The Invention of Argentina

In Buenos Aires, The Art of Travel Spring 2018, 11. Second book, Places by CYLeave a Comment

As the title of my post suggests, the book that I chose to read for this second post is The Invention of Argentina by Nicolas Shumway. This book is one that is more informative in nature and covers Argentine history and culture as it involved in the 1800s.

As someone that does not read many historical books, this book pleasantly surprised me, maybe because it answered some of the questions that I have subconsciously been looking for answers too since I have been here, the most prevalent one being “who is an Argentine political philosopher that has influenced the politics and society of modern Argentina?” Answers such as Borges the writer or Gardel the singer gave me useful insights into facets of Argentine society, but none really explained the philosophy of the country. In this book I found some answers that have left me pretty satisfied, such as the chapter on Mariano Moreno, a man whose political and philosophical beliefs was enlightened and liberal on one hand and authoritarian in another. His beliefs can be summarized by how he felt that free speech could only be used for propagating the “Divine Catholic Truth” and anything else had to be suppressed by a strong authoritarian government that would execute or forcibly exile dissidents. However his most important role in Argentine history was the introduction of European ideas of “universal equality, freedom of expression and dissent, individual liberty, representative government and institutional rule under law”. While his beliefs were conditional, he did introduce these ideas into Argentine society.

The book also allowed me to better understand important figures in Argentine history. Buenos Aires, like in Argentina as a whole, names its streets after important figures in its history. Before reading the book, I associated names more with the streets than with historical figures. After reading the book, I now have characters to associate with the names.

It was also very interesting reading about how federalism, populism, and the gaucho idea and associated concepts changed over time and yet how they are still the basis for fragments in Argentine society today. Moreno represented the upper class, euro-centric elite that believed that Argentina should be governed by a small intellectual elite from Buenos Aires, often those with European roots. Opposite to this was that of populism which believed that everyone should be able to participate in democracy regardless of race or class, that different provinces should be a federation that cooperated to help each other and the idea of the gaucho as representative of Argentine culture. The gaucho is this region’s equivalent of a cowboy. The gaucho often had different perceptions. To some they were the “rural poor, the mixed-bloods, the nonelite” delinquents and outcasts. To others they represented those “marked by common sense and generosity”, were anti-Spanish, authentic Americans.

The opposing viewpoints toward the meaning of Gaucho represents the class divisions that still manifests itself today in Argentine society. Shumway recognizes as much, writing in the epilogue how he is struck by “how much modern Argentina remains in dialogue with its past, how echoes of nineteenth-century debates still resonate in virtually every discussion Argentines have about themselves and their country” and how the rhetorical ghosts of figures past continue to haunt the country because it “never agreed on the guiding fictions”. This can be seen in Politics, in the discussions around peronism and divide between pro-kirchners (usually of the working class) and the anti-kirchners (the upper class) and even in football, where the most heated rivalry is between Boca Juniors, the team of the lower class and River Plate, the team of the upper class.

This book has also taught me fundamentals of what makes up Argentina, such as how it is named after the Latin name for silver (argentum) because the colonizers thought they would find silver here, also why the name of the river dividing Argentina and Uruguay is called El Rio de La Plata (the river of silver) and how the region is called the River Plate because of the English corruption of the Spanish name.

In my quest for the philosophical foundations of Argentina, this book has gave me both a starting point and a quick summary, allowing me to better understand the land of the Gaucho, whatever it may mean.

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(Image: Gauchos, The Rioplatenese Cowboys; Source: Age of Revolution)

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