or “The Convoluted Psyche of the Buenos Aires Porteño”
THE POLISH JOURNALIST Ryszard Kapuscinski opens The Shadow of the Sun, his humbling account of his time in Africa (humbling, that is, to anyone who’s ever worked in journalism), by pointing out that it is naïve and grossly simplistic to speak of “Africans,” as if they’re one broadly identifiable group with shared characteristics. There are no Africans: rather, there are Tutsis, Hutus, Twas, Ashantis, Dinkas, Nuers, Karimojongs, Itesos, Tuaregs, Bantus, Americo-Liberians, Afrikaners… Although Kapuscinski illustrates this by describing the astonishing array of habits, conflicts, and worlds within worlds among these tribes and ethnic groups, his penchant for bird’s eye rumination requires (and he’s been ungenerously criticized for this) that he invoke and comment upon that very same entity that he critiques as a concept: the “Africans.”
This piece explores, as the subtitle suggests, the psychology and behavior of Buenos Aires residents. To generalize about these “porteños” is nowhere near as elephantine a task as trying to muse about Africans or, say, South Americans, but the same predicament exists, just on a smaller scale. It is only when one narrows one’s focus from nation to group to individual that one can escape the half-truths of sweeping statements, and even then, as any good biographer will tell you, one still contends with mirages.
Unlike Kapuscinski, who spent years meandering about the continent in severe conditions and at constant risk of life, I spent a modest three months in Buenos Aires, and comfortable ones at that. My impressions, inevitably green and incomplete, are those of a transient – of someone situated between tourist and resident. It’s not, however, a bad position from which to speculate: enough time passes for you to shed the popular misperceptions you arrive with, but not enough for you to forget what those misperceptions were.
In Spanish, a porteño (or porteña) refers to a person from a port city. For the last century or so, the term has been almost exclusively employed to refer to residents of the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires. It’s surely one of the most ill-suited titles ever given to a people. Yes, Buenos Aires lies upon water, namely the southern bank of the Rio Plata’s western estuary, but the relation to port culture ends there. The Argentine porteños define themselves not by water but by the surrounding flat grassy plains known as the pampas. While there seems to be a parrilla steakhouse on every corner in Buenos Aires, you have to hunt to find seafood, and if you do find fish, you must then examine it to make sure that, like a book long abandoned to its shelf, it isn’t yellowing. If porteños were to be clumped astrologically, their sign would not be the Pisces but the Taurus. Their folk hero is not the fisherman but the gaucho. And the primary social – one could even say religious – ritual of porteños is asado: the barbecuing of meat over coals.
Not that one can fault porteños for shunning the river for the plains. The vast surrounding plains are a kind of Eden for the grazing cattle, which in turn makes Buenos Aires a kind of Eden for carnivores. And anyone who’s ever strolled along the southern banks of the Rio de Plata estuary – especially during a southerly breeze, which carries with it the smell of the fetid brown waters – can attest that one would have to be truly desperate to eat anything fished from that Stygian murk.
But unfit as porteño may initially seem for describing Buenos Aireans, the more you get to know the people, the more fitting this contradictory and paradoxical term seems. Because the fact is, porteños are by nature contradictory and paradoxical.
One of the stereotypes northerners often have about southerners (a distinction of hemispheres, not countrymen) is that, although life is harder for them, they are simple, happy people. Aside from being a convenient personal philosophy for those of us whose nation’s prosperity depends to some degree, as it has for centuries, upon economic exploitation of the poor of the tropics and subequatorial regions, especially of lush and resource-rich South America, it can also be a comical inverse misrepresentation. Buenos Aires is a case in point. The mere fact that there’s a neighborhood in Buenos Aires named Villa Freud due to its high concentration of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts suggests that the people there aren’t quite as untroubled and simple-minded as the jaunty happy-go-lucky caricature suggests. (Argentina topped the world ranking of number of psychologists per capita in a 2005 World Health Organization study.)
The large number of therapists in Buenos Aires might surprise someone who first comes to Argentina with the usual expectations of silky porteño ease. Buenos Aires wields a primal aura over those who’ve never been there. Along with luggage, one flies into Argentina towing stereotypes: the men are suave womanizers, the women sultry sexpots, both sexes gorgeous and both tango experts, of course. Sex, tango, and sizzling meat – that’s the exported (or is it imported?) image. Perhaps only Paris can compete with Buenos Aires for such mawkish oh-my-swooning-heart-and-overheating-loins allure.
The above image, which is the kind of thing flaunted in every show tango brochure, does have some basis in reality, even if of the chicken-or-the-egg variety. It’s hard to say which came first, the sexy porteño or the reputation. Acutely self-conscious as porteños are, they are ever cognizant of their international reputation; aware of the power and status this affords them, they’ll play into their sexualized roles; this role-playing will in turn infuse them with the sense that, yes, they are a breed part, “Indeed, I am virile as a stallion,” “Yes, I am beautiful as a bird of paradise;” but being ordinary people like the rest of us this idealization will also plague them, consume them with doubts, fears, and night terrors that they will disappoint expectations: the men will suffer from impotence while the women will resort to anorexia, bulimia, ever more extravagant forms of plastic surgery; their lives will become one torturous seesaw between self-admiration and insecurity, confidence and anxiety. And of course, all along, while languishing in this condition, they will also observe it critically, and perhaps even dispassionately recount the ironic ordeal to their psychotherapists.
It makes sense that in a city with an abundance of psychologists, there’s also an abundance of books. Literature tends to cause disquiet, as any totalitarian worth his censors and dungeons can tell you. Like their Montevidean neighbors across the river, porteños are known for their love of literature. The number of bookstores in the capital is confounding; subway kiosks sell Shakespeare and Virgil; and even the city government (which one might assume would be indifferent to literary matters) throws an annual La Noche de las Librerias, or “Bookstore Night” in which citywide bookstores host events until 2am. These facts surely didn’t elude the jury behind UNESCO’s decision to name Buenos Aires “World Book Capital 2011.”
Porteño culture fuses two forces often posited in opposition: the macho physicality of smooth-talking players, gauchos, and heeled femme fatales on one side and the intellectuality of the bibliophile on the other. Is it any surprise then that Borges – that cerebral writer of labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, and encyclopedias who was drawn as much to themes of honor among soldiers and gaucho knife duels as to the poetry of Dante and Yeats – was a porteño?
TO BE CONTINUED FEB 4th*
*Not true. Unfortunately I never got around to finishing this essay. Maybe someday I will.
- Learning to Walk: A Beginner Addict’s Account of Tango (Part II)
- Learning to Walk: A Beginner Addict’s Account of Tango (Part III)
- Alice in Tangoland
- On The Patagonian Rocks (Photos)