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May 8, 2017

Argentine culture through the people’s smile

La Rural is pretty much an Argentine national version of a state fair. We walk in, and we’re instantly thrown into a crowd (expectedly, considering today was the last day of it).

On each side are faux-pampas (the plains wilderness where the mythical Argentine cowboys, the Gauchos, come from) stands selling assorted dulce de leche (really creamy caramel, imagine the best roasted marshmallow you’ve ever had) pastries along with cured meats and cheeses.

After this, we found ourselves in a valley, surrounded by glistening tractors on each side. Scattered around were different vendors representing clothes, tourism and other crap.

The food stands overlooked a giant vacant hole which was lined with 50-story condo and apartment buildings. The image for some reason struck me as so distinctly South American. But this fair was showing me how much we do stereotype this continent.

Argentina is distinctly Italian influenced. The most Spanish thing about their culture is the language. Everything else – pizza and other cuisine sold on every corner, the café culture straight out of continental Europe, the people’s heritage, the music, the dancing, so much of it – is Italian.

Yet, the Gaucho culture on display at the fair showed a deep similarity with the American fascination with its Wild West.

The exhibition halls held either farm animals and horses or giant corporate displays. Coca-Cola smiled down at me comfortingly from almost everywhere. Outside of the U.S., you really see how little market share Pepsi actually has. Ford was another major sponsor of the event. But just as visible were Galicia bank and La Nacion newspaper, two distinctly Argentine corporations.

We grabbed dulce de leche strudels, a perfect combination of flaky baklava and savory dulce, and made our way to the exit and stumbled upon an ongoing concert.

The lead singer, attired in distinctly pampas but not gaudy Gaucho clothing, lead his band in what seemed like folk music, but had a bit of a bad-ass tinge to it.

Then, the crowd started opening up as two young people went into the middle, produced handkerchiefs from their pocket and started passionately dancing in a manner that seemed stereotypically “Latin Hot-Blooded.”

Then I looked to my right and saw a new circle formed, this one around two older people, dressed in gaudy Gaucho, dancing their own loving rhythm. Their moves matched the young people in the other circles perfectly, even with their bodies aged 50 years older.

Then the other circle featured a father leading his kids in a similar dance. Then another couple joined the other circle, again, somehow also producing elaborate handkerchiefs that were used as tools of seduction in their acting out of the courses of love through their footsteps and the way they teased one another with the rest of their body.

And so it continued as the band swung into tunes that delved deeper and deeper into the pantomimes put on by the dancers.

They came in and out of the crowd, forcing me to chuckle because everyone of all ages and body types here, knows the art of seduction. Through passionate dancing, it seemed that at any moment, people might whip handkerchiefs out and start dancing through the streets.

The day dimmed, and the crowd grew larger. Someone jumped onto the stage with a harmonica and joined the band. The singer took a break and opened the microphone to people who shared jokes. A small girl came up and said something that made everyone burst out laughing. Someone who looked like her mother look flustered. I think it was a dirty joke.

The band played near the exit and attracted increasingly more city folk, who wanted to continue their fantasy trip to the pampas. Past our spot at the entrance, corporations peered down from every wall and stall. There were no independent leather artisans in from their villages to sell hand made goods. Instead several kiosks were operated by a single company. An employee proudly told me it has 136 locations across the country.

While the food was native to the country, it was served with a Coca, as they call it down here.

John Deere sold a vicious looking thing with hundreds of spinning blades, could make short work of a Nebraska corn field.

But here, here where people stayed on, stayed before they left and the fair was gone for another year, here was something authentic. Here they danced, they sang, they stomped, they joked, and here was where the culture of the Gaucho was most prevalent – where people smiled the most.

Mike Fox is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at mgfox@student.umass.edu.

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