The Tomb of the Hero

Honor Guard at the Tomb of José de San Martín in Buenos Aires

The liberators of South America from the Spanish are honored throughout South America. One keeps running into the names of Bolivar, San Martin, Sucré, and O’Higgins again and again. The honor guard at the Metropolitan Cathedral on the north side of the Plazo de Mayo in Buenos Aires is dressed in the uniforms of the early 19th century, with swords drawn and standing at rigid attention.

Even Jorge Luis Borges, who never served in any country’s military, bragged of being descended from Colonel Manuel Isidoro Suárez, hero of the Battle of Junín in far-off Peru back in 1824. Many of his poems refer to this ancestral hero. Here is the last stanza of “A Page to Commemorate Manuel Suárez, Victor at Junín”:

His great-grandson is writing these lines
and a silent voice comes to him out of the past,
out of the blood:
“What does my battle at Junín matter if it is only
a glorious memory, or a date learned by rote
for an examination, or a place in the atlas?
The battle is everlasting and can do without
the pomp of actual armies and of trumpets.
Junín is two civilians cursing a tyrant
on a street corner,
or an unknown man somewhere, dying in prison.

I have read biographies of Bolivar and San Martín—as well as Gabriel García Márquez’s excellent The General in His Labyrinth, about the former—only to find that the heroes are more honored today than they were in their lifetimes. San Martín became so disgusted with his fellow Argentines that he moved to France. Only many years later did the Argentines invest him with the sanctity he wears today like an uneasy crown.



The Liberator and the Ombú

I Had to Come All the Way to Peru to See This Argentinian Tree

I Had to Come All the Way to Peru to See This Argentinian Tree

It is a tree from the pampas of Argentina, which, although I have been to that country twice, I have not yet seen at ground level. My first acquaintance with the tree is from W. H. Hudson’s little known (but excellent) Tales of the Pampas:

In all this district, though you should go twenty leagues to this way and that, you will not find a tree as big as this ombú, standing solitary, where there is no house; therefore it is known to all as “the ombú,” as if but one existed; and the name of all this estate, which is now ownerless and ruined, is El Ombú. From one of the higher branches, if you can climb, you will see the lake of Chascomus, two thirds of a league away, from shore to shore, and the village on its banks. Even smaller things will you see on a clear day; perhaps a red line moving across the water—a flock of flamingos flying in their usual way. A great tree standing alone, with no house near it; only the old brick foundations of a house, so overgrown with grass and weeds that you have to look closely to find them. When I am out with my flock in the summer time, I often come here to sit in the shade. It is near the main road; travellers, droves of cattle, the diligence, and bullock-carts pass in sight. Sometimes, at noon, I find a traveller resting in the shade, and if he is not sleeping we talk and he tells me the news of that great world my eyes have never seen.

Then, in September, while walking in Lima’s Pueblo Libre between the Museo Larco and the National Museum of Anthropology, I saw my first Ombú, which I photographed.

Sign Identifying the Ombú Tree

Sign Identifying the Ombú Tree

What I find interesting about this sign, and this particular tree, is that the seed was purported to have been sowed by José de San Martín, an Argentinian who is considered by the Peruvians as the great liberator of their country. Curiously, Simon Bolivar did more than San Martín to actually free the country from the Spanish yoke, but it was the Argentinian who first declared Peru’s freedom. In the end, it was Bolivar who finally sealed the deal by his military victories.

They would have done it together, if it were not for the fact that they didn’t get along well together. Bolivar felt that San Martín was horning in on his action, and that he was quite capable of actually liberating Peru by himself. The discouraged San Martín returned to Argentina.

In 2011, Martine and I visited his tomb in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires, where a military honor guard protects his remains.

So it was not only my first Ombú, but it was a historically important one at that.