Story and photo by Christian Hartwell
Whether we were atop a roof, in a café or at the conference-room table of Montevideo’s Legislative Palace, one thing was for sure: We wouldn’t settle for the confines of a stuffy classroom while studying in Argentina and Uruguay.
Our first night in Argentina, the nine of us SOJC journalism and public relations students convened poolside in the backyard of a hostel in Rosario with a group of human rights students. We were waiting for an assortment of meats to cook over a fire-and-charcoal grill — a traditional “asado” dinner. It had taken two hours of driving, 15 hours of flying, four hours on a bus and layovers galore to get here, where winter was just beginning in mid-June. But a warm welcome and melt-in-your-mouth steaks helped ease us from the rigors of travel into the elegant Argentine culture.
By my second night in the country, I had moved to a four-story apartment complex in central Rosario, where I lived with Nathan, a colleague from the cross-border interviewing program; a student studying Spanish from Iowa named Rachel; and our host mother, Ana. That first night together, the four of us cooked and prepared empanadas filled with beef, egg, cheese and olives.
Home — 6,600 miles away
Every morning, after our breakfast of three pieces of bread, a thermos of a traditional tea called yerba mate and fruit, Nathan and I walked 30 minutes to class. We walked along Córdoba Street, lined with shopping malls, street vendors and performers, including a Michael Jackson impersonator. “Billie Jean” soon became the soundtrack for my afternoon strolls.
My classmates and I often made ourselves comfortable in a café called Bar de Lili, which was only a 20-second walk from the class site. The owner, Liliana, welcomed us to have class there. The spacious interior, filled with morning light shining through large windows, was a drastic contrast to our dark and stuffy classroom, so we happily took up the idea. We also tried holding class on top of our site’s roof. We gained a pleasant view of the city but lost the ability to discuss interviewing techniques while competing with an obnoxious dog’s barking, the city busses’ screeching and the sun’s near-blinding rays.
First glimpses of disunity
National Flag Day fell on June 20, only four days after our arrival. Many of us walked to the Monumento National a la Bandera (National Flag Monument), where we would attempt to see President Mauricio Macri’s address about pressing issues in Argentina, including the rising rate of inflation.
We didn’t get far before we hit a blockade of police officers standing behind a gate with shields in front of their faces, blocking part of the entryway to the monument. What looked like a magazine whizzed through the air as the crowds chanted and waved signs comparing President Macri to a vulture.
We continued on a different route toward the waterfront, where butchers cooked steaks, vendors sold knick-knacks, a band performed folk songs and men dressed in gaucho garb spun their partners. The traditional celebration clashed with the chants of “¡Ar-gen-tina!” and loud protests against the president at the monument across the street. Many of us wondered how common these showings of political division were. Later that week, we would have answers.
Our classroom that Thursday was La Plaza 25 de Mayo, a plaza that commemorates Argentina’s 1816 independence with statues of Manuel Belgrano and José de San Martín. Here, on a clear-skied but chilly afternoon, we entered with hopes of meeting the “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo.” These are mothers who were robbed of their children by military forces during the 1976 dictatorship. During this time, the forces overthrew Isabel Perón’s presidency and aimed to rid the country of anyone they suspected of harboring opposing political views by placing students, workers and many others in clandestine detention centers, where they were tortured and killed. The mothers of these disappeared victims still march every Thursday as a form of resistance.
Norma Vermuelen, 86, one of the last two remaining “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo” who still marches, entered the plaza around 5 p.m. She told me she would speak slowly as I took out my recorder to interview her.
“We’re going to continue resisting as long as we’re alive,” Vermuelen told me. “When we die, our children and grandchildren are going to march.”
Before long, opponents of Macri gathered to protest. I returned to this plaza for the next two weeks and developed relationships with many of the people there.
The Big Apple of South America
If there is a proper way to experience Buenos Aires in two days, I think we found it. We saw La Casa Rosada (The Pink House), the official government building of Argentina, where the president’s office is located. We toured La Recoleta Cemetery, where mausoleums hold the remains of wealthy and highly esteemed figures, including mid-19th century president Bartolomé Mitre and former first lady Eva Perón. We took in a tango show while eating a delicious three-course dinner. We walked through Caminito, a neighborhood in La Boca full of brightly colored buildings and touristy merchandise. We toured Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), a detention center used by the military government to torture prisoners during the dictatorship. We walked through the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Fine Arts Museum), where we marveled at some of the most famous Renaissance, Baroque and Modern paintings and sculptures. Although we were drenched with rain by the end of each day, it was worth it.
“Attack on freedom of expression”
Back in Rosario, we read in the Buenos Aires Herald that thugs had ransacked Tiempo Argentino, a Buenos Aires newspaper, after we returned from our trip. This attack, referred to by Mariela Belski of Amnesty International Argentina as “an attack on freedom of expression,” sparked a class assignment — an interview with one of the newspaper’s employees.
María José Garcia Moreno told us about the businessman who had claimed control of the publication without any kind of documents to prove his ownership, and how he refused to pay the employees for seven months. During the attack, police officers remained outside with no intention of taking action.
“The government is not protecting us,” Moreno told us. “This is the saddest part.”
During a two-day trip to Montevideo, Uruguay, an employee of La Diara, another newspaper, told us that they have close ties with Tiempo Argentino. “It’s always hard to get a cooperative going,” he said. Regarding the attack on the publication, he said, “For them it will be harder.”
The world’s poorest president
We also visited the Legislative Palace in Montevideo, where we met former president of Uruguay José Mujica. He walked into the conference room wearing a dark brown jacket over a sweater and blue jeans and shook each of our hands. Because we had already researched him, we weren’t surprised by his casual attire. During his presidency, Mujica donated 90 percent of his earnings to charity, lived in a one-story home at the outskirts of Montevideo rather than the presidential palace, and was never chauffeured, preferring instead to drive his beat-up Volkswagen Beetle.
“It’s an honor to have you all in Latin America,” he began. He briefed us on Uruguay’s trade with the English empire during World War II and the education system, which has been public and free for 120 years.
We dove into questions about his involvement with the Tupamaros — a left-wing guerilla group whose violence led to his incarceration for 13 years — the promotion of women’s rights, dealing with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and moving toward environmental sustainability.
Equating wealth with happiness seemed to never cross the mind of the “world’s poorest president.”
“Personally, I am worried about economic growth, but I am even more worried about people’s happiness, because we only have one life, and it fades away,” he said. “You cannot go to a supermarket and buy years.”
The once-in-a-lifetime opportunities I had in Argentina were far beyond my initial expectations for this trip.
I learned that we North Americans carry something special when we travel abroad — something that gives presidents, leaders of social movements and everyday newspaper workers more of an incentive to engage with us. Maybe they know we can be naïve about what happens outside our borders. People in Argentina were often not just willing, but eager to share personal stories with us. In one instance, a man waiting for his bus saw me taking pictures of graffiti on the wall of a government building that symbolized the “desaparecidos” who had disappeared during the dictatorship. He approached me to tell me about his two friends who were beaten to death during that era.
We also carry with us a fresh perspective that allows us to report on complex issues with an open mind and without weighty preconceptions. I wasn’t subjected to Argentina’s social norms like I would have been had I grown up there. This perspective helped me — and I believe it can help the rest of us — tell fuller stories and include details that may be overlooked by familiar eyes, as long as we research well.
Now back in the United States, I feel more capable of telling stories that strive for objectivity and a strong sense of humanity, whether they are here in Oregon or across borders in far-flung places.