Buenos Aires, the Suburbs, and the Pampas
In Argentinian literature of the 1920s and 1930s, Jorge Luis Borges’s imagined topography of Buenos Aires was key to positioning Argentine culture at the same level as European and American cultures. The notion of the suburbs and this original division of Buenos Aires started to be questioned by Argentine literary journalism in the twentieth century, and has received its coup de grâce from contemporary journalists and “new chroniclers” like Cristian Alarcón. This essay explores some representations of Buenos Aires in Borges’s literature that were later developed and questioned by literary journalism.
Jorge Luis Borges’s literature had a tremendous impact on the present image of Buenos Aires. In the 1920s and 1930s, Borges spearheaded an idealized representation of the city inspired by archaic yet powerfully evocative images. This mythologization present in Borges’s poetry, short stories, and essays showed a city divided into three concentric zones. One of them, downtown, was modern, cosmopolitan, rather nondescript, and more or less interchangeable with any other modern section of any city in the world. The other two rings were the suburbs and the Pampas.
Early in the 1920s, Soiza Reilly embraced a growing middle-class public and professionalized his journalism, perfecting genres such as the interview and the crónica, which is the generic name for narrative journalism in Latin America.
The suburbs, the orillas or the margins, key to understanding Borges’s system, were a zone ruled by guapos, cuchilleros, and malevos—stylish thugs, elegant strongmen, and fancy hoodlums. This second ring was porous and acted as a two-way sifter between the urbanity of downtown Buenos Aires and the primitive incommensurability of the Pampas. The suburbs offered a vantage point over both downtown and the Pampas, and gave the city an identity that set it apart from every other modern metropolis in the world.
In Borges’s representation, the margins (the shady banks of the Riachuelo in the south and the Arroyo Maldonado in the north) were also the epicenter of an Argentine underworld, where obscure transactions and unlawful exchanges took place. But the margins were also the place from which one could truly experience literature and culture:
I think that the Argentines, the South Americans in general, are in an analogous situation [to the Irish]; we can manage all the European themes, manage them without superstition, with an irreverence that might have, and often does have, fortunate consequences. (Borges 1989a, 275)
Finally, the Pampas were a more or less porous territory that, in extension, seamlessly connected vast stretches of land ranging from the south of Buenos Aires province to Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
The tripartite division, a literary artifact through which Borges conceived, refounded, and repositioned the Argentine national cultural and literary tradition, appeared with a few changes in other Latin American literatures. In fact, by a contrasting effect, the suburbs helped define a particular type of modernity: European, elegant, cultured, and stylish in the center; wild, lawless, and Latin American on the peripheries. This topography of central isolation embedded Buenos Aires (and other cities in the region) into Latin America and Europe at the same time. Thus, Borges’s Buenos Aires was conceived in a peripheral yet central position with regard to European “culture” as well as to Latin America’s “barbarism.” Civilization and barbarism, are, of course, a recurrent topic in Latin American literature since the publication of Domingo Sarmiento’s Facundo in 1845.
The dilemma with Borges’s depiction of the suburbs is that from a historical point of view, it is totally inaccurate. In fact, by 1914 the suburbs that Borges described in his work had ceased to exist—if indeed they had ever existed.
After 1890 the administrative powers in Buenos Aires had introduced a series of structural improvements in the city: streets paved with cobblestones, an urban sewer system and electric grid, an urban waste-management system, a social security network with world-class hospitals and clinics, and a reliable public transportation network. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the suburbs had, in fact, become livable and desirable.
The Borgesian depiction of the suburbs, however, was still alive and productive until the third quarter of the twentieth century. Yet as a literary topos and a historical reality, this model was under siege, challenged mostly by writers coming from disciplines like journalism and history.
A New Century, a New Region, a New Topography
Juan José de Soiza Reilly, Roberto Arlt, and Cristian Alarcón are three of the authors who have contributed to the development of a literary topography of Buenos Aires that challenges Borges’s model. Soiza Reilly and Arlt produced the core of their work in the first half of the twentieth century. Alarcón, whose first long-form narrative book was published in 2003, is still active and will be discussed in the third section of this article.
Arlt's columns were, in fact, instrumental in the legitimization of a new topography of Buenos Aires as well as a new language: a modern Castilian Spanish, the language of a city open to immigration, a city in constant expansion.
Juan José de Soiza Reilly (1879–1959) researched and reported on an underworld of morphinomania, alcohol abuse, and sexual deviations amid the urban Argentine upper classes. He wrote for Caras y Caretas and Fray Mocho magazines, Crítica newspaper, and several other news outlets during the first half of the twentieth century.
No mere journalist, Soiza Reilly was a full-fledged long-form literary journalist. Early in the 1920s, he embraced a growing middle-class public and professionalized his journalism, perfecting genres such as the interview and the crónica, which is the generic name for narrative journalism in Latin America. Through journalism, Soiza Reilly reached a growing audience eager for information and culture, one that had been overlooked by the lettered elites in the region.
It was, in fact, Soiza Reilly who, in 1909, popularized the idea of literary journalism in Latin America:
Today’s journalism is not the barren profession of years past. It is no longer a profession. It is not a craft. It’s an art. A delicate and profound one. An art of goldsmiths. Of poets. Of philosophers. An art that has its heroes and victims. I imagine that you don’t believe in what I say, but I am talking—with utmost devotion—about literary journalism. . . . (Soiza Reilly as quoted by Cilento 2009, 67–86)
Especially in his early writings, Soiza Reilly focused on those living on the urban margins. In “Ladrones Vestidos de Mujer” (Thieves dressed like women), an article published in Fray Mocho, Soiza Reilly reported on an underworld clique of three thousand transvestite burglars he called the “Manly Eves,” who lurked in the dark corners of the fanciest streets in downtown Buenos Aires, dressed like upper-class women in order to rob and blackmail unsuspecting men. This was one of the first journalistic records of gay activity in Latin America.
Soiza Reilly was also one of the first journalists to talk about urban misery and the shantytowns emerging close to downtown Buenos Aires as a byproduct of modernity. This approach is clear in “Un pueblo misterioso” (A mysterious town). Published by Caras y Caretas on November 4, 1905, the article described the precarious conditions in the settlement of Las Ranas and the daily life of some three hundred people encamped behind the former cattle corrals of the Abasto market. In those years, the Abasto had become the municipal dump.
It would be more appropriate to call it the city of swine. . . . Emplaced where garbage is incinerated, behind the corrals of the Abasto, far from the vibrant streets and their luminous signs, this town, full of mystery, shows the saddened face of any town that sleeps in the arms of death. . . . Behind the warm garbage smoke lie the buzzing lives of a beehive of people. Very bad people who carry criminal instincts in their blood, and in their muscles the sweet fatigue of sluggishness. (Soiza Reilly 2008, 233–36)
Although Soiza Reilly’s take on social disparities was constantly present in his early articles, he did not frame them as political, class, or cultural asymmetries. Instead, what seems to be always present in his journalism is the naturalized notion that, in a vibrant city like Buenos Aires, extreme riches and extreme poverty, culture and barbarism coexist as the consequence of purely personal, individual choices.
Another of the authors who questioned Borges’s tripartite topography was Roberto Arlt (1900–1942). Soiza Reilly’s mentee and famed journalist, playwright, and novelist, Arlt wrote for El Mundo, the first Argentinean tabloid.
In 1926, the year of his journalistic start and two years before joining El Mundo, Arlt wrote twenty-two articles, almost one every two weeks, in a personable, autobiographical tone. Always using the first-person narrative, Arlt tapped into codified genres like the sermon, the open letter, and the apology and produced for Don Goyo magazine a series of semifictional stories that soon evolved in tone and character. These articles were the prequel to the “Aguafuertes” (etchings), short, human-interest color features Arlt would present on a daily basis in his column at El Mundo.
In the “Aguafuertes,” Arlt masterfully described, analyzed, and typified new urban professions, activities, and trends. These columns were, in fact, instrumental in the legitimization of a new topography of Buenos Aires as well as a new language: a modern Castilian Spanish, the language of a city open to immigration, a city in constant expansion.
The cross-pollination between journalism and literature in Arlt’s work was best revealed in characters like Haffner, the Melancholic Pimp, one of the protagonists of his novel Los Siete Locos (Eng. The Seven Madmen, 1984), or the Maid, the main character in Arlt’s play 300 millones. The Melancholic Pimp was in fact Polish anarchist immigrant Noé Trauman. Arlt had met him while covering the crime beat for Crítica newspaper and held a long series of interviews with him at Las Violetas, a fancy teahouse in Buenos Aires’s Almagro neighborhood. Trauman had arrived in town in 1906 and was the founder of the Israeli Society of Mutual Assistance Varsovia, soon renamed Zwi Migdal. The society was, in fact, a front for a powerful prostitution network managing thousands of brothels in downtown Buenos Aires, with branch offices in São Paolo, New York City, Warsaw, South Africa, India, and China (Saítta 1998, 53, and Ragendorfer 1997).
In the “Aguafuertes,” Arlt also describes innumerable hangouts in Buenos Aires, either very well known or totally hidden. But the challenge to a Borgesian topography rang more vibrantly when Arlt explored the metropolis as an investigative journalist. In December 1932, working undercover as a medical student, Arlt infiltrated several municipal hospitals. El Mundo published the investigation as an impeccably documented series of articles titled “Hospitales en la miseria” (Hospitals in shambles). The series combined meticulous data on understaffing, a below par bed-to-patient ratio, and the scarcity or unavailability of certain drugs, while presenting the investigation in a vivid, narrative, realistic-naturalistic style (Saítta 1998, 65).
The lepers’ pavilion is hell. If one ever had the courage to enter it, one should also make extreme efforts not to faint. There are certain instances when it feels like you are going to fall on the ground. . . . But the fear of rolling over these leper-infested floors is such that it keeps you on your feet. You don’t even dare breathe. There’s dirt everywhere. Dirt on the floors, on the walls, on the stairs. There are beds in the corridors. Lepers fry eggs or an omelet in a Primus [a kerosene stove] placed on top of a bed. . . . Pieces of human beings decomposing turn purple. . . . Human cadavers, living, rotting in different degrees, showing the entire spectrum of organic putrescence, pile up at God’s will, simply waiting to die in one way or another. (Arlt as quoted by Saítta 1998, 65)
Arlt, however, couldn’t channel all of his discoveries, ideas, and thoughts through El Mundo, a popular, family-friendly mass newspaper that crusaded against immorality and vice in the big city. So, many of his stories were merely introduced in the “Aguafuertes” as journalism only to be promptly turned into literature. It is, in fact, in his literature where Arlt challenges Borges’s topography with the most strength and audacity, introducing a vertiginous, dizzying, and brutish image of the city in the first half of the twentieth century.
Buenos Aires Reconfigured: Literary Journalism of the Twenty-first Century
I have dealt elsewhere (Calvi 2010) with Latin American literary journalism between the 1930s and the 1980s. There I discussed some of the rules and particularities that the genre developed during the Iron Years, rules that stemmed in part from serious restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press throughout fifty years of de facto military regimes. And although there are still direct connections between these forms produced in concealment, their predecessors in the early twentieth century, and the more contemporary ones published in the early twenty-first century, I would like to focus on a topic that clearly separates the literary nonfiction of the twenty-first century from its predecessors.
The more recent incarnations of literary journalism in Argentina have tended to ignore the city and its downtown, portraying Buenos Aires as a fully peripheral patchwork.
Where twentieth-century Argentine narrative journalism can be read as an answer to the Borgesian topography that highlighted a split between the city and its suburbs, the more recent incarnations of literary journalism in Argentina have tended to ignore the city and its downtown, portraying Buenos Aires as a fully peripheral patchwork. This new “peripheral city” does not function as a vantage point or as a sluice gate between two cultures, but as a territory condemned to exclusion and marginality.
There are several examples of this new city in Latin American contemporary narrative journalism, but one of the most interesting and recent is Christian Alarcón’s first long-form narrative, Cuando me muera quiero que me toquen cumbia (When I die I want them to play cumbia). Born in Chile, Alarcón is also an active journalist in Buenos Aires, working for Página 12.
Alarcón and writers such as Chilean Pedro Lemebel (Loco afán: Crónicas de sidario, 1996), Colombian Juanita León (País de Plomo: Crónicas de guerra, 2005), and Argentine Leila Guerriero (Frutos extraños, 2009) all gather under the umbrella of the crónica. The so-called nuevos cronistas de Indias (the new chroniclers of the Indies) are, according to Roberto Herrscher, the heirs of “the scribes who came with the Conquistadores [to produce] the narratives of the enlightened intellectuals that [ultimately] built our nations in words and deeds” (Herrscher 2009).
In Cuando me muera quiero que me toquen cumbia, Alarcón tells the story of Víctor “El Frente” Vital, a marginal child born and raised in San Francisco, one of the villas (shantytowns) of San Fernando, in the northern outskirts of Buenos Aires. Alarcón stumbled upon Víctor’s story in the early 2000s while investigating police death squads for Página 12. Alarcón heard the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who had recently been killed in cold blood by the police while he was trying to turn himself in. Revered in his villa as a Robin Hood of the streets, Víctor shared the fruits of his burglaries with the kids of San Francisco because his mother, who worked for a private security company, wouldn’t let him bring home his ill-gotten gains. When Alarcón first heard of him, Victor had already achieved the status of a saint, as friends and followers turned his grave into a shrine, making offerings of beer and marijuana to his memory, that “El Frente” might protect the living from police bullets.
Although Cuando me muera quiero que me toquen cumbia shares with its predecessors some of the most distinctive elements of literary journalism (scenic construction, full dialogue transcription, and a unified point of view), Alarcón’s narrative delivers a completely different image of Buenos Aires. In the first page of his book, the encampments in the suburbs are described as “a hostile territory at the beginning, like a battered child approached by an unknown person. [Time, however, helped the author] know the villa until it was painful” (Alarcón 2003, 15–16).
Not a vantage point between two cultures anymore, the suburbs are portrayed by Alarcón as living, pulsating scar tissue that threatens to spread until it covers the entire body.
The images of San Francisco do, in some ways, resemble the foundational myth of the suburbs as presented by Borges. But those similarities are misleading:
With time, the spread of pavement and the urbanization imposed by the city, villas like San Francisco, the 25 encampment on the north side, and La Esperanza on the south, have slowly become a neighborhood. On top of a natural chaos of unplanned construction, some streets were traced and some ranchos [huts] disappeared, torn down by bulldozers, in order to give room to slabs of concrete and order. But the planning of a colonial city only produces the effect of a neighborhood, with façades that, despite their poverty, show attention and care. This is one of the friendly faces of the villa. . . . (Alarcón 2003, 16–17).
These suburbs are not an undesired consequence of a positive, centrifugal civilizing force but the backlash of civilization and the centripetal response to urban capitalism. Entrenched in the villas, the dispossessed spread their claim for (symbolic/material) capital:
San Fernando is that county of the Buenos Aires suburbs . . . where the gap between the rich and the poor is abysmal. The wealth of the former seems to be at arm’s reach, where the damned proximity between hunger and opulence takes place. (Alarcón 2003, 18)
Not a vantage point between two cultures anymore, the suburbs are portrayed by Alarcón as living, pulsating scar tissue that threatens to spread until it covers the entire body. Unlike Soiza Reilly’s or Arlt’s narratives, Cuando me muera quiero que me toquen cumbia depicts a downtown Buenos Aires that doesn’t exist as a place. Whenever downtown is mentioned, it is only as a distant reference, as a repository, as the place where marginal teenagers go to furnish themselves with money, bicycles, or sneakers, usually robbing, mugging, raping, or stealing at gunpoint:
It was then when we started to know him. We’d go together to Belgrano: with my brothers, Javier and Simon, we’d mug people there. It was a time of extremely expensive bicycles; we’d sell them for two hundred pesos. (Alarcón 2003, 50)
Arguably, this new urban imagery in literary journalism stems from the radicalization of a type of urban violence that has allegedly escalated during the past thirty years. This idea, however, ignores the fact that literary journalism is still a representation, and the exclusion of an integral part of the city with its middle and upper classes is primarily a narrative decision that responds to a representational canon, much more so than to historical matters.
In order to understand this representational change, we should explore the points of reference of these narratives, which were undoubtedly European in the early twentieth century, and may have steered away from Europe during the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first. The notion of an external point of reference—a literary model—for this type of journalism must become the basic working hypothesis, a point of departure for further explorations on this field.