Winter reflections on a Buenos Aires neighborhood.
By Madeleine Lee
“¡Ta fresco pa chomba!”
It’s a bit chilly for a polo shirt.
It’s July 2014—and the fiercest winter Buenos Aires has seen in years. In Recoleta, a wealthy downtown neighborhood, rain throttles the loose paint off houses so narrow and skinny that they huddle together for warmth. Taxi cabs slink by shouting crowds and drivers squint through rain-streaked windows, hungry for business. It is cold! It is wet! It is loud!
This is my home for five weeks—the place I decided to escape to when the prospect of another dry, stale summer in suburban California became impossible to bear. I chose, of course, as far away a location as I could think of: South America, Argentina, Buenos Aires, Recoleta.
Here, so I am told, the seasons are authentic: the summers burn, the springs flourish, the autumns howl, the winters tear you into sweet, wonderful shreds. In this hemisphere, the seasons are reversed; July is the equivalent of January. I live with a spirited 68-year-old local, Teresa, in her Recoleta apartment, where she primarily does two things: tell stories and complain about the cold.
Porteños, residents of Argentina’s capital, are often mocked for their intolerance to winter—primarily by their neighbors in the near-arctic south. Porteños are proud, and in the middle of summer over a cup of dulce de leche, they will deny this. Come winter, however, you will hear them cursing the cold with the same fervor they normally reserve for tango, good food, and fútbol. They gather in giant heaving groups of fleece and acid tongues. They spill out of flooded subway exits, sputtering buses, ravaged markets. In little cafes across Recoleta, customers eat pastries with cheeks pressed to the windows.
The buildings are haughty constructions of columns, scrollwork, and colorful murals, topped with gargoyles and domes. They are almost too tall, as if their architects wanted desperately to prove that their city was very important. Their style is Neoclassical French and Italian—exactly the kind of architecture that sets the tourists’ hearts aflutter as they babble, “It’s so beautiful. No, it’s so European. Can you believe we’re in South America?”
Recoleta does no favors for anyone. In the mornings, commuters trudge through rain and wait for subway cars so packed, Teresa and I wait two or three trains before we find a car that will fit us. It used to be that commuters would make room for pretty women, she complains. Teresa was a model in the 60’s; she commuted uptown every day, and they always made room for her. She was a Recoleta princess, Teresa says, laughing. Now, she is a bent old woman, but she glares at the indifferent subway commuters as if it is still 1967 and the world is strung along her fingertips.
Porteños only hear birdsong at dawn, Teresa explains to me: after the club-goers stumble home and before the morning commuters wake. Afterwards, everything is one long symphony of car engines, construction workers constantly building new real estate, and old friends in suits, greeting one another in roadside cafés.
On the streets, when the rain subsides, leggy men and leggier women dance the tango: the sexy, fast-paced rhythm borne from the Argentine working class—now a spectacle for the wealthy. Harsh winter winds turn their red dresses into the frantic wings of a butterfly. Surrounded by mittened applause and fountains edged with frost, they dance on.
“La abundancia cria la arrogancia.”
Abundance breeds arrogance.
Recoleta is known for three things: museums, pricey real estate, and one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world. Recoleta Cemetery is the hottest afterlife destination for important Argentine figures: from Nobel Prize winners to Napoleon’s granddaughter to the beloved Eva Perón—whose grave is easily the most visited. Here, time comes to an abrupt halt.
The cemetery is called a “city within a city”—and for good reason. Over 6,400 vaulted tombs and mausoleums cluster into rows eerily reminiscent of city streets. Burial in the Recoleta Cemetery is unbelievably expensive. It’s pricey to live in Recoleta and pricey to die there. Mausoleums range from chapels to Greek temples to Egyptian obelisks. Along pathways that wind into stone labyrinths, marble angels gaze down on passerby in quiet judgement. In the daytime, tourists pose by solemn tombs with expressions of mock horror, as if taunting death itself. The cemetery is ominous even in broad daylight. Perhaps it is a good thing that the gates close at 5:30 PM.
Listed as a “must-see” destination on any respectable guide to Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery is a major attraction for the year-long infestation of tourists in the area. Teresa, my host mother, has lived here for the past five decades, and she complains about the tourists loudly over dinner one night. “Recoleta is not what it used to be,” she explains, carefully tearing a piece off her chimichurri bread. “Too many visitors. It’s practically America here. Not enough of Argentina.”
She can’t see the stars here. They were once visible, but in her lifetime the city has grown far too bright. She wants to return to the countryside of her youth, where the nights are quiet and the air hums with the warm lull of Spanish tongues—not the sharp, deafening English that bounces off Recoleta roads like stones.
Her home is a study in self-loathing. The walls are as much a part of Recoleta as she is, no matter how much she has come to despise it. Glass figures of Jesus Christ adorn her mantle. Floral curtains match floral carpets match floral couches. A maid dusts a bookshelf filled with nothing but Harlequin romances. Her home is unashamedly upper-class. Perhaps most striking are the photos, spanning decades, shifting from black-and-white portraits to vibrant polaroids. Recoleta stands proud in each: a pair of impossibly ornate buildings behind a smiling blonde; an Italian windowsill graced by laughing children; a crumbling stone bridge where a group of friends dangle their umbrellas.
Out the windows, cars pass in the jerky movements that characterize Argentine streets. Judging from her lifestyle, Teresa clearly does not hate the eloquence of Recoleta: just the commercialization.
“Dios está en todas partes pero atiende en Buenos Aires.”
God is everywhere, but his office is in Buenos Aires.
Argentina is notorious for having purged almost completely its indigenous population.5
In 1536, Spanish explorers in pursuit of gold founded Buenos Aires. Founders envisioned the city as a pocket of Europe in the savage wilds of South America. Officials wanted upper-class Europeans to immigrate to the city and contribute to its growth. Instead, Argentina attracted millions of predominantly lower-class Italians, Spaniards, and Germans. The result is a culture with the Spaniards’ hot-bloodedness, the Italians’ culinary perfectionism, and the Germans’ relentless work ethic.
In this context, Recoleta’s existence is almost comical. At the tail end of the 18th century, wealthy families fled to the outskirts of Buenos Aires to escape a deadly outbreak of yellow fever. As the city grew around Recoleta, what was once the outskirts became a downtown district: a bubble of Buenos Aires distinguished by heavy pockets, chic denizens, and classy roadside cafes. Travel experts will claim that Buenos Aires is the “Paris of South America.” If this analogy holds true, then Recoleta is like Paris’s Avenue Montaigne, a wealthy district distinguished by culture, architecture, and a stale vein of socioeconomic uniformity.
In this way, I despise Recoleta. Recoleta is perhaps the vision of Argentina that those original Spanish settlers had imagined: the image that Argentina sees when it looks into a fun-house mirror. The poverty, the slums, the ethnic districts are nonexistent: suctioned away. Only the cliches remain, for tourists to capture in bright flashes of light. I adore Recoleta. Here is the Argentina that guidebooks hail: the beautiful architecture, the cobbled streets, the bustling bakeries, the late-night opera shows, the exquisite residents, dressed in the latest fashions.
In Recoleta, there is no room for the consequences of a city as large as Buenos Aires: the poverty, the slums, the gaping socioeconomic disparity. These consequences are swept to San Telmo or La Boca in the south of the city. Cat-calling, for example, is an integral part of Argentine culture, one that is slowly being eradicated from the streets by local feminist groups. In the meaner parts of the city, Teresa and I are called “beautiful” and “queens” and “bitches who wanna give head.”
In Recoleta, the shiny streets are awash in color: flurries of beautiful women wearing beautiful clothes—and the men keep their mouths carefully closed. Recoleta is busy. It’s clean. It’s charming. A romantic comedy would feel right at home on the streets by the quaint, outdoor boutiques.
At the same time, Recoleta is too clean, too charming, too unlike the temperamental, passionate liveliness that characterizes Argentine culture. I remember touring the villas miserias or shantytowns of Buenos Aires with Teresa, where filthy feet kick homemade soccer balls, and drunkards sing off-key ballads from homes that are mere planks of plywood. In comparison, Recoleta appears to me like some far-off dream: a fantasy land where the conquistadors’ dreams of a clean, wealthy, European Argentina have come true.
Shortly after I return to California, Teresa moves out of her little apartment in Recoleta. I call her nearly a year later, and the ex-Princess of Recoleta speaks of her new country home in fast, animated tones. The people are so friendly, she gushes. She can actually hear herself think.
Most memorably, she mutters before I hang up, “I just didn’t want to be buried there.”
“Where?” I ask.
“The cemetery in Recoleta. I didn’t want to be trapped there.” I don’t know how to respond, so we say goodbye.
At night, I am haunted by images of Recoleta Cemetery and its iron gates, its grandiose mausoleums, the self-importance of its marble grave-markers. I think: there is nothing that symbolizes Recoleta more than this place of glorified death.
For what is Recoleta but a pretty graveyard? In my mind, I see the ornate European buildings; the brand name shops; the tiny, groomed children walking their tiny, groomed dogs. Recoleta’s facade is ornate and stunning, but it is as stale and dead as bones in the ground: a shell from which all of Recoleta’s liveliest, realest components have been purged. Teresa took 60 years to leave Recoleta. Of course, she didn’t want to be buried there.
In the end, Recoleta was purged even of its own princess.