Pocho Boy #3

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“Pocho Boy Meets World” is a Latinx poetry column written by California poet, Alan Chazaro. The son of Mexican immigrants, he is leaving his home and teaching job in Oakland to pursue living in South America and Mexico for the next year. For each destination, Pocho Boy will search for emerging and iconic Latinx voices to read, while documenting the textures, histories, and influences of each poet’s hometown region. Join him as he eats his share of quesadillas and uses broken Spanish in hopes of connecting more deeply with what it means to be a U.S. Latinx writer in Latin America.


 

Vol. 3: In Argentina, Pocho Boy Listens to the Mouths of Crisis 

I hopped into an Uber after bar-hopping around the trendy Palermo neighborhood, buzzing from the night and ecstatic that my U.S. dollars were allowing me to live my best life in Argentina. In what is known as the Paris of South America, Buenos Aires offers anything I could want at an unbelievably low fraction of the cost. I’d never experienced a city like this before—think NYC’s cosmopolitan variety, with Mexico City’s energy, but with the low cost of a rural city. Whether I was spending the day learning how to ride a horse and play polo in the countryside (something I’d obviously never considered doing in my life), or sipping fine wines while eating world-class filet mignon, I felt like I was accessing the highest-echelon of travel possible for a first-generation Mexican American on a public educator’s salary. But while I was gloriously soaking up Argentina’s experiences and enjoying the privileges of being a U.S. citizen, I knew it was only possible because of what the country had endured in previous years.

I want to be clear—I’m not celebrating the economic collapse of this country, but rather, I was in genuine awe at how the city seemed to be thriving and running at a fast pace, despite being in a national crisis. For those who aren’t aware, Argentina’s economy recently bottomed out, hitting historic lows never before seen in the once-prosperous nation. As various locals explained to me, it was so bad that at one point you could walk into a supermarket expecting to pay $50 pesos for your groceries, but by the time you left, the prices would literally change, and an employee with a price sticker would go around, so you’d leave paying $75 pesos instead because the value of Argentinian currency had dropped within that half-hour. And this happened regularly. It reached a point where my Uber driver that night—a young man from the Dominican Republic—told me he was desperate to leave and return back to the DR, where he could actually earn better money and live more comfortably. In fact, he’s one of many immigrants I talked to during my time in the country—from Mendoza to Iguazu—who told me they regretted coming to Argentina because they ended up working more hours for less pay. Unfortunately, Argentina is still currently tormented by this financial nightmare which has left countless families without many options, including working illegally (Uber, for example, is illegal in Argentina, and many drivers operate like undercover secret agents) and/or working 2-3 jobs a day, simply to sustain a basic lifestyle.

Though I’m no stranger to poverty in foreign places, what makes Argentina’s situation notable—particularly in the nation’s gorgeous capital, Buenos Aires—is that it was once Latin America’s model for social prosperity, cultural riches, and financial stability. Unlike other Latin American places I’d been to—including rural parts of Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Bolivia—Argentina has long been considered a European twin, a place immigrants would flock to for better lives, where you could go to experience the cuisines and arts on par with places like Italy, France, Germany, and even the United States. At one point during the 20th century, Argentina was ranked as a top ten nation in the entire world in terms of industrial production and wealth; nowadays, it’s fallen significantly below neighboring countries like Chile, Uruguay, and even Brazil, which has historically held the regional reputation as being inflicted with crime and poverty. The era of Argentina’s economic boom seemed distant, visible only in the magnificent architecture and grand boulevards that once marked a golden age for the nation, but served only as decaying reminders of what used to be.

Nostalgia, therefore, felt thick in the throats of this place. Whether talking to graffiti artists, restaurant workers, Uber drivers, or university students, it somehow always reverted to how shitty the present was in comparison to what glory was held in the past. Though undoubtedly maintaining a modern coolness, it was apparent that the best of Argentina’s capital was etched into yesterday’s stones. For that reason, it only felt right for me to seek out a young poet’s voice to learn what this generation was grappling with and searching for within the larger context of their nation’s plummeting socioeconomic and cultural status.

Carla Quevedo’s Me pelee a los gritos con el manager del spa (Editorial Tropico, 2019) found me while I wandered the poetry aisles inside an old theater—now defunct—that had been converted into the city’s most well-known bookstore. It felt appropriate—being inside the majestic skeleton of the nation’s past, looking for contemporary answers. Her book called to me with its unabashedly pop culture aesthetics and stood out from other publications, which mostly seemed outdated and simplistically designed. Quevedo’s book—decorated in a bright pink cover with large purple letters above a retro photo of a bored girl (perhaps the author as a child) holding a trophy at a gymnastics event—seemed like something I might find back in the States, and it felt like the right type of vibrant, youthful, edgy energy I wanted. I was curious how it might illuminate or contrast with what I’d been hearing about the country’s currently decaying situation.

Instead of focusing on Argentina’s ruin, the poet turns the mirror inwards, looking at her own personal failings. I was quickly greeted with the poet’s search for a past that had promised better times in her romantic life, and her hope for a future that would erase her present suffering as a loveless millennial. The book establishes and maintains a sense of impossible expectations that will never be reached, like when she writes “mas vale fantasia conocido que realidad por conocer“ (translation: fantasies are worth knowing more than the actual reality we know) in a poem titled “‘It could be worse’ is supposedly a comforting phrase.” Although she was writing about herself—the emotional abuse she’d endured in toxic relationships, a childhood that had crumbled into the confusion of adulthood—it felt representative of the nation’s whole body and psyche: that it was better to dream about what was once true, or what could be possible, rather than to grapple with demons of the present.

Interestingly, Quevedo had been living in the U.S. for a decade and writes in both English and Spanish, with a few poems mentioning her return visits to Buenos Aires as an increasingly Americanized adult, adding an additional layer of complexity to her voice as an Argentine woman. In a way, she fulfilled what many others had expressed to me about wanting to leave—she did, in fact, leave her country. The references, therefore, oscillate from Britney Spears and Instagram in the opening pages to poems written in the childhood voice and memory of her Argentinian abuela scolding her, which formed a wide and social-media-infused spectrum while I was reading.

Oddly, the book feels very North American in many ways, especially the poem titled, “Reunion: ahora lo unico que tenemos en comun es el pasado” (translated into “Reunion: The Only Thing We Have in Common Now is the Past)” which feels about as quintessentially nostalgic as anything a 30-something-year-old living in the U.S. would write. More than capturing the spirit of hopelessness for modern Argentinians, the poem conveys a universal desire for reverting to a better past, with an opening stanza that expresses: “People my age/ are talking about not what is/ but what was/ That’s how they handle the present.” The difference is that in Argentina the past literally indicates prosperity, so ruminating about previous decades is a way to escape the crush of economic crisis and empty stomachs; whereas in the United States, we mostly revisit our nation’s history as a reminder to avoid returning there, something we are trying to move away from as a population, not something we are trying to move towards. Nonetheless, the past guides us all.

Overall, the book felt like something that a person who grew up in the States might also write, but with a heavy sense of Latin American pessimism, dark humor, and desire for a better future that is built from intimately observing our yesteryears. Everywhere I’ve gone, it seems that there is a whisper—or in modern times, a scream—of emergency, and both Argentina and the poet Quevedo are proof that we can only rebuild from the rubble of our mistakes.


Alan Chazaro

Alan Chazaro is a former high school teacher at the Oakland School for the Arts, a Lawrence Ferlinghetti Fellow from the University of San Francisco, and a June Jordan Poetry for the People alum at UC Berkeley. A Bay Area native, his poems have appeared in ​Ninth Letter, San Francisco Chronicle, Puerto del Sol, Huizache, and​ Iron Horse Review.​ His first collection,​ This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album​, was winner of the 2018 Black River Chapbook Competition and his second, ​Piñata Theory​, was awarded the 2018 Hudson Prize. They are both forthcoming with Black Lawrence Press. He’ll be in South America and Mexico for the year so hit him at @alan_chazaro on Twitter.