English people, more Dutch, to renew and improve the race. In Buenos Aires and Rosario we have a good-looking race. But the people of the north, who are pure Indian, they are not good-looking. They are tiny. Horrible.”

This woman’s group was itself on the racial list of a man of remote Irish origins—an ancestor would have come out early in the nineteenth century as a shepherd or ditcher. He spoke only Spanish now, and worked in a provincial university. He was in no doubt about where the calamity of Argentina lay. Whispering one day in the library, he told me the story of former President Roca, the conqueror of the desert, visiting Buenos Aires toward the end of the nineteenth century and seeing a shipload of Italian immigrants. “My poor country,” Roca said, “it will be a sad day for you when you are governed by the children of these people.” And now, the unlikely Irishman said, in his penetrating Spanish whisper, that day had come.

In Argentina,” Sabát said in 1972, “there is a formal racial prejudice against everybody [un perjuicio racial integral contra todos]. What we are seeing here now is a kind of collective frenzy. Because it was always easy here before to get money. There is a saying here that the final revolution will come the day you can’t get a beefsteak, the so-called bife de chorizo.”

The immigrant society was being atomized, and Argentina was becoming as invertebrate as the Spain Ortega y Gasset had written about in the early 1920s. Disparate peoples, Ortega had written, come together not simply for the pleasure of living together, but in order to do something together, tomorrow. That hope, necessary in the formation of an immigrant country, had gone, and in its place was a deepening cynicism and demoralization.

The young film maker I had met defined this cynicism well. “I am an Italian myself, but many of the things I dislike here I relate to Italians—a kind of watching things happen, and taking advantage of the situation that results. It’s a middle-class attitude, but I suppose you start being cynical when you take advantage of your own skepticism to make profit out of things.”

To be without cynicism was to be without a kind of protection; it was to feel pain. The poet Jorge Luis Borges felt this pain. His ancestors went back to colonial Spanish times. Some had fought against Spain in the war of independence, and in the civil wars that had followed. Borges was born in 1899; he had memories, from his childhood, of the building of the great new city of Buenos Aires. His early poetry had been about his ancestors, and death, and the creation of a country. As a young man he had been an Argentine patriot, he said in 1972, much more of a patriot than his father. “We were taught to worship all things Argentine.”

But then, when he was only in his early forties, the Peronist upheaval had occurred; and the country, hardly created, had begun to unravel. Borges had been humiliated in the Peronist period; he had been made to give up his modest job in the municipal library. Now, twenty years on, Peronist guerrillas were active in the city; armed policemen were in the streets; and Perón was about to return. The only way Borges had of coping with this new twist in Argentine history was to ignore it. The very name of Perón, he said, was too shabby to be used in public, “the way in poetry one avoids certain words.” His work was his consolation. “We can look forward to a Trojan ending.”

Some of his sadness came out in a short poem he addressed in this year, 1972, to the writer Manuel Mujica Lainez—a distant relation of Father Mujica’s. Mujica Lainez (1910–1984) lived in English country-house style in a small town in the Córdoba hills. His large, gloomy, well-furnished house in a damp little valley had something of the atmosphere of Stephen Tennant’s Wilsford Manor in Wiltshire. The Conquest of the Desert, and the prodigious expansion of Argentina in the late nineteenth century, had brought wealth, education, and even a kind of old European style to a number of old colonial families, together with an idea of Argentina as something achieved, something correctly celebrated in the public statuary of Buenos Aires.

In 1934, in a poem in English, Borges had written about the public statues of his ancestors: “I offer you my ancestors, my dead men, the ghosts/that living men have honoured in bronze.” Now, in 1972, the poem Borges wrote to Mujica Lainez ended: “Manuel Mujica Lainez, we both once had a country—do you remember?—and we have both lost it.”

Manuel Mujica Lainez, alguna vez tuvimos
Una patria—¿recuerdas?—y los dos la perdimos.

Two years later, in 1974, the other Mujica, the Third World Priest in the Palermo shanty town, expiating guilt and (as Ricardo said) the old idea of Argentine history, had been shot dead. He, too, had been on someone’s list. Perón by this time had come back; he was very old and about to die. He had turned against the guerrillas who had helped to bring him back; so at the end the Peronism he—and his terrible court—had brought back was as plundering and murderous as it had been twenty years before. For a day or two, perhaps for a week, no more, posters displayed the name of the killed Mujica. It was hardly honor. The walls of Buenos Aires were scrawled over with many different names and slogans. Those walls were the visual equivalent of a constant public din. There were too many martyrs now, too many enemies; the revolutionary causes had become indecipherable.

Two years later, the army was to take over again. They were to tear down all the posters and whitewash all the walls, and they were to start killing the guerrillas. Within a year they had destroyed the various movements; and the white walls of the city—old scrawls showing faintly through—were to speak of an eradicated generation, educated people who had, like their patron Mujica, converted high religious and political ideals into elemental. Argentine-Spanish ideas of the enemy, and physical punishment, and blood.

This is the first of two articles.

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