As a North American citizen living in Buenos Aires, there’s a certain amount of fitting in that I feel compelled to do. I’ve started gesticulating more. I paint my nails. I arrive just the right amount of late to engagements of all kinds. But I’ve learned that no matter how much mate I drink there’s a certain dreamy ‘yankee’ spirit in me that will never be fully subdued-nor would I want it to. I expound my perspective here not in the spirit of criticizing Argentines, but rather with aspirations to share what I hope is a valuable space in between things.
I was talking with an Argentine friend at work the other day who observed, “you know what the difference between Argentina and the States is? In the States you look forwards and in Argentina, we look backwards.”
I have steered away from language like ‘backwards’ or ‘upside-down’ when formulating my thoughts on development in Argentina. I suppose I’ve never felt that my own homeland was ‘upwards’ or ‘right-side-up.’ On the contrary.
But there is a particular truth to my friend’s statement about Argentine inertia.
Every place has its history, which is to say the present answers to the past, regardless of hemisphere. But I have never been somewhere where I felt such a recollection of the future, where buildings and people alike were so framed by their shadows. To borrow the Mexican historian, Enrique Krauze’s words, in Argentina, “the weight of the past has sometimes been more present than the present itself.”
So far as I can tell, the ghosts of Argentina’s past – not as a developing country but as a nation that briefly grasped and then lost hold of development – do an effective job of haunting the country’s citizens and leaders.
What form does that haunting take? Mostly, I believe, it rears its head in resignation: resignation to garbage-strewn streets, inefficient and smoggy public transportation, political corruption, and the likes. The very avenues, in their fading glory, seem to whisper, ‘look what you could have been and look at what you are now.’
According to me, Buenos Aires is beautiful: a fast-paced, vibrant, and relevant world city. And Argentines, in my experience, are well educated, hard working, and more open-minded than they are given credit for.
I wonder what the distance in between the nostalgia of Argentines and the dreams of North Americans is. In a capital city that has more psychoanalysists per capita than anywhere in the world, perhaps Argentines could therapise themselves into quantifying that leap and then taking it. Having lived both in the world of forward-lookers and the world of backward-lookers, I believe the gap between the two is a manageable one indeed.
As for environmental sustainability, our global challenge to ensure a healthy habitat for our future generation rests on our collective ability to think ahead and act accordingly. I believe that the currency of the times will be measured by our capacity not to retrospect, but to aspire.