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A man caught in the middle of history. The complicated story of James Peck, the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands and the use of nationalism in local politics.
James Peck is a man caught in history.
The war between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands may have ended 37 years ago, but its wounds remain fresh to this day. And for people like Peck, the conflict weighs heavily on his past, present and future.
Since the conflict in the South Atlantic, back in 1982, Peck remains the only “Kelper” (the nickname for the islands’ inhabitants) to accept the Argentine citizenship offered to inhabitants of the disputed islands. His reasons for doing so were deeply personal.
An artist by trade, Peck has put on exhibitions of his work in Argentina since the 1990s. He was previously married to an Argentine woman and has two sons, who both live in Buenos Aires. Yet his decision in 2011 to accept citizenship propelled him to a lonely corner of national identity.
After five years of “surviving” off of his unique claim as “the guy from the islands,” Peck, fed up with the pressure he felt from Argentine society, returned to the patch of windswept islands at the bottom of the world in 2016.
“I was in the middle of something I didn’t find authentic,” Peck said. “It was just a way of starting again,” Peck said. “I’d really decimated myself, opportunities – so I went back.”
Since returning to the Malvinas, he stayed with a friend who owns a hotel. Peck worked in his studio, chased love and wrote. He released a new book, A Hole in your Heart, in March. He continues to exhibit his art in Argentina today, at the Cecilia Caballero Contemporary Art gallery in Recoleta.
“You can see that highly personal search in the middle of this bullshit about the Islands,” Peck said, patting a hardcover copy of his new book. “I put everything here in a fresh way as well.”
Peck’s preferred spot in Buenos Aires is a small Almagro café near a friend’s studio apartment he’s stayed in, on-and-off, for 20 years. These days, he stays there whenever he returns to Argentina to visit his sons.
He is a relaxed though cautious presence. Tattoos crawl up his exposed hand into a leather jacket. Photo shoots, we learn, make him uncomfortable.
He orders a coffee with milk and an assortment of medialunas, trading pleasantries with the woman who runs the cafe. She clearly knows him well.
The authenticity of the place speaks volumes to Peck, 50, who hails from the Malvinas capital of Stanley, population: 2,500.
“It’s real,” he says of the cafe, satisfied by its simplicity and nodding to the empty interior on an early midweek morning.
Intertwined with the country’s nationalist claims over the Malvinas, Peck’s own personal story harkens to a different, populist era in Argentina. It’s one that some experts believe may return, should the Peronists come out on top in October’s general election, as predicted.
Peck’s face is familiar to some. For the most part, that’s because of that 2011 ceremony commemorating the end of the conflict. Standing alongside Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the then-president personally handed the islander his Argentine documents.
Today, he says Fernández de Kirchner’s government waited six months to issue him his documents, well beyond the expected wait. Never one to miss a chance for a populist speech, the Peronist leader highlighted the islander’s decision to assert Argentina’s claim over the islands, attempting to use it to bolster her government’s image as a protector of Argentine nationalism.
“James, those that fell fighting for what they believed in, for what they defend and for their flag, deserve honour and remembrance from whatever side that has their own fallen,” the former president said at the event, flanked by Peck and the family of a soldier killed during the war.
While he remembers the ceremony as “just another day” in the split from his ex-wife, Peck recognises the symbolism of the event amidst the 186-year long diplomatic dispute over the Malvinas, and the part he played.
“I remember somebody said, ‘This is huge,’” Peck said. “Nobody had done it with a democratic government… In that sense, for them, it was very big.”
Nearly a decade removed from the man who stood beside an Argentine president, Peck speaks in a lyricism that drifts from topic to topic. Sometimes he elaborates about his five difficult years as a kelper turned Argentine citizen, sometimes he doesn’t.
“When I came here the first years, the whole thing started off with ‘Do you just want to know me because of the Islands?" he recalls. "That whole thing of the connection with the islands. You either use that or you leave it completely.”
He reflects: “Yeah, it will open doors. But not always nice doors.”
With Alberto Fernández’s resounding victory in August's PASO primaries, the return to power of Fernández de Kirchner – as the Peronist presidential candidate’s running-mate – looms in the distance.
In past interviews, Peck has said Fernández de Kirchner’s government used him as a “propaganda tool.” Yet today, he keeps his distance from Argentine politics, unless prompted.
“I’m not a political animal,” Peck said. “I don’t give a damn about nationalism. For me, it’s all so foreign to be obsessed about it.”
However, for the former prize of nationalist furore, the likely victory of populism in October’s general election does seem to alarm him somewhat.
“I think the whole thing with Cristina, it became sort of a big East Germany, the East Germany of South America in the last years,” Peck said, his voice picking up. “To think that people consider going back to that – I don’t think they will. I hope not, Jesus.”
Peck eventually fell out of favour with those in Argentine politics, especially hoping to use him as an extension of Argentina’s memory of the Malvinas War. In 2015, he posted a photo on his social media accounts of his Argentine papers – DNI identity card – cut to pieces.
“In a sense that liberated me,” Peck said. “Certain people would say, ‘Oh we’re not going to touch that anymore.’”
Today, Peck baulks at the opportunity of promoting anything involving Argentine-Malvinas relations.
Recently, he says, he was asked to take an Argentine football team to the islands. He refused.
“Ten years ago, I would have done it,” he explains. “But not now. I just don’t see the point. You offend people. You’re dealing with something that’s just really symbolic, and do you get anywhere afterward? Not really.”
If anything, Peck’s current ire is saved for the enduring memory of war amongst the people of the Malvinas.
“The war is kept so fresh there,” Peck said of the Islands. “It isn’t healthy for a small community to still – so many years later – to still be so imprisoned by it. I don’t think it’s healthy.”
While Peck said he’s never had a confrontation with anyone since returning to the Malvinas three years ago, anger still persists over his decision to accept Argentine citizenship.
One m a n , k now i ng Peck’s long family history on the Islands, said that his father was the only person from the islands to join the UK’s war effort. The man told Peck to go on the radio and apologise for accepting Argentine citizenship.
“I kind of said ‘Sure, I will,’” Peck recalls. “The day Britain apologises. The day Argentina apologises. Then I’ll go on the radio.”
While attitudes on the islands aren’t ‘You’re with us or against us,’ he says, Peck views his actions and life as an artist today as a social issue, one that can show younger generations on the islands the virtue of independence and chasing one’s own path.
“It’s not an easy place for a creative person to be,” Peck said. “My great-grandmother used to paint, so I do feel my sensibilities have been there about four generations. And it’s hard to cut that.”
Interestingly enough, the ties of the Peck family with Argentina didn’t start with James either. Prior to the war and after his parents’ separation, James’ mother was in a relationship with an Argentine man.
The man worked on the Islands for the Argentine state-oil company YPF. After the war, his mother’s partner was forced to leave the islands along with all other Argentine nationals. Unwilling to stand the distance, his mother gave up on the relationship and the man returned to his former wife.
Today, Peck sees a parallel between his mother’s relationship and his own marriage to his Argentine ex-wife. Both relationships were disrupted by politics to an extent. Yet where his mother ended her relationship, Peck didn’t stop pursuing his.
“I think my mom thought ‘Oh, there’s a limit,’” Peck said. “For me, it’s not really a limit. If you really love somebody, it’s not a limit.”
Earlier this month, Peck returned to the Malvinas. For his sons, the logistics of flying there through Chile, as no direct flights exist from Argentina, prevent them from visiting him. In a phone interview the day before his travels, he sounded confident, accepting. Furthermore, despite the past, he feels content with Argentina, a country that had brought him family, pain and escape.
“I feel a lot more warmth towards Argentina,” Peck said, his voice fuzzed by a mobile phone. “It’s much more real now. It’s not forced now. I don’t feel under pressure to have to like it, or not to like it.”
When Peck next returns to the country in March, a new government will hold power, likely one helmed by Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Claims over the Malvinas might not loom large in the ongoing populist election campaign, or even a populist government, yet Peck’s saga is a relic of the past Kirchnerite era of the near past.
Some hope the government of Alberto Fernández will move on from his running-mate’s nationalism, but the forces of Kirchnerismo could still hold considerable sway over his government. Like much of Argentina, foreign policy remains undefined. For now.
“In the end, this whole damn thing about the islands, it’s just so symbolic,” Peck reflects. “Symbolism – it’s empty – but at the same time it’ll just mess you up. At the end of the day, it doesn’t exist.”
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