Kathleen Kern Author

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Decompressing with Tuti in Lujan de Cuyo

Photo taken from back seat of a man with gray hair in an orange checked shirt driving and a woman in a red shirt with medium length gray hair in passenger seat.  In the distance you can see the lower ranges of the Andes Mountains
Tuti took us on a drive to the foothills of the Andes Mountains.

I was surprised to find out that I took so few pictures when we visited Michael’s friend Tuti Berlak. Because I remember my time with her and her daughter Maia was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

On the night before we flew to Mendoza from Buenos Aires. I finally took my braids down from the wedding hairdo. I had discovered, as the bruise from my fall in Medellin faded, that I had a hematoma in the center of the bruise (and still have it as of this writing), which explains why it hurt so much to move that thigh muscle. When I googled around to find out info about hematomas, I discovered that you’re not supposed to fly with them. I had already taken three flights , but thought I should check in with my doctor. He told me to take 325 mg of aspirin—which means I was kind of nauseous for the rest of my trip.

Mendoza is a city near the foothills of the Andes, and is cooler than Buenos Aires. Lujan de Cuyo, where Tuti and her daughter Maia live, is even closer, so the weather is cooler yet, although warm by our standards during the day. Here’s the view flying in:

Tuti has an interesting history. Like many of Michael’s friends from Tel Aviv University and Kerem Shalom, she left Argentina during the Dirty War. In the late 1970s, she left for Mexico, where she met her ex and they ended up in jail for because of their political activities against the Argentinian military regime. The Israeli Embassy got Tuti out, but her ex was Argentinian and had no one to advocate for him. While he was in jail, he made this plaque and gave it to Michael as a gift, which we have in our small collection of Che Guevara tchotchkes.1 Mexico deported them both as political exiles to Sweden. Before they split they had their two daughters, Anahi and Maia. Tuti moved back to Argentina.

She now lives near the her parents’ summer cottage. Below is the view outside of her current home. Even though this post will be shorter than the others, I think my time with Tuti and her daughter Maia was one of my favorite parts of the trip. They are relaxing people, and sitting on the porch with them and their two big old dogs, was just what I needed.

Tuti’s daughter Anahi is an artist and the room where we slept was full of her mosaics. Below are some of her instagram photos of the pieces in our bedroom, following a picture of herself. You also might want to check out her Instagram feed.

In both Uruguay and Argentina we learned the importance of mate (pronounced MAH-tay). On the plane to Montevideo, we sat across from a guy who asked the flight attendant to fill his thermos with hot water, and then sipped for the rest of the flight. Tuti told us the that Argentinian stereotype Uruguayans as always walking around with a thermos in one arm and a mate cup in the other.

Although Sandra had given me a few sips of her mate , I really learned how to drink it with Tuti. You fill the cup with dry leaves and then push them back with a bombilla until there is a small space to pour water. Then you sip the water with the dual purpose bombilla like the ones below.

5 metal straws with objects at end for mashing dried leaves in tea
Mariano-J, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuti told us that the drinking mate is meant to be done socially, with everyone sharing the same cup. At the height of the Covid pandemic, when she went to meetings, people brought their own cups, but she said it wasn’t the same. Mate is an acquired taste. It’s bitter, like coffee and tea, but I acquired it.

woman with sleeveless blue top and gray hair prepares cup of mate.
Tuti telling us about mate with Maia in the background.

Before we left, reluctantly, on my part, anyway, I decided it was time for the last remnants of the wedding hairdo to go away. For our departure to Chile from the Mendoza airport the next morning, I was wearing my normal braids.

  1. Michael wishes me to point out that tchotchkes are called chochchadas in Nicaraguan Spanish. He also thinks the fact that we have a Dome of the Rock replica made by a Palestinian political prisoner means we have a collection of political prisoner tchotchkes. ↩︎

ESMA Museum and Site of Memory

Photo of  white building with four pillars.  On the top is written "Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada."  A blue banner drops down between the two left pillars reading, "Espacio para la Memorial"

The Armed Forces of Argentina installed the first ESMA (School of Navy Mechanics) institutions in 1975. Despite the name, the military/security state always intended to use them as clandestine centers for the torture, interrogation, rape, illegal detention and murder of people whom they deemed not worthy of membership in society. They accomplished all these atrocities with the help of U.S. tax dollars.

As I said when I wrote about Uruguay’s Museum of Memory, the museum in Buenos Aires reflects a more professional use of designers and certainly a greater availability of funds. But the dictatorship had these detention centers all over Argentina, and people in other regions have set up smaller memory museums in their locations as well..

I took the below pictures of these exhibits on the outside of the museum, because they have English at the bottom, explaining what happened inside. If you click on them, you should be able to read the explanations. We saw the stencil commemorating Tomas Canataro on the outside of the building. I wondered if he had been a union leader, journalist, or some famous Argentinian dissident.

But when I looked him up in the Museum archives, I saw the following,

So what had he done to incur the displeasure of the authorities? Did he have friends or family members they were looking for? Had someone overheard him criticizing the government? Who put up the stencil? His children?

“Presente” is something sung at memorial services to indicate that the deceased are still a part of the living and remain in their hearts and minds. Every year, hundreds of people sing it as people call out the names of those killed by trainees at the School of the Americas (which include Argentinian Officers) in Fort Bending, Georgia. It was one of the most spiritual protests I ever participated in.

We went inside the Central Pavilion, where Navy students had done their exercise. It is now dedicated to the 30,000 kidnapped, tortured, murdered and disappeared Argentinians. If the museum has a central theme it is to “undisappear” people. The dictatorship sought to sow terror among the population by making people disappear—and it considered them disposable, worth less than animals. The museum puts their faces everywhere, and includes their thumbnail histories to bring them back to life.

You will see I had some trouble getting all the faces on the windows, because the wall is so long.

Also around the room were testimonies before the Argentine Human Rights Commission of three women who managed to survive their time in ESMA.

Outside the Pavilion were exhibits of activists who wanted to make Argentina a more just and humane place. When I saw Patricia Roisenblit, I thought maybe the family’s name, was changed from Michael’s family name generations ago: Rosenblatt. However, now I think it’s more likely that it derives from Rosenblüt/Rosenbluth. Anyway, as I was googling around, I came across the name of Rosa Tarkovsky de Roisinblit, she was one of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and was a founder of Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Patricia was 8 months pregnant when she and her husband were disappeared. The Air Force Commander who kidnapped, tortured and killed the couple received a sentence of 25 years. The Air Force Civilian worker who took the baby, knowing where it had come from, received a sentence of 12 years. Rosa is alive and 104 years old.

I wanted to take pictures of all the activists, but as I looked down the long walk I knew that I could spend all day doing so.

However, one of the activists in particular stood out to me for some reason, possibly because the details of her life seemed like they could have been those of any kind-hearted person. Possibly because her face looks vaguely familiar, like someone I could have gone to school with. She grew up in a house with a garden, and her little sister remembers her as a friend and protector. She was youth minister in a Methodist church. The kids in her group gave her a Mafalda doll because of her brown frizzy hair and because she wanted to change the world for the better.

At the university, she was not as interested in participating in political activities as she was in working with poor children and listening to workers and homemakers. She later joined the Peronist Youth party, where she met Reuben Stockdale. Her sister remembers them always having noisy, lively debates together. They both worked in a textile factory for a while, presumably to be closer to the workers for whom they were advocating.

The authorities kidnapped Inés as she left work in 1976. She was two months pregnant. Reuben, who should have fled the country, as people associated with disappeared people typically did, decided to remain in Argentina and look for her. He was kidnapped in 1977. They both remain disappeared.

Inés Cobo. ¡Presente!

We next went to a small building dedicated to the Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo, whom I have mentioned in previous blogs

In addition to their regular Thursday public witnesses at the plaza, Grandmothers of the Plaza Del Mayo began Marches of Resistance in 1981. The atrocities were becoming more widely known internationally, and they wanted to keep up the pressure. Each march had a theme. RETURN OF THE LIVING CHILDREN TO THEIR FAMILIES “With our lives we carried them. With our lives, we love them.” RETURN OF THE DETAINEES-DISAPPEARED/ PUNISHMENT FOR THE GUILTY “The Plaza [belongs to] the Mothers and not to the cowards.” AGAINST THE LAW OF AMNESTY FOR THE APPEARANCE OF THE LIVING DETAINEES-DISAPPEARED. “There were no mistakes, there were no excesses. There were only the murderers in the military [who were part of] the process.”

And as always, the pictures of the abducted stare the visitor in the face. The museum refuses to let them disappear.

The military, in a sadistic form of execution that extended torture to the very end, often killed its captives by flying them over the River Platte or the ocean and dropping them from the plane or helicopter, hands and feet bound, into the water.1 They referred to these prisoners as “transfers.” Sandra told us she remembers the bodies washing up on the beaches of Uruguay.

I took this picture outside the museum. Apple photos only identifies it as being in the Nuñez neighborhood, where the museum is located. It says, “A tribute to the popular 2activists, the detainees disappeared by state terrorism in the ESMA neighborhood. Memory and Justice. March 24, 2013.”

As I’ve prepared this blog post I’ve reflected on the proxy war that the U.S. and the Soviet Union fought on the continents of Latin America, Africa and Asia for decades, leaving behind a legacy of torture, slaughter and other atrocities. On the part of the U.S. it was all in the name of fighting communism.

I am almost certain that most of the powerbrokers in the U.S. who sent money and weapons to the Argentine junta never read Marx’s Communist Manifesto or Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, regarded as the foundation of Capitalism. Marx literally believed that workers should control the means of production, that is, they should make all the decisions about how a factory, farm, etc. is run, and all the profits should be split between them. He did not believe that the state should control the means of production.

Adam Smith believed that productive labor creates wealth, and self-interest motivates people to put their resources to best use. But before he wrote Wealth of Nations, he wrote The Theory of the Moral Sentiments in which he describe a social system that would ensure justice and welfare for all. He always assumed that people had read the earlier book as a companion to the later book. When he visited India, and saw the misery that the British East India Company inflicted on workers in the textile mills, he wrote that to prohibit a people,

“Adam Smith and the British East India Company: A Perspective on Competitiveness.” Tax Justice Network, 30 Apr. 2015, https://taxjustice.net/2015/04/30/adam-smith-and-the-british-east-india-company-a-perspective-on-competitiveness/.

Thus, predatory Capitalism, according to Adam Smith, is not Capitalism at all.

Communism and Capitalism are simply economic systems devised by two well-meaning men who wanted people to thrive. Authoritarianism was never part of the package. Treating workers like dirt was never part of the package. Creating hundreds of new billionaires, while the middle and working classes become ever more impoverished was never part of the package.

Acts 2:44-45 says that the first Christians “held all things in common,” which essentially means they were communists. I guess Priscilla and Aquila, the tentmakers who mentored Paul in Acts 18 were tentmakers, so I guess that makes them capitalists–or communists if they shared profits with Paul equally. It doesn’t matter much.

But committing atrocities against human beings over economic ideologies does matter

Epilogue: Patricia Erb, daughter of Mennonite missionaries in Argentina was kidnapped while she was a student at the University of Buenos Aires. Her statement to the U.S. State Department, began,

Because she was a U.S. citizen, the Embassy obtained her release. When she returned to the States, she made it her mission to tell as many people as possible what was going on in Argentina. A friend of mine at Bluffton College heard one of her talks, and said she talked about her rape by one of the Argentine soldiers. As he was raping her, she noticed a gold cross around his neck. She told him she was a Christian, and asked him how he, a fellow Christian, could be doing this to her. He stopped. But so many more soldiers wearing crosses did not.

Photo of Patricia Erb who recently received an honorary doctorate from Vancouver Island University

  1. Flying from Montevideo to Buenos Aires to was essentially a flight over the Rio Platte River basin. It looks like an ocean from the air. ↩︎
  2. “Popular,” in this context isn’t about trends. It means “of the people,” often used to refer to peasants or the working classes. In this case, it refers to those who struggled for the rights of all people in Argentina to live with dignity, receive fair wages, and be regarded as equals to everyone else in Argentina. ↩︎

First Two Days in Buenos Aires

At the Buenos Aires Airport, I noticed that the junk food had labels warning of health risks. The labels on the chocolate bar, for example, warn that it has too much sugar, fat, saturated fat, and too many calories.

Since we arrived too early to check into our apartment, a cousin of our new son-in-law, Eric, allowed us to drop our luggage at his apartment building. This pleasant yard is on the roof of his building.

As we walked around looking for a place to eat, we noticed some street art, mostly used for advertising.

Also Argentinians taking dancing lessons on the street.

The drink Michael ordered at the place we stopped for lunch had yet another warning. Because it contained artificial sweeteners, children should not drink it. I wondered why they would name a soft drink, “to be.”

We stopped at the AMIA (Argentine Israelite Mutual Association—the equivalent of Jewish Community Centers in the U.S) which had strict security outside, because of the July 18, 1994 bombing that killed 85 people and injured 300. Ansar Allah, a Palestinian front for Hezbollah, claimed responsibility for the attack However the investigation into the incident was incompetent, and driven by political interests, so today it’s not really “solved,” as such.

We had made an appointment to visit the Jewish museum ahead of time. Turns out, they are very picky about who they let in. A couple from Ithaca, NY wanted to visit but they had only copies of their passports, and that was not sufficient. Pro-tip: I have traveled to five continents and I have never found authorities in any countries who found a photocopy of a passport valid for identification.

In the first room was a permanent art installation meant to indicate a Shabbat family dinner for missing people. Originally, it had shown photos of people who had disappeared during the Dirty War, but now the photos are of Israelis Hamas is holding hostage in Gaza.

Maurycy Minkowski

A small room displayed a temporary exhibit of the works by the artist Maurycy Minkowski. Famous for painting on themes of immigration, Minkowski eventually ended up in Buenos Aires, “where,” the exhibit notes without further explanation, “he lost his life tragically.” Of course I wanted to find out what actually happened to him and found the following on Wikipedia. An illness had left him deaf as a child, but he got the education he needed to work as an artist in Europe:

Brief summaries of significant eras for the Argentinian Jewish community.

First, massive waves of immigration took place between 1889 and 1930, for the same reasons that Jews were fleeing to the United States and other countries. The pogroms in Russia and Eastern European countries made emigration a life and death matter.

In the Decade of Infamy, marked by a 1930 coup, Great Depression, electoral fraud to keep conservative parties in power and another coup in 1943, were a time of rising antisemitism. Juan Peron, who was a colonel in the army that overthrew the government in 1943, was a sympathizer of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

Under the first Peronist government, antisemitism rose sharply, but it did in the U.S., Canada, and Europe as well. Despite Peron’s fascism, he appointed Jews to positions in the government and passed a law allowing Jewish army privates to celebrate Jewish holidays while they were serving in the military. U.S. Ambassador George Messersmith said, after a visit to Argentina in 1947, “There is not as much social discrimination against Jews here as there is right in New York or in most places at home….” Historian Raanan Rein has noted, ” “Fewer anti-Semitic incidences took place in Argentina during Perón’s rule than during any other period in the 20th century.” Frequent coup d’etats occurred in the 1950s-60s. Fragile civilian governments rose and fell. An urban guerrilla group who expressed an affinity for Nazi ideals, the Tacuara Nationalist Movemen,t opposed secular society and liberal democracy:

In 1973, Peron returned to power. He died in office, and his widow, Isabella Peron succeeded him. The army, led by Commander-in-Chief General Jorge Rafael Videla, overthrew her government in 1976. Thus began the bloodiest episode in Argentina’s modern history, which the next blog post will cover. Cabildo a Catholic Church publication peddled antisemitic tropes heavily during the dictatorship. It falsely asserted that 3 million Jews lived in Argentina when the number was a tenth of that. Even though Jews represented only 2% of Argentina’s population, they were more than 10% of those the Argentine Secret Service kidnapped and disappeared. A lot of Michael’s friends at Tel Aviv University were young people from Argentina, Chile and Uruguay who had fled the coup regimes in those countries.

The final placard talks about the democratic reopening of Argentina.

The museum’s synagogue has four marble memorials for mass casualties that Argentina’s Jewish community has suffered over the years. Two list the names of those killed and disappeared under the “Argentinian Dirty War” from 1974-1983. Another lists the name of 29 killed during the Israeli Embassy bombing in 1992, although there appear to be more than 29 names on it, and I cannot read the brass plate from the picture. The fourth records the 85 who died in the July 1994 bombing.

After our visit to the Jewish museum, we headed out to the Plaza de Mayo, the scene of some of the momentous events in Argentinian history. The Palacio Rosado (Pink Palace) houses Argentina’s seat of government. The backlit pyramid was erected to commemorate Argentina’s 1811 revolution against Spain. That square rock lists the names of the soldiers who died in the pivotal battle of Tucumán, during Argentina’s War of Independence.

Political protest has also characterized the history of the Plaza. The Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo probably deserve the biggest accolades for the length of the their protests—so long they are now the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. They wore scarves made from their children’s diapers initially, which evolved into plain white scarves on which they embroidered the names of their children whom the army had disappeared. Meeting weekly at the Plaza de Mayo, they demanded that the government return their children. “You took them alive; we want them back alive,” was one of their chants. They also deserve accolades for their bravery.The military kidnapped, tortured and murdered some of the Mothers, as well as French nuns who supported them, but more mothers kept joining the group in the Plaza every week.

The black base extols heroes from Argentina’s War of Independence from Spain, but I like what someone has added at the end: “For all the dead human beings, and those who struggled to save them.” The Hebrew reads,

I was trying to figure out what all the the rocks were doing at the base of the pyramid erected to celebrate Argentina’s Independence, and then I realized that the people designated on the rocks had all died in 2020-21. Apparently, they remained from a protest regarding how the Argentinian government had handled the Covid epidemic.

At the end of the day as we took a taxi back to the apartment where we were staying, we noticed our driver had a quotation by Martin Luther King on the back of his seat: “It is always the right time to do the right thing.” It seemed an appropriate way to end the day.

Two days in Uruguay

L. Sandra, M. Gabi, Sandra’s niece visiting from Spain, R. Michael

Michael met Sandra at his kibbutz, Kerem Shalom, in the 1980s. A dedicated socialist and an exile from the Uruguayan dictatorship she wanted to experience the socialism as practiced by the kibbutz movement in Israel. She later returned to Uruguay for various reasons and abhors the current state of Israeli politics.

Our first day after landing, Sandra took us out to a restaurant built over a tunnel that Tupamaro guerrillas had dug to free political prisoners held in the Punto Carretas Prison.

Note that I still have my hair-do from the wedding. Summer was heading into fall in Uruguay, and the weather was warm and humid. However, Uruguayos do not seem to consume the amount of liquids that the weather required. I had not drunk half that glass of passion fruit lemonade. That’s the amount the waitress served us.

We then walked to the prison which has become…a shopping mall, complete with McDonalds and Starbucks. Yes, it is disgusting. Sandra, who worked at a municipal office nearby, said that for a long time she avoided walking over to Punto Carretas to make photocopies. Dissidents trying to reclaim the long history of democracy in Uruguay had spent years of their lives here, suffering torture and humiliation, all so young Urugayos1 could enjoy their Big Macs and Mochaccinos there one day.

What remains to indicate that Punto Carretas was once a prison are the tiny windows common to most prisons, and a couple explanatory placards. I’ve added a picture of a cell at a federal prison in Oregon for comparison. The memorial for the prisoners and their families did not go up until 2018. On the back, the text says that the these placards are dedicated to the families of the prisoners because of what they endured over the years when their loved ones were in prison, and lists the ex-prisoners responsible for erecting this modest memorial.

Afterwards, Sandra took us up to the top of City Hall, 20 stories tall, where visitors may see a panorama of Montevideo. Of course, I was also interested in the plants. The attraction featured a little café, where we bought drinks, and Sandra bought us each a bonbon.

Across Latin America, Salvador Allende is regarded as a martyr of the Cold War. The people of Chile elected him in a free and fair election, but because he was a socialist, Henry Kissinger famously said, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” The U.S. thus supported a military coup against Allende. Tens of thousands of Chileans were imprisoned, tortured and disappeared2 over the next 17 years and the economy, which had improved the lives of ordinary Chileans under Allende, immediately tanked, with inflation spiraling to 376 percent.

Isabel Allende asked Sandra to be the representative of the Allende family in Uruguay. The Salvador Allende Society in Montevideo, of which she is a member, installed this small plaza in his honor. (Dusk had set in, so I apologize for the dimness of the photos.) The quotation on the plaque comes from Allende’s final radio address, which he broadcast as the Chilean airforce was bombing the presidential palace on September 11, 1973.

Apparently, Allende was a Freemason. Michael had attended a Freemason convention in Rochester as a translator for a Nicaraguan relative who was also a Freemason and heard them expressing reactionary conservative political views, but evidently Freemasons can also be socialists. George Washington, Simón Bolivar, Thurgood Marshall, Richard Pryor, John Glenn, and Salvador Allende. Who knew?

The next day, before we went to the Museum of Memory, Sandra told us of her (underground) work to bring the children of Uruguayan exiles from Europe in 1983 to visit their parents in prison, or simply to know their family still in Chile. The mass group of 154 children—aged 3 and 17 years old—traveled alone to Montevideo. They arrived to cheering crowds chanting, “Tus padres volverán!” (Your parents will return), which became the title of a 2015 documentary film about the event. The filmmakers interviewed six adults about the impact the trip had had on them. In several cases, it was not positive. One boy considered his Dutch stepfather his real father, because he had been just a toddler when he left, and his Chilean father’s desperate overtures to assert his fatherhood were painful to him as an adult. For another boy, prison had turned his father into an angry, abusive person, and he wanted nothing to do with him or Uruguay. He eventually moved back to Denmark and raised his family there.

Watching the film with Sandra added a lot to the experience, because she supplemented the narrative with background.. She also kept pointing out a little boy she was in charge of while he was in the country. The visit of the children was a factor in the fall of the dictatorship in 1985, Sandra said, because the junta and the rest of the country saw how much popular support there was for prisoners and those in exile. When the children returned to Europe, she went with them, because she guessed the junta knew about her involvement in the event and she would be safer there.

We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon at the Museum of Memory, which the founders laid out as a park, complete with playground. The banners in the front are protesting lack of municipal support for museum workers.

When you enter, the first room tells you about the first days of coup in 1973, the people killed, and the protests against it. A pro-junta newspaper, Macha, put out and edition with the headline, “IT IS NOT A DICTATORSHIP.” Pro tip: if you have to tell people it’s not a dictatorship, it’s a dictatorship. Also note the Social Credo put out by the Uruguayan Methodist church, which denounced political repression, among other things. They were extremely brave to do so.

If you enlarge the photo with the QR code and scan it, you will find the story of Susana Pintos, one of the students killed by state repression between 1968 and 1985.

As is the case with all authoritarian governments—Communist, Fascist or Monarchical—artists who dissent from the official narrative at best find their work banned and at worst end up dead. If you want to see some of the musicians whom the Uruguayan ruling junta banned, scan the QR code. On the Jose Carbajal album, he recorded songs by musicians whom the government had disappeared.

On April 21, 1974 Uruguayan Armed Forces and police shot several rounds of ammunition into the house where Diana Maidanik (21), Silvia Reyes (21 and 6 months pregnant), and Laura Raggio (19) were sleeping, killing all three. The counterinsurgent military–police Joint Forces said they were looking for Reyes’s husband and falsely claimed that the women had died in a confrontation. Uruguayans refer to the incident as the “muchachas de abril,” or “girls of April.”

Other rooms of the museum displayed various items from prison. The small handwritten item propped on the rusty tin is A History of the Vietnamese Communist Party, written out on cigarette rolling papers. The letter is addressed to a woman named Amanda who was in charge of the children who visited their parents in prison, which was often a frightening experience for them (Amanda did not seem to make it better.)

Prisoners often spent time making little gifts for their families at home, with whatever materials they had available. However, the pink and blue handkerchief was sent from Switzerland to a prisoner, and the prison authorities refused it. Years later, it found its way to her, however due to the diligence of a Swiss postmaster.

An estimated 500,000 Uruguayans fled the country during the 17 years of dictatorship. In their exile, they helped to build international solidarity for imprisoned Uruguayans and those who had disappeared. Swedish activists, in particular, noticed that the plight of those living under the Argentinean and Chilean dictatorships received more attention, and decided to take up the cause of Uruguayans.

Here’s a display on the children who went into exile and the visit that Sandra helped organize for children in Europe to visit Chile.

Most of those killed in Uruguay by the government or its proxies were never found, and Uruguayans today still hold protests, demanding information on what happened to them. (The military government granted itself amnesty before turning over the government to democratic elections in 1985. Some of the highest profile military officers eventually faced trial, but the people below them who carried out their orders died not.) These processions happen in complete silence, with participants holding photographs of the missing people as they walk. The poster below records the 2022 “March of Silence.”

When we were visiting, the museum’s Board of Directors was meeting. Sandra said they were all involved with the struggle some way. Perhaps some fought with the Tupamaro guerrillas (who eventually became a political party), or spent time in prison, or became exiles, or were family members of disappeared people. In any case, they were delighted we were visiting and plied us with delicious cheesy snacks.

The pots and pans represent a traditional form of protest in which everyone comes out of their homes for a few minutes and beats on pans as loud as they can to show their displeasure with the government.

According to Wikipedia,

Michael and I would go on to see Museums of Memory in Argentina and Chile. They looked more professional, developed by designers and architects, but at the museum in Montevideo, you could feel the beating hearts of the people behind it. In 1973, the entire population of Uruguay was about 3 million, and half lived in Montevideo. That’s a bit less than the population of Chicago. And I can kind of see the people of Chicago putting together a museum like this, when they knew their resources would be limited.

After the museum, we went to the market to eat at a seafood restaurant, where I had eel for the first time. (Meh.) On the way, we passed this building, and I realized we had arrived during Carnival.

On the way back to Sandra’s, I took pictures of graffiti, because that’s a thing now for me. The signs read, “What is your escape action? and “Philosophy is so dangerous.”

Almost forgot, the national dish of Uruguay is the chivito, a sandwich with ham, bacon, cheese, beef, hardboiled egg, and tomato with variations. “Heart attack in a bun” translates into Spanish as “Ataque al corazón en un bollo.”

When we arrived several days later in Mendoza, Argentina, our friend there told us “Uruguayans are just so”—she then hugged herself and rocked back and forth. We agreed. They’re very nice, and Montevideo is a very pleasant place to visit.

  1. In Uruguay and Argentina, the consonant “y” sound is pronounced “sh”, so, “Uruguashos.”

  2. In Spanish, when they speak of the authorities “disappearing” someone, it means that they have kidnapped, probably tortured and almost always killed that person. ↩︎

Last Day in Bogotá

Good-bye to Camila

Photo of Camila Reyes, smiling.  She has long, wavy brown hair and brown eyes.
Camila Reyes, founder of Resuena

The picture I had of Camila for our final day together, didn’t really express who she was. So I took something from a webpage describing her what she does. Her current work is with Resuena, an organization “set out on a dream to expand the access to Nonviolent Communication in Colombia so that it becomes part of the day-to-day culture.”

Below is the bad picture I took of Camila at a diner for breakfast. She really wasn’t unhappy at the time. One of the aspects of Colombian cuisine that Michael really appreciated is the soups, and the fact that Colombians eat soup at breakfast and lunch. I remember with fondness Colombian pastries on previous trip. I

t struck me that this simple diner had works of original art all over the walls. I said it seemed like I saw art everywhere I went in Bogota. Camila told me its presence was especially prevalent in her bohemian neighborhood.

A love of beauty and plants also helps describe Camila’s character. She has plants in every room of her apartment except the utility room. I documented them here:

We decided to go to the Bogota public market and eat all the fruits we hadn’t eaten yet (and we had eaten a lot of different fruits.) The excursion turned into buying fruit that doesn’t need to be turned into juice. Of the fruits you see here, we liked the mangosteen the best (the little brown ones). Since Colombia is full of microclimates, almost anything can be grown. Camila also took us to visit her friend who organizes community-supported agriculture (and allows artists to use her space, because, well, it’s Bogotá).

What else? By the time I got to Bogotá, the bruise I got from my fall in Medellin had grown considerably worse. As it dissipated over time, I realized it had hematoma at the center, which explains why the muscle in my thigh hurt so much when I moved it. I used one of my hiking sticks as a cane for the rest of the trip.

In a moment alone with Camila shortly before we left for the airport, she was discussing her goals for the next few years. She then asked me about my goals. Without thinking, I said, “I’d like to make compassion cool again.” She asked how I planned on accomplishing that, and I said, “Well, maybe that’s what my next novel will be about. Right before we left, she handed me this pin and told me, “This is to remind you that your job now is to make compassion cool again.”

Back to Bogotá

And a graffiti tour

Clothed animals that look like a cross between mice and rabbits flee from pink lightning

Our guide Camilo told us this artist is famous for painting animals in apocalyptic situations

Returning to Camila’s place gave me a chance to rest my knee—which I did the day after a graffiti tour of Bogota with a young man from a tour company run by Camila’s friend.  His name was Camilo, and he had been an art student at one of the more than 100 universities in Bogota. He went all the way back to graffiti as a movement in the 1960s, to Cornbread, a young man who began ,spray-painting, “ I am Cornbread“ on walls all over New York City to impress a girl. People began to ask, “Who is this Cornbread guy?“ However, when the girl rejected him, Cornbread wrote on a wall, “Cornbread has retired.” The graffiti movement started in New York and then Philadelphia, and soon began spreading. Bogotá is now the global center of street art, with 500 km of painted walls.

Tagging is the most basic form of graffiti, in which individuals or “crews” paint their logos on walls. The higher up on a wall, the more street cred you have. Camilo says he has seen them as high as three stories. The artist that painted the two homeless kids kissing (whom he had seen on the streets) incorporated tags from all over the city into their pants. The painting is called The Invisibles, which, Camilo said, is appropriate, because graffiti is a way that invisible people use to make themselves feel visible.

Tags evolved into “bombs,” huge, balloon-like letters. When Camilo began his career as a street artist, he used stencils, and only then began to appreciate how much skill it took to spray paint these bombs freehand.

Felipe Diego Becerra used Félix the cat as his logo. One night in 2011, as he was painting a wall, the police shot him in the back. At the hospital, the doctor asked his parents why the the police had shot him. When they told him the reason, he asked them to quickly come into Diego’s room and take a photo of his hands covered in blue paint. The police accused him of pulling a gun on them. Graffiti artists all over the city went on a 24-hour graffiti-thon, in protest, many of them painting pictures of Felix the Cat.

The Diego Becerra story continues oddly, two years later when Justin Bieber came to town for a concert. Noticing the art on the walls, he asked if he could try his hand at it—with a police escort.

Sergio Elmir writes about the event on HuffPost:

.Justin Bieber performed his first ever concert in Bogota on October 29, the following night he decided to hit the streets and show Colombia his skills with a spray can. But instead of stopping him, ticketing him, even hassling him, local police gave him a personal escort. 

For several hours he painted about 40 meters of wall on 26th street in Bogota with his entourage and security in town — local police were on hand, again, not to stop him but to make sure no one bothered him while he “tagged” the wall. 

Traffic was redirected and Bieber was allowed to “paint” several crudely drawn cartoons, phrases and his own signature at his own leisure. At one point, Bieber looks to be ordering his police escort to remove the news cameras that were shooting footage of his foray into street art. If this wasn’t bratty enough, he even shows his support for fellow-pop-brat with misplaced machismo, Chris Brown, by painting the words “Free Breezy” on the wall. 

The only thing that sets these two young men apart, aside from questionable talent, is fame. The same people who killed Becerra are protecting Bieber yet both kids were doing the exact same thing. 

When artists like Banksy are blurring the line between fame and infamy in the street art world and forcing us to ask these questions — someone like Bieber takes an already controversial art form that has spent years building credibility to misfit-status. 
It goes from high-art to simple vandalism for the sake of street-cred. Nothing Bieber was doing that night, on that wall, in Colombia was for the sake of art or in the true spirit of graffiti. It was just as contrived a move as his attempts at rapping. It’s an effort to be rebellious without any risk — and to have the police there, as your backup, is as soft as it gets. 

Without even getting into the quality of the art that Bieber threw up on that wall, the real concern is his coopting of graffiti for his own personal gain. Was this his way of showing the world how “street” Bieber is? And was the open police escort their way of trying to make amends with the already marginalized graffiti community in Colombian? 
The same group of people that for years views the police as the enemy? Hard to say.
Instead of the police, Bieber could’ve easily tapped any one of the many local, talented graffiti crews in Bogota to take him out — and I’m sure they would’ve gladly taken him on a tour of all the amazing street art in Colombia. But instead, police cars, flashing lights and security guards — a whole show was put on so that Bieber could clown around with a spray can. Maybe his swag coach felt this was cooler?

When most graffiti artists around the world work in stealth, worried about the police showing up while they’re painting, Bieber seemed more concerned with locals showing up while he was throwing up his pieces. 

In fact, by the next day, local graffiti activists Mochila Ambulante did show up, with spray cans in hand, to cover up Bieber’s “graffiti.” They had no police escort and wore bandanas over their faces to cover up their identities. And while their work won’t make international headlines or cause outrage, perhaps Bieber got what he was looking for after all — attention.

The public protests that followed Bieber’s visit compelled the Municipal government of Bogotá to decriminalize all graffiti and street art. Three of the art departments in Bogotá’s 100+ universities teach street art. The community of street artists has established a consensus that everything that goes up on a wall is graffiti, so that some will not be more privileged than the others.

Some businesses ask street artists to paint their walls, and sometimes Bogotá chooses particular walls to become art exhibitions, asking artists to express themselves on them.

A Belgian artist came to Bogotá and added little men dressed in typical workers’ uniforms to some of the art.

Political graffiti also abounds in Bogota. One of my clear memories of the 1982 course I took through Bluffton College here in 1982 was seeing all the graffiti by M-19, a militant group opposed to the government that eventually became a political party. The current president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, was affiliated with M-19.

The words on the black and white mural say, “I did not choose war, but I was born a warrior.” The wall of people’s faces refers to the scandal of the “false positives,” in which the Colombian army murdered ordinary people, dressed them up in guerrilla uniforms, and claimed they were guerrillas in order to receive a bounty. The wall of army officers standing in a row reads, “Who gave the order?” (to kill the civilians.). And of course Palestine is on everyone’s mind, and would appear on the walls of all the cities we would visit.

Of course we wanted to see Camilo’s street art! The picture on the left was commissioned by a bank. It was meant to be two women weaving, but it kept raining and turning the threads into a rainbow of water. Finally the bank said they like the way it looked. (By the way, I kept that wedding hair-do for more than a week.)

Camilo and his team of artists receive a commission from Bogota’s emerald traders to paint the above. Pablo Escobar and other drug lords had laundered their drug money through emerald traders, who didn’t really have the ability to refuse if they wanted to keep their families safe. As a consequence, the traders developed a reputation for being a part of the criminal class.

When Camilo’s team asked what they wanted on the wall, they assumed the traders would want something that showed their status as normal part of Colombian society. But what they wanted was the Indigenous legend of how emeralds came to be.

Furatena Strait on the Minero River

So sad. And given the horrors that drug cartels wreaked on Colombia, maybe that’s why the emerald traders chose this story.

The wedding!

And Raison Det’re of Our Trip

I’d say something about these crazy kids being so in love, but that would not reflect the meticulous planning they put into this wedding for a year. They succeeded, and they’re still so in love.

The flowers were lovely.

The friend who introduced them performed the ceremony and described their almost love at first sight meet-up in a way that made every one laugh.

What more shall I say? Should I mention that music after the wedding dinner was at a decibel level that made the furniture vibrate in the next room?  And that I lay on a vibrating couch with my head turned away from the banquet hall  because the flashing lights would. have triggered a migraine?


Days in Medellin before the wedding

February 21, 2024

Mural in restaurant with Black woman in foregrounds wearing

Have I mentioned yet that Michael’s daughter Beth got married on February 24 in Medellin and that was the whole reason for our South America trip? Well, now you know.

Michael and I left for Medellin on the morning of February 21. For lunch, we ate at Champi, a few blocks from the hotel, which was our first exposure to traditional Colombian food. Michael is a fan. It’s bland, has at least two, usually three starches in the meal and generous servings of meat (beans in less privileged areas.) The coconut lemonade was superb. Cuban coffee was the most expensive coffee on the menu, more expensive than cappuccino. But I noted with appreciation its use as a remedy for headaches.

In the evening, we had dinner with the Taberlys, the family of Eric, whom Beth is marrying. The guy in front is a cousin of some sort and owns the restaurant, Bárbaro, which is famous in Medellin for its steak.Clockwise: Eric’s younger niece, Eric’s sister Simone, Beth, with Eric’s older niece on her lap, Marta, Eric’s mother, Rubens, Eric’s father, Michael, me, Juan, Simone’s husband, and the aforementioned cousin. They may be the nicest family I have ever met, and we are beyond thrilled that Beth is now a part of the

After lunch, Michael and I were passing by a pharmacy and encountered three Venezuelan women. They had laminated papers with pictures of themselves and their children. In English, the papers explained that they were not asking for money, but needed baby formula and diapers. Colombia took in more than a million Venezuelan refugees, but they are not as welcome as they used to be. Michael bought the diapers and formula.

In the evening, we had dinner with the Taberlys, the family of Eric, whom Beth is marrying. The guy in front is a cousin of some sort and owns the restaurant, Bárbaro, which is famous in Medellin for its steak.Clockwise: Eric’s younger niece, Eric’s sister Simone, Beth, with Eric’s older niece on her lap, Marta, Eric’s mother, Rubens, Eric’s father, Michael, me, Juan, Simone’s husband, and the aforementioned cousin. They may be the nicest family I have ever met, and we are beyond thrilled that Beth is now a part of that family.

Our first disaster of the trip happened the next morning when we were going out for breakfast. as I stepped off the curb, my ankle collapsed, and I fell. In the course of the fall, I twisted my left knee and landed hard on my left thigh. The three pictures show my thigh and knee on the day of the fall, February 23, and my thigh on February 27. Fortunately, I had brought some walking sticks in case we would be hiking on rough terrain, so I began using one as a cane.

Friday afternoon before the wedding, we went on a tour of that Eric and Beth arranged of Medellin’s city center. However we first wrote on the metro, which, as our guy, Juliana, told us, is the only subway system in all of Columbia. Paises, as people in Medellin call themselves, are very proud of it.

The visit to Botero Square was memorable. Perhaps our favorite part of the visit was a Venezuelan rapper who created memorable lyrics at the top of his head. I have finally gotten a video clip of him loaded, which appears at the bottom of the post.I have always thought that Botero was a one trick pony. People refer to his “gordos,” or “fat people,”or “gorditos,” roughly “charming little fat people.” But he never liked this designation. For him, his art was about playing with proportion, according to a Julianna (with the gray backpack). She pointed out that the horses in his paintings have thick legs and tiny heads. If you look up his paintings that show houses, they often show people who are far too big to live in those houses.


I was in too much pain to finish the tour, so Juliana called me an Uber, and I went back to eat lunch at the hotel. Michael and I had been enjoying mora juice, which is blackberry juice, and I ordered it at the hotel restaurant for the first time. The waitress asked if I wanted it with sugar or without, I ordered without and learned that the blackberry juice we had been drinking, and probably all the juices we have been drinking have been full of sugar.

That night we attended a party for which the requisite attire was “cocktail dress.” I hope I passed. Every thing advertised as a cocktail dress looks itchy to me. I found a second-hand silk dress that felt great, except for the itchy tag. Although, it may look like I’m drunk in the picture, I drank only water. The decorations were real fruit and quite lovely, although David’s mother-in-law hinted that maybe I shouldn’t eat the centerpiece. David wrote a beautiful tribute to Beth, and Eric’s mom and sister did the same for him.

The event was really for the young people though, who apparently enjoyed shouting at each other over over the extraordinarily loud music.

Good and Bad Fruit; Excellent people

February 20, 2024