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?
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My father’s greatest gift – though sometimes I’ve felt it was a curse – to me was Christianity, its precepts formed me and forged me and have led me to be the activist I am today. But it wasn’t straight forward.
My father grew up Methodist. His mother, the daughter and granddaughter of German immigrants to the US, had been raised a Lutheran. His father, the grandson of Basque immigrants to Argentina, was a Catholic. In my father’s home, it was Granny’s religion which dominated – though my aunt would become a Christian Scientist for some years.
My dad was always a strong believer. As a young adult he was very active in his church and might even have considered going into the ministry. Many decades later, at a human rights conference in Nuremberg, I would meet one of his church youth leaders, José Miguez Bonino. Bonino had gone on to be one of the founders and principal expositors of Protestant liberation theology, as well as an activist for human rights during the military dictatorship. I was thrilled to hear him remember my father as a very smart and upright young man.
Alas, instead of the ministry, my father went into mechanical engineering and he met my mother while working at the Laboratorio de Ensayos de Materiales e Investigaciones Tecnológicas, a government lab that tested (and maybe also developed) “materials” used by government and industry. The only concrete “investigation” I remember was into developing paints for ships that would make it harder for sea life to attach to them.
Papá worked in the lab, mamá – who had studied chemical engineering but had not finished – in the library. Once, at an after-work function, sparks flew – he dumped his fiance (or, as my mother recalls, ghosted her), she dumped hers, and less than a year later they were married. I was born 9 months and fourteen days later, for those who were counting. And yes, she had co-workers who were.
My mother came from a traditional Italian-Argentinian family. Both of her parents were super religious. My grandmother would go to church at least once a day. My mother, of course, was raised in the Church but I don’t think she was ever particularly religious – indeed, when I was a little girl, my aunt and her would comment the gift of faith I’d been granted, sort of implying they didn’t have it. Still, being Catholic was part of her identity, and she was not going to give it up.
In Argentina, people have two wedding ceremonies. The first, the legal marriage, takes place at the Civil Registry and is often a relatively austere affair, even more so than City Hall weddings in the US. But this is followed by a religious ceremony, usually at a church – which itself is followed by a reception. The Church wedding is, of course, not obligatory but Argentina is a very Catholic country and people didn’t consider themselves married if they weren’t married in church. My parents didn’t get married in a church, though, because neither would agree to get married at the other’s one church. So they got married in my grandfather’s living room, with both a priest and a pastor officiating. Not my father’s pastor, mind you, as he refused to participate, but another Protestant pastor that agreed to do the deed.
My mom wore a green dress.
Back then, at least, and perhaps still, there weren’t enough Protestants in the country to merit multiple seminaries, so a single seminary in Buenos Aires trained the pastors for all the Protestants sects (save for the Baptists). Indeed, my Lutheran grandmother had become a Methodist because that was the only Protestant church in La Plata when she moved there. We were Protestants, denominations were meaningless.
My parents religious enmity continued after I was born. My mother wanted to baptise me Catholic, my father was fundamentally opposed. In his church, Protestants chose to get baptised and did so when they were 12 or so. This put the literal fear of God in my maternal grandmother. Limbo had not yet been abolished, and thus I was subject to spend eternity in this circle of hell if I died before I wasn’t baptised. Not a fate any grandmother could accept for her grandchild. One day and without my father’s (and maybe mother’s) knowledge and permission, my grandmother took me to her neighborhood church and had me baptized by her parish priest, Padre Montes.
Father Montes, who I can still picture in my mind with his baldish head, large glasses and long robes, would later become the rector of the Cathedral of La Plata and later the auxiliary bishop to Monsignor Plaza, the archbishop of La Plata. Later, he’d be named bishop of Chascomús, a nearby locality. But it was his years at the Cathedral that would have the greatest impact. Later, as a human rights activist, I’d encounter his name often in the stories of family members of the disappeared who would go to him for help finding their loved ones, very seldom with any success. “Stop looking for your granddaughter, stop bothering me”, he toldChicha Mariani, the founder of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, when she went to see him at the Cathedral for help looking for her granddaughter Clara, who had been taken from her parents’ home by the military when she was only 3 months old. Everyone else in the house had been killed. “She is in the hands of very powerful people”. Chicha spent 48 years looking for Clara, until her death at 94 in 2018. The BBC carried her obituary. It did not carry Padre Monte’s.
Being baptized as a Catholic robbed me of my chance of being baptized as Protestant – apparently, you only get baptized once – something that really irked me as a child. Once I became an atheist, of course, that stopped mattering.
I think I was not yet six, and has not yet learned to read, when my father got me a Children’s Bible. It was a very simple affair. A thin book, with an orange cover and a picture of something I can’t quite make up. Trees? Leaves? A monkey? Surely not that…
On a whim, just now, after writing the paragraph above, I decided to search for the book in question. I knew the title, La Biblia del Niño, “The Children’s Bible” but that didn’t give me much hope. How many children’s bibles must have been printed since my father got me that one in the early 1970s? As luck would have it, it was the first image Google would bring to me. And yes, there were trees, leaves, and not a monkey but animals from a Paradise scene. The cover seems to have been more red than orange, but perhaps mine faded with time.
Google is getting waaaaay scary in its ability to produce what we search for.
But I digress/ It was this book – a story book – that initiated me into Christianity, but I soon graduated into the two books that would define it for me and form the essence of my value system ever since. El Gran Libro, Narraciones Bíblicas came in two volumes, one for the Old Testament and the New Testament. It was a translation of a book in Dutch written by Ann De Vries and probably published in English under the name Story Bible for Older Children.
The God that De Vries portrayed in her books was ultimately a loving and fair God, but a demanding and uncompromising one – very much like his Jesus. From the books, I learned to always speak the truth (my truth, as it turned out) and to not coy in the face of criticism or disdain. After all, prophets and Jesus himself were persecuted for saying it like it is. I learned to have disdain for money and riches, “it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven.” I learned that life wasn’t fair – the last will (sometimes, at least) be first – and that we had the obligation to go forward and fight for our beliefs. Back then, I thought it’d be for Christianity, later my gospel became one of human rights.
The Jesus of the Bible, as portrayed by Des Vries, did not accept corruption, despised hypocrisy and invited animosity. But his fight was a local one, against those with local power, not against the Roman empire.
I read through these books over and over and over again. For years, I kept them under my pillow (they didn’t make for a comfortable sleep). And I believed them. I thought the stories were true, that they had really happened. In sixth grade, when the teacher asked how we thought multiple languages had come about, I was ready exasperated anyone would not know: God did it at the tower of Babel. The teacher didn’t argue.
The Great Book did not explicitly call on people to be like Jesus, but that was the purpose of life according to the textbook of my 9th grade Civic and Moral Formation class. This imitation of Christ is a fundamental concept in Catholic doctrine, and the military dictatorship I lived under was eminently Catholic. Perhaps the Catholic Christ wasn’t as much of a revolutionary as the one that came out from Des Vries books, but I seem to have taken to heart the idea of looking at the Jesus from those pages as a model. Much, much later, within the last decade, I would read in Burton L. Mack’s book The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins the theory that Jesus was really a cynic sage, inspired more by Diogenes (in my mind forever associated with a discomforting comic strip) than by God. Jesus, perhaps, was himself an atheist, with later followers adding all the “kingdom of heaven” and “god” narrative to the earlier moral tales. In any case, my values, my ethics, my morality is very much based on the teachings of Jesus as told by De Vries. Even as I became an atheist – perhaps like Jesus himself – I was never able to shed them.
I didn’t become an atheist until college, though the doubts started earlier. After we moved to America, my father tried his hand at a number of desperation-jobs (those which an almost 50-yo not-quite-yet-immigrant could get), including one selling the Encyclopedia Britannica. He never made much money at it. He liked sales – some years earlier, still in Argentina, he had lost his job as an engineer and went on his own buying products in Buenos Aires and selling them to small stores in La Plata -, but he was never very successful at it. I don’t think he made any money at all selling encyclopedias. But he was able to buy one at a big discount – the sets sold for upwards of $1000 at at time when the minimum wage was $3.35/hr and I was the beneficiary. While my knowledge of English was elementary when he got it, it was enough to navigate the mostly Latin-derived vocabulary of the articles that interested me. So I took to them with gusto. I still loved history most of all, and decided that would study the history of man from the beginning.
I knew by then that the story of Adam and Eve was a myth. When I was 11 or 12, Argentinian TV started showing the amazing French TV series Once Upon a Time… Man which told the history of human kind from the Bing Bang on. I was glued to the TV every week to see a new chapter. Eventually, the Catholic Church objected to the subject matter and they stopped showing it, but it wasn’t until after the Renaissance. At about the same time, a history of the world comic book came out with weekly editions, and my mom would also buy it for us. I don’t exactly recall if I had conversations with my father about this new revelation about the origin of human kind, but he didn’t share my literal reading of the Bible (or my biblical narrations), so if we did I’m sure he explained the story of Adam and Eve as the myth it was.
So I didn’t have a crisis of faith as I read about ramapithecus, a 13 million old fossile that at the time the encyclopedia was written was still postulated as a possible ancestor of human beings. Nor when I read about australopithecus, homo habilis, homo erectus and Neanderthals. But eventually, I made it to the stone age, to the neolithic and to the study of ancient civilizations. And that’s where the problem started. As I studied Sumerian civilization, I came across their creation myths – which were painfully similar to those in the Bible. Humans were created from clay by the Sumerian goddess Namma on the instruction of the god Enki. In the Gilgamesh epic, Gilgamesh meets a man named Utnapishtim, who in the far past had been warned by a god of an inpending flood meant to punish mankind. He was instructed to build a circular ship and fill it with animals. Once it was all over, he sent out a bird to check for dry land. Gilgamesh also tells us of finding a plant that would give him immortality, which was denied to him when a serpent ate it.
My problem was that Sumerian civilization was far older than Hebrew civilization, which meant that their creation and flood stories were older than the Hebrew versions. Being older, you would imagine they’d be closer to the “truth” – if there was any truth in them. How could I believe the historicity of the Hebrew myths when it was so clear they were modifications of the Mesopotamian ones. The Bible itself told of how Abraham, the grandfather of Israel, came from the Mesopotamian city of Ur.
Still, I started college believing in God. I started going to the Methodist church kitty corner from my dorm (not very popular with students) and became friends with a born again Christian, whose religious views were, unsurprisingly, very different from mine. But keeping faith was difficult.
My first semester in college I took Introduction to Physical Anthropology with Vincent Sarich, who would be my professor throughout my college years, and discovered that I had no need of God to explain anything about the creation of the world or of man. I was seeking truth, human evolution provided it. I also took my first class on Egyptian history, and found out that there was no evidence in Egyptian archaeology of writings to confirm the stories from the Bible. The Egyptians wrote about everything, they wouldn’t have missed the fantastic tales of Joseph or of Moses. Well, it did turn out that there was a very similar story in Egyptian literature to the Bible’s story about Joseph – which was written long before Joseph would have existed.
Without any actual evidence for the Bible or for God, I was left with faith alone. But where could I anchor this faith? Until then, I had done so in the fact that I could feel God. Indeed, since I was a child, I had that personal relationship with God born against are always talking about. But eventually, I asked myself whether people from other religions – from Judaism and Hinduism to the ancient religions – did not have the same experience of feeling their gods. And if so, what were the chances that I was born into the one true religion?
I won’t lie. There was another factor. I didn’t only discover evolution in college, I discovered sex. And as I started my first sexual relations, I did not want to feel sinful and guilty about them. So I gave up God.