The Born Legacy: Kidnappings in 1970s Argentina

view of the worldView of the World appeared on the front cover of The New Yorker on March 29, 1976. The cartoon parodies a view that New Yorker’s are thought to have of themselves at the center of the universe with very little of interest or relevance beyond their borders. To a degree, this is somewhat representative of the view many in the United States have of themselves and what occurs, or has occurred, outside their borders.

A few days ago I was having a conversation with an Argentine about the current political race for President of Argentina.  I mentioned that I had learned that Mauricio Macri, the former mayor of Buenos Aires and one of the two remaining candidates, was kidnapped in the 1990s. Don’t ever express shock or surprise to an Argentine about something you have learned about their history. They will always out-trump you. Without so much as a nano-second having passed, he asked if I was aware of the rash of kidnappings in Argentina in the 1970s and that, in fact, the highest ransom ever paid was paid in Argentina–60 million dollars!

queI can only imagine I had one of those contorted “Que?” looks on my face, trying to comprehend something so outlandish. As soon as I got home I began my investigation and started trawling the internet to find out if the story was true. So little is known about the true statistics of kidnapping in Argentina that even Wikipedia, the source of all reliable and trustworthy information just one step up the evolutionary ladder from Fox News, does not include any reference to the blight of kidnapping that occurred in Argentina during this very dark period in a country that has had more than its share of dark periods in its history.

patty hearstMost of my closest friends are unaware that I grew up with Patty Hearst. In fact, I ate dinner with her almost every evening. In our house, dinner was served in our family room in front of the six o’clock news. In 1974 the nation was galvanized to their TV sets following events of the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, and then her subsequent transformation over the next few months as outlaw. Now, if any of you don’t know who Patty Hearst is, well, I’m afraid we can’t be friends any longer, but as a refresher, Patty Hearst was/is the granddaughter of über wealthy American publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was the Bill Gates of the 20th century, amassing a fortune so obscene that his life was fictionalized in the Orson Welles classic Citizen Kane–and if you don’t know about Citizen Kane and, worse, if you’ve not seen it, our relationship seriously needs to end here.

In the 1920s Hearst published newspapers in 30 of America’s most populous cities. One American in every four read a Hearst newspaper. If you thought it, it was because Hearst told you to think it. By the 1930s his empire expanded to magazines, creating the largest newspaper and magazine conglomeration in the world. It is difficult to imagine a world without the internet and social media where we can learn of up-to-the-minute reports on Lamar Odom who collapsed while in a house full of hookers, which is quite surprising that it was in a brothel in Nevada and not the Kardashian mansion.

I came across an article in Business Insider which identified a list of the 18 highest ransoms paid to kidnappers. There it was! $60 million paid in 1974, the equivalent of $293 million today for the release of Jorge and Juan Born.

What is even more astounding is that of the 18 highest ransoms paid to kidnappers throughout history, half of them were paid for individuals kidnapped in Argentina! Patty Hearst doesn’t even make it into the Top 5, where she slides in at a paltry $6 million, or the equivalent of $29.3 million today. In fact, Latin America leads the world in kidnapping, accounting for some 80 percent of the world’s abductions.

Here are the winners:

#17: Ronald Grove
Ransomed for $1 million in 1972, equivalent to $5.48 million today.

Grove, one of the top employees at the Vesty meat packing company, was the first person in the country to command a seven-figure ransom price.

#16: Vincenzo Russo
Ransomed for $1 million in 1972; equivalent to $5.48 million today.

The Argentine terrorist group Montoneros captured Russo, an ITT exec, a few days after Grove’s kidnapping and demanded the same amount. Copycats.

#13: Antony Da Cruz
Ransomed for $1.5 million in 1973; equivalent to $7.7 million today.

Da Cruz, a 42-year-old Kodak executive in Buenos Aires, was captured by guerrilla terrorists for six days.

#12: Francis Brimicombe
Ransomed for $1.7 million in 1973; equivalent to $8.7 million today.

Brimicombe, a 57-year-old executive of British American Tobacco, lived in Argentina for 30 years before he was captured by a native terrorist group outside his home as he was returning from a golf trip. The group reportedly captured him to “finance their underground activities.”

#9: John R Thompson
Ransomed for $3 million in 1974; equivalent to $13.9 million today.

Thompson, the 50-year-old president of Firestone, was kidnapped by Argentine guerrillas ERP. He was captured on June 18 and released about two and a half weeks later.

#7: Enrique Metz
Ransomed in 1975 for $5 million; equivalent to $21.2 million today.

It wasn’t quite the score the Argentine guerrilla group Montoneros got when it captured the Juan and Jorge Born, but this Mercedes Benz executive was still worth a fortune.

#5: Charles Lockwood
Ransomed for $2 million in 1973 and for $10 million in 1975; equivalent to $52.9 million today.

Lockwood, a Roberts executive, was captured by the ERB Argentine group TWICE in a 26 month span, netting more than $50 million in today’s money.

samuelson#4: Victor Samuelson
Ransomed for $14.2 million in 1974; equivalent to $69.4 million today.

Esso Argentina (a subsidiary of Exxon) paid $14.2 million to rescue refinery manager Victor Samuelson from Marxist rebels after 98 days. The rebels, called the People’s Revolutionary Army, had threatened to execute him for the “crimes” of multinational corporations.

And the award goes to…

born#1: Jorge and Juan Born
Ransomed for $60 million in 1974; equivalent to $293 million today.

On Thursday 19 September 1974, a non-descript Ford Falcon Deluxe was making its way through early morning traffic along Avenida del Libertador heading towards downtown Buenos Aires. Jorge and Juan Carlos Born, as well as Alberto Bosch, a manager at a subsidiary company, were being driven to work by their chauffeur, Juan Carlos Perez. A second car followed immediately behind carrying three bodyguards assigned to protect the precious cargo in the first car.

At about 7:30am, the chauffeur was signaled and diverted by a policeman to turn off Avenida del Libertador onto a side street. As the car completed its turn, a pick up truck darted in front while another approached and collided at the rear. Within seconds, seven guerrillas surrounded the vehicles. When they realized their danger and tried to escape, the guerrillas opened fire, riddling the car with a spray of bullets and killing Perez and Bosch at close range. The brothers were bundled into a waiting sedan and whisked off to a people’s prison in nearby Martinez on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

The well-orchestrated ambush involved nineteen guerrillas, some of whom were dressed as policemen while others as telephone workers. The following day an article appeared in the New York Times reporting on the event and revealed that more than 70 individuals had been kidnapped in Argentina so far that year.

The Montoneros was an Argentine leftist urban guerrilla, and subversive group, active during the 1960s and 1970s who initiated a campaign to destabilize by force what they deemed a pro-American regime. The Montoneros formed out of a confluence of Roman Catholic groups, university students in social sciences, and leftist supporters of Juan Domingo Perón.

The Born brothers were kept in a known Argentine State Intelligence safehouse for nine months until their release in June of 1975, something made possible without public suspicion of outside involvement by the agency’s numerous contacts inside the Montoneros. Jorge Born, the principal heir to an empire spent the majority of nine months in captivity until his release in June of 1975.

gettyEleven months before the Borns were kidnapped, oil baron John Paul Getty’s grandson was kidnapped in Italy. Although he was one of the richest men on the planet, Getty initially refused to pay the ransom stating that he would “not yield to blackmail” and that if he paid one ransom, “I’ll have the other fourteen grandchildren kidnapped.” It was only after an envelope containing a lock of his hair and severed left ear did Getty concede to the kidnappers demands. However, Getty was only willing to cough up $2.2 million as it was the maximum amount he could declare on his taxes.

Soon thereafter Bunge & Born relocated to Sao Paolo, Brazil, to escape the abyss into which Argentina had sunk. In a bizarre twist, Jorge Born later formed a business partnership with one of his former kidnappers, Montonero strategist Rodolfo Galimberti.

The story does not end there as one chapter in history concludes and another begins. The period that followed the scourge of kidnappings in Argentina in the 1970s is even darker where a military government targeted these left-wing activists and militants and as many as 30,000 “disappeared.”

Perhaps our view of the world is confined to what we can comprehend and make sense of. Countless chapters in Argentine history would make anyone say, “Que???


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Glory Days; The History of British Investment in Argentina

fur1Argentina is like an old girlfriend who kicked you to the curb after you showered her with a fortune in diamonds, furs and expensive clothing over the course of many years. It isn’t bad enough that she was the one that ended the affair, but that she also kept everything you gave her.

During the reign of Queen Victoria, Argentina was an integral part of the United Kingdom’s informal empire and became a privileged beneficiary of massive British investment. England recognized the importance of a firm and friendly, yet distant, presence in South America. Portugal had a strong foothold in Brazil, and Spain was represented throughout most of the remainder of South America.

estanciaEntrepreneurs and business-owners from the United Kingdom flocked to Argentina in droves and developed large-scale farming throughout the fertile Pampas, set up banking institutions to facilitate extensive infrastructure and building projects, and organized massive import and export of valuable goods and services.

Roads were laid. Cities were electrified. Hospitals were built. Fortunes were made. In 1913 Buenos Aires became the first city in the southern hemisphere to have a subway system. At one point in the 19th century, as much as 10% of the United Kingdom’s foreign investment was in Argentina.

aguasEvidence of the city’s opulence is underscored by a visit to the Palacio de Aguas Corrientes in the city’s Balvanera neighborhood. The parcel of land was dedicated to house a water pumping station in the late 1800s, but before construction was due to start plans were revised to ensure the building would be in keeping with what was at the time an affluent neighborhood. The exterior was decorated in a French renaissance style and covered in over 300,000 glazed, multi-color terra cotta tiles imported from British ceramics maker, Royal Doulton. You would be forgiven for assuming the building had a more noble original purpose.

harrodsFurther, in 1914, Harrod’s, arguably the world’s most exclusive department store, chose to open its only branch outside of London in Buenos Aires on fashionable Calle Florida. For many years the glorious Belle Époque building was the gathering place for the city’s elite who could see and be seen in the decadent tea salon or stocking up on Italian suits, expensive perfume and imported jewelry.

By the 1940s Argentina had a higher literacy rate than the United States and the second largest gold reserves in the world. At that time there were more theatre seats in Buenos Aires than there were in New York or London.

The love affair was destined to last forever, but Argentina had other plans.

adm1 barolo colon 1ba cafe ba old corrientes










The End of The Affair

Just before Britain was drawn into World War II nearly 40% of all investment in Argentina was British. Perhaps England was a bit preoccupied with the steady bombing of London and the threat presented by Adolf Hitler to see what was happening.

Much of the attraction that propelled President Juan Peron into public favor and office was his opposition of foreign domination of industry. No one thought to question that the industry wouldn’t have been there in the first place without foreign investment.

By the time the war had ended, Peron had simply changed the names of many of the buildings and streets throughout the country to erase any vestiges of British presence. Thousands of miles of railroads became the property of the government, and many British-owned businesses were handed over to Argentines, many of whom were personal friends and family of the President.

It was as if Argentina had simply changed the locks.

Argentina Today

jp evitaToday Buenos Aires is a shadow of its glorious past.

Though you will see constant worshipful references to the ideology that existed during the Presidency of Juan Peron and his iconic wife, Eva in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Argentina today does not appear to be as concerned with the preservation and restoration of its past, as much as it is with the assimilation of the past with the present and future. maderoToday, slick office towers and ultra-luxury, high-rise condominiums are interspersed between elegant mansions and office buildings built during the golden age of Buenos Aires. Elegant parks and flower gardens are scattered throughout this city where an active café society remains.

Porteños, as residents of Buenos Aires are known, are generally a heady and attractive mix of Spanish and Italian heritage. They are shamelessly proud and obsessed with youth and beauty, though the mullet hairstyle still appears to be fashionable in some circles.

For years Buenos Aires has bristled at being described as “The Paris of South America.” In some ways Buenos Aires appears as familiar as Paris, but with the bravado of New York and the far niente attitude of Rome. Yes, Buenos Aires appears a bit run down and tattered in places, but the old girl looks pretty good for what she’s been through in recent years, though her fur coat is looking a bit worn and tattered around the edges and some of the jewelry she has had to pawn to pay for her vices.

falklands malvinasAnd, just like any spurned suitor, England insists on retaining at least one souvenir of their relationship: the much-contested Falkland Islands, known as Las Islas Malvinas and claimed by Argentina to this day.

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The Curious Death and Afterlife of Eva Perón

Winston Churchill is credited as saying “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”

With the manipulation of the media in Argentina throughout most of the twentieth century, this quote could easily have been ascribed to Eva Perón. Yet even Hollywood could not have conjured up events that would surround the death and afterlife of Eva Perón.

EVA FAINTIn 1950, at the age of 30, Eva fainted during a public appearance. Medical diagnosis revealed that she had appendicitis and simply had her appendix removed. Eva never seemed to regain strength and continued to feel weak, dizzy and frequently suffered from severe vaginal bleeding. However, the diagnosis by Eva’s gynecologist indicated the presence of cervical cancer, which Juan Perón insisted on keeping from her. Dragging from continued lack of energy, Perón admitted Eva to the hospital during his campaign for re-election in 1951 under the guise of routine surgery to have her uterus removed.

Secretly Perón arranged to have American cancer surgeon George T. Pack slip in after she was anesthetized and surgically remove what was initially considered to be cancer of her cervix. During the surgery, however, Dr. Pack discovered that the cancer had spread throughout Evita’s body. At the conclusion of the surgery Dr. Pack was quickly whisked to the airport and was on a flight back to New York well before Eva regained consciousness.

Eva was not informed of the presence of cancer for some time afterward as Juan Perón realized that having Eva at his side was crucial to his presidential election, and her absence might influence the vote.

EVA HUGPublic awareness of Evita’s serious decline in health brought tremendous support from the people. Upwards of two million were said to have gathered outside the Casa Rosada with demands for Evita to accept nomination as Vice President. This overwhelming show of support came as a tremendous shock to Juan Perón who became frightfully aware that his popularity had been greatly eclipsed by wife.

It was obvious that Evita’s health would not sustain the candidacy. Evita declined and offered her unflagging support for Perón and asked that the country do the same.

EVA PROCESSION 2What better person to play the tragic role than an actress? Sympathy undoubtedly contributed to Perón’s landslide victory in 1952 and, in June of that year, Evita took a triple dose of medication which enabled her to accompany her husband on an automobile procession throughout the streets of Buenos Aires in celebration of his re-election. Underneath a lavish fur coat, a steel frame was constructed to hold up Evita’s body, enabling her without effort to stand erect. Evita Perón weighed less than 80 pounds.

Yet it was not in her role as First Lady of Argentina or other appointments she held throughout Perón’s presidency that brought her greatest fulfillment and satisfaction. It was the view that the Argentines considered her to be “the Spiritual Leader of the Nation,” a title bestowed upon her during Perón’s campaign for re-election.

In the musical “Evita” by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the question is asked: “Why try to govern a country when you can become a saint?”

On July 26, 1952 Eva Perón died at the age of 33 of cervical cancer. The government suspended all official activities for two days. The crowd outside the Casa Rosada blocked traffic for 10 blocks in each direction. While Evita’s body was being moved, eight people were crushed to death and more than 2000 people would be treated in city hospitals over the next 24 hours for injuries sustained in efforts to view or even be near her body.

The streets of Buenos Aires appeared as caverns flanked by flowers that were stacked in huge piles. Within twenty-four hours of Eva’s death all flower shops in Buenos Aires were completely emptied.

Juan Perón continuously berated Evita throughout their relationship for her immoral past, and the fact that she was not a virgin when they met. It was no coincidence that Perón’s first wife, Aurelia, also died of cervical cancer. It is likely that Juan Perón himself was the carrier of the deadly virus from his first wife to his second. Perón’s marriage to Aurelia lasted 9 years before she died of cervical cancer. Perón’s marriage to Evita lasted 7 years before she, too, succumbed to the disease.

Evita Perón and the Body as Spectacle

EVA ARAPerón arranged for Dr. Pedro Ara to embalm Eva’s body. Dr. Ara was a world-renowned professor of anatomy, having studied in Vienna, who maintained a practice in Madrid. His work was referred to as “the art of death.” His technique in embalming would remove blood from the corpse and replace it with glycerin, which would preserve all body organs and create a lifelike appearance. Eva Perón died at 8:25pm on July 26, 1952 and, by the next morning, her body was “completely and infinitely incorruptible” and ready for public display.

Perón announced that Eva’s body would be placed on display at the headquarters of the General Confederation of Labor. Lines would form early in the morning and would stretch for upwards of 35 blocks as thousands would file past the embalmed body. Thousands further would be turned away at the conclusion of each day. The corpse was to have remained on display while a monument projected to be larger than the Statue of Liberty was being designed to permanently display Evita’s preserved body.

The Disappearance of the Body of Evita Perón

Perón fled the country during a military coup in 1955. In his haste he failed to make arrangements for Eva’s body. The military dictatorship issued a ban on Perónism and Evita’s body disappeared. The location remained a mystery for 16 years. It was disguised in a crypt in Milan, Italy, under the headstone of Maria Maggi.

In 1971 Juan Perón learned of the whereabouts of Eva’s corpse and made arrangements to secure its transfer to him where he was resident in Madrid. Peron once again called on services of Dr. Ara as the body allegedly had been desecrated during the coup of 1955 and the corpse had “…a large dent in the nose, blows to the face and chest, and marks on the back.”

Perón kept the body in an open casket on his dining room table and his third wife, Isabel, combed Evita’s hair daily. Perón returned to Argentina and won the election of President with his third wife, Isabel, as Vice President. Soon after Juan Perón’s death in 1974, the government of Argentina made arrangements for Evita Perón’s body to be permanently entombed and securely placed under three plates of steel in the Duarte family crypt in the Recoleta Cemetary.

EVA GRAFFITIThough Eva Perón has gone to sleep more than 60 years ago, it is difficult to avoid being confronted throughout the streets and neighborhoods of Buenos Aires with her legacy. A visit to the Museo de Evita Perón will convince you that Eva Perón, this Spiritual Leader of the Argentine Nation, was a mix of Jesus Christ and Mother Teresa.


Museo Evita, 2988 Lafinur Street in Palermo

Recoleta Cemetery, at the entrance on Junin in Recoleta (free tours in English Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11:00am

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The Hotel Bauen: Democracy and a Duvet

Historic New England and the Mid-Atlantic states are littered with locations that claim “George Washington slept here.” The abundance of places where the First President of the United States allegedly slept gives new meaning and perspective to the title “Father of the Country.”

george-washington-slept-hereThere are all sorts of places where you can find a good night’s sleep in Buenos Aires, from trendy boutique hotels in Palermo, hostels in San Telmo, penthouse apartments overlooking the city in Puerto Madero and break-the-bank opulence in Recoleta.

With such a profusion of choice it is understandable that a visitor to Buenos Aires might not give any thought to the Hotel Bauen, located at 360 Avenida Callao. From the street, the hotel looks like any other building that was cursed to have been built during the modernist style that sadly dominated the 1970s. However, it’s not the comfort of the mattress or thread count of the bed linens that makes the Hotel Bauen notable but the history that brought about the hotel as it exists today.

Avenida Callao History Lesson

baroloIn the 1880s, Avenida Callao was redesigned to become one of Buenos Aires’ most important and elegant thoroughfares to complement the imposing Argentine National Congress building designed for construction at its southern origin. Some of the city’s most sumptuous displays of Art Nouveau, Neoclassical and Art Deco architectural styles would be constructed along Avenida Callao worthy to connect the San Nicolas neighborhood with the privileged village of Recoleta farther north.

By the 1960s, however, as radical and subversive trends worldwide brought about a period of counterculture and social revolution, many evidences of Argentina’s glory days fell into a spiral of disrepair and neglect. Today we see remnants of the derelict El Molino Café, the Iglesia del Salvador (Church of Our Savior) and the Pizzurno Palace, elegantly set back from Avenida Callao as it faces Rodríguez Peña Plaza.

The Argentine Day of Glory and the Decade of Despair

It was the premise and promise of Argentina hosting the 1978 FIFA World Cup that brought about the creation of the Hotel Bauen. Commissioned through generous government funding ($37 million in 1976, or nearly $150 million in 2014 dollars!), the Hotel Bauen was designed as 4-star hotel with all the modern amenities that would be required to attract an international clientele coming to the World Cup. As fate would have it, FIFA’s decision in 1966 for Argentina to host the World Cup in 1978 became a considerable source of concern and controversy when the government was overthrown in 1976 and a military dictatorship came to power.

Not only did Argentina host the FIFA World Cup in 1978, it also won. It was perhaps the only highlight that occurred during one of the darkest periods in Argentine history when a ”Dirty War,” or Guerra Sucia, paralyzed the country from 1976 to 1983. A wave of political repression brought about the torture, disappearance and murder of thousands who opposed the government and remain unaccounted for to this day.

During these years of political crisis and economic turmoil, tourism to Argentina came to a screeching halt and, without sufficient revenue, it proved a monumental challenge for the Bauen to remain afloat. When tourists did begin to trickle back into Buenos Aires in the mid-1980s, they began to favor newer hotels in more fashionable neighborhoods such as Recoleta and Palermo.

The economic crisis of 1999-2002 proved to be the final nail in the coffin for the Bauen. In the years leading up to the collapse, Argentina had been the darling of the Emerging Market economies and the Argentine peso had been pegged at 1 to 1 with the U.S. dollar. Over the course of these years the International Monetary Fund extended massive loans to Argentina. The global view was that this period of economic growth would continue indefinitely. Similar to having a greyhound run on the same leash as a dachshund, Argentina could not keep pace with the aggressive growth of the U.S. economy of the late 1990s, and by 2001 saw no option other than to default on a $132 billion debt due to the International Monetary Fund. All of a sudden, the favorite child became the illegitimate son who, seemingly overnight, had emptied everyone’s bank accounts. Investment fled out of Argentina and, by 2002, 1 out of 4 Argentines were unemployed, 53% of the country were living below the poverty level and the country would have 3 Presidents take up and subsequently abandon office in the course of 2 weeks.

On December 28, 2001, the Hotel Bauen closed its doors.

The Hotel Bauen: Lessons Learned

The true value of a man is determined, not by his actions when things are going well, but the character and resourcefulness he displays in the face of adversity. Much can be learned from the way in which a culture handles crisis.

By March of 2003, a number of the hotel’s former employees gained entry and began to take up occupancy in the shuttered building. Over the course of the next several months they began to repair the building, which, after years of neglect, was desperately in need of maintenance and renovation.

Later that year the Hotel Bauen quietly and defiantly re-opened it doors to the public.

For quite some time, not a single paycheck was issued as all capital was reinvested back into the hotel. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on repairing, replacing, restoring and renovating the hotel’s infrastructure.

More than a decade has past. Presently, nearly 150 workers work without bosses. Housekeepers, front office staff, maintenance workers and cooks perform their duties in true democratic fashion without supervisors or managers. Today, the rooms and public spaces of the Hotel Bauen are a kitschy throwback to an era of polished brass and chrome where you might expect to see Linda Evans attempt to navigate through a doorway with obscenely wide shoulder pads.

The fate of the Bauen has been questioned repeatedly through the courts. Faced with various eviction notices over the years, the workers maintain that as the Hotel was constructed through government funding and taxation, the Hotel truly belongs to “the people.”


Surprisingly, the Bauen is one of more than 180 recuperated businesses in Argentina which presently employ more than 10,000 workers. The cooperative spirit of these workers is in direct contrast to a global view that the world cannot exist without rampant greed and capitalism.

In the past, various cultures and societies demonstrated a powerful and inspiring “can do” spirit. Rather than blame present circumstances on the previous generation (or generations), or the political party that is in power, or that “people do not understand us,” or “the world owes us something,” we might learning something from those early workers of the Hotel Bauen. While we cannot take back the past, we might benefit by just getting on with making the world around us a better place–for us and for successive generations.

And I’m sure that even George Washington would have been proud to sleep at the Hotel Bauen.

Hotel Bauen

Avenida Callao 360
Buenos Aires, Argentina
(54 11) 4373 9009


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Mate, The Lifeblood of Argentina

mateSelf-righteous, I resisted mate for the longest time. I’ve had no problems embracing other customs in Argentina, such as lingering over dinner at midnight, drinking copious amounts of Malbec and expressing upset to a waiter when my steak isn’t larger than the plate it is served on.

But everything about the custom of drinking mate was strange

gongAs if a gong has summoned faithful adherents to prayer, Argentines–even in busy, bustling Buenos Aires–can be observed on city streets, most often in the mid-afternoon, stopping to pause and enjoy a mate with a friend. Mate is communal. You always see someone having mate with someone else, and they always drink from the same mate gourd.

mate san telmoWhile in Buenos Aires you will see people drinking coffee inside Starbucks, Cafe Martinez and Havanna, you will occasionally need to navigate around people drinking mate as they are perched along the side of a sidewalk or under the shade of an obliging tree as mate is most always enjoyed out-of-doors.

Like the abundant variety of breakfast cereals you might see on display in the United States, whole supermarket aisles are dedicated to endless brands, flavors and compositions of Yerba in Argentina.mate grocery

Mate is actually the name of the cup or gourd, while yerba mate is what is infused in hot water. The classic mate is made from a hollowed out gourd. More modern mate cups are being produced in easily washable porcelain and glass.Yerba mate, pronounced “SHER-bah MAH-tay” in Argentina, are dried holly leaves which are chopped and ground into a flaky mixture.

At first glance, one might be excused for thinking that these pale-green dried herbs should be rolled with paper to form a spliff or joint. Though mate is not as fussy as a proper English tea service, it does follow a complex ceremony best observed when performed by an experienced preparer.

To say that mate is simply “an acquired taste” is somewhat like saying that Bill Gates “has money.” Mate has a strong, heady scent of dried herbs and grass with a distinctly vegetal aroma. rabbitsThink of the scent you might encounter approaching a large pen of rabbits after a torrential rain who have been left to their own devices at the end of a long, hot, humid summer. Magnify this scent by ten and then envision bringing this potent potion in the direction of your nostrils, opening your mouth and drinking in the liquid and welcoming it to course through your bloodstream.

bombillasThe bombilla “straw” acts as a filter to avoid sucking up bits of leaves! While the mate cup or gourd is quite distinctive, another peculiar feature of drinking mate is that this libation is sucked up into the mouth through a metal straw called a bombilla (pronunciation: “Bomb-BEE- sha”). While there does not appear to be a culture on earth that drinks a hot beverage from a metal straw, the function of the bombilla is undoubtedly to numb the senses. The bombilla acts as a sort of Novocaine for the mouth and lips as these organs, by instinct, would certainly revolt to prevent anything so vile and bitter from heading down your windpipe.

mate leatherArgentines take their mate quite seriously. A true Argentine will typically own a decorative leather carrying case for their mate replete with thermos filled with hot water, yerba, mate and bombilla. You will know that you are accepted by an Argentine when you are offered to share a mate with them, somewhat on part with “breaking bread” in other parts of the world.

In accord with the “dulce de leche” sweet-tooth of Argentina, half of mate drinkers add sugar to offset the bitter flavor.

The Argentine obsession with mate can be evidenced by the fact that while the average adult male is composed of 90% water, the average Argentine adult additionally has a disproportionately high amount of mate, dulce de leche and red meat enzymes coursing through his bloodstream.

Granted, mate has considerable health advantages for the average Argentine. In a country where the average family consumes enough beef to make a nominal Hindu cringe in horror, mate improves serum lipid parameters in healthy dyslipidemic subjects and provides an additional LDL-cholesterol reduction in individuals on statin therapy–in other words, it reduces cholesterol. Mate also has a very high mineral content with concentrations of magnesium, potassium and manganese. The yerba, or Ilex paraguensis, is an appetite supressant and has also been known to reduce the tendency for obesity.

My resistance to trying mate was certainly going against my grain. I’ve always considered my palate to be somewhat well-educated and I know that to truly experience a culture, no less love it, you have to embrace it. I have been able to step away from California Cabs to fully endorse Argentine Malbec and I’m also certainly at the point where I even crave sweetbreads (Note: Not sweet breads, but sweetbreads–or the thymus of a calf).

I knew that I had to give in to mate at some point. Not wanting to deprive myself of any aspect of Argentine culture, I consented to my first mate shortly after my arrival in Buenos Aires in 2010. The scent was odorous, the metal straw tranquilizing, and the flavor, well, an “acquired taste.” Granted, it took me quite a few “sips” over the course of 3 or 4 mate encounters to ”acquire” the taste for mate. Now, walking along the streets in the afternoon I must undoubtedly appear as a heroin junkie, looking for my next fix as I gaze longingly at the porteños scattered throughout the city enjoying their mate ritual.

Drinking Mate in Buenos Aires, 1906

Drinking Mate in Buenos Aires, 1906

Mate Gourds for sale at the San Telmo Market held every Sunday on Defensa

Mate Gourds for sale at the San Telmo Market held every Sunday on Defensa

Mate Do’s and Don’ts

  1. Always accept a mate, It’s a friendship offering.
  2. Never move the bombilla. Fight your first instinct to stir it around.
  3. Mate is shared in a round. Don’t take your time sipping. Sip it all and return it to the host.
  4. Don’t say “gracias” until you’re done sharing the mate. It will indicate that you do not want another round.
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Argentina Bidet: French Potty Humor

peopleAs of December 15th, 2014 there were 7,281,292,238 people on earth. Each and every person alive could further be divided into two categories: a Francophile or a Francophobe.

Definitions according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:



  1. Friendly to or having a strong liking for France or the French.



  1. Fearing France, French people, as well as French culture and products.

french wineEven the most committed Francophobe would concede that he has an affinity for something French, certainly as the French have contributed some of the most beloved things in the world: French fries, French wine, French bread, French perfume, French doors, French maids and the French kiss.


juliaHowever, outside France, the world is unsettled by certain aspects of French culture, such as stinky cheese, women with armpit hair, snails and the bidet. We view these things with confusion. It’s trying to process the proper use of the bidet that causes our eyes to squint and a furrow to appear across our forehead. It’s like trying to understand Julia Roberts marrying Lyle Lovett.

Bidet Adaptable

bidetEven in the most modest and cramped Argentine home a bidet will be found next to the toilet in the same manner you would find a salt and pepper shaker on every dining room table in the United States. When I first entered the bathroom of the apartment we rented in Buenos Aires, I cringed noticeably when I saw the bidet. The sensation I felt would have been the same if the kitchen was full of harvest gold appliances.

bidet beerI envisioned a new life for the bidet. A bag of potting soil and some African violets would grow well in the dark, humid environment of a bathroom. I could block the drain, keep the taps running, and fill the bowl with some goldfish. For small, dinner parties I could fill the bowl with ice and chill the white wine there. I could convert my lowly bathroom into a spa by converting the bidet to a foot soaker. bidet soak

I know that if I ever used the bidet my actions would be viewed by members of my household as a betrayal, on par with slinking off to spend time on the website. In 17 States, the use of a bidet is suitable grounds for divorce.

There are a number of reasons why bidets are common in Argentina.

In the United States, the quality and variety of toilet paper is endless and can easily fill an aisle of a supermarket the length of a bowling alley. The thickness of toilet paper in the United States is defined by its “ply.” Toilet paper can be one, two, three, and even more ply, meaning that it’s either a single sheet or more which make it thicker, softer, stronger and more absorbent. Further, toilet paper can be quilted, rippled, perfumed, colored, patterned, medicated, and even treated with anti-bacterial chemicals. Airing a Mr. Whipple commercial on TV in Argentina would cause riots on the scale of a major economic meltdown.

In contrast, in Argentina toilet paper is not defined by “ply” but by “grit.” You will be able to find 60 and 150 grit toilet paper in most chino supermercados, but you’ll have to head over to Recoleta for the luxury afforded by a 320 grit roll of toilet paper. In novelty and souvenir shops you can find rolls of toilet paper made to look like dollar bills, with crossword puzzles or even origami instruction. Depending upon the season, items like hearts for Valentine’s Day or four-leaf clovers for St. Patrick’s Day–even pictures of your least favorite political candidate or your child’s favorite cartoon. What signals are we sending to our children by providing them with Spongebob Squarepants toilet paper to wipe their arse with?

You see, Americans are uncomfortable with the concept of a bidet as they really don’t like to think about the crude things that happen there. In fact, most Americans cannot even use the “T” word. Sure, they might be able to use the word when they need to buy a toilet at Lowe’s, but they will never use the “T” word to describe “the act.” They will use seemingly less-offensive names and call it a “potty” or a “throne.” We give the act a “number.” Mothers will discretely inquire of their children at Macy’s “Do you have to go Number 1 or Number 2?”

It is peculiar that in a society that uses the “F” bomb with such frequency that if it were removed from most scripts movies would be reduced to no more than a few pages. Yet, Americans find such discomfort in using the “T” word that they have replaced it with “bathroom” or “restroom.” While millions of British, Irish, Australians, New Zealanders and even Canadians refer to it as a toilet, these countries are quite confused by the American usage of the term ”restroom.” After all, you do not “rest” in a “restroom.” Obviously they haven’t met my brother Ron who could “rest” in a “restroom” for hours.

Americans traveling will often get into serious trouble when trying to translate “bathroom” or “restroom” into another language.

samaritaineThe year was 1992 and it was my first visit to Paris. I had taken one semester of French in high school some years before and found myself at La Samaritaine department store in Paris in dire need of going Number 1. I dug deep into the inner-recesses of my mind (very, very deep) and asked a sales clerk, “Où est la salle de bain?” which, when translated exactly is “Where is the bathroom?”

Curtly, the response was, “Sous sol.”

For a moment I thought, “strange that in this exclusive and massive department store they have one bathroom and it is downstairs in the basement.” My wife and I headed downstairs, nonetheless. After several minutes of unsuccessful wandering, we asked another sales clerk. “Où est la salle de bain?” Briskly, she summoned me to follow. She would show me the way. After a brisk walk she came to an abrupt stop, turned around and said, “Voila!”

I looked cautiously beyond her extended arm and manicured fingers but didn’t see a bathroom, but bathroom displays. Beautifully presented porcelain bathroom sets–but not a bathroom I could use.

Fearing that I was not making myself clear, I shook my head and did what any other American would do, speak S-L-O-W-L-Y and repeat, “Où est la salle de bain?” to which she responded, “Ici!”

When Slow Motion Language is not understood, Americans will speak louder and gesture wildly: “Non. Je Voudrais La Salle De Bain, Pour MOI!!!”

She tilted her head and assured, “Oui, monsieur. Pour vous!”

I shook my head. She sought the help of several other nearby sales clerks. They all became immediately and intimately involved in helping me find a “salle de bain.” Within minutes I had several clerks attempting to assist and gesturing emphatically as only the French can do. All of a sudden, a brilliant light bulb illuminated and appeared over the head of one of the clerks who knew what I was looking for. Efficiently she raised her hand and index finger as if she were heading off into to battle and, after making a few turns, stopped, pointed, and gestured with a wide sweep with her hand and exclaimed, “Ear ease zuh toy let, monsieur.”

banosSpanish Vocab

In Argentina, bathroom is baño. Men’s rooms are usually designated with a “C” for caballeros – gentlemen, or “H” for hombres.

Women’s bathrooms are marked with either a “D” for damas – ladies, or “M” for mujeres.

Where is the bathroom? – Donde está el baño?

In the back – En el fondo

Downstairs – Abajo las escaleras

Upstairs – Arriba las escaleras

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The Disappeared and the Sidewalks of Buenos Aires

Few people pay attention to city sidewalks.

In Buenos Aires one learns to be diligent about broken, loose or missing pavement tiles or the ”packages” left behind by careless dog owners. In haste, you might quickly pass over the plaques bordered by colorful tiles recessed into the sidewalk of Perú Street in the neighborhood of San Telmo.


Whereas in some cities plaques identify where someone notable might have lived or died, in Buenos Aires hundreds of plaques pay silent homage, not to the famous, but to the infamous. And though the story behind each plaque is unique, each story shares certain haunting similarities.

falconIt was a blustery evening, heavy with rain, thousands of nights ago when two Ford Falcons ambled their way east along Avenida San Juan. Against a backdrop of coal black skies, high overhead street lights illuminated sheets of rain tossed about by tempestuous winds. As the drivers turned left onto Perú Street, they dimmed their headlights and came to a slow and quiet stop at number 923. As it was well past midnight on this Tuesday evening, much of this working-class neighborhood had gone to sleep some hours before. While the cars idled, several men slipped out and into a darkened doorway to make their way towards an apartment at the back of the 3rd floor.

If anyone in the building dared to listen, they would have been able to hear the distinct sound of a wooden door as it splintered to pieces, the scuffle of feet across the hardwood floor, and the sound of fists coming in to contact with faces. If anyone was bold enough to peer through curtains out onto the street, within a few minutes they would have seen 3 people pulled from the building and whisked away. Each and every day, thousands of feet pass over these plaques where 3 individuals disappeared on the evening of December 6, 1977, never to be seen again.

To understand, one must go back to one of the darkest chapters in Argentine history which occurred from 1976 to 1983. Argentines refer to this period as La Guerra Sucia, or the Dirty War.

The Creation of a Monster

By the time Juan Perón returned from exile and was sworn in as President of Argentina for the third time in 1973, he was 77 years old and was suspected by some critics of being senile. Within a year he suffered a series of fatal heart attacks and his wife and Vice President, Isabel Perón, was sworn in as President. Isabel was grossly ineffective at handling the monumental political and economic crisis the country was facing and was ousted by a military coup in 1976 under the control of Jorge Rafael Videla.

Jorge Rafael Videla

videlaVidela was one of the orchestrators of a calculated campaign of political repression that spread throughout the governments of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil. Right-wing military governments in these countries brought about “Operation Condor,” designed to eradicate any opposition formed by left-wing socialist and communist influences. Trade unionists were targeted, as well as students, journalists, Marxists, Peronists and anyone perceived or suspected as sympathetic to any opposition government.

During this period political opposers were abducted or illegally detained where they were questioned, tortured and sometimes killed. The military government was suspected of flying drugged prisoners over the Atlantic where they were pitched out alive thousands of feet over the Atlantic Ocean. As bodies were never found, the government could easily deny knowledge of any involvement.

Maria Teresa Vedoya de Suárez

Women that were pregnant, or were raped and became pregnant during detention, had their babies stolen from them immediately after birth. Maria Teresa Vedoya was kidnapped in her Caballito neighborhood while buying groceries in October of 1976.

Maria Teresa Vedoya de Suárez

Maria Teresa Vedoya de Suárez

Three men jumped out of a car, put a hood over her head and bundled her into a vehicle. Maria Teresa was 4 months pregnant. Her son was taken away from her and raised as Gustavo Marcelo, the youngest “son” of a Buenos Aires nurse. Thirty years later he would learn of the fate of his birth mother who was never seen again.

Throughout Buenos Aires, plaques are placed at the location where individuals were last seen alive and the date they disappeared.

What Price, Democracy?

By the late 1970s, the United States had been suffering from an apoplectic fear of the global threat of communism. While the United States is often perceived as the Global Police Force and Advocate of Human Rights, the Central Intelligence Agency released documents in 2002 which revealed that Argentina’s brutal policies were known and tolerated by the United States State Department during the presidency of Gerald Ford. In fact, the Argentine military knew that the United States supported the repression as evidenced by $80 million in military aid in 1976 and an additional $63.5 million the following year.

It was the United States State Department that suggested Videla hire the advertising agency Burson-Marsteller to improve his public and global image. As a result, the “right-Los Argentinos somos derechos y humanoswing” government circulated more than 250,000 bumper sticks with the slogan “Los Argentinos somos derechos y humanos” (Literally, “We Argentines are right and human“).

During a press conference when questioned about allegations of torture, assassination and kidnapping, Videla shrugged his shoulders and dismissively stated, “They are neither dead nor alive, they are desaparecidos (missing).”

Madres de Plaza de Mayo

On April 30, 1977, Azucena Villaflor Azucena Villaflorand thirteen other mothers went to Plaza de Mayo to protest the disappearance of their sons in front of the Casa Rosada. For some months prior, Villaflor appealed without success to one government agency after another, looking for answers in the disappearance of one of her sons, Néstor, who was abducted with his wife Raquel Mangin.

Yet it would be nearly 10 years before U2 released the song “Mothers of the Disappeared” in response to the plight of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and the release of “They Dance Alone” by Sting as protest to the mourning Chilean women who danced the Cueca with photographs of their disappeared loved ones in their hands.

Silent Voices

One should expect that in all of this there should have been voices raised in protest. We trust that there should have been someone with a moral compass that would put an end to these heinous crimes. Sadly, rather than the Church remaining neutral, Catholic clergy were divided and turned on themselves as some gave support to the military regime while others were quite vocal in their opposition and advocated violent overthrow.

In April of 2005, a human rights lawyer filed a criminal complaint against Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. Not only was the Cardinal accused of conspiring with the military government, he was identified as instrumental in the disappearance in 1976 of two Jesuit priests as a result of their opposition to the military dictatorship.

Christian von WernichIn 2007, Catholic Priest Christian von Wernich was brought to trial for his actions while Chaplain of the Buenos Aires Province Police and was found guilty of complicity in 7 homicides, 42 kidnappings, and 32 instances of torture, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Other radical priests were brought to trial on various counts of murder. Some justified their actions by pointing to early Church fathers as model revolutionaries. Five policeman were killed in an ambush by Catholic Youth Leader Juan Ignacio Isla Casares at the San Isidro Cathedral on October 26, 1975.

It has been claimed that in Argentina, between 1976 and 1983, as many as 30,000 people were kidnapped and remain unaccounted for.

The truthfulness of the words at Luke 19:40 may be found along the sidewalks of Buenos Aires:

“I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!”

Parque de la Memoria

Parque de la MemoriaThe Parque de la Memoria was opened in 2007 in Zona Norte, Buenos Aires, and is the largest monument in Latin America dedicated to citizens who have disappeared for political reasons. Only 8,917 “official” names are carved into the stone. The park is located on the banks of the Rio de la Plata, where many of the victims were thrown overboard to their deaths from military aircraft in the famed ‘vuelos de la muerte’ death flights.

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