March 24, 2006
Observations of the city thirty years after…
Everyone has either gone to Buenos Aires for the march or waits for a bus or train to go. Not everyone. There are a few stragglers haunting the plazas that are filled with the smoldering remains of last nights commemorations; a skeleton of chicken wire from an unidentifiable effigy lies untouched in the middle of the walkway, bits of charred wooden sticks and carbonized newsprint are enmeshed within it. People give a mearsured berth to this strange paraphernalia, weary of looking or coming too close.
In the same plaza, across from the elegant court house that imitates an imperious French architecture, strings of white xeroxed pages with faces of men and women in the peak of their youth dangle like Tibetan prayer flags from a statue of a state hero on a horse and are tied to light poles throughout the plaza, except that the flags (they kind of look like flags from a distance) are only black and white and the portraits are more like mug shots from a crime museum photo album, as the images are thirty years old. The hairdos of the women are one step forward of beehives; the long, natural, mother-goddess seventies chic. Many of the men in the photos have slicked hair to their shoulders and untamed side burns. Perhaps they do not really look like mug shots, too many of them are smiling. But there is nevertheless a formality, they are all posing, turned at a 3 quarters stance, chin up, eyes forward. Perhaps they are pictures from the high school year book. Whichever, an eerie sense of purpose, a manufactured image of the truth is evident. These images, more than any portraits I know of, are not meant to recall an individual, they represent an idea. Their stiff, awkward smiles (taken the day before they were driven off in the back seat of an unmarked, green Ford Falcon?) betray the cloud of fear and uncertainty under which they lived and the specter of pain and unthinkable torture they suffered before their deaths. They are plucked as if from the white of a cloudless horizon. A middle-aged women steps cautiously under the string of faces, studying each one with deep, mournful eyes and a hand covering her hollow lips. She pauses at each face, as if she thinks that by looking closely enough, she will remember everyone that has gone and yet, occasionally she nods with sursprise and her eyes light in sudden shocks of recognition.
There are broken bottles everywhere, translucent shards of green and brown crunching under foot. In truth, every public gathering, whether it be for a solemn occasion such as this, a regular union protest or teachers strike or students walkout, part of a seemingly endless routine now, or just a good old fashioned pep rally before or after a soccer match, is also a cause for some to celebrate. The usual suspects inhabit the worn, green benches and the ordered lawns: a passed out drunk, lovers sipping mate, hippies hunched over their rope and crystal jewlry spread out on a purple blanket. The smells of stale beer, sweat and an occasional whiff of marijuana smoke fill the air. The city is in hangover mode. The skies earlier had been dynamic; powerful beams of light like fists burst hopefully through the clouds at intervals, refusing to give in completely to the approaching storm. But now, here in the somber atmosphere of the plaza, gun metal blue thunderheads have encroached on the latter part of the afternoon. Winds are picking up, forcing older citizens to wrap themselves in unruly cloaks as they seek warmer shelter.
Over at the Cathedral, the national flag is flying proudly at full mast. Its grand steps and entrance way are empty and silent. No one seems eager to pay a visit or even to walk on the sidewalk in front.
We decide to visit a public art gallery housed in an abandoned railway station at the other end of town. There is a quaint bricked street passing in front. A few people are inside, sipping on cerveza at a white plastic picnic table while their children dance and hop about. Two workers are setting up a projector, later there will be slides and a presentation. We walk up a slight ramp to the exhibition space. The walls are unpainted, concrete block and there is a walled off room with large, empty windows that is the snack shop. They sell cerveza and bottled water and snacks. In the middle of the space there is a table with children’s books that had been censored during the dictatorship. They have titles like; The Big Elephant, Learning French and The People in Your Neighborhood. Even books on mathematics were barred, (though they were not part of the display) because of their “communist content.” Information, in the eyes of the dictator, is a dangerous thing, the most dangerous. Hanging on the walls are a series of small (8 inches by 5 inches) sketches, engravings that were chosen to be a part of a stamp collection commemorating the thirty years that have passed since March 25, 1976, when General Jorge Videla polished up his boots and took to the podium. They all represent, in some way, the horrors of the “Dirty War”; the cynicism and sadism of its leaders and their claque, the tacit support from some of the world’s most influential “Democracies” (the U.S., Israel, etc..).
Even around supper time a scant few stores are open. We scour the city for a place to sit down to try and make sense of this day, of what has happened, of what will happen. We finally find a pizza place open though they’re not serving food until later. There is an uncomfortable silence hanging in the room, a weariness in the scattered faces looking up from their tables. We talk about life outside, in far off countries, having exhausted ourselves on so much dismal recapitulation. “You get the sense that anything could happen and no one would be…surprised.” My friends words hang in the air like smoke rings that have retained their shape after the smoke has disappeared.