The Monkey

You would think that given how many times my mother has told me the story, I would know exactly how many months salary she saved to buy me el mono, the monkey. But as it always happens with stories you hear a lot, you stop listening and the details become fuzzy.

It was either a whole month’s salary or three. Now, three seems excessive. Would you save three months’ salary to buy a toy? It’s hard to believe. But toys in Argentina were expensive. Everything was expensive. American democracy survives only through the importation of cheap goods made by quasi slave labor abroad, and the elimination of excess populations through mass incarceration and drug addiction. It’s the bubble that’s about to burst. In Argentina’s history, it burst many times – thus the price of toys and recurring military dictatorships. I was born during the military dictatorship of Onganía.

My mother tells me often how much she paid for this monkey, in terms of her labor, to show me how much she loves me (or, at least, with how much illusion and love she was waiting for me – she bought it when she was pregnant). I get it. But I don’t need the tales. I can see her love for me in all the photos of both of us. I can feel her love for me as an adult – a far more complicated love, mind you – in all her actions and attention. She fucked me up, in the same but different way I’m sure I’ve fucked up my children, but with love.

I am sure I liked the monkey, maybe even loved it, but, as Oscar Wilde so profoundly said in the Ballad of Reading Gaol, we always kill the thing we love. Or in my case, lose it.

So it happened that one day when I was very little that I went with grandmother, as was usually the case, to play in the swings at the campus of the Estudiantes de La Plata soccer club, over by the tennis courts, behind the always dirt-brown children’s pool, I left the monkey behind. I don’t remember the details. Why did I bring the monkey? Did any of my siblings or cousins come along? Where did I forget it? All I can remember is the desperation of having lost it.

I picture the swing – though once again, my mind goes fuzzy. All I can really see is the brick-red color of the ground. I know the swing was metal and wood – but then again, aren’t they all? But I can’t tell how many swings there are. Is there also a calesita? A subi-baja? What is stranger is that I don’t even know if we found the monkey. It probably didn’t matter. The trauma of having lost it was enough. I knew my mom would get mad. And if you think I’m scary when I get mad, you haven’t met my mother.

Some time later, I believe, my mother bought a new almost identical monkey for my sister Gabriela. At least, I associate the monkey with her. It had a shirt and overalls and, like this one, even though you can’t see it in the photo – it was holding a banana in its hand.

Celebrating a doll birthday party, you can see the monkey on the background.

Eventually that became a problem. Gabriela developed something akin for a phobia against bananas. She couldn’t see them. She couldn’t smell them. She could not hear the word banana. If she did, she would throw a fit. A kicking and screaming fit. A swearing and yelling fit.

Our brother loved bananas. I don’t know which was the chicken and which was the egg, though I always assumed that it was her hate/resentment/anger/etc. at David that made her develop this hate for bananas. Or, as she would call them porquerías inmundas. I’ll let Google translate try to work that one out.

Gabriela’s issues with bananas were so deep that around 1984, when she was hospitalized to study the petit mal epilepsy symptoms she was experiencing, the doctors noted how even in her sleep her brain waves would go wild if the word banana was said in her presence. Mostly, my parents let her get away with ruling out all mentions of bananas from the house. And thus it became a weapon of sibling fights.

Dealing with the monkey’s banana was relatively simple. They covered it up with surgical tape until you couldn’t even see its shape. Still, I don’t think Gabriela played much with that monkey after she developed her phobia. I think that my mom still has the monkey, I might even have seen it at her house when I went last week when my father died.

My feelings about him are conflictive. I don’t feel compelled to give him a hug, I don’t smile when I look at his pictures, but then again, I don’t exactly feel animosity towards this toy.

And yet, I wrote a whole essay about him.

As I end, I realize how much I associate this monkey with my mom. My father must have picked it up a thousand times, I must have seen him holding it, but to me, he and the monkey were strangers. The monkey was all mom’s. She paid for it.

The fuzziness of memory

Some things are fuzzy. Tonight, as I was falling asleep to a 538 podcast on the Latino vote, it was the image of the main downstairs bathroom at my grandparents home that came to mind. Don’t ask me why.

It was a large bathroom. Though everything in my memories from childhood is large, both an artifact of the fact that these memories are from when I was small and that many of the urbanized spaces I occupied were small in comparison to those in American suburbia. So this was a relatively large bathroom.

It was a sad one as well. Maybe there is a vague olfactory memory of mildew that makes me think that, though no visual memories of such visit me. Maybe it was the black toilet seat. Or the memories of my grandma sitting somewhere with her feet in a bucket of scalding water. The overall memory is there, but it’s so hard to focus on specific parts. I can’t really see any details on the bathtub, the shower is hazy. I can’t see a shower curtain. But on the shelf below the large mirror, I can see my grandfather’s shaving equipment. A yellow brush he used to put the shaving cream on his face. Even then this was terribly old fashioned, as were the jars of gomina, the hair gel my uncle Mikita kept in the upstairs bathroom. The brush puzzled me. My father didn’t use one. It puzzles me now whether my memories of it are all from before my grandfather died (the summer before I turned seven, I confirmed this with my mother), or whether that brush remained in its place after he died, forgotten, with nobody bothering to throw it away. I wish, I was thinking as I was falling asleep, that I could print these images in my brain and then look at them more closely. Maybe then they wouldn’t escape me as water or very fine sand, between my fingers.

Like the memory I just had of a boat trip through what seems like a swamp. A long time ago, but where? Somewhere in the Yucatán peninsula when I wrote that chapter for a guidebook right after college? Or maybe in Nicaragua, but then why can’t I recall Mike being there? Or is it totally a dream?

My family in front of my grandparents house. The window on the wall on the left looks into the bathroom I described. In the photo, my mother is standing. My grandmother Zuni seats holding my brother besides my grandfather Tito, who is holding my sister. My uncle Titi holds his son Fernandito and my aunt Cuqui, her son Luisito. I am the one in the middle with a grouchy face.

Helado

In today’s stream of consciousness through memory lane, let me talk about ice cream.

Argentina has the best ice cream. Believe me. It does. It’s probably because of the flavor of the milk, because even Argentinian style ice cream in the US does not compare.

The best flavor of Argentinian ice cream is, of course, dulce de leche. And more specifically, dulce de leche granizado – which is dulce de leche mixed with shredded chocolate. As a child, whenever we went to the ice cream parlor, I would order that and either strawberry or pineapple sorbet.

That’s another thing. Why can’t American sorbet taste as good as Argentina’s helados de agua? Water is water, right? And even when it varies, it would vary within Argentina as well. Perhaps I should finally look and compare recipes. Or perhaps I should accept that all food from childhood tastes better (except for Argentine cookies, American cookies are far superior. Same with cakes.)

Foto de Don Antonio Helados, Buenos Aires: Cucurucho de chocolate y dulce  de leche - Tripadvisor
Photo taken from the web

Growing up, ice cream was a very special treat. It was expensive! Very expensive. And you could only get it at ice cream parlors. They didn’t sell tubs of ice cream at the supermarket, which was just as well, as our freezers back then weren’t cold enough to keep it frozen. I think my parents got a modern refrigerators a couple of years before we moved to the US, which my aunt Gladys then took, but the market for supermarket ice cream had not yet developed.

My parents did make their own ice cream in a small machine. But the results, for whatever reason, weren’t very good. I’m guessing the recipe might have been at fault. I do remember that it called for unflavored gelatin. Maybe it was because of the lack of a really cold freezer.

So real ice cream was something we got when we got our report cards – as a reward for doing well, but we always did well enough, so it became just the time when we got ice cream. Ironically, this meant that we got ice cream only during the cooler months, when school was in session.

My second grade report card.
Ice cream │Helados - #Icecream | Recuerdos de la infancia, Niños de los 90,  Cosas vintage

In summer, we had to content ourselves with Frigor brand ice cream novelties. In reality, this mostly meant popsicles – which you will not be surprised to learn were much tastier in America. They came in all sort of shapes, and they varied by season, but we usually were relegated to the cheapest one. On super special occasions we might get or be able to afford an ice cream bar – un helado de crema -, but that was very rare. Indeed, even the popsicles would have been rare if it wasn’t for the fact that we – my brother and I – went to day camp during the summer, and for dessert after lunch we got half (una patita) of a two-stick popsicle like the ones in the picture to the left.

Once in a blue moon, my dad might buy a kilo of ice cream for the whole family. We then got to specify which flavors we wanted, and we’d end up with a scoop of a dozen different one – which would then all meld into one flavor.

As you can imagine, when we came to America and found how (relatively) cheap and abundant ice cream was at supermarkets, we were in high heaven. So much so that for quite a while we didn’t miss dulce de leche ice cream (which, btw, doesn’t taste anything like the Haagen Daaz version).

I do now. And very much so. It’s possible to make it at home, but it’s soooo expensive (as it requires dulce de leche imported from Argentina). My kids are grown up, but still at home, so maybe I should make it for them as a treat when they get their report cards.

Memories of Isabelita

I was not quite 7 year old when the Argentinian military overthrew the democratic government of Isabel Perón and started a military dictatorship.

My memory of the day is now a fussy photograph. I see myself with my dad on Calle 7, but I can’t tell why. I do recall an overwhelming feeling of relief on the adults around me. People were happy, jubilant even, to see an end to the chaotic Presidency of Isabel Perón. I feel a similar expectation of relief and jubilation in the people around me who are hoping for Biden to win this November. People do not like chaos. At least, the middle classes, which have something to lose (jobs, property, security), don’t.

24 de marzo de 1976: así lo mostraron los diarios en Argentina - Diario 26
Newspapers from the day of the ’76 military coup.

Isabel Perón was not only the wife of iconic President Juan Domingo Perón, but his vice-president. She assumed the Presidency of the nation when Perón died in 1974. Even though I came from an extremely anti-peronista family (the anti-Trump passion you observe in Democratic circles feels very much like the anti-peronista passion I recall from my youth), I actually cried when I learned Perón died. “He was on TV all the time,” I told my family, “and he seemed nice.” My family has teased me about those tears ever since. It’s only now, as I start writing these memories, that I realize that I was a very sensitive child and that my tears might have been a reaction to the emotions from adults around me. For as much as my family hated Peron, many people loved him. He had been elected an year earlier with over 60% of the votes.

Cuando la muerte de Perón paró cuatro partidos del Mundial de Alemania 74 -  Clarín

I grew up with as much a disdain for Peronistas, as kids in California feel for Trumpians. But they would constitute the majority of victims of the military dictatorship, and many of the survivors would become my closest friends as I undertook my activism on human rights. I do not pretend to equate Perón with Trump, and much less peronistas with Trumpians – they had radically different believes and stood for very different things. But the hate that has grown for the latter in the hearts of Democrats is both familiar and frightening.

There is no doubt that the not-quite-two years of Isabel Perón’s presidency were chaotic. They were also the years where we moved from my grandfather’s country house in the outskirts of the city, to the apartment my parents had bought in downtown La Plata, just a couple of blocks from the Plaza San Martín. Indeed, part of this chaos had been the arrival of superinflation. My parents had bought the 3-bedroom/1 1/2 bathroom apartment before it was built for 8 million pesos, with fixed payments. After hyperinflation hit, their payments became as low a packet of cigarettes.

Our first Christmas at the new apartment in La Plata

I have many good memories of those years. My 5th birthday party at Simpitopo, a party room close to our new apartment, for example. We had custom made princess hats for everyone and all sorts of games and activities. My first day of school at the Colegio Normal Nacional Número 2 “Dardo Rocha,” a few blocks from our place. I learned to read and found out I was pretty smart. Our family trip to Mendoza, where we drove in mountain roads while singing Vamos de paseo. I’ve written about some of the bad memories as well – the death of my grandfather Tito and of my cousin Fernando. But I also have more general memories of the social strife Argentina was going through.

My first day of first grade

I’ll start with the most traumatic memory: the bomb. I don’t think it was too long after we moved to our apartment, that I was woken up in the middle of the night one night by an extremely loud noise and then the noise of broken glass. “Mis tacitas,” I screamed, “my cups!“. I had gotten a miniature porcelain tea set some time before and it was one of my most prized possessions. My mother must have inculcated in me the thought that it was very expensive, as were, really, most of the toys we had. Note to socialists and anti-free trade activists: when everything that is sold is made locally by union labor, everything is expensive. My little cups were on a shelf in the shape of a house hanging on the wall opposite to my bed, I was afraid they had fallen.

But it wasn’t the cups, it was the whole window which had shattered, as had all the windows on our side of the building – the side facing another residential building where a bomb had exploded that night. I don’t recall the details of where exactly the bomb had been placed or why – like most apartment buildings, there were shops in the ground floor and the bomb was aimed to one of them. To this day, I don’t know who put the bomb. My parents, back then, suspected Montoneros – one of the leftist groups that had taken on arms around that time. Later, I would hear that it might have been the Triple A – the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance – a government-linked death squad. Violence, you see, came from all sides.

I didn’t experience any other bombs back then (or since), but around this time my mother suspected one of her coworkers of being involved in one of these leftist groups. One day, when she went to the bathroom, she and her coworkers decided to look inside her purse, only to find a file with the title “Cómo hacer chiches,” “how to make toys”. They were instructions for how to make bombs. Now, of course, you can easily download these from the internet, but the knowledge wasn’t as widespread back then.

Of course, my mother and her co-worker freaked out and of course they talked about it in front of us. My parents always talked about everything in front of us. Everything – which I’m happy about, because otherwise I would not have many of these memories.

Like my memory about how freaked out my mother was when she “lost” her national ID. She was sure that this co-worker of her had stolen it, and she was afraid that she or another terrorist would use it and get her in trouble. This was not an idle fear. Once the military took over they weren’t exactly careful on whom they picked up. Fortunately, nothing much seems to have happened. I don’t know what happened to the co-worker.

I know now that the bomb that exploded in the building in front of ours had to be relatively small. Nobody died, and apart from broken windows the destruction was minimal. The were more deadly ones, of course, as well as kidnappings and shootings – I also remember seeing bullet holes in buildings. But the point of terrorism is to create fear, and fear is not logical or necessarily commensurate with the actual threat. It turned out that leftist militant groups were not a great threat to peace or democracy. The government-sponsored death squads were more dangerous. The military dictatorship that used them as an excuse to take power, however, and then went on to commit grave crimes against humanity and injured our society at its very core.

FEDERICO IBAÑEZ Miembro de Montoneros. TESTIGO IMPROPIO

Another loose memory from life under Isabelita is that of milk shortages and quotas. This one time my grandmother Zuni took us to the supermarket near our home to buy milk for the second time in a day. The supermarket had strict limits on how much milk you could buy, and she was recognized and stopped. I can still feel the embarrassment of being caught like that. “It’s for the children,” my grandmother plead as we stood as props to make that point. But the manager didn’t care. She had bought milk earlier, and she wasn’t getting any more.

Celebrating my sister Gabriela’s first birthday, with my brother, my mother, my aunt Stella and my grandmother Zuni.

While as an adult and a human rights activist I revisited this period in Argentinian history many times, it wasn’t until now, when I set down to share in this memory, that I thought to ask: why was there a shortage of milk in the first place? After all, Argentina is one of the largest producers of milk in the world, and this has been the case no matter how horrendous the economic policies of the central government have been.

A short search on the internet had the answer: large food companies had stopped distributing food to stores, thus helping build up social discontent with the Peron government (who would ultimately be blamed for the lack of food) and generating support for the military coup that was on its way.

As I mentioned above, when the coup finally came on March 24th, 1976, everyone surrounding me welcomed it. For the following seven years, as tens of thousands o young people were murdered, tortured and disappeared, everyone around me stayed silent. But hey, there weren’t any food shortages.