Unlocking Argentina's History


Unlocking Argentina's History
Story and photos by Debi Goodwin

The Recoleta Cemetery is both glorious and sad, where some of the dead are honored and some are forgotten behind long-neglected locks.

Argentina travel

In the early morning, before the tourist buses jockeyed for parking, before wandering visitors began snapping selfies and smiling shots against dark mausoleums, I'd make my way through the once elegant streets of the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires—the Paris of South America—to its cemetery. On the living streets, I'd pass countless cafés, lush parks and the largest rubber tree I'd ever seen before. I'd arrive at the walled city of the dead with its streets of the once famous, rich, and accomplished.

The Recoleta Cemetery covers four city blocks and holds five-thousand vaults in the wealthiest neighborhood of Buenos Aries. It is a little neighborhood in itself with a central square, high brick walls, benches, and antique lampposts which are encircled with orange trumpet vines. The workers in this neighborhood are masons, carpenters and custodians. They wander the streets repairing and cleaning the homes of the dead.

Recoleta Cemetery

When the buses finally arrived, I'd hear the guides tell tourists who'd left the comfort of their cruise ships to see the top attractions of Buenos Aires that the Recoleta Cemetery is like the famous Parisian cemetery of Pere-Lachaise. It isn't really. At Pere-Lachaise, visitors can view the final resting spots of Oscar Wilde, Colette, and Jim Morrison among many other notables. At Recoleta, the only name those who aren't Argentinian will recognize is Maria Eva Duarte de Peron, known to a doting nation and Broadway theater-goers as simply Evita.

I've been to both cemeteries and while I enjoyed seeing how many recognizable names I could find in Paris and scratch off my list, during my extended stay in Buenos Aries I was drawn over and over again to the Recoleta Cemetery by its tranquility, the beauty of its mausoleums of stone and sometimes gold, its crypts and its statues and by the subtle history found on its walls and along its many "streets." It's easy to get lost there, to ignore the high rises beyond its walls and to wonder about the many buried here who've lived through the country's troubles.

Out on the streets, in the real city, history is somehow sharper, meaner, harder on the eyes and the heart. On the sidewalks of the barrios there are plaques to those who disappeared during Argentina's dirty war of the late 1970s and early 1980s. On the walls are murals of larger-than-life faces of those who vanished under a regime that decided those they considered dissidents had to be taken from their homes and offices and often murdered. Beneath a city underpass lies one of the burial site only uncovered during street construction. And each Thursday, in the Plaza de Mayo, the grandmothers who marched to demand their grandchildren be returned still march.

Much of historic Buenos Aires was designed in a wealthier time—when the bankers were English and the architects were French. Even in the best residential neighborhoods, the empty shelves in grocery stores and the faded beauty of tall apartment blocks tell a more recent history, of crushing economic times and rampant inflation.

Buenos Aires

The Stories of the Dead

In the two-hundred-year old Recoleta Cemetery, you have to look a little harder to discover the history. There are lawmakers, generals, and artists who built the country buried here, the president who championed the rights of the disappeared after the Dirty War, soldiers seen as traitors by some and heroes by other in the constant rewriting of Argentinian history. If you don't stop by their plaques or follow a guidebook, you'll walk right by them.

You won't miss the Duarte family tomb and it tells a good story. When the popular Evita, wife of President Juan Peron, died in 1952 she was given a state funeral before her body was embalmed with the latest techniques to make a corpse last and put on public display for her adoring followers. After her husband was forced into exile by a military coup, her body, seen as a powerful symbol that could stir the masses, was stolen by soldiers and kept hidden. Eventually, it was sent to Italy where it was buried under a false name. It took almost twenty years for her family to get the body back to Argentina. It was finally ensconced in the new Duarte tomb in the 1970s, ironically settled amongst the rich of the Recoleta neighborhood who hated Evita and her leftist ideas.

Those who do wander the cemetery with a guidebook can find the crypts of the military president who ordered her body stolen and the judge who hid it.

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Read this article online at: http://www.perceptivetravel.com/issues/0216/recoleta.html

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