Gaucho Dancing and Flag Day in Argentina
21 June 2014
Argentina has one of the world’s happiest flags. Two wide sky blue stripes flank a white stripe in the middle of the flag. An ornate sun with a peaceful looking face sits against the white backdrop. It’s a scene played out the majority of the time in Buenos Aires. Here the winters are mild and the summers are hot and humid, but most days are sunny. When the flag whips in the air against that clear sky, the blues mesh together and you understand why they chose that flag to represent the country.
Every year on June 20th, the country comes together to celebrate the creation of the flag. It was designed in Rosario by Manuel Belgrano, one of the key players in the Argentine Wars of Independence. He flew the flag for the first time in Rosario on February 27, 1812, but it wasn’t until 1938 that the government officially designated the anniversary of his death (June 20th, 1820) as a national holiday, Día de la Bandera Nacional. The exact date of Flag Day has changed multiple times since 1938, but since 2010 it is always held on June 20th.
Argentina is one of the most interesting places I’ve visited in terms of patriotism. Unprompted, younger generations of Argentina will complain about what they see as an inept and corrupt government, terrible rates of unemployment for young people, lack of opportunities, a poor education system, and the struggling economy. At the same time they will vehemently defend Argentina and its successes. They’re proud of birthing the world’s best soccer/futbol/football players and the many inventions that came from here. Ask an Argentine what they love most about their country and you’re likely to hear that they love the culture. The Argentine culture emphasizes friendships and highly values social connections. Older generations of Argentines are more reserved about what they will and won’t talk about when it comes to complaining about the country, but they too love the culture of Argentina. Their pride is instilled in a love for their country’s heritage.
Flag Day is an opportunity to showcase all of the good that exists in Argentina: from the food to the dance to the joy. I certainly saw all of that at my first ever Día del Bandera festival. Held in the Mataderos barrio of Buenos Aires, the Feria de Mataderos is a fair featuring everything folk-related. Mataderos literally translates to slaughterhouses. When we arrived in the neighborhood, we were greeted by the front of a huge building where all the meat is stored – pleasant. If you don’t eat meat (and if you refuse to eat red meat), you can survive in Argentina but it won’t be easy. Eating meat is a huge part of their heritage.
I didn’t know what to expect when my boyfriend’s parents picked us up to celebrate the holiday. Even if I ask every question I can think of, I never get a straight answer about what is going to go down. Argentines have a gift of skirting around an explanation and they never just lay down a plan. If you want to visit Argentina, you’ll be a lot happier of you just throw out your planner and expect nothing to go as planned and for no one to be on time. All I was told about “Flag Day” was that we were going somewhere to sing the national anthem (okay – I wouldn’t be singing it but I’d watch other people do it) and see the flag go up. I had no idea it was an entire fair and that we’d be eating delicious food and watching gauchos dance and visiting a museum all about folk culture! The day certainly didn’t go as I expected it to and I was so stoked about all the unexpected surprises.
The Mataderos barrio is the main stopping point for gauchos who come to the city. Gauchos are a uniquely South American subculture primarily confined to Argentina, some southern parts of Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, parts of Bolivia, and the south of Chile. To compare it with something, they are cowboys but not like the cowboys of the Wild West. Customs and traditions differ depending on the area. If you want to see gauchos in Buenos Aires, go to the Museo Criollo de los Corrales. It’s located at Ave Corrales 6476 and part of a gorgeous old pink building that flanks the square where the fair is held. The museum itself is not that big but it only costs about 7 pesos per person (that’s less than a buck).
In the back of the museum is a beautiful outdoor space shaded by decades’ worth of thick ivy traversing through overhead lattice. The walls are covered in paintings that tell the story the gauchos and their traditions. Every Sunday between 3PM or 4PM until 8PM or later gauchos and gauchas gather and dance. We spoke with a gaucho there, dressed head to toe in typical clothing, and he explained that dancing is something that the gauchos from the Buenos Aires area do but it is not something that gauchos from all other areas do. I peeked into a small café where a couple groups of gauchos were chatting over coffee, they waved me in and let me take their picture.
The museum itself had one main room that I found fascinating. This room is to the right when you enter the building. Inside is the biggest wagon I have ever seen in my life. I still cannot imagine any humans ever using it or oxen ever pulling it. It is giant size and only has two wheels. Two MASSIVE wheels, and apparently this wagon isn’t even that big compared to others that used to roam the country. Underneath the wagon was a hammock and an entire camp set up as it would have been. The wheels on Argentine wagons could be upwards of ten feet tall. Why is it that everything done in Argentina is huge? From the biggest dinosaur finds, giant ground dwelling sloths, to comically huge oxen-drawn wagons.
Argentina doesn’t mess around when it comes to food either. I threw out my doctor’s orders for the day and started the day with a churro. I chose a churro filled with dulce de leche and covered in sugar. Gluten goodness. Later I indulged in a choripán, which is a grilled sausage (chorizo) in bread (pan). Choripán was invented in Argentina and is one of the most common street foods. I added red chimichurri is an Argentine sauce made of tomato, bell pepper, garlic, olive oil, oregano, parsley, and either white or red wine vinegar. Desert soon followed of marroc. Marroc is a layered chocolate praline with white chocolate, milk chocolate, and peanut butter.
The fair’s center point was the square from which three streets diverged. For nearly a block, each street was turned into two lanes and flanked by dozens of vendors selling crafts, drinks, and food. The flag of Argentina was prominent throughout, smiling down on every fair-goer. Llamas and tiny ponies with guns holstered to their saddles were there for children to ride. The main event was in the center where a large stage was set up. People were dancing traditional dances and many were dressed in their gaucho best.
When the time came for the flag to be raised, everyone gathered at the square and sang a song to the flag followed by the Argentina National Anthem. I don’t know any of the words but I did whip out my camera and get some pictures and videos of everyone else. I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t understand patriotism. Maybe it’s because I’m such an international traveler and have lived in multiple countries. Don’t get me wrong, I can be as “U-S-A Amurrica” as the next guy if I want to, but I never want to. I like to cross borders not celebrate them. Each time I turned to my left and looked at Alejandro singing along to the national anthem I had to stifle a laugh and turn away. Several women had made dresses out of the flag. Yes – homemade, hand sewn gowns made from the fabric of the flag of Argentina.
After the singing ended, several people spoke poetically to the flag. Again, I am serious, to the flag. Looking at the flag they singsangspoke and everyone in the crowd responded with “VIVA!” After the speeches they did something I wasn’t expecting. They had one part of the largest Argentine flag in the world and one of the largest flags anywhere. It was rolled up on a huge wooden spool. On stage a man dressed in gaucho clothing asked everyone to take a part of the flag as it unfolded and carry it out and around the block in a procession.
Alejandro’s parents made their way into the crowd and joined the procession. Alejandro and I hung back and took photos of the flag parade. Children ran alongside their parents and grandparents laughed as they proudly marched along. The energy was full of gratitude, love, and honest joy. I am constantly in awe of the even keel temperament of Argentines who can see both sides of the equation. They recognize problems but can focus on the positive, maybe the rest of us could learn to do the same if we were willing to set our watches to Argentine time.
Watch the video to see some of what I talk about in this blog:
Update: Prior to the blog redesign, Travelpenandpalate.com commented on the original posting of this, “And just one note so your readers know that the Feria de Mataderos is held every Sunday and on other days for special events, s/a you experienced for flag day. It should not be missed by anyone visiting Buenos Aires!!
There were several more comments which did not transfer correctly when the blog changed from blogger to WordPress!
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