Argentine Types, Manners, And Morals
( Originally Published Early 1912 )
A SALIENT characteristic of the Argentinos is a desire, not only to learn from Europe, but to carry to the farthest possible pitch of perfection every institution begun, whether public or private, and to surpass their model. The obvious danger in all rapidly developed colonial settlements is the acceptance of the "half-done," an almost obligatory condition in the early stages of development, and one whose facility of attainment is apt to militate against the persistency of effort after that precision of completion which alone can give good results. This defect, in fact, constitutes the principal reproach brought by the systematic Northerners against the impulsive Latin races, whose temperamental traits lead them to content themselves with a brilliant start, leaving thereafter to imagination the task of filling in the blanks left in the reality by this unsatisfactory method of operation.
In 1865, Buckle, who is a man of no ordinary mental calibre, did not fear to write in his History of Civilization that the compelling action of land and climate in Brazil was such that a highly civilized community must shortly find a home there. The event has amply justified the bold prophecy. In the South American republics, as in the United States and elsewhere, there are different degrees of fulfilment, of course. At the outset, while waiting for land to ac-quire value, all peoples have had to be satisfied with an approximate achievement. But in the Argentine, Uruguay, and Brazil it is plain that nothing will be left half done, and the capacity to carry all work methodically forward to its end, in no matter what field of labor, promises well for the future of the race. At Buenos Aires you will find that this quality exists in a very high degree in the Argentino.
Buenos Aires is the least colonial-looking of any place in South America, but at the same time the Argentino refuses to be simply a Spaniard transplanted although society, in Buenos Aires, traces its descent, with more or less authenticity, from the conquistadores, and did originally issue from the Iberian Peninsula. If we go farther and inquire what other influence, besides that of soil and climate, has been exercised over the European stock in the basin of the Rio de la Plata, we are bound to be struck with the thought that the admixture of Indian blood must count for something. The negro element, never numerically strong, appears to have been completely absorbed. There is very little trace of African blood. On the other hand, without leaving Buenos Aires, you can not fail to be struck by some handsome half-castes to be seen in the police force and fire brigade, for example, and the regularity of their delicate features is very noticeable to even the observer who is least prepared for it. The Indian of South America, though closely akin to the redskin of the North, is infinitely his superior. He had, indeed, created a form of civilization, to which the conquistadores put a brutal end. There still subsist in the northern provinces of the Argentine some fairly large native settlements which receive but scant consideration from the government. I heard too much on the subject to doubt the truth of this. Not but what many savage deeds can be laid to the charge of the Indians, as, for example, the abominable trap they laid for the peaceful Crevaux Mission in Bolivia which led to the massacre of all its members. Still, in equity we must remember that those who have recourse to final argument of brute force are helping to confirm the savages in the habit of using it. In the interest of the higher sentimentality we must all deplore this. But our implacable civilization has passed sentence on all races that are unable to adapt themselves to our form of social evolution, and from that verdict there is no appeal.
Not that the native of the South is incapable, like his brother of the North, of performing a daily task. I saw many natives among the hands employed by M. Hilleret in his factories in Tucuman. Neither can it be said that there is any lack of intelligence in the Indian. But the fact remains that he finds a difficulty in bending the faculties which have grown rigid in the circle of a primitive state of existence to the better forms of our own daily work, and this renders it impossible for him to carve out a place for himself in the sunlight under the new social organism imported from Europe by the white men. With greater power of resistance than the redskins of the other continent, he, like them, is doomed to disappear. Yet in one respect he has been more fortunate than his kinsman of the North, and will never entirely die out, for he has already inoculated with his blood the flesh of the victors.
I am not going to pretend to settle in a word the problem of the fusion of the races. I will only observe that the inrush of Indian blood in the masses—and also to a very considerable extent in the upper classes—can not fail to leave a permanent trace in the Argentine type, notwithstanding the steady current of immigration. And if I were asked to say what were the elemental qualities contributed to the coming race by a native strain, I should be inclined to think that the Indian's simplicity, dignity, nobility, and decision of character might modify in the happiest way the turbulent European blood of future generations.
After all, the Argentino who declines to be Spanish has, perhaps, very good reasons for his action. Here, he has succeeded, better than in the Iberian Peninsula, in ridding himself of the Moorish strain, which, though it gave him his lofty chivalry, has yet enchained him to the oriental conception of a rigid theocracy. Why should not native blood have taken effect already upon the European mixture, and, with the aid of those unknown forces which we may class under the collective term of "climate," have prepared and formed a new people to be known henceforth by the obviously suitable name of "Argentinos"? All I can say is that there are Argentine characteristics now plainly visible in this conglomeration of the Latin races. The objection may be that the "Yankee" shows equally strongly marked characteristics which distinguish him from the Anglo-Saxon stock, while we know that he is unaffected by other than European strains. This is undeniable, and in his case soil, climate, and the unceasing admixture of European types suffice to explain modifications which are apparently converging towards the creation of a new type.
It is easier to generalize about the Argentine character than to penetrate beneath its surface. It is naturally in "society," where refinement is the highest, that traits which best lend themselves to generalization are to be seen in strongest relief. The American of the North is, above all, highly hospitable. If you have a letter of introduction, his house is open to you at once. He establishes you under his roof and then leaves you to your own devices, while keeping himself free to continue his daily occupation. The Argentino receives you as kindly, though with more reserve. Although I know but little of the business world, I saw enough of it to gather that money enjoys as much favor there as in any other country ; but the pursuit of wealth is there tempered by an indulgent kindliness that greatly softens all personal relations, and the asperities of the struggle for life are smoothed by a universal gentleness charming to encounter.
In their family relations the difference between the social ideals of the North and South American are plainly visible. The family tie appears to be stronger in the Argentine than, perhaps, in any other land. The rich, unlike those of other countries, take pleasure in having large families. One lady boasted in my presence of having thirty-four descendants— children and grandchildren—gathered round her table. Everywhere family anniversaries are carefully observed, and all take pleasure in celebrating them. The greatest affection prevails and the greatest devotion to the parent roof-tree. Not that the Argentine woman would appear to be a particularly admirable mother according to our standard ; for, on the contrary, it is said that her children are turned out into the world with very bad manners. How, then, are we to explain the contradictory fact that such children become the most courteous of men? Perhaps a certain wildness in youth should be regarded as the noisy, but salutary apprenticeship to liberty.
All that can be seen of the public morals is most favorable. The women—generally extremely handsome in a super-Spanish way, and often fascinating—enjoy a reputation, that seems well justified, of being extremely virtuous. I heard too much good about them to think any evil. They were, from what I could see, too carefully removed from the danger of conventional sins for me to be able to add the personal testimony that I have no doubt they merit. As to their feelings, or passions, if I may venture to use the word, I know nothing. Are they capable of the self-abandonment of love, of experiencing all its joy and all its pain—inseparable as these but too often are? They did not tell me, so I shall never know. The most I can say is that they did not give me the impression of being made for the violent reactions of life as it is known in America and Europe. I hope no one will see in this statement a shadow of criticism. It is, indeed, a compliment if you will admit that in an Argentine family love's dream is realized in the natural, orderly course of events. But if it were otherwise, it would still be to the highest credit of the women that in their role of faithful guardians of the hearth they have been able to silence calumny and inspire universal respect by the purity and dignity of their lives.
Above all do not imagine that these charming women are devoid of conversational talent. Some ill-natured critics have given them a bad reputation in this respect. Their principal occupation is evidently paying visits, and they gossip as best they can under the circumstances, considering that neither their friends nor their foes give any ground for tittle-tattle. This deficit might cause conversation to languish. Dress and news from the Rue de la Paix are a never-failing topic. It is also said that financial topics come up for their consideration, since the women are as free to speculate in land as are the men. They are superstitious, too, and are supposed to attach great importance to knowing exactly what must not one on any given day of the week, or to what saint they should address their petitions. Besides, the many works of public charity in which the ladies of Buenos Aires take a share would account for much time and also for much talk.
Argentino men are as amiable as their wives, except that they are jealous. If by chance, after dinner, you remain chatting quietly with one or two ladies, and in the inevitable ebb and flow of a salon you find yourself for a moment left alone with a lady, be sure that her husband, more genial than ever, will promptly appear on the scene to claim his share in the talk.
Not much can be said of the Argentine girl, for she is not much in evidence except in the home and at an occasional concert. She remains on the edge of society until the day of her marriage. At the same time, the Argentine girl must not be supposed to resemble very closely her sister in Latin Europe. Less educated, perhaps, but more vivacious and less timidly reserved, she shows greater independence at Mar del Plata, which is the sole meeting-place for wealthier families, since the Pampas offer no resource outside the estancia. At the Colon Theater and at the opera she is seated well in view in front of the box, making the whole ground floor an immense basket of beribboned flowers, and there, under the eye of her parents; the young men who are friends of her family are permitted to pay their respects to her. It is said that she makes use of borrowed charms, applied with puff and pencil.
In Argentine, gambling is a universal evil. The form of gambling which is special is land speculation. It is constantly stated that all the work of Buenos Aires and the Pampas is done by foreigners, while the Argentino himself sits waiting for the value of his land to treble, quadruple, decuple his fortune without effort on his part. This might easily be true since the value of property has risen with giddy rapidity of late years.
But while there is no denying that land speculation occupies a special place in Argentine life today, it is also incontestable that all ranks of society are here, as elsewhere, devoting their energy to some great agricultural, commercial, or cattle-rearing enterprise. The estancia needs a head. Herds of ten thousand cows must be well looked after if they are to be productive in their three departments—dairy, meat, or breeding. The magnificent exhibits to be seen at shows are not raised by the sole grace of God, and the Argentinos speak of their estancias with a wealth of detail that shows a close interest, ever on the watch for improvements. Yet they have other interests which claim part of their time, and are ever ready to discuss topics of general interest that happen to be engrossing the attention of Europe and the United States.
The growing interest taken in all kinds of labor on the soil and the need of perfecting strains of cattle both for breeding and for meat have led the larger owners to group themselves into a club, which they call the Jockey Club. The name suffices to denote the aristocratic pretensions of an institution that has, nevertheless rendered important services to the cause, as well for horned cattle as for horses. The sumptuous fittings lack that rich simplicity in which the English delight. The decorations are borrowed from Europe, but the working of the club is wholly American. The greatest comfort reigns in all departments of the palace, whose luxury is not allowed to dissemble itself. The cuisine is thoroughly Parisian. Fine drawing-rooms, in which the light is pleasantly diffused. A large rotunda in Empire style is the show-place of the club, but, like Napoleon himself, it lacks moderation. A severe-looking library, reading-rooms, banqueting-rooms, etc., complete the club building.
To explain the amount of money either amassed or flung away here, it must be remembered that all the receipts taken at the race-courses—less a small tax to the government—come back to the Jockey Club, which is at liberty to dispose of them at will. Hence the large fortune of the establishment, which has just purchased a piece of land in the best part of Buenos Aires, for which it gave seven millions ; and here it is proposed to erect a still grander palace. The building they now occupy will be presented to the government, and it is believed the Foreign Office will be moved there.
In Argentine, as in Brazil, the internal arrangements of the houses show that the greater part of the time is spent out-of-doors. Italy, with its open-air life, was naturally the land to which the Argentina turned for architects to supply florid furniture, meant rather to look at than to use; and when to this is added cheap German goods with their clumsy designs, one may be pardoned for finding a lack of grace as of comfort. In aristocratic salons the best Parisian upholsterers have at least left their mark—with a little overcrowding in effect, if the truth must be told. In a few, where "antiques" are discernible, there are evidences of an appreciation of just proportions and simplicity. But my criticisms must be taken in the most general way possible.
It is in the hotels that one finds more particularly a lack of comfort and convenience. A continual change of servants and a bad division of labor ensure infinite discomfort for the traveler. There is, it is true, central heating, but it works badly. Is the pampero blowing? The pipes of the radiators shake the window panes with their tempestuous snorting and bubbling, waking you out of your sleep with the suddenness of their noise ; but they diffuse only cold air. An electric heating apparatus, hastily put in, must be used to supplement the other. Do you want to lock up some papers? You may, perhaps, after a long search, find a key in your room, but it will assuredly fit none of the locks. As I was tiresome enough to insist, the manager, anxious to oblige me, ordered his own safe to be placed in my apartment, with all his accounts therein. When I found the drawer that was placed at my disposal, I found money in it ! Oh, marvelous hospitality !
To the new houses in the town, chimneys are being added. Those who come to the Argentine for the winter months—June, July, and August—can but be delighted with the change. But still he suffers keenly from the cold, for even if the sun shines perseveringly in a cloudless sky, an icy south wind proves very trying.
It is difficult to speak of Argentine cookery—which is rather international than local—always excepting those households that boast of a French chef. The influence of Italy, with her macaroni and her cheese, predominates. The vegetables are mediocre; the fruit too tropical, or, if European, spoilt by the effect of the tropics. Lobsters and European fish, imported frozen, are not to be recommended; table water is excellent. The national dishes, puchero, or boiled beef, good when the animal has not been slaughtered the same morning; asado, lamb, roasted whole—the same savory dish that is met with in Greece under the name of lamb a la palikare. I might add a long list whose sole interest would be the strange sounding names given to familiar dishes. Still, as the main conditions of man and communities are necessarily unvarying, is it not in appearances and forms of expression that we find variety?