Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1994-2007).
During my early youth I enjoyed the celebration of the May 25 public holiday. The business of patriotic dates is mostly a thing of the past, except where governments set the days of their choice to celebrate their importance. For many people, this year’s date is just another Saturday when transport unions stop buses, subways and trains and traffic to demand a pay top-up to compensate for being on the job on a national holiday. Fully justified, I’m sure – and while they are striking they can spoil the lives of people who need to get to work this Saturday. The same happened on May 1.
There is less enthusiasm about historic entertainments off-screen as people prefer a weekend by the seaside on public holidays, such as the anniversary of the 1976 military coup or the 1982 Malvinas disaster. Schools, I understand, try to encourage greater interest in local history, nationalist and liberal, but are in no rush to expand historical knowledge in the curriculum. Important dates that require “being patriotic” don’t go down very well, of course. And Argentina complicates matters by having a liberating revolution and an Independence Day (July 9). A complaint that “there is too much history about” (one of my children said something like that some many years ago) can even be justified.
On the other hand every day of the year has a catalogue of events that deserve a place in memory. For example, a week ago on Friday, May 17 (1814) was the 205th anniversary of William Brown’s victory for Buenos Aires against the Spanish royal fleet in the Battle of Montevideo. Brown, an Irishman considered the founder of the Argentine Navy, had been defeated by the Spanish shortly before. But he returned with a vengeance and scored the hit that paved the way to independence.
The calendar makes it known, or reminds us, that today is a date to remember as that of the revolution that brought in the First Junta in 1810. We’ve had lots of Juntas since then, not all very good ones. At school we got the usual patriotic nonsense about this being a special event. There were military parades and all that when the Armed Forces wanted to run every bit of the country. The military liked their kind of history, but no unpleasant stories.
In my memory, sometime around 1967, I went to the library at the Army command – now the Defence Ministry on Paseo Colón – to ask for help with information about the ingleses who had served in the Argentine Army during the 19th century civil wars. The library director, a colonel, was more interested in knowing if my youngish beard meant I was a Communist, and rounded off his assault with the assurance that there was no such thing as ingleses i n t he Army. Before being thrown out I showed the colonel a wodge of research note cards with the names of North Americans, English, Scots, Irish as well as many other Europeans. He shut up and still was about to throw me out regardless when a corporal who had overheard, saluted his chief and clicked his heels and asked if the chief would allow him to guide me. I never saw that library director again.
At school we never got much detail about the history of the occasion or why the main oil painting of that May 1810 by Spanish-born Francisco Fortuny (1865-1942) shows a crowd that suspected the tide was turning. They had umbrellas, their cost making them unavailable to the masses, and gentlemen without protection who might have afforded one or at least a cape to ward off the cold winter rain when they gathered in the mud outside the Cabildo three days before, on the 22nd. My schooling did not go much into the news that the king of Spain, Ferdinand VII, had been imprisoned in 1808 and replaced by the Central Junta and then Giuseppe Buonaparte, king of Sicily and Naples and elder brother of the more famous Bony, had been made king of Spain as well. He is best remembered as an alcoholic. The defeated King Ferdinand, known as “The Desired,” returned to the throne in 1813, and having lost most of the colonies in South America said he wanted them all back. Fat chance.
As befits a revolution, ours had lots of blood-curdling incidents from the beginning. But those are not in celebration briefs or in the curriculum either. That would have made my idea of Veinticinco de Mayo much more fun. My father once took me to see the military parade in Plaza de Mayo and another year the Post Office woman in the village invited us to watch the event on her black-andwhite television. That must have been about early 1950s.
The date had a special event preceding it too: Empire Day. The occasion I was taken to each year was for AngloA r - gie schools and the children, myself included, thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve forgotten who organised these things, but they were held at one of the many (there are only two now) cinemas on Lavalle in the city centre. We were taken into town by train and our teachers had to endure the emba r rassment of lit tle people jokes, shouted gossip and screams of delight. The event was in late morning, before the usual movie programmes. A Union Jack hung over the street. From Plaza Constitución there was a bus or a tram to midtown. There was music, clowns, bits of theatre and chunks of films, delicious sandwiches and cakes. Some schools went to second parties, but we had a long journey back to the village.
By the way, General Juan Perón was president. As children we were convinced that May 25 and Empire Day were part of the same parcel known as the “Fiestas Mayas,” which had been a social occasion in the 19th Century. However, the British calendar had instituted the date in 1902, on the birthday of the late Queen Victoria. The celebration was only made official in 1916. The idea was to tell children how fortunate they were to have been born in the Glorious British Empire. In Buenos Aires the “special day”, May 24, began to fade in the mid-1950s and was rapidly abandoned. The big May 25 parades at Plaza de Mayo, the tanks, cavalry and all, were wound down in the 1970s, for budget and political reasons. That included the Te Deum at the Cathedral and the Gala at the Colón. Times change.