Buenos Aires

Written by: Monica Szurmuk


Jorge Luis Borges wrote that his nightmares took the form of a trajectory across a labyrinth or a room of mirrors. There was always a distant destination and a very concrete topographical starting point: a specific corner in the city of Buenos Aires. These corners were in different parts of the city but they were always precise, a tribute to the rectangular structure of the city, a surprisingly pleasing grid of streets, avenues, and parks. Even when Borges´s unconscious populated his nightmares with swamps, lakes, forests, a city corner would still be there, a capricious merging of two street names.

Buenos Aires was designed at the beginning of the twentieth century as a stage for public life. In that moment, the modern city replaced the colonial town that had been ravaged by epidemics of cholera and yellow fever in the second half of the nineteenth century. One of the most celebrated paintings of the period “Un episodio de la fiebre amarilla en Buenos Aires” by Juan Manuel Blanes, depicts two public health officials entering the derelict home of a poor family. The two parents are dead; a cherubic child pulls at its mother´s white nightgown. Through the open door a new building forebodes a more prosperous future, the street is already crowded.

Buenos Aires grew exponentially during the first two decades of the twentieth century when it welcomed millions of European immigrants. The city was carefully designed and planned, a dearth of past, a promise of future. Social protest and political celebration found space in the wide avenues and the public parks designed by French urbanists; the tradition of public life grew with the creation of clubs, football fields, theaters, opera houses, museums, and with the quick dissemination of the press and the publishing industry.

In Buenos Aires there is always something waiting outside. Social distance is frowned upon. Porteñxs kiss, hug, and share mate, a drink passed around in a gourd and sipped through a metal straw. Given this, it is surprising how obediently we took to our homes as soon as a national lockdown went into effect preemptively at midnight on March 20 when there were still comparatively few cases of Covid19. This most probably means we have still not seen the worst. We wait at home while we watch the numbers of the sick and the dead increase slowly. Hospitals still have plenty of available beds and stadiums, amusement parks, and hotels set up as temporary hospitals remain vacant.

Buenos Aires has shrunk geographically and grown in our memories and our minds. Inequality, vulnerability and segregation become more flagrant as we are restricted to the confines of a couple of blocks. Some don’t have a home to retreat to, and those in violent households are locked into a constant nightmare. We each live in little place, a mindset, a private corner of the world from where we watch the big drama of the pandemic unfold in our multiple screens. Human rights organizations called for the cancellation of the massive march that every year commemorates the bloody military coup of March 24, 1976; the survivors of the 1982 Malvinas War made a similar call for private remembrance. Public memory was encouraged and windows and balconies were decorated with white kerchiefs and Argentine flags.

The weather has been glorious this last month. The fall has arrived in blankets and socks, not in coats and moccasins. Silence is interrupted by the remaining sounds of the city: a bus, an ambulance, clapping and music at 9 pm.

Meanwhile we don´t know what comes next. So we wait. The parks, the stadiums, the theaters, the classrooms are empty of us, a site for dreams and nightmares.

Meanwhile we don´t know what comes next. So we wait. The parks, the stadiums, the theaters, the classrooms are empty of us, a site for dreams and nightmares.

The Cambridge History of Latin American Women's Literature edited by Ileana Rodríguez and Mónica Szurmuk
The Cambridge History of Latin American Women’s Literature edited by Ileana Rodríguez and Mónica Szurmuk

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About the Author: Monica Szurmuk

Monica Szurmuk is a Researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Researh Council of Argentina. She is the author of Women in Argentina: Early Travel Narratives. Her latest book is La vocación desmesurada: Una biografía de Alberto Gerchunoff....

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