Facing South

Skeletoid Academics?

Dartmouth College was the beginning of many things in my life. One of the most influential was the Reserve Room on the ground floor of Dartmouth’s Baker Library. On three sides was a magnificent sequence of frescoes by José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) which began with the invasion of Mexico by the Conquistadores and ended up with the mess that Mexico was in during the 1930s. One of the most shocking images was the one above of the skeletoid academics giving birth to a baby skeleton.

These frescoes influenced me so much that I would study or even just hang out in the Reserve Room just to imbibe the atmosphere of Orozco’s powerful political murals. It was no accident that the first vacation I took on my own, nine years after my graduation, was a visit to Mayan ruins in Yucatán. Over the next seventeen years, I was to go to Mexico eight times, spending as much as a month on each visit.

José Clemente Orozco

During those visits, my eyes turned further south. I would have loved to go from Yucatán to Belize and on to the Mayan ruins at Tikal in the Petén region of Guatemala. At that time, however, the man in charge was Efraín Ríos Montt, a murderous dog who was responsible for the massacre, rape, and torture of thousands of indigenous people; and the U.S. State Department did not recommend that Americans vacation in Guatemala during his presidency.

Around then, Paul Theroux published The Old Patagonian Express (1979), about taking trains from Boston as far south in the Americas as one could go. I vowed that I would eventually make it to South America, and I did. Since 2006, I visited Argentina (three times!), Uruguay, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador. An despite Mexico’s continuing problem with narcotraficantes, I would not mind going to Yucatán and Chiapas again.



Public Spaces

There Are Some Things at Which Latin Americans Excel

There Are Some Things at Which Latin Americans Excel

American planners stink when it comes to designing comfortable spaces for the public. A classic example is Los Angeles’s Pershing Square, which is essentially an underground parking garage. Do Angelenos want a place where they could sit down, read the paper, get their shoes shined, perhaps listen to an impromptu concert? Well, they’re out of luck: American planners design facilities primarily for hypothetical people who don’t really exist.

Compare that with Quito’s Plaza de la Independencia (see above), where one could sit and pass an hour or two without getting hassled. You can even feed the pigeons if you want. Take the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa, Peru (see below). Instead of chasing you away for feeding the pigeons, there are native women who will sell you some birdseed for a nueva sol or two.

The Plaza de Armas in Arequipa, Peru

The Plaza de Armas in Arequipa, Peru

Whenever I have some time to kill in Latin America, I will simply find a park bench and sit down for a while. In Cuenca’s Parque Calderón, I got into an interesting discussion with a Peruvian visiting from Cuzco. Admittedly, he was selling some pictures—and I bought some from him because I thought he was a talented artist.

I would have a hard time finding an equivalent in Los Angeles without getting panhandled or run over.


Do You Ever Want to Live There?

Parque El Carmen in Lima’s Pueblo Libre Municipalidad

Parque El Carmen in Lima’s Pueblo Libre Municipalidad

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know that I love to travel. The question that many people have asked me is, “Yes, but wouldn’t you like to live there?”

The answer is very simply no. It’s not because I have any great hopes for the United States, but because I know that many of the places I love to visit have or have had insurmountable difficulties which make me think twice.

For instance, I love Iceland; but I dread the idea of six dark months out of every year in which the weak sun comes up for only a few minutes in the middle of the afternoon. And even though virtually everyone speaks English, I would probably have difficulties getting my kennitala (registration number), because officialdom likes to do its business in Icelandic.

Of all the countries I have visited, I would probably like Argentina the best. Even though my Spanish is adequate for travel, however, it would not fare too well dealing with the authorities in matters relating to housing and taxation. Also, all the South American countries I like (including Peru, Uruguay, and Chile) have had problems in the not too distant past with rightist dictators and left wing insurgencies.

We’re not quite there in the U.S.—yet!

As for Hungary, Slovakia, France, England, Scotland, Belgium, and the Netherlands—they’re nice, but I have a feeling they are just at the point of entering a bad time, what with the hoards invading from the Middle East and Africa. I just don’t see a good path around the problems they are just beginning to face.

There’s always Canada, I suppose, and I really like the Canadian people, even the Québecois, but I think I’ll stick it out in the U. S. of A. for the time being.


Ilex paraguariensis

Traditional Yerba Mate Tea Popular in South America

Traditional Yerba Mate Tea Popular in South America

When cooler weather returns to Southern California, in about twenty years or so, I will resume my habit of drinking yerba mate tea. In the meantime, I will enjoy Robert Southey’s poem “Introductory to South America Yerba Mate.” I was pleasantly surprised to see a 19th century British poet conversant with the Ilex paraguariensis, or yerba mate.

Introductory to South America
Yerba Mate
Robert Southey (1774–1843)

(From A Tale of Paraguay)

AMID those marshy woodlands far and wide
Which spread beyond the soaring vulture’s eye,
There grew on Empalado’s southern side
Groves of that tree whose leaves adust supply     [scorched
The Spaniards with their daily luxury;
A beverage whose salubrious use obtains
Through many a land of mines and slavery,
Even over all La Plata’s sea-like plains,
And Chili’s mountain realm, and proud Peru’s domains.

But better for the injured Indian race
Had woods of manchineel the land o’erspread:
Yea, in that tree so blest by Nature’s grace
A direr curse had they inherited,
Than if the Upas there had reared its head
And sent its baleful scions all around,
Blasting where’er its effluent force was shed,
In air and water, and the infected ground,
All things wherein the breath or sap of life is found.

The poor Guaranies dreamt of no such ill,    [Paraguayan natives
When for themselves in miserable hour,
The virtues of that leaf, with pure good-will,
They taught their unsuspected visitor,
New in the land as yet. They learnt his power
Too soon, which law nor conscience could restrain,
A fearless but inhuman conqueror,
Heart-hardened by the accursed lust of gain,
O fatal thirst of gold! O foul reproach for Spain!

For gold and silver had the Spaniards sought,
Exploring Paraguay with desperate pains,
Their way through forests axe in hand they wrought;
Drenched from above by unremitting rains
They waded over inundated plains,
Forward by hope of plunder still allured;
So they might one day count their golden gains,
They cared not at what cost of sin procured,
All dangers they defied, all sufferings they endured.

Barren alike of glory and of gold
That region proved to them; nor would the soil
Unto their unindustrious hands unfold
Harvests, the fruit of peace,—and wine and oil,
The treasures that repay contented toil
With health and weal; treasures that with them bring
No guilt for priest and penance to assoil,
Nor with their venom arm the awakened sting
Of conscience at that hour when life is vanishing.

But keen of eye in their pursuit of gain
The conquerors looked for lucre in this tree:
An annual harvest there might they attain,
Without the cost of annual industry.
’T was but to gather in what there grew free
And share Potosi’s wealth. Nor thence alone.
But gold in glad exchange they soon should see
From all that once the Incas called their own,
Or where the Zippa’s power or Zaque’s laws were known.

For this, in fact though not in name a slave,
The Indian from his family was torn;
And droves on droves were sent to find a grave
In woods and swamps, by toil severe outworn,
No friend at hand to succor or to mourn,
In death unpitied, as in life unblest.
O miserable race, to slavery born!
Yet when we look beyond this world’s unrest,
More miserable then the oppressors than the opprest.

The World’s Poorest Head of State

José Mujica, President of Uruguay

José Mujica, President of Uruguay

When he leaves office as President of Uruguay next month, “El Pepe” Mujica will continue to live humbly on his little flower farm and continue to drive a 1987 VW Bug. For years, he has refused to take more than the average Uruguayan’s salary of $775 a month, depositing the rest of his $12,000 a month salary to charities benefiting single mothers and others.

Once a leftist Tupamaro guerrilla, Mujica spent 14 years in prison. Upon his release, he went into politics with the Broad Front Party and saw his country through a spurt of growth and prosperity.

We don’t think much about Uruguay, but one time it was a very rich country, along with Argentina. The Societe de Fray Bentos Giebert & Cie. along the Rio Uruguay was one of the main sources of canned meat that sustained troops of both sides in the trenches of World War I.

There’s something going on in South America that I like. First there was Pope Francis, who continues to astonish me, and now there is José Mujica, about whom you should read this excellent article by Natasha Hakimi on Truthdig.Com.


Yes, They Are a Little Thick

Yes, They Are a Little Thick

When Martine and I were in Calgary in 2010, Martine and I saw an exhibit entitled “The Baroque World of Fernando Botero” at the city’s Glenbow Museum. (Other than the fish and chips, it was the only thing I remember really liking about the city.) It was my first acquaintance with the Colombian artist other than an odd book cover or two, and I found myself liking his vertically challenged and horizontally enhanced vision. Born in Medellin, Colombia, in 1932, Fernando Botero has developed a unique style in both painting and sculpture. To see a gallery of his work, click here.

For your enjoyment, here is what Botero does to the art of ballet:

Botero Ballerina

Botero Ballerina

Is that an apple atop her head?



Juan Manuel de Rosas Ruled Argentina 1929 to 1952

Juan Manuel de Rosas Ruled Argentina 1929 to 1952

When we think of South America, we usually think of the military dictators, or caudillos, who seemed to rule most of the time. Why is it that the continent has had so much difficulty transitioning to a democratic form of government? I think the reason goes all the way back to the expulsion of Spain from her colonies. The Spanish forces were sent back, but the criollos were still very much in charge. They were mostly white, with rarely some Indian admixture, but they held the reins of power. Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín, and Bernardo O’Higgins were all criollos. All the big landowners, almost without exception, were criollos. Only rarely did an Indian come into power, and then usually only for a short time.

The armies of the South American countries were, until late in the Twentieth Century, pretty much in charge. They acted as a kind of Praetorian Guard to their favorites, who were usually the caudillos. God help them, however, when the favorites were no longer favored. Eric Lawlor in his excellent book In Bolivia enumerates the country’s heads of state who met violent ends:

The list of presidents and former presidents to die violently is extensive. Pedro Blanco was assassinated in 1829; Sucre in 1830; Jorge Córdova in 1861; Belzú in 1866; Melgarejo in 1871; Augustín Morales in 1872; Hilarión Daza in 1894; and José Manuel Pando in 1917. Nor did the tradition end in 1946: President René Barrientos died in a highly suspicious helicopter crash in 1969, and former President Torres was gunned down in Buenos Aires in 1972. Becoming chief of state in this country often amounts to signing one’s death warrant.

Actually, the most spectacular Bolivian President’s demise was that of Gualberto Villaroel, who was hanged by a mob on a lamp post across the street from the Presidential Palace in 1946. As Lawlor write, “A sobering sight for incumbent presidents, it [the lamp post, which still exists] may explain why so many Bolivian communities are still without streetlights.”

Bolivia might be the most spectacular bad example of misgovernment, but virtually every South American country has its own bad examples, from Juan Manuel de Rosas of Argentina, who set some type of caudillo longevity record; to General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte of Chile; to Ramón Castilla y Marquesado of Peru; to José Antonio Páez of Venezuela; to José Artigas of Uruguay. Of the independent countries, Chile and Brazil had the fewest; and probably Bolivia had the most.

There is a nice PDF file on “The Rise of the Caudillos,” which deals with the issue in outline format.