Conference Impressions from Buenos Aires in Autumn

April 15, 2017

It is really true that when the Northern Hemisphere is awaiting the fresh green colours of April, the Southern Hemisphere is preparing for winter. Buenos Aires in the fall with its warm mellow temperature of 23 degrees Celsius reminded me more of Estonia in the summer. Although, the subtropical trees with lush flowers did not make it feel like autumn, the winter and rain boots arranged in shoe store windows were signs of autumn’s arrival in Buenos Aires.

Migration and its Researchers

Argentina, and especially Buenos Aires, are internationally known for their tango traditions. Tango fits well as the brand for Argentina, an immigrant country, since the history of the development of the dance style includes influences from many different cultures. For the same reason this exciting and picturesque city was the perfect location for the “Heritage of Migration. Moving Stories, Objects and Home” conference, which took place from April 6th -10th.

The event took place at the Immigration Museum (Museo de la Inmigración) and it was organized as a collaborative project between: Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage (University of Birmingham), Collaborative for Cultural Heritage Managamenet and Policy (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero (UNTREF), Museo de la Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero (MUNTREF), Association Amigos del Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Argentina), UNESCO Chair of Cultural Tourism (Argentina). This was the second conference in a series of events dedicated to Trans-Atlantic dialogue in the field of immigration history and the preservation and research of immigrant cultural heritage. The first took place in London in 2012. As one of the main conference organizers, Mike Robinson from Birmingham University noted in his opening speech, the goal of these gatherings is to observe the cultural heritage created when different cultures meet and see how different ethnic groups and individuals live in these diverse cultures.

Almost 350 abstracts were submitted to the conference, from which 225 were chosen to be presented. There were delegates from all corners of the world: North and South America, Australia, Asia, Africa, and Europe; however, a remarkable number of presentations were given by Eastern Europeans. The Portuguese in China (Macaus), Japanese in Brazil, Flemish in England, Congolese in Haiti – these are just some of the examples of cultures that are rooted abroad. They remain tough and continue to survive, creating interest for both researchers from their own culture as well as outsiders. The main topics were the lived experiences of political refugees, economic refugees, exchange students and tourists abroad, including the economic, political and cultural aspects of migration. Discussions included leaving and returning from the homeland, cultural belonging, identity and adaptation, preservation of memories through material and non-material culture, through language, art, written sources, items, food traditions etc. Heritage collector and preservationist as well as academic perspectives were represented. During the conference we listened to African folk music and learned traditional Polynesian dances.

These are just some examples of the topics and activities that were fit into 5 conference days. 7-8 parallel sessions took place each day, most of which were held in English or Spanish. It was not easy to make a decision of which sessions to attend, but in the end my choices were eyeopening and inspirational.

There were two presentations on Estonian topics. The historian from Tallinn University, Aivar Jürgenson, spoke about Argentinian Estonians. His book “Ladina rahva seas. Argentiina ja sealsed eestlased” (Among the Latin People. Argentina and Their Estonians) was published in 2011. I spoke on my favourite topic, the cultural heritage of Estonians abroad and the roles the Baltic Heritage Network and VEMU play in preserving it. I was happy to see that both presentations led to lively discussions.

As is typical during the frenzy of conferences, I was able to make some useful contacts and participate in discussions that could be beneficial in the future. Aivar and I visited also a local Estonian. Mrs. Anu Talvari’s stories about the lives of Estonians in Argentina, which also made it into Aivar’s book, were at least as exciting as the conference presentations, sometimes even more exciting because they were about the fate of our people in this faraway place. Thank you Anu for your generous hospitality!

Discovering Buenos Aires

One part of the compelling Immigration Museum building is still being used by the Argentinian Immigration Office. Thus, we saw long lines of immigrants waiting to hear what their futures held on our way to the conference. We also visited a contemporary art museum and took part in a city tour, which was often interrupted by rain showers. Luckily, the warmth of early autumn in Buenos Aires did not let the situation get too uncomfortable.

A few days before the event, we received a message from the coordinator that on the opening day of the conference a strike would begin in Buenos Aires; therefore, the opening ceremony would be moved from the Immigration Museum to the University. The presentations planned for the afternoon were divided between the other days. There were some who were unable to attend the conference due to interrupted airplane travel, or some that arrived late. The coordinators were very helpful with clarifying the complications that occurred, which is not easy to do with such a large event. On the way to the airport on the last day, I saw protesting teachers surrounded by dark rows of policemen sent to keep everything under control. Thus, the information I had read from books about Buenos Aires was proved to be true – Argentinians are willing to voice their rights and fight for them publicly.

Luckily, the stories about long-fingered pickpockets were not reinforced, or at least I managed to escape their attack. However, I am sure that Buenos Aires really is a tango city. As I wandered in San Telmo I saw a dramatic pair of tango dancers dancing to gramophone music in a park. We had a more touristy experience in a restaurant, El Querandi, located in the same part of the city where we saw a tango show. However, it was a kind gesture by the local people to show those who have come from far away the part of their culture Argentinians are most known for. The show was an overview of the development of tango throughout history.

During my solo wanderings discovering the city, I ended up in the bookstore Le Ateneo on Santa Fe Avenue. The building, which was first a theatre, was converted into a cinema at the end of the 1920s and the first film with sound was screened for Argentinians in 1929. The cinema became a bookstore in the early 2000s. In 2007 the bookstore was given second place on The Guardian’s ranking for the World’s Top 10 Bookstores (first place was given to Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen in Maastricht). I have to admit that at the time when books are feared to be dying out all over the world, it is very encouraging to see books arranged at such a honourable place. Both the theatre’s ground floor and balconies are filled with bookshelves. Bookworms can be seen in the gallery seats deeply immersed in their reading, or at the cafe on the theatre stage discussing books. Seeing all this splendour, this bookworm´s heart jumped for joy. Although I was overall very impressed by Buenos Aires, visiting Le Ateneo was a high point in the tourist portion of my trip.

Unfortunately, time was short; I did not get to visit a Milonga bar, a jazz club, or even the famous La Boca neighbourhood. On the morning of my departure, as I made a quick visit to the Recoleta cemetery, I realized that I am an Estonian through and through. The naturally natural park-like cemeteries in Estonia are peaceful places for quiet walks and pondering. They are downright gardens of paradise compared to the massive and over-decorated, dense mausoleum that is the Recoleta cemetery. It left a particularly exotic and depressing impression with the grey and rainy weather; a true city of the dead – exciting, but uncanny.

Yes, cultures are different and this emerges when worlds of both the living and dead are placed side by side. But this is why we travel – to see new places, different people, ways of livings, to listen and learn foreign languages. Tourism is part of contemporary migration processes. It is interesting to participate, but also to spend time dwelling on thoughts surrounding this process. This trip to Argentina gave me the opportunity to do both. I have now put South America on my personal map of “conquests.“ What’s next? Africa, Asia, or Australia?

Piret Noorhani