To move forward and remember
Much of this issue of the magazine came together from a rented apartment in Buenos Aires, which I have visited almost annually since my first trip in 2011. Initially, I was drawn by curiosity — about the steak, the Malbec, and the gauchos. Beyond the existence of those three things, and some pseudo-political lessons gleaned from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita, I knew little about Argentina. Still, I quickly found myself enchanted by the place.
There is much to admire about the South American federation of 47 million and about its capital full of sweeping boulevards and grand plazas. In addition to the food and the wine that’s often served in penguin-shaped jugs, I think of the explosion of cycling infrastructure in recent years, the relaxed café culture, the modern-art museum, and the fact that cars are not allowed to turn right on red (which should be the case in any municipality that purports to put the safety of pedestrians first). Then there are the sprawling parks — with whimsical carousels in the middle — and the numerous bookstores and newsstands. Even the colourful flocks of noisy monk parakeets make me smile.
There was something different about my most recent stay, however: a palpable undercurrent of national pride. Argentina, of course, won its third World Cup on December 18, 2022, and though the parade had already passed by the time I landed later that week, the euphoria hadn’t. Massive billboards proclaimed, “Los campeones del mundo,” while retailers large and small filled their storefront windows with sky-blue and white pennants and “¡Vamos Argentina!” decals. Quilmes, the emblematic beer that’s strongly associated with the beautiful game, had designed new labels in advance of Qatar (complete with a sly wink to Canada’s having qualified), and McDonald’s marked the tournament’s outcome by offering an indulgent two-patty Grand McCampeones.
Even a month later, as I readied to return to winter in Toronto, the elation continued, seen most visibly on the sidewalks, where every fourth or fifth passerby, regardless of age or gender or background, seemed to be wearing a replica Lionel Messi jersey. I saw the same scene play out in La Plata, a smaller city ninety minutes outside of Buenos Aires, as well as in Mendoza, much further to the west.
With rising unemployment and an inflation rate of nearly 95 percent, Argentina certainly needed something to celebrate. But the extended salute to the team known as La Albiceleste also served as a reminder, at least to these Canadian eyes: a reminder that being proud of one’s country need not mean being blind to its faults, and that being honest about those faults need not mean having no pride.
Like Canada, Argentina is a large and highly urbanized land of immigrants. Between 1857 and 1950, it welcomed more newcomers than any country in the world, other than the United States. Argentines descend from ships, as the saying goes. But the arrival of those vessels came at a steep cost for Indigenous people, from the Charrúa in the north to the Mapuche in the south. One man’s actions, in particular, stand out: untold thousands died in Patagonia because of Julio Roca, the late nineteenth-century general who directed the expansionist and, some argue, genocidal Conquest of the Desert and who later served two transformative terms as president.
Several periods of widespread social and political upheaval followed in the twentieth century, most dramatically during the seven-year Dirty War, in which 9,000 to 30,000 dissidents were violently disappeared and countless babies were illegally adopted by those with connections to the neo-fascist dictatorship.
Argentines continue to reckon with these and other events. Long after the official report on the Dirty War, Never Again, was published in 1984, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo seek additional answers, and a large museum has opened along the River Plate, on the site of a former detention and torture centre, so that no one forgets what happened. Scholars and activists have also called for the removal of Roca’s face from banknotes, for the renaming of streets that bear his name, and for the dismantling of a towering monument in his honour in the heart of Buenos Aires.
I had all of this in mind as I boarded my flight home and opened the January 18 edition of the Globe and Mail on my iPad, only to find another solemn headline: “171 ‘plausible burials’ uncovered near Ontario residential school.” Like Argentina, Canada has had dark chapters. As more of those chapters come to light, we must decide, individually and collectively, how we will move forward and remember. Yet I believe it remains possible to celebrate a country that doesn’t have an entirely winning record.