Go make yourself a cup of tea and settle in. I've spent the past months working on this entry about Mom. Originally slated as a Mother's Day blog when we are now facing down Labor Day, I've decided that now's as good a time as any.
So here we go!
Every couple of years I pack up my guy and head down to Argentina, where my family is from and where everyone (except me and my two siblings and a few cousins) still live.
Argentina is a complicated place. Back in the 1920's the French coined the term "riche comme un argentin". And it was a wealthy place up until the 1950's. Without getting too bogged down in the politics of the country, let's just say that things have become complicado. A land so rich in resources should be more stable, right? Right?? Well, things are complicado.
My story is fairly straight forward. I was born here in the US of immigrant parents. Being a kid in 1970's California was great. There's a story there, but I'll do that one later. We are here to talk about mom's Argentina.
Abuela Boucette came over from France via the vessel Munchen, departing out of Antwerp in 1889. So there are a couple of things to review here.
First, a rant: if you aren't aware, Customs and Immigration officers the world round have made unnecessary work for many of us in search of family information. Messed up spellings, missing documents and what I feel is a general apathy for their job have landed us all in a thick soup. I get it. Being a government employee can be a thankless job. But having pride in your work should always be a goal.
OK, now on to grandma: Ida was her given name. Or so the immigration form says. But I have to have some faith. So granny comes over with her parents, who decide to give her up to another family shortly after arriving in Buenos Aires. I've come to understand that this was something that happened, this giving up your kids because you didn't have the means to keep them. Both she and her sister were dispatched to a childless couple, who raised Ida as their own. As things would have it, grandma became pregnant at an early age. And as the times would have it, her adoptive parents got her married to the boy quick and in a hurry.
My grandparents eventually set down roots in a small town in La Pampa, an area northwest of the Buenos Aires province. Over the years, my grandparents would have a total of fourteen kids. The last of them, my aunt Margarita, would be a toddler when the grandparents split. Turns out that granddad had an outside family. If I go down this path we will never finish the story, so we will move on.
Grandma moved to San Telmo, an immigrant neighborhood in central Buenos Aires. In the spirit of turn of the century Lower East Side in NYC, San Telmo was teeming with immigrants from all over Europe, looking for a better life. She made this move with her five youngest kids, as the remainder were older and had already begun their own families. By her making this move, the family would be forever split. My older aunts and uncles were never known to me. And by extension, neither were my cousins, the children of those aunts and uncles. The last of my mother's generation passed away last year, leaving my generation as the continuation of the Romans name.
With the backstory in place, let's move on to mom.
Mom as singer, 1955
The way mom tells it, things weren't all that bad in San Telmo. But I question that assessment. I know what life in the Lower East Side was in the 1930's and it wasn't pretty. The majority of residential buildings in San Telmo were called conventillos, which is essentially a tenement slum. Multiple families would live in such a building, often an entire family in one room. Plumbing was a shared endeavor.
Mom was around ten years old when she moved to San Telmo. Her sister Margarita would have been three or four years old. As such, not only was mom responsible for her sister, but she was also tasked with watching over her older sister Aide's children as well. Aide wasn't interested in raising children.
Around the corner from their building was Plaza Dorrego, now the jewel of the historic neighborhood. If you go to the plaza on any given Sunday during the summer, you'll find a terrific pulgero (flea market) as well as a vibrant tango scene. It's well known that Buenos Aires is the birthplace of tango. And by extension, San Telmo's Plaza Dorrego is the de facto place of worship for the world tango community. I highly recommend a visit to the plaza if you're in town. It's a fast, quick way to get a hit of the city's spirit.
Mom would cart Margarita along with her sister's children to the plaza so they could run around and play. It was here that Raquel Forner met mom one afternoon. She was in need of a model and decided that mom would fit the bill. So off they went to mom's house where Forner asked my grandmother if mom might be able to model for her. The offer was accepted and mom began her work as an artist's model.
On the edge of the plaza is the Forner-Bigatti Institute. Raquel Forner and her husband Alfredo Bigatti bought a plot of land on the edge of the plaza and went about having a house built for them. It's a very modern house in the Bauhaus style, built in 1937. Their principle need was to have separate studios for each of them to create, with Bigatti on the lower floor, Forner taking the upper floor.
At the time, Forner was lesser known in the art world. But being the wife of Bigatti, already a famous sculptor, she was soon to have her own fame. At the time of mom's modeling, Forner's work was in the style of the day. Surreal, dream-like, and dark. During the time that mom spent with her, Forner's work was influenced by the Spanish Civil War raging on the other side of the Atlantic (her father was a Spaniard). The work is very much of it's time. When I look at these works, I see something other than the war aspect. I see the conflict of woman. I see the weight of the world constantly placed on the shoulders of women. In this sense the work transcends its stylistic limitation.
Raquel Forner (mom as model)
Through Forner and Bigatti, mom became acquainted with the art scene of the city and began modeling for many other artists. At some point there was a leap into singing.
Her life as a singer at nightclubs lasted for the rest of her years in Buenos Aires. She wasn't the best singer, but she did possess a flair for the dramatic. For a singer of tango, this trait will take you further than the voice of Streisand. Tango is about raw emotions. Tango is about people at street level. Tango is about the people of San Telmo. Hardship. Secrets. Cynicism, avarice, and revenge. Lots of revenge.
Over the years that she sang in a number of clubs, she came to have success as a singer of American jazz standards. Mom was gifted with the ability to learn languages quickly. As a singer of American songs, she attracted merchant marines from American and English ships. As such, she landed American husbands for both her and her sister.
Mom and some bar folk.
Her exit out of Argentina couldn't have come sooner. She'd grown disillusioned with the chauvinism of the country and was happy to be given an opportunity to start a life and family elsewhere. Her husband settled her in San Francisco, where they started a family. His job as merchant marine would keep him away from home for months at a time. Mom opened a dressmaker shop in the Sunset.
I follow in her footsteps.
Since Facebook came to be, I'm now in contact with family I never knew. I'm the penultimate youngest of my generation (at 54 years old), with the eldest cousin coming in at 84. Earlier in the post I mentioned growing up in California. There are very complicated emotions connected to being a kid of immigrants. We are the product of our adopted country, but we are often steeped in the traditions of our parents' country. A country where we've never lived. A culture that we see through a clouded lens, left to imagine the nuances of a cultures through the lives of two people.
The way that I engage with people is affected by this thread that ties me to a place that I've never lived. The way that I navigate in the world is affected by it. And somehow, I still feel that it is all an affectation that I ought not express. But then I go down to Argentina and I feel I understand things about myself that are not accessible in my American life. How many of you understand what I'm saying? The American experience is all about being from somewhere else, even if many generations ago.
More to come...