This country shuts down when its footballers enter the World Cup pitch.
In Mendoza, a provincial capital of about 800,000 people, the same streets that bustled with vendors, residents and tourists on Saturday were barren on Sunday, the day Argentina played Mexico in the round of 16 in the world’s biggest sporting event.
About two hours before the match, the central plaza was sparsely populated with a few fans wearing the country’s colors of baby blue and white. The fans on park benches communicated like birds, trading whistles of the same horns heard during every game in South Africa.
Besides the mating calls, there were only two other signs of life on the streets. Vendors sold flags, jerseys, jester hats, pom-pom and, of course, more horns. Police set up barricades on the main pedestrian street to prepare for any hooligans fans that could get rowdy if Argentina won.
Since Mendoza was a ghost town, we struggled to find a festive bar to watch it. The best suggestion was closed, but the owner happened to stop by as we saw it locked up. He drove us across town to the seemingly only open bar in the city.
It was an Irish pub, with more travelers than Argentines. The experience wasn’t authentic, but there were enough natives to make it lively.
An Argentine named Amberto shared with us the legacy of Diego Maradona, the legendary player and now coach. He passionately shared how Maradona scored an 1986 World Cup goal with his hand and became known as the “Hand of God.” How Maradona played in the 1990 World Cup with a sprained ankle the size of a grapefruit.
After Argentina’s explosive offensive attack downed Mexico 3-1, Mendoza’s residents celebrated in the streets. Major avenues that could have held impromptu futbol games before the match became a noisy traffic jam. Ecstatic fans packed into vehicles, honking their car horns and blowing their plastic horns, shouting, waving their flags, banging on drums.
The street party was on Avenue San Martin, a street named after the man who led the country to independence exactly 200 years ago.
Unfortunately, celebrating this win was the end of the party for Pessa and I. Due to our poor scheduling, we had to catch a flight back to Ecuador the next day.
We had been warned about our scheduling oversight. In Blake’s English class, one of the students/advertising creators said, “You are leaving in the middle of the World Cup? You’re crazy. … Who is this pilot?”
He was right. Nobody should leave the country in the middle of such a prideful event, including airline pilots and foreigners. If Argentina wins the cup, I will undoubtedly kick myself for being so close but not there.
BUENOS AIRES PROVINCIA
The bicentennial and success in the World Cup make this a prideful period in Argentina, yet stories of a darker period of its history are still being told.
Argentina had a brutal military dictatorship in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Thousands were kidnapped, tortured and killed in what is known as the Dirty War. Prosecution of these human rights abuses are currently playing out in Argentine courts.
One gripping tale in the Buenos Aires Herald recounted how an auto mechanic shop doubled as a torture chamber. The sounds of working on cars were used to cover up the screams of prisoners, who were being subjected to the “submarine” and other tactics. The “submarine” is currently known as waterboarding.
Silvia, our new Argentine friend, offered her family’s personal tragedy from the Dirty War as we drove in our rental car from the Atlantic coast to Buenos Aires.
In 1978, years before Silvia was born, her father, grandparents and aunt lived in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Devoto. Silvia’s father and aunt were in their 20s.
To help tell the story, Silvia translated the book “Never Again,” which documents experiences of Spanish immigrants in Argentina during the Dirty War. I edited the story for clarity and style.
“In the cold hours of May 23, 1978, a group of heavily armed civilians with their faces uncovered burst into [their] house. …
[Silvia’s aunt and father] were in the same room. The gang ordered [Silvia’s aunt] to get dressed, while her brother and father were taken to another room. The house was looted and [Silvia’s aunt] was taken by two of the kidnappers. The whole event lasted 15 minutes.
After the kidnapping, the family went to the police station and filed [reports, including one with the Spanish Consulate]. A few days later the Spanish Embassy received a note from the government, which said that the Argentine citizen the embassy was requiring information was not detained nor appeared in any official records.”
The kidnappings in the Dirty War were undertaken to quiet political dissidents. The military dictators believed this politicians and activists threatened their power.
Silvia’s aunt, however, was not politically active. She was a medical student that received high marks at the University of Buenos Aires.
Despite Silvia’s aunt’s lack of political involvement, the kidnapping had been foreshadowed. Silvia’s aunt’s ex-boyfriend and others had been kidnapped about a week earlier in an estate in the Las Heras neighborhood.
The ex-boyfriend’s mother called to warn Silvia’s grandfather of the kidnapping and he recommended that his daughter should seek asylum in Uruguay. Silvia’s aunt said she would not leave because she had nothing to fear.
Silvia’s aunt has not been seen since that cold night in May 1978.
“We don’t say that she is dead; we say that they are missing,” Silvia told me.
Silvia said that the family believes she was taken because of her association with her ex-boyfriend, not because she was a “threat.”
The episode remains painful for Silvia’s family. Her father won’t talk at length about the kidnapping. Her mother, who was also childhood friends with Silvia’s aunt, also feels the loss.
One day every year is set aside to remember the killed, tortured and still missing.
“My mom is down; my dad is down,” Silvia said about the memorial day when people wear black cloth. “It’s still really sad.”
My Modeling Debut
My big break has arrived.
See, Paress, Pessa’s sister’s friend, was asked by a fellow traveler to be in a photo shoot that could be in an upcoming art gallery in B.A. The theme was head shots of varying facial expressions with some sort of accessory.
Paress had a knit hat she bought at a market in B.A. She thought I would be a good candidate, given this monstrosity on my face.
It was weird to have a camera shoved in your face for a half hour. (As a journalist, I can now empathize with those whose faces we shoved cameras in.) And for the record, I didn’t pose. We just chatted as he shot.