La Patria

"What you doing here, anyway?"

“What you doing here, anyway?”

I took the bus home the other night, after having a beer and a bite to eat with a friend, and halfway home I remembered that I’d forgotten to pick up my seven-year-old daughter from a play date.

I didn’t remember – I got a call from my wife.

“You forgot, right?” she asked.

“Ah, yeah. Oops.”

I got off the bus at the next stop so that I could walk the few blocks to fetch her, but I got blown away – almost. A huge storm had been blowing into Buenos Aires, and it hit just then at 8 p.m. Dirt and leaves swirled, trees swayed and branches fell as the winds roared and the rain poured.

I took cover under the bus shelter, my legs getting soaked as the rain splashed up off the sidewalk and street.

My wife called again: “Well?”

“Ah, yeah. I’ll get there,” I said.

On hearing me speak English, another refuge under the shelter, said, “Y? Where are you from?”

I get this often in Argentina, and it always makes me think. I mean, I could say I’m of Argentine roots. Why not? My dad’s Argentine. But my mother’s English. So I’m not fully Argentine. And I have an Irish passport, a product of my Belfast-born grandmother who married my Scottish grandfather. So I can’t say I’m Argentine to fit in or something. Not even though my Argentine granddad’s brother was kind of famous in Argentina. They’ve got an airport named after him, so too a low-league football club, neighborhoods, train stations, towns and streets. But my granddad and his brother and 10 siblings were kind of like me. Their dad was American and their mother was Argentine of French roots.

Of course, I could say all of this to the stranger.

But instead I said: “I’m American.”

It’s about all that fits. I’m a White Anglo-Celtic-Scot Latino with a bit of French in there (and maybe something more). This could translate to “kind of cool.” But it really means that I’m just a mutt.

It’s the American that most Argentines see anyway. I’m a gringo. I’m a Yank. And, increasingly, I’m a fucking Yank. An imperialist. Or that guy from an imperialist nation.

I hear the labels – directly and indirectly, and it’s been on the rise over the past decade.

An example?

Here’s one: a social services supervisor in the school district for my three children’s public school called Americans “Yanks.” In front of my face. And in a meeting with the school principal to discuss how the teacher’s methods of imitating my 10-year-old son’s broken speech – he’s autistic and has a speech disability – were not effective in teaching him, but on the contrary were alienating and depressing him while also being discriminating and downright cruel. And giving kids a role model – the teacher – for bullying my son. They did.

My wife and I brought up the offensiveness of the Yank comment in the meeting. Did they understand?

Sort of.

Ahead of the meeting, we had thought that maybe the teacher was taking the piss out of my accent – or that of my English wife’s – when imitating our son .

Why would she?

Oh, it’s the way society, or a portion of it, has changed over the past decade under a political party that’s found an easy enemy in the U.S., the U.K. and any purported proponents of policies to keep down Argentina and the rest of Latin America. After 12 years of peddling this message to become a popular political force, this party has managed to create an undercurrent of xenophobia that now permeates through much of society.

I tried to point this out in the school meeting. I tried to explain why we would feel that a teacher was making fun of us in a school that has become politicized, in a school that openly uses events to preach their brand of anti-American, anti-British and anti-imperialism to the students. This has made xenophobia widespread. And this has made it legitimate to bash the Americans and the British (for those islands, too).

Did I point out this xenophobia?


And what happened?

Ah, well, they told me that, “Hey, this is Argentina.” As in, get with the fucking program or leave. Yep, they suggested that the school may not be a fit for us, ideologically.

Of course, that suggestion and that way of thinking goes against the Argentine Constitution, which protects our rights as immigrants exactly the same as those born here. And their political indoctrination and anti-foreigner comments in school violate the law and my children’s human rights to get an education that respects their own cultures and identities, all three of them: Argentine, American and English. And to not be discriminated for this. Or for celebrating Halloween. Or Guy Fawkes Day.

Yeah, but none of this rumination on my bloodline and how political sectarianism has become so rife in Argentina today – none of this came out in my introduction to the stranger.

Just that I’m American.

His response was pretty typical.

“What on earth are you doing in Argentina?”

I get this often in La Patria. It’s not a get-the-fuck-out question. It’s more like, why be here when you can be there.

Many people would just like to bail on Argentina, but they fret that they’d miss their families and culture. Of course they would. I miss mine. But there are Argentines like my dad, for one, who have left for the historically more stable economies of Europe and the U.S. Are they more stable? Well, at least inflation is much lower than the nearly 30% in Argentina, and the currencies are not steadily depreciating like the peso. You can save money there.

Why not in Argentina?

Yeah, I’ve been puzzling over that question for many years, even reporting on it as a journalist. Do I understand it yet? Not really, but maybe that’s the secret of my extended stay, of my life in Argentina over the past 20 years. The unexplainable makes it rather exciting, even if in the long run I may think, “Shit, what the hell are we doing here?” I guess that if you live here long enough that happens, but until then, well, I like to live on my toes, figuratively and literally, to keep out of the rain – and out of a financial jam.

That’s the easy part.

The harder part is what to do with all the political dividing, racism and xenophobia that are turning Argentina into a not so great place when it really could be.

So what did I say to the stranger in response to his question about why live in Argentina when we could live in L.A. or London or New York or Manchester?

Just that.

“It’s kind of like, well…” I said. “There’s a lot of potential in Argentina.”

He smiled and said, “Yeah, potential. It’s always had potential. I just hope that it can go from potential to great one day.”

I do too, and with it, maybe, the xenophobia will lessen. Or go away.

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{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Beatrice M October 31, 2015, 1:32 pm

    Great writeup. Living with the potential of Argentina is like having a life partner that is full of unrealized potential. You can be supportive but you also have to accept how the situation is currently and don’t expect them to change. Either they will come to it on their own or not. We can only control and change our reactions. I hope you get the school situation sorted out for your son. That cannot be easy.

  • Kimberly November 1, 2015, 12:12 pm

    I could identify with the article on many levels. I disagree with fact that it has just began in the last ten years. I first visited Argentina in 92 for 3 months. As a naive college student, the Argentinians disdain for Americans was painfully obvious. I had to move to several host families before finding one, who could tolerate my differences. Besides being American, I have disability which results in an abnormal gait. All they talked about was the vacation that they were going to take with the money they got from my stay. Some of the problems: the damn American that doesn’t turn the lights out every time she leaves the room or she left water in the soap dish. I got yelled at by a bus driver because I didn’t take the disabled seat on the bus when it was offered. I am a SpEd teacher and while we are much more politically correct when it comes to people with disabilities, the U.S. attitude toward those they see as imperfect is not much better. That being said, my Argentine husband fell in love with me disability and all. I think the Argentine’s hate for capitalism is deeply imbedded in their culture. I have many friends and family from Argentina and they cannot hide their dislike for America. I have returned to Argentina several times since and the marjority’s attitudes towards yanks is the same. Even those who came to the U.S. for a better life, and are doing well economically complain about the very system that allows them success. Thanks for the article! My husband tells me that it’s all in my head. It’s nice to know that someone else felt discriminated against enough, to speak out. P.S. After 11 years of marriage, I have learned to turn the light out when I leave the room, and live with the AC set at 78. I still worry for my half Argentinian and half American children when they visit Argentina, but like you said, Argentina has a lot of potential.
    Kimberly Gastaldi Los Angeles

    • Charles Newbery November 2, 2015, 4:51 pm

      Hi, Kimberly, thanks for writing. I agree with you that the discrimination started before. How long before, I do not know. My father grew up here in the 1920s to 1950s, and I wish I’d asked him about this issue. I didn’t. He spoke of better times. So maybe better times are ahead.

  • beth cushman November 2, 2015, 9:40 pm

    Hi Charles.. I enjoyed your article very much.. or at least it totally resonated with me after living here as an ‘ Norte Americana ‘ for ten years. I find myself justifying having moved here and worse why I have stayed and stayed and stayed ….. For me it always come back to I just like it here so much. Sure there are people who have prejudices against Americans = some.. There are closed minded folks.. but goodness knows I lived all over the US before I moved here and my country is full of closed minded folks and bigots …and elitists… I like so many things about Argentines and their culture that Ive just come to treasure it, long for it when I leave, miss it when I travel. Constantly compare it as my compass when I go back ‘ home’ and every time some big life event happens… kids move away, blue dollar comes up , my expenses go thru the roof .. I just always come back to how much I love it here. That’s my big line these days… I just really like it here in so many ways. Im only spending about 1/2 year or less here now with much of my family needing my attention in other parts of the world and how much I like to explore other places… but for me Argentina will always be home for me one way or another.. thanks for you article… I can relate a lot.

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