March 24, 2016

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Thursday March 24, 2016 was a meaningful day for Argentina, one that revealed how elements of a nation’s past, present and future may coincide in illuminating fashion. Carol and I were in Buenos Aires during Semana Santa (Holy Week) so I could share research about the U.S. Hispanic/Latino population and media with students, faculty and media industry professionals at the Universidad Austral.  Jueves Santo (Holy Thursday) initiates a long weekend that is imbued with religious significance for Catholics.  Political, economic and cultural matters also surfaced on this Jueves Santo.

The 24th of March is Día de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia (Truth and Justice Memorial Day) in Argentina, marking the coup d’etat in 1976, which installed a military dictatorship responsible for “disappearing” an estimated 11,000 to 30,000 people and forcing thousands of others into exile.  Victims of the military government’s “ideological war” were mostly young and middle class; few had direct ties to leftist militant groups that—like their counterparts on the right—had engaged in violence, kidnapping and other malevolent acts earlier in the decade. Contemporary Argentines’ concerns for human rights in the wake of such brutality were manifest in the presence of many human rights organizations at a memorial gathering at Plaza de Mayo, the site which commanded overwhelming television coverage among multiple 40th anniversary remembrances.  Key participants in the memorial were surviving members of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo who had courageously protested by walking around the plaza, in plain view of the presidential palace, with signs and photos of their disappeared children.

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Government sign in Buenos Aires: Together We Say ‘Never Again’

The mothers and their white scarves became symbols of the struggle against violence and repression across Latin America and the globe; they received particular attention when Argentina hosted soccer’s World Cup tournament in 1978.  The ideological divisions behind so much turmoil and suffering in the 1960s through ‘80s remain conspicuous in Argentina, Chile and other nations of the region.

Those divisions were plain to see in coverage and discussion of U.S. President Barak Obama’s brief Argentine visit following his historic trip to Cuba.  Critics condemned the U.S. government’s tacit support for the overthrow of a civilian government, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s alleged counsel that the military dictatorship complete its dirty work quickly (prior to President Jimmy Carter’s pursuit of a human-rights-based foreign policy agenda beginning in 1977). On the other hand, Argentines who support President Mauricio Macri’s aggressive economic reforms welcome his focal shift toward Europe and North America and away from leftist Latin American governments and other U.S. rivals such as China and Russia, which prior administrations pursued. In response to objections over a U.S. president’s visit coinciding with the Día de la Memoria, notably those by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, a torture victim who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his human rights work, President Obama and his family spent most of the day in the mountain resort town of Bariloche. His activities on the 23rd included discussions with President Macri about cooperating to support economic development and curb drug trafficking, climate change and terrorism; an open discussion with Argentine youth; and a state dinner which famously included a quick tango dance.  Before departing for Bariloche, Pres. Obama joined Pres. Macri in visiting the Parque de Memoria to pay tribute to the dictatorship’s victims.  Mr. Obama also announced that the U.S. government would declassify additional records related to the coup and human rights abuses in order to assist Argentina’s discovery and healing processes (4,700 such documents were released in 2002).

The third big event on Jueves Santo was the Argentine national fútbol (soccer) team’s World Cup qualifying match against Chile. Its timing, broadcast at 8:30, may have facilitated the peaceful conclusion of memorial marches and rallies, at which forewarned violence did not materialize.  The importance of fútbol in Latin America is difficult to overstate. Television sports channels transmit and discuss little else, at least while the professional leagues and national teams are playing.  National pride is at stake, as during the Olympic Games in the U.S.  This is especially true of rival nations with long histories of contention, if not full-scale war, like Argentina and Chile. Carol’s and my stronger allegiance is to the latter, given the location of my Fulbright grant and a broader friend base, but we bear no animosity toward Argentina’s team, which is exciting to watch (I will undoubtedly be rebuked for this statement).  We arrived at the bar we’d been eyeing, “LocosXFútbol”—read “X” as “for”—just as not-so-loco-looking fans from the prior match, Ecuador vs. Paraguay, were leaving.  We neutrally-clad, middle-aged Americans stood out amid a younger sea of robin egg blue and white vertical stripes. The atmosphere became tense when Chile scored first and early, then relaxed considerably after tying and go-ahead goals by the Argentine side.  Pains of the past, irritants of the present and uncertainties about the future were forgotten during three hours of athletic and cultural bliss.

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2nd-Year Communication Students at Universidad Austral, Buenos Aires
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March 24, 2016

Two Argentine Fathers

Being in Chile during the summer vacation period provided an opportunity for Carol and me to achieve a long-term goal of visiting Patagonia.  We traveled by car in order to appreciate landscape variations, meet a variety of people and experience the unexpected episodes that often accompany road trips.  Our first day of car travel in Argentine Patagonia was bracketed by two fathers interacting admirably with their daughters. Observing these men reminded me that strong family commitment is a vital social adhesive shared across Latin cultures.

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View from Cerro Otto, Bariloche

At breakfast in Bariloche, Carol and I independently noted a father’s focused interaction with his daughter, who appeared to be five or six years old.  It seemed that every bit of the man’s energy and attention were dedicated to their discussion of dinosaurs.  He possessed the calm, deep voice of a respected personality during the Golden Age of Radio, and a demeanor that, if more commonly practiced, would make society a gentler place.  Later in the day, as curvy mountain roads became straight, lonely stretches, I reflected on that fully-engaged father, the power of interpersonal communication, and my own efforts to balance bread-winning and career development with fatherhood and being a tolerable spouse.  Sometimes we students of mediated communication give short shrift to the face-to-face variety, a tendency that is exacerbated by rapid developments in communication technology.  I could not imagine any form of communication being more beneficial or enjoyable for that little girl than her father sitting directly in front of her, dedicating his full attention to their conversation.  This led to some reflexive inquiry as I tried to recollect similar scenarios with my own two sons.  Although they enjoyed halcyon upbringings, much of our time together was punctuated by intervening contextual elements such as sports, music, homework, Boy Scout activities and video games.  (Here I imagine some readers nodding in recognition.) If and when our grandchildren arrive, I have prior experience as well as an Argentine archetype to help guide me.

We met the second father at the end of the day, through an unfortunate situation that resulted in our becoming friends.  Upon our arrival in Sarmiento,* a small city in South Central Argentina, Carol and I struggled a bit to find our hotel—part of the problem was linguistic: when asking for directions we failed to replace the double L sound, pronounced ‘yuh’ in most of Latin America, with ‘sh,’ the Argentine custom.  (We were off the GPS grid, navigating via large scale road maps and directions from locals, part of the aforementioned openness to unexpected developments.)  Once we got the pronunciation and landmarks sorted out, we arrived to our hotel.  The proprietor’s face dropped as I asked to check in—Pablo didn’t have record of a reservation, or a room available.  I opened the email message I had received confirming the reservation; it had been sent nearly two months prior by a former employee who failed to record it in the hotel’s reservation system.  Normally other options would be available, but it was Saturday night on a weekend when Sarmiento was hosting a regional Festival de Doma y Folklore (rodeo). As Pablo called other hotels, hosterías and even family friends, Carol’s and my prospects darkened.  Our interaction transpired under the observant eye of Pablo’s daughter Agostina, age 11.  Her presence probably inhibited a negative turn in Pablo’s and my communication as the unwelcome likelihood of the norteamericanos spending the night in their compact rental car increased (I’m 6’4” tall). Clearly, with Agostina present Pablo had more to lose than a night’s sleep if he admitted defeat and kicked us to the curb.

A resolution came in the form of a double mattress that Pablo and his wife prepared in a storeroom while we ate dinner.  Carol and I were grateful for the bed, and the empathy that had provided it.  In the morning, as he served us breakfast, Pablo explained that he had learned something important from the previous night’s experience: the longer I had remained calm, the less likely it became that our problem would escalate to a blowout.  (My storming out of the hotel would have resolved Pablo’s dilemma, but not ours).  I responded that I too had gained new awareness, and appreciated the positive behavior he had exhibited in front of Agostina. Our exchange reminded me that through mindful interpersonal communication humans can sometimes resolve problems that become more intractable when confronted collectively, or when presented and addressed through mediated communication. Conflict outcomes could improve if individuals imagined a sweet, curious 11-year old observing their demeanor in stressful situations.

* Named for the seventh president of Argentina, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888), who was also a political activist, intellectual and writer.

1st Postscript

This connection between effective parenting and thoughtful communication was reinforced by friends who we met at our destination in southern Chile, Torres del Paine National Park.  Over the years Jon, from a family of four boys, had shared amusing anecdotes about being father to three girls – learning to play with Barbie dolls, developing a sense for feminine fashion, managing boyfriends, etcetera.  Observing both parents interact so tenderly with their 16-year-old daughter was inspirational, and revealed subtle qualities of Jon’s and Sue’s characters that nearly four decades of friendship hadn’t shown before.

2nd Postscript

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The author with Pablo

Carol and I passed through Sarmiento again on our return journey north, spent the night in a guest room in Pablo’s hotel, and reinforced what we hope will become an enduring relationship.

 

 

 

Two Argentine Fathers