[Paleopsych] First Chapter: 'Borges'

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First Chapter: 'Borges'

Family and Nation

The ancestors of Jorge Luis Borges were among the first
Europeans to arrive in America. Explorers, conquistadors,
founders of cities, and rulers of provinces, they were
builders of the vast empire that Spain was to establish in
the New World. Gonzalo Martel de la Puente followed Pizarro
in the conquest of Peru, Domingo Martínez de Irala won
Paraguay for the Spanish Crown, Jerónimo de Cabrera founded
the city of Córdoba in Tucumán, while Juan de Garay secured
the settlement of the remote township of Buenos Aires.
However, Borges himself was indifferent to these
connections: "The Iralas, the Garays, the Cabreras and all
those other Spanish conquistadors who founded cities and
nations, I have never dreamed about them.... I am quite
ignorant about their lives. They were people of very little
intelligence-Spanish soldiers, and from the Spain of those

The ancestors Borges dreamed about were the men who had
broken with Spain and had fought to create the Argentine
nation. On his mother's side, Francisco de Laprida was
president of the congress that declared the independence of
the "United Provinces of South America." General Miguel
Estanislao Soler commanded a division in the patriot army
that the great Argentine liberator, San Martín, led across
the Andes to free Chile and then Peru from the Spanish
yoke. On his father's side, Juan Crisóstomo Lafinur was one
of the first poets of Argentina and a friend of Manuel
Belgrano, a founding father of the nation. Among Borges's
papers there survives a postcard depicting Lafinur (proudly
identified with a cross by the young Jorge Luis) standing
in the foreground of the picture as General San Martín is
being received by the National Assembly of the new

The most romantic of all Borges's ancestors was undoubtedly
Isidoro Suárez, a great-grandfather on his mother's side.
At the age of twenty-four, Suárez led the cavalry charge
that turned the tide of battle at Junín, the second-last
engagement in the liberation of South America. The battle
took place on August 6, 1824, high up in the Andes of Peru,
and the lofty silence of the snowcapped peaks was broken
only by the clash of lance and sword, for no guns were used
in combat by either army, and the patriots defeated the
Spaniards in little under an hour. Suárez's heroism won the
praise of Simón Bolívar himself, who declared that "when
history describes the glorious Battle of Junín ... it will
be attributed to the bravery of this young officer." And it
was Bolívar who promoted Suárez to the rank of colonel
after the young officer again distinguished himself at
Ayacucho, the battle that finally put paid to the rule of
Spain in America.

Borges conceived of the War of Independence as a "rupture
in the continuity of the bloodline," a "rebellion of sons
against their fathers." His family, after all, took great
pride in being criollos, people of pure Spanish descent
born in America, but the meaning of independence, in
Borges's view, lay in the fact that the criollos had
"resolved to be Spaniards no longer:" they had made "an act
of faith" in the possibility of creating a national
identity distinct from that of Spain, and it followed that
if the Argentines did not persevere in the struggle to
forge this new identity, "a good many of us" would "run the
risk of reverting to being Spanish, which would be a way of
denying the whole of Argentine history."

The movement toward independence in the area now comprising
modern Argentina was spearheaded by Buenos Aires. An
important reason for the city's historic role is to be
found in the strategic position it occupies on the estuary
of a mighty river system that reaches right up into the
heart of South America. This huge estuary was first
discovered by Spanish explorers searching for a westward
passage to Japan. In 1536 the first settlement, called
Santa María de los Buenos Aires, was established on its
right bank, but it succumbed to Indian raids, and it was
not until 1580 that the town was founded on a permanent
basis by the conquistador Juan de Garay. By this time the
estuary was known as the Río de la Plata, the "River of
Silver" (distorted since in English to "River Plate"), thus
called because the Spaniards believed that deposits of
silver could be found on its shores. No silver was
discovered, however, and for the next two hundred years,
Buenos Aires was to languish as an outpost of empire in a
forgotten corner of the Americas.

The tiny settlement was all but engulfed by vast plains,
empty save for herds of wild cattle and horses that roamed
the pampas, as these plains were called. These herds were
hunted by tribes of nomadic Indians and plundered for their
meat and hide by freewheeling horsemen of Spanish descent
called gauchos. Otherwise the colony subsisted on the
illegal exchange of silver from Peru for African slaves
imported from Brazil. Only in the late eighteenth century,
when advances in shipbuilding made it economical for Spain
to communicate directly with the region, did it become
possible to exploit the strategic position of Buenos Aires,
and in 1776 the city was made the capital of the new
viceroyalty of Río de la Plata. This relatively sudden
promotion of Buenos Aires transformed the geopolitics of
South America-all the Spanish territories (except
Venezuela) that lay to the east of the Andes were obliged
to sever a connection with Peru that went back 250 years
and deal thenceforward with the upstart port city to the
south. In this historic wrench lay the fundamental cause of
the bloody conflicts that would bedevil the area for most
of the nineteenth century.

After the first revolt against Spain in 1810, Buenos Aires
would struggle to maintain its authority over the provinces
comprising the former viceroyalty. It failed to prevent
Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay from going their separate
ways, and even though the remaining provinces came together
to declare independence from Spain at the Congress of
Tucumán in 1816, there followed a long period of
instability as the interior provinces continued to
challenge the authority of Buenos Aires. The basic dispute
was between the liberal unitarios, who sought to create a
centralized state led by Buenos Aires, and the more
conservative federales, who favored a confederation of
provinces that would preserve as much local autonony as
possible. The lack of effective nationwide institutions led
to endless power struggles between caudillos, or provincial
chieftains, of both conservative and liberal persuasion,
who employed gaucho cavalry (montoneros) to further their
own ends. Both sides of Borges's family were unitarios, and
in his celebrated "Conjectural Poem," he recalled the
murder of his ancestor Laprida, onetime president of the
Congress of Tucumán, by the montoneros of Felix Aldao, a
caudillo of the province of Mendoza.

Eventually there appeared a caudillo strong enough to
impose some order on this chaos. In 1829 Juan Manuel de
Rosas, a wealthy landowner and a strong advocate of
federalismo, became governor of the huge province of Buenos
Aires, and over the next six years he acquired enough power
to become the effective leader of the "United Provinces."
In the city of Buenos Aires, a bastion of liberalism, Rosas
instituted a reign of terror designed to wipe out the
unitarios. He created a secret organization known as La
Mazorca that recruited servants to spy on their masters and
formed death squads to root out opponents. Rosas also
enlisted the support of the clergy, who preached blind
loyalty to the caudillo and allowed his portrait to be
displayed in the churches. He gained immense popularity
with the lower classes, and a hysterical personality cult
came into being-the color red, the color of the federales,
was worn on sashes and banners, and slogans such as "Long
live the Federation! Death to the filthy, savage
unitarios!" became tokens of loyalty to the supreme leader.
After Rosas achieved total power in 1835, those liberals he
did not manage to eliminate he drove into exile abroad.

The privations endured by Borges's family under the
dictatorship of Rosas were indeed horrible and outrageous.
Colonel Suárez, the "Hero of Junín," was forced into exile
in Uruguay, where he died in 1846. One of the colonel's
brothers was shot against the wall of the Recoleta Cemetery
in Buenos Aires by agents of the Mazorca. The man's
eleven-year-old son was forced to watch the execution,
after which the boy had to find work in a tavern, since
there was no one to look after him. Thanks to Rosas, the
family of Borges's grandfather, Isidoro Acevedo, lost their
estates in the north of the province of Buenos Aires near
the town of Pergamino. Isidoro's father joined a rebellion
against Rosas but was taken prisoner and put to work in the
tyrant's stables for nine years. One night the Mazorca
raided the family home, horsewhipped Isidoro's mother and
sacked the house. The two oldest daughters managed to
escape but lost touch with their family for several years
and ended up living in Brazil. Isidoro's mother took her
three remaining children to Buenos Aires, where she was
forced to earn a living as a seamstress mending trousers
for Rosas's soldiers. Grandfather Isidoro used to tell a
gruesome story about how, as a boy of ten, he came across a
cart covered by a tarpaulin and, taking a peek inside,
found the bloody heads of dozens of men killed by the
Mazorca. He was so shocked that he was unable to speak for
several hours after he got home. When he grew up, Isidoro
became an unitario like his father and joined the struggle
to overthrow Rosas.

The tyrant was finally deposed in 1852, when his many
enemies united to defeat him at the Battle of Caseros. But
the victor of Caseros was yet another caudillo, General
Urquiza, the boss of the rival province of Entre Ríos, who
managed to topple Rosas with the support of Brazil,
Uruguay, and the exiled unitarios. Being himself a federal,
Urquiza passed a new constitution providing for a
confederation of provinces, though under a strong
presidentialist regime. The unitarios refused to accept
this federal arrangement, but they were defeated by Urquiza
at the Battle of Cepeda in 1859. Two years later the
unitarios rebelled again, and this time their leader,
Bartolomé Mitre, overthrew Urquiza at the Battle of Pavón,
and Buenos Aires was at last accepted by the provincial
caudillos as the de facto capital of the nation.

With Buenos Aires at its head, Argentina was set upon the
road of stability and modernization. In the course of the
1860s and 1870s, successive liberal presidents, Mitre,
Sarmiento and Avellaneda-all former unitario leaders-put in
place the machinery of a modern nation-state: an integrated
judicial system, a central bank, a professional army, a
system of public schools and libraries, an academy of
science and other technical institutions. The Argentine
economy was geared toward the export of wool, meat, and
wheat for the industrial centers of Europe, and this
required the progressive privatization and enclosure of
land in the pampas. Successive governments actively
promoted European immigration with the aim of developing a
rural middle class to replace the gauchos and the Indian
hunters on the open range. Foreign capital was invested in
the construction of a modern infrastructure of
communications and transport. The British in particular
would build new docks in Buenos Aires and a railway network
across the pampas designed to consolidate the export
economy by linking up the hitherto fractious provinces to
Buenos Aires and, through the port city, to the world

Domingo Sarmiento, who became president in 1868, was a
prominent liberal intellectual and the author of one of the
most influential books in Argentine history, Facundo: or,
Civilization and Barbarism, a book in which the liberal
vision of the nation's destiny was most fully expressed.
Originally published in 1845, at the height of the struggle
against Rosas, Facundo takes the form of a biography of
Facundo Quiroga, a famous caudillo who pursued a violent
career in the aftermath of independence until he was killed
in 1835, almost certainly on Rosas's orders. Sarmiento
argued that Argentina could be saved from this chaotic
"barbarism" only by adopting the modern "civilization" of
the European Enlightenment.

By "barbarism" Sarmiento meant the lack of stable
government based on legitimate authority. He argued that
barbarism was rooted in the pampas because the great plains
were so underpopulated that the people who lived there
lacked the habits of social coexistence that provide the
basis for civilized values. In this sense the gaucho was a
barbarian because he led a life of anarchic individualism
in which he resorted to force in order to assert his will.
This made him the ideal tool for the ambitions of regional
caudillos, whose power struggles had led to the anarchy
that had engulfed the entire viceroyalty of the Río de La
Plata in the aftermath of independence.

How could this barbarism be tamed once more? There were two
forms of civilization available to the rulers of Argentina:
there was the clerical civilization of Catholic Spain,
which had been successful in ensuring order during the
colonial period, and the civilization of the Enlightenment.
The former, in Sarmiento's view, was incapable of turning
back the tide of barbarism. He portrayed the inland city of
Córdoba, a bastion of Hispanic traditionalism, as a
somnolent relic, its venerable buildings reflected on the
stagnant waters of an ornamental lake. By way of contrast,
he described the vitality of Buenos Aires, standing at the
mouth of the river system of the Plata, a thriving port
equipped to trade in goods and ideas with the world at
large. Having initiated the wars of independence, Buenos
Aires could claim a historic right to lead the nation
toward modernity.

The plight of Argentina was encapsulated by Sarmiento in
the vivid image of a gaucho's dagger stuck in the heart of
liberal Buenos Aires. But even in Facundo one encounters an
ambivalence toward the gaucho, for when Sarmiento wrote
about the gaucho's skills as horseman, tracker, and
wandering troubadour, he could not help but display a
certain admiration for this authentic son of the native
soil. The fact was that even though the gaucho might have
been a "barbarian," he also represented whatever
distinctive identity the young republic could claim to
possess in relation to Spain. And yet, by the logic of his
own argument in favor of progress and modern civilization,
Sarmiento had to accept that the gaucho's traditional way
of life was condemned eventually to disappear.

It was during Sarmiento's term of office as president that
a book appeared which was to become the other great classic
of Argentine literature.



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