Bouchercon Week Re-post:Buenos Aires Through Their Eyes

By the time you read this, I will be in the car on my way to Albany for Bouchercon 2013.  Given the activities of the week, I am giving myself a break and re-posting my "researcher's notebook" from January 2012 when I went to Buenos Aires to research Blood Tango

Annamaria Alfieri

I am working on my third historical mystery — one that takes place in Buenos Aires. I came on this trip to get the feel of the city that is the backdrop for my story. After spending the past year reading deeply into the history of Argentina and especially of the Peróns and their times, I want to experience first hand the places I have been writing about. I have been here before, but not with such a story in mind.

On Day One of this research excursion, we took a tour of the Casa Rosada — the seat of the Argentine government. The palace is magnificent. It is pink because President Domingo Sarmiento (1811-1888) proposed they combine the Federalist red with the Unitarist white — to appease whichever of the violently opposing factions took precedence at any given moment during in the country's tumultuous 19th century history. The interior rooms are grand in the ornate style of that era.

My story does not go back that far; it takes place during October of 1945, a period when the Casa Rosada and the stately Plaza de Mayo in front of it were the focus of street demonstrations and popular uprisings. Chaos that ended on October 17th when Perón stepped out on the balcony of the Casa Rosada to address an estimated 300,000 low-level workers who had rallied to support him.

Perón called those men his descamisados — shirtless ones. In that era, men in Buenos Aires were required to wear jackets in public. They could not enter a restaurant or a movie theater without "proper attire." So the poorest laborers were not really shirtless, but jacketless. They did the dirtiest jobs in the country.

As elsewhere in the New World, the skilled laborers were European immigrants — mostly from Italy and Spain —Basques, largely — and some Irish and Germans who poured into the country during the tsunami of migration at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. They built buildings, made shoes, played music, all manner of work that required training. Argentina was rich then, off cattle, which were shipped live to England and the Continent. Once refrigeration was perfected, the meat was butchered in Buenos Aires and then shipped, rather than sending it on the hoof.

During the Great Depression, thousands of Indians and mestizos from the vast plains of the Pampas came to Buenos Aires looking for work just in time to man the slaughterhouses and the meat packing plants then springing up. These were Perón's descamisados. To secure them as his power base, from his position as Minister of Labor, he had raised their wages and gotten them health insurance and paid vacations. During the week before October 17th, his superior officers in the military government had forced him to resign. Now the descamisados wanted him back.

On that fateful day, they flooded into the center of the city from their villas miserias, slum towns, down across the Riachuelo to the south of the capital. They had never seen the city of Buenos Aires before. The "Paris of the South" must have seemed like a fairyland to them. They massed in the Plaza de Mayo and demanded their man.

I have walked some of the streets the men from the desolate interior walked on that day and tried to see through their eyes, buildings, wonderful even to me, who has seen the real Paris, Rome, Venice. Awestruck would be the word to describe it. To get the same feeling I have to imagine what it would be like to look at the earth from the moon.

Annamaria Alfieri