Lucrecia Urbano creates images from discarded wine bottles, empty perfume jars and various types of broken glass. As I looked at the images she showed me, my eyes saw much more than melted glass. I was witness to her process, through art, of the meaning of life and death. Lucrecia explained that she cooks the glass in an oven and after removing the shapes, she photographs each specimen and lastly, as her degree & obsession is printmaking, she hand prints each and every image.
As I stared at her work, I felt a stirring inside which happens when I allow myself to sit still and breathe. I turned to her and asked “please tell me about your fascination with glass.” She explained that her father was sick and dying in the hospital in 2001 and died in Feb 2002. “In 2002, I started to work with glass. I decided I could see life through the art of glassmaking. If you are a poet, you have words. For me I understand life through the lens of art. Es las manera para mirar la vida: Juntar y realman algo nueva, como transformer. “It’s a way to look at life: to gather and reconstruct something new, like transforming.” El crystal tiene capacidad de cambiar, como nosotros. “Glass has the capacity to change, just as we do.” She shared about breath, our inhale and exhale, we change, and then we’re gone.
Lucrecia Urbano has two passions; art and helping people. She has set up Zona Imaginaria; a home for local and international artists to live and work together. In the process of creating this home, she began to teach art to the young children who gathered around to watch the painting being made on the front of the house. The children were fascinated by the colors, the paint cans, and the brushes.
It was 1938, during Kristallnact, or Night of Broken Glass when Jewish homes, shops, villages and towns were ransacked and set on fire. My father was 15 years old when he heard a knock at the door of the 1 bedroom apartment he shared with his 7 siblings, mother and father in Bedzin, Poland. The Germans were there to take my grandfather away but my father talked the men at the door into taking him instead. He never saw anyone in his family alive again. My father survived 8 concentration work camps, a year long stay in a hospital when the camps were liberated in May, 1945, as he was down to 65 pounds, when he crossed a boat to arrive in New York, alone. He was able to rebuild a life for himself in California and passed down the importance of being a Jew to me. I moved to Israel when I was 20 years old to work on a kibbutz and study Hebrew. Since then I have always had a life long love of Judaism. A large part of my attraction in wanting to discover and explore Buenos Aires was my understanding of a large Jewish population.
Argentina has one of the greatest communities of Jews in Central & South America, around 250,000; of that 200,000 live in Buenos Aires. The population is 85% Ashkenazi and 15% Sephardi Jews. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, many Jews settled in Argentina. At the end of the 19thcentury, Jews fled the pogroms and poverty in Russia and because the policy of immigration was an open door, another wave of Jews headed for Argentina. Jews were persecuted for political activities and from the original 500,000, we now have 200,000. Many left to Venezuela, U.S. and Israel.
A Jewish tour of Buenos Aires brought me to AMIA-which was founded to promote the individual, family and growth of Jewish life in Argentina. It’s truly an umbrella for the Jewish community. In 1992, AMIA was bombed and 29 people were killed. On July 18, 1994, a car was driven into the center which killed 85 people including many children. This bomb imposed a new era where the community prioritized justice and preserved the legacy of a rich cultural tradition that honors life. The new building has barriers in front so no car could drive through now. No justice has ever been served for the innocent men, women and children who died. Justice is a word that seems to provoke many emotions for me as no justice was ever served by the man who abused my mother. But I digress.
I wish I could have seen all 80 synagogues in Buenos Aires in my time there. I visited the Paso synagogue and the oldest synagogue in Buenos Aires; Libertad. Olivia managed to find a moment for her favorite past time; reading. Buenos Aires has one of the world’s four remaining Yiddish daily newspapers. Others are found in Paris, Tel Aviv and Birobidjan, in Siberia.
In spite of the ups and downs of antisemitism, especially, but not only, during military repressions, Jews have played an important role in industry, commerce, the arts, literature, journalism, and also in politics.
You can hire a lovely, older Jewish couple to do half and full day tours tailored to your interests.
San Telmo is the oldest neighborhood in Buenos Aires, the birthplace of the tango and an artist’s quarter. The Spanish influence can be felt as I walked around the outdoor market in search of bombillas for yerba mate.
Next stop was La Boca, the seat of the first port of the city and where immigrants would arrive between 1880 and 1940. It was one of the original neighborhoods in B.A. with an Italian influence.La Boca was aptly named because it is located at the boca (mouth) of the Riachuelo (little river) where it merges into the much larger Rio de la Plata.It has a colorful, European flavor to it.They built their homes from limited materials they were able to gather found discarded in shipyards mainly wood and sheets of metal. The resulting structures, known as conventillos (tenement houses), provided a room for each family and one kitchen and one bathroom which were shared by all the tenants. The patio and the irregular balconies provided the meeting points where these people intermingled and shared their cultures. Though different European cultures blended together, much of the cultural essence of La Boca came from the largest group, the Genovese Italians. Seeing how many people live around the world has always provided me with a deeper appreciation of what I have in the United States.
I had a destination I needed to see, Caminito (little walkway or little pathway in spanish) which inspired a traditional, tango song. Me encanta este canción y la musica española. I have been listening to the Julio Iglesias version for years ever since I first stepped foot in Guatemala in 1983. There’s 2 versions by Julio; the tango and the slower, romantic one from the 80’s. I prefer the slower one. Check out this jody video. Julio definitely didn’t have MJ’s flair and genius for making music videos. How about his boat being pulled by a station wagon at the end? Hilarious.
Dating back to 1858, Cafe Tortoni is the oldest coffee shop in all of Argentina. I love that there was a line of people waiting outside to have a seat at the famous Cafe. I walked in and saw a man standing in one of the back rooms.
I’m told most tourists come to visit Eva Peron’s tomb but I was more interested in Rufina Cambaceros; “ the girl who died twice.” Eva Duarte de Peron’s tomb is the most famous in Recoleta Cemetary but Rufina Cambaceres’s story is the most disturbing. Rufina came from a wealthy family, heirs to a large cattle fortune. She had discovered her fiancé was having an affair. Three doctors pronounced her dead and she was buried alive on her 19th birthday. The explanation doctors gave later is that Rufina suffered from catalepsy which is characterized by rigidity and low vital signs. Catalepsy is the classic buried-alive diagnosis, and the one used in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial.” BTW, Rufina is buried three blocks south of Eva Peron.
I’m thinking it was her worst birthday ever. A few days after the funeral, a cemetery worker was concerned about grave robbery when he found that her coffin had moved within the crypt and the lid was broken in place. Rufina, woke up days later after her burial to find herself trapped, tried desperately to escape, then died of a heart attack. Scratches were on her face and covered the inside of her coffin which was opened after her screams were heard. Her father rebuilt the grave site so she is seen opening her own doors. I was in front of her tomb for so long that people started to ask me questions and I found myself explaining Rufina’s story in Spanish, as if I was a tour guide. Rufina’s story should cheer up anyone having a bad break up and yes, a broken heart and sadness can kill or transform.
The profundity of sadness is not easy for me to articulate. When I saw paintings by Suzan Woodruff, I saw sadness. Art work by Cecilia Mandrile moved me to write to her (hence a large part of why I am in Argentina) to help me to understand her sadness. The death of Lucrecia Urbano’s father began her creative process with glass. Hope Edelman’s experience of losing her mother created a sadness that planted the seeds for her Motherless Daughter’s book. I believe my grandmother’s experience of sadness at watching my mother being abused is why she became sick with leukemia. I truly believe Michael Jackson dealt with his sadness with his expressions of music & dance. Feelings of something being incomplete or something lacking stirred a need to create & to help people cope with and understand their sadness.
Eva Peron’s tomb is the most visited grave in Recoleta Cemetary. You can always find it as there are hoardes of tourists and flowers. It was not so interesting to me after the story of Ruffina Camberos. It is a little ironic that Evita was supposed to be buried under a monument which would represent the ‘Descamisados’, the poor working class, but she ended up in a cemetery which represents the wealthiest of Buenos Aires. Recoleta Cemetery is the most expensive real estate in the city.
St. Augustine, after a personal crisis, went through a profound change in his life. He quit his teaching job, gave up any idea of marriage, devoted himself totally to G-d. He said he heard a childlike voice telling him in a sing-song voice, “tolle, lege” -“take up and read.” He gave all his money to the poor, just like St. Francis of Assisi and converted his home into a place where all his friends could live. He was one of the most prolific Latin authors.
oh vosotros que nos llorais
no os dejeis abatir por el dolor
mirad la vida que comienza
y no la que ha concluido
Here’s my translation:
Oh, we should not cry
Do not let yourselves be discouraged by the pain
Look at the life that begins
And not at what has ended
Here is Cecilia’s translation:
Oh, you, who are crying to us,
Don’t let pain defeat you,
Look at the life that is beginning
And not to the one that just have ended.
En frente del cementario es una esquina donde hay un café llamado La Biela donde Borges, el escritor solia pasar la tardes. Borges nacio en Buenos Aires. In front of the cemetery is a street where there’s a café called La Biela where the writer, essayist, poet and translator Borges would hang out in the afternoons. Borges was born in Buenos Aires.
In describing himself, he said, “I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities that I have visited, all my ancestors.”
La Biela was born as Viridita, a sidewalk Café with 18 tables on a narrow sidewalk. Viridita is a mispronunciation of Veredita, a diminutive of sidewalk in Argentine Spanish. It stands in the shade of the mythical 18th C tree, in front of the church of Nuestra Señora del Ria. It’s a landmark and a connecting rod in the social life of La Recoleta’s neighborhood. From there, I walked to Museo Nacional Bella Artes; one of the most important fine arts museums in Buenos Aires.
Upon exiting I was excited to get to my next stop. I made some mistakes. I was tired and should have listened to my gut that said “go back to your apartment.” The next one was getting into a cab to make my way to a different part of the city. I broke too many of my own traveling guides to myself: never get in a cab outside a museum, don’t carry cash after changing money and don’t walk around tired. All lessons. When I went to Puerto Madera and paid to go into the museum, I was told my money was “falso”. A cab driver outside Bella Artes had taken my real money and traded it for fake, a recent con in the city that taxi drivers are playing. I was going to go to Coleccion de arte Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat. I paid to go in and started to look at the Argentinian art. I was too upset to enjoy the museum. I headed back to my apartment to ponder why. If this is a world where we are all infinitely connected, then why would someone do this? I was left with gratitude that he didn’t have a gun or knife. The truth is there is tremendous crime in Buenos Aires but that doesn’t color the city for me at all. How about the fact that I’ve traveled in places with tremendous poverty like Peru, Bolivia… and I’m robbed in the chic neighborhood of Recoleta? What I came to understand is that instead of listening to the voice inside of me that told me to go back to my apartment, I pushed myself to see more.
For Hope – “What if Brussat quoted Brussai in Brunei?”- Hope Edelman
Spiritual literacy is the ability to read the text of your own lives for spiritual meaning. That means looking at the things you encounter, the animals you encounter, the people, the places where you are, looking at your relationships, looking at all your activities and seeing that within them there is a significance and meaning. The medieval monks used to say that the world was liber mundi, a book to be read. In Islamic tradition, they will say that everything is a letter from God that you’re supposed to read. If you’re Native American and you walk through the wilderness, they talk about “reading sign.” So if a bird appears, it has meaning. That bird is a sign. So spiritual literacy is recognizing that everything you encounter in your daily life is a sign that can be read.
If you love bookstores and you happen to be in Buenos Aires, run, don’t walk like I did to El Ateneo. It’s a stunning bookstore about 20 blocks of walking distance from my little Recoleta apartment. A former theatre where Carlos Garden once performed and a historical, beautiful building. Even though it’s a book store, it feels more like you are in a theatre. You can relax in quiet booths with good lighting. I was given a bonus surprise as I slowly made my way through the aisles.
Isabelle Allende has a new novel just published!! It’s called El Cuaderno de Maya inspired by her grand daughters and Allende’s own life. I started to read the inside of the book. It’s the story of a girl named Maya. The story begins with: “I am Maya Vidal, 19 years old, feminine, single, no lover, born in Berkeley, California, American passport, temporarily a refugee on an island in the south of the world.” El Ateneo only has the Spanish version now. When’s the English version coming to America, friends?
Allende is one of my favorite writers in the world. She is from Chile but moved to California as a Chilean journalist exiled in Venezuela after the military coup in Chile of 1973. I love Allende’s voice as her stories take me away on her journeys where she weaves in and out of her life and the vivid, magical stories she creates. Allende is afraid of nothing and no one. I admire her so much.
In Chile, when she had a job translating romance novels from English to Spanish,she would make unauthorized changes to the dialogue so the women would be more intelligent and the Cinderella endings would instead become independent women who spread good in the world. She was fired from the job.
Allende says her most important issue in her life is freedom, which she created for herself. She said “It’s about the struggle to be assertive, to be independent, to have economic independence, to get myself an education, which I was not given because I was a woman and it was not important to educate women at that time. I was supposed to be somebody’s very good wife. I was supposed to be a lady. I was supposed to be a very good mother, but I was not supposed to be creative.”
Allende describes her writing as passionate, compulsive and emotional. She laughs and cries as she writes and even gets angry at her own characters when they do things she doesn’t want them to do. She doesn’t run or hide from her losses or struggles; she writes about them. I love this broad.
Allende has included one of my favorite Mary Oliver quotes translated into Spanish in the forward of her book. Gracias, Isabelle.
Olivia got hungry so we stopped for spinach, pomodoro & basil ravioli lunch at a goikey, favorite place of mine: Pertutti Restaurant. Per Tutti: For Everything!
The Spanish language here in Buenos Aires differs from that of Spain and the rest of the Americas. It is quite different from the Spanish I grew up speaking from my Guatemalan grandmother. Argentines, Uruguayans and Paraguayans commonly use the voseo, a relict 16th century form with slightly different endings. The stresses, intonation and words are different so I’m forced to listen more carefully. I even hear a difference in the pronunciation in the north of Buenos Aires from the South. When Isabelle Allende from Chile speaks, the intonation is different as well. Still, I love being in a country where I hear Spanish being spoken outside my window as the sounds of city traffic wake me up.
There are many reasons I have been attracted to Buenos Aires. I’ve always read it’s the most European-like city in South America. It’s been described as the Paris of the South but I find that limiting now that I’m here. The people are warm and delightful, I’m fascinated with the architecture and the art plus it’s the largest Jewish community in South America. It feels like a unique combination of Italy, France and a bit of Spain all rolled into one but I’m in South America.
I am interested in South American cemetaries. Here’s a link to a cemetery I stumbled onto in La Paz, Bolivia last year.
I am grateful that I have a spirit inside of me that sings when I travel. I get a bit excited when I don’t know where I’m going, it’s a drug I can’t do without. I asked multiple people and listened extra hard because I am a bit directionally dysfunctional and because so many Argentinos speak with an Italian accent as half the country is of Italian descent. I found the cemetery after walking about what seemed like forever minutes from my apartment in Palermo. I’m not used to walking. I’m a California girl and really, no one walks in LA.
Over 4 city blocks with more than 6,400 mausoleums, 70 declared historic monuments. I passed one elaborate, ostentatious tomb after another. It’s an architectural wonder, a neoclassical explosion for the eyes. Architectural styles ranging from neo classic to art deco kept me fascinated for hours. I saw graves resembling chapels, Greek temples, pyramids and mini mansions. American cemeteries seem cookie cutter, orderly and simple by comparison. I have a penchant for the odd and unusual so Recoleta Cemetery was perfectly magical not to mention the cats all around.
Feels like a red carpet entrance to lost souls where the dead are not forgotten here as fresh flowers decorate the tombs. I’m thinking all these buried had mothers and fathers and friends and lovers and worked jobs they loved and didn’t like so much and one day, it’s over. So I’m thinking, who did I touch today? Who did I help? I find inspiration from life and death as this is real life.
I could have stayed in the cemetery all day but it started to rain. I started singing Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head in my mind.
But there’s one thing I know, The blues they send to meet me won’t defeat me. It won’t be long till happiness steps up to greet me.
Fortunately I was wrapped in my black shawl that Joyce gave me in Guatemala last year so I stayed dry and so did my camera equipment and my juicy 10-22 mm Canon lens.
I was walking down Avenue Santa Fe when I saw a restaurant where I liked the vibe. No sports bar tv and bright lights. When I walked in and heard one of my favorite Gloria Estefan songs playing, I knew it was the right place.
Levántese y gocen, que la vida es corta.
Alégrese por fin, que demás no importa.
Oigan bien sin temor lo que enseña la vida, señores.
No te busques otra herida con el mismo error, oigan bien.
Get up and enjoy yourself because life is short.
Rejoice finally, no matter what happens.
Listen well, without fear of what life teaches you, people.
Do not look for other wounds with the same error, listen well.
Traveling is always an adventure so why should my visit to Argentina be any different? I was feeling relaxed on the flight from Los Angeles to Lima, Peru. All stretched out from head to toe and watching a documentary on Vinicius de Moraes, the passionate poet from Brazil nicknamed O Poetinha (the little poet). He wrote the lyrics to Girl from Ipanema, inspired by a girl who daily walked the seaside in the southern region of Rio De Jeneiro, Brazil. Every artist has their muse. After 14 or so hours in the air we were meant to touch down in Buenos Aires, my first destination. The captain announces we can’t land due to volcanic ash and our plane heads for Cordoba. I’m still smiling thinking I have an adventure in store and we do. We land in Cordoba, where I’m destined to be in 2 weeks. I later learn that the ash from the Puyehue Volcano in Chile is hovering all around B.A. and all flights are cancelled for the next few days. Fascinating that a volcano eruption from Chile, one of the most volcanic countries on earth, with more than 3000 volcanos dotted along its length, could affect air travel in Argentina.
The entire flight is put on about a dozen buses as we make our way to B.A. It’s a simple 8-10 hour ride. I made sure Marta, a kind older woman sat next to me. She was promptly concerned about my feet not being covered. The oh so pretty new summer sandals I was wearing on the plane were quickly replaced by a pair of bulky black socks from the LAN Airlines bag of goodies handed out that I didn’t think to take. Marta did, she’s a mother and a grandmother and is always thinking about such things as who may need what. To me, it looked like a bunch of jody clutter stuff.
The safe bet when you’re in a truck stop somewhere between Cordoba and Buenos Aires around 11:30 PM is empanadas. Realizing my usual preference of vegetarian eating is not going to be easy in a country that loves its meat, I order the jamon y queso and pollo variety. It’s yummy although the photo doesn’t quite depict that. I dine with Monica, an Australian who comes back and forth to visit her daughter in Lima and recently widowed mother. She stopped in Lima and was on our flight to head back to Australia, where she wouldn’t be going anytime soon. Norma, originally from Mexico, who was making her way to Canada and Marta, the woman who has taken to being kind to me.
We get back into our bus and as the snoaring gets louder from a man across the aisle from me, I simply turn up the volume of my iPod nano and thank G-d for mantra music, a conscious method of directing the mind, which slowly takes me out of my head into a deep sleep. I am zombie-like when I awaken thinking the plane is going to land on the runway soon, as I’m chanting the mantra of protection, when in fact, I’m on a bus heading down the road.
Marta insists that her husband drop me at my hotel. I don’t argue about taking help from a stranger because I’m exhausted and it’s around 3-4 am when we arrive into Buenos Aires. Even I have the sense not to try to find a cab at that hour when I have no idea where I am. Especially after two different Argentinos have told me not to take cabs unless I make sure they are fetched by calling a legitimate company. I have found the Spanish people in every part of the world from Spain to Peru to Guatemala to be the kindest, warmest people. I called Marta today and she said “lo que necesitas, llamame”. “Whatever you need, call me.” The warmth of the Spanish never fails to surprise me.
In the morning, I eat a yummy breakfast of jugo de naranga, orange juice, jamon y juevos, ham and eggs. Okay, what’s a Jewish girl to do with her cravings?Next stop is Le Recoleta Cemetary.That will be the next story.
My dear friend told me she liked that I didn’t have an itinerary scheduled. She was right, as usual, as I would not have met Marta, had it not been for the bus ride in the dark. We plan and G-d laughs.
Every Spanish speaking country has a phrase they use that I love. In Guatemala it’s “que le vaya bien.” Or may you be well or may G-d be with you. After asking many questions to strangers, what I hear is “suerte” which means luck. I love that. Not bueno suerte, good luck, but just suerte. Little did I know how much I would need it in a day or two.
Oh, and here is my first birthday cake ever from Hansen’s. I landed in Buenos Aires on my birthday & was treated to this fun & yummy cake 2 days before I flew out of LAX.