I am not a nationalist by any stretch. I used to be, when I was a kid. I would be like one of those over-happy actors in hockey play-off beer commercials, covered in gaudy maple leaf paraphernalia and swooning over anything remotely Canadian.
And, being the good bi-polarist I have been training to be my whole life, I was just as proud of being of Argentinian heritage. I waved the flag and was covered in sky blue-and-white when my mother and a number of other immigrants I only remember in photographs marched in some Toronto park during the final match of World Cup 1990, when Argentina was defeated by West Germany.
But I took leave of my nationalism, somewhere around the time when I became a psychedelic universal citizen, a human “in the world but not of the world”—an accumulation of star dust in this dimension of quantum vibrations. And I despised nationalism. I often quipped the quote I long thought was Freud’s, until I just looked it up to reference it now: “Nationalism is a form of collective narcissism” (Bryant McGill). And for a boy seeking egoless integration with the Void, narcissism was an enemy.
But now I am further integrating—as much as I am uncomfortable with Hegelian dialectic it keeps coming up in my thought, such as this one—the antipodes of my moods meet in the middle to synthesize a hybrid where I realize national borders are fundamentally bullshit…but in the same way I will small talk with a co-worker despite my dread clouding this empty talk, I will be a proud nationalist. I will wave a flag. I will swoon during Olympic hockey games and World Cup football games. I will get a maple leaf and an Argentine sun tattooed on my body. These are symbols of my identity that, no matter how far-out mystic I get, will always be a part of my unconscious symbology.
And what better time to become an ugly nationalist than World Cup? Argentina is poised to perform strongly in 2014, and in my opinion, will finish in the top four along with Brazil, Germany, and Spain.
And what better country to be a hard-headed patriot than Argentina? Their national character is inundated with pride. The greatest insult is to burn the flag, and it is high treason to suggest the Malvinas—or as those damn dirty English call it, the Falklands—are anyone’s but Argentina’s.
But beyond these easy surface stereotypes which can be found in any country, it occurred to me in my travels to my mother’s native land that pride is engrained in the social fabric. As gossipy and whiny as Argentines are of their politicos (what some call ‘political consciousness’), it is bad form to actually portray the country in negative light.
The government runs two news channels and continually portrays the country as the gem of the South American continent. “Lies and propaganda,” my Tio Beto told me. “If you want to see the real news, you watch the independent channel.”
Just one channel and it is a torrent of negative media covering anything from flooding to robberies to riots and rapes. A kiosquiero was robbed by gun point. Unmentioned by the state-run media, but covered like the greatest indignity by the independent channel.
“I can’t watch it,” my other Tio Jose Luis tells me of the independent channel, sitting back in the kitchen chair opposite the twenty-inch TV playing a River Plate game. Every few moments a government ad comes on the TV, spewing a slogan for one Ministry or another.
Sunday in the early afternoon as Tia Ana is preparing a hearty asado in the backyard, cousin Lily comes to visit for a few moments. There are about a dozen people milling around the kitchen, kissing, hugging and grabbing squares of pastafrola off the kitchen table while a maté makes its rounds. She hasn’t seen me for 20 years, like everyone else, and she asks about family first and foremost. But then she moves on—because, of course every is doing fine, they are in Canada.
“Why the hell would you come here?”
“Lily…” cousin Luis Emilio tries to temper her.
“No, but really. Everyone here would love to go there, and these kids come here. To see what? The crumbling concrete and the graffiti? What a disaster.”
“It’s not that bad…”
“Oh no? There are people living in rags and even if you make money you might as well burn it’s worth nothing. There are criminals running the street, and worse, they run the police too. You wake up one morning and your car is gone. Or worse, you get a bullet to the back of the head.”
“Ay! Lily! What the hell, you’re just telling these kids all these horror stories,” my cousin Rosanna says. And her sentiment is echoed throughout the room. Lily doesn’t stay long, she has to get back home. She is uncomfortable anywhere outside a security system, and even then, I can tell she is a nervous wreck. After she leaves they tell me she has been robbed three times in the last month. But they tell me hushedly, like saying it aloud would call the robbers to them.
But would the robbers get through the bars on the windows or the heavy ceramic vase positioned carefully behind the door? Would the retired police dogs in Tio Norberto’s yard scare away a stick-up kid?
Tia Matilde invites us over for supper on Sunday night. Her house is two or three blocks away. It’s warm by our Canadian standards and we would like to walk, but no one will let us. It’s getting dark. Tio Norberto comes just to drive us. On the way we circle to the house where my grandparents lived, where my mom grew up. About a block away from Tia Matilde’s, people crowd the street. A cop for decades, Norberto pulls up and asks one of his cousins what happened.
“That guy went to get in his car, and two guys came up behind him, smashed him on the head and stole his car.”
“Son of a bitch…” Norberto says. “And I was just telling the kids how tranquil this neighbourhood is.”
“But yeah. Of course!” this unnamed cousin insists, leaning into the car to shake my hand.
The only person who was straight-up with me was my Tio Beto. He is a retired butcher turned massage therapist to pay his bills. He drove us to the airport and we chatted for an hour over a café cortado before the check-in counter opened.
“Argentina had the opportunity to be great. It still has the opportunity to be great. But not when you have the negroes. And you know, my daughter gives me a hard time, because she thinks I am talking about black skin. But I’m not. I mean negro in here,” he holds a finger to his temple. “People are frustrated, but they don’t want to face the problems. They make a fix here, a patch there, and everything is fine. But the problems grow and grow. We need antiseptic, not a bandage. But people are too proud to actually change anything. They want to think that nothing is happening, that everything is going to be fine next year.”
There is a dark side to nationalistic pride, of course, beyond the narcissism. For Argentina, for now, it is ignorance. In Canada, it is a desperate grapple with a nebulous national identity, and on certain topics, that same ignorance (“If you don’t like it here, go somewhere else!” vs. “Yes, that’s a problem, let’s deal with it”).
There is a dark side, and not just in nationalism’s extreme, fascism. Even in something benign like the World Cup, there is something sinister about the Colombian defender Andres Escobar getting shot to death after an own-goal in the 1994 tournament. There is something surreal about people throwing bags of piss on the field. There is something downright absurd when the hundred or so people in Centennial Park stadium in quiet, affluent Etobicoke start to bubble into riot-mode as the two under-21 soccer teams representing Latino countries forget the match to rumble on the field. And my Abuelo closes his hand over my head and guides me out of the stadium, telling me to forget the locos, the crazies, the people back there looking for trouble. “Eh chico? Come, Abuela will warm us up some empañadas.”
[ END ]