Self in the City: An Argentinean Exploration

by Carmen James
Carmen James is a Ph.D. student in the Philosophy and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia.

This summer, with generous funding from Columbia University’s Institute for Latin American Studies (ILAS) for pre-dissertation research, I travelled to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The three-month investigation, entitled Constructing Culture: City, Space and Advocating for Humanity, aimed to understand the role of city space in individual identity construction and how the city could be seen as a space for education.

While the investigation took on many manifestations, from understanding political and social history to the role of traditional rituals in a modernized city, this piece will focus on the ways in which cultural spaces were encountered and recorded. Based on the idea that individuals must enact their identities in city space, choosing where to reflect and interact and be outside of work, I took the streets as a fellow human, seeking respite and culture, affirming the human ability to create and partake in culture. Using the conceptual tool of cultural mapping, which involves photographing, participating, observing activity, recording location and people present, I sought to uncover a way of being in the city as a non-consumer, not fulfilling a task or chore, but reflecting, gazing at, creating or participating in cultural activity.

The need for cultural advocacy becomes essential as cities sprawl and spaces for cultural expression wither. Crucially, separating culture from consumerism (for example, the open fair of free music and dance at Feria de los Matederos instead of Broadway-style tango shows catered to tourists with $150USD price tags) is key to understanding how to be a creator in one’s own city.  Otherwise cultural centers and parks fall to the wayside in favor of spaces for consumption such as shopping malls, restaurants, and the unlimited experiences on the internet that can be had in the privacy of one’s own home. From these themes emerged the all-encompassing research question of how the city functions as an educational space.

I set out to the streets to uncover the ways the city educates. I used cultural mapping to highlight sites with educational potential. Another way of understanding the concept of cultural mapping is through the concept of the flaneur, a term popularized by the French poet Charles Baudelaire and critical thinker Walter Benjamin. The flaneur is someone who moves around the built environment, attending to the psychological and geographical contours of a city. This means moving with the perceivable interests and desire of those around her and the stark reality of a physical geography around her.

A flaneur is an observer, not to be observed, not out to be the spectacle, but rather to watch the spectacle. The flaneur is hyper-alert, which can be exhausting. All senses are on, attuned to the smells of the streets, the sounds and the lack of sounds, the conversation, and the touch of her feet to the ground. “Choripan!” And promptly a chorizo on a piece of bread, sizzling, fragrant, smoky and rich, is dished out to a long line of expectantly but patiently waiting portenos, the term for residents of Buenos Aires. The setting is Feria de los Mataderos, an enormous outdoor fair and horse and cattle show that happens at the outermost edges of the city. The fifty-minute bus ride there goes through some of the most dangerous neighborhoods of the city. The fair celebrates local artisan food and handicraft products, a series of giant parillas (barbeques), guachos (cowboys) dancing, live music, families, young and old people gathered together to spend together. Local residents in the surrounding streets open up their homes and sell meat off their own parillas and it feels like a city-wide block party. The excitement around connecting a space, sharing familiar foods and songs, is tangible. Isolated, these foods, movements, drinks would not be important, but since out of traditions they are part of activities that take place publically, they are vitally important for public bonding. Physical space is the ground you stand on, but that space is interwoven with metaphysical space, which is the cultural, historical, literary ground, the living space of human community.

Another common space in Buenos Aires is the cultural centers, such as the Centro Cultural Recoleta. Its countless rooms, corridors and sprawling architecture host a wide range of events from gallery exhibits to experimental music and light shows. On one visit was an exhibit by Isabel de Laborde called “Cordon Vegetal” featuring a series of painted and propped-up petrified wood from the Patagonia region.  She wrote on the exhibition wall, “El paisaje Patagonia es parte de mi paisaje.” The journey of Patagonia is part of my journey. “Esto es un viaje hacia la libertad y el espacio.” This is a journey towards liberty and space.  Laborde captures a theme in the project: born from a pressing realization that cultural spaces are vital to the health of a community is the realization that these spaces offer not only space for reflection and dialogue, but also space for expression of tensions and discontent where individuals can learn about history and discover shared experiences. The Centro Cultural is located in a tourist area of the city, near Recolata Cemetrary and in front of Plaza Francia where the popular Sunday market is held.  Along with fairs and public music shows, there is public art, such as a temporary sculpture built in Plaza St. Martin called Tower of Babel. In homage to the famous Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Library of Babel,” it was a tower built from thousands of books, and visitors could climb up a circular staircase that made up the center. At the end of the exhibit the tower was dismantled and the books were distributed to the public.

In the journal compiled over the three months I was in Buenos Aires, I wrote “The fall leaves, golden and brown, the leafless ivy across buildings, the snowflakes in store windows, it’s a cool summer for me and a cold winter for portenos. The cobblestones are uneven as is the experience of my walks and talks.”  A city is uniquely a construction of space where there is a purpose and point to movement through its passageways. The streets serve as a means to an end – to get to and from work. The function-based view of the city can ultimately be de-humanizing for city inhabitants. We build understanding with our memory, and because of this, we need to build senses of place in the spaces we inhabit by experience them, inhabiting those spaces for the sake of just that, for being in the park or before the wooden door or in the bustle of a street fair.

In this way, it is essential for inhabitants to lay claim to city space, to seek out their own unique experiences in the city, and to feel humanized by those experiences, whether it is appropriating a park for a group asado (barbeque) or milonga (traditional dance) or to take a walk and look at the open gallery of internationally acclaimed street artists. Empanadas, mate, street fairs, tango, milonga and dances abound. Women walk drinking mate out of a gourde, vendors have their gourd close at hand with a hot water thermos. A person sitting down in a park to drink mate, a traditional tea drunk out of a gourd with a metal spoon, for example, is not simply physically occupying a park drinking tea, but choosing to make space, both physical and mental, for an important tradition of Argentina. The work has just begun, and while the new bike lane in Buenos Aires drops off at various points to give preference to cars, making the lane ultimately useless, a sign of where the true interests of city planners lie, it represents a first step. With the belief in the need for cultural advocates to humanize today’s increasingly urbanizing and consumer-driven world, I began mapping out exactly how we use and engage in city space to begin to understand why it is essential.


An often mentioned place I encountered was Escuela Mecanica de la Armada (ESMA), once a naval training center.  ESMA was used during the dictatorship for interrogation, torture and executions and is now dedicated to the memory and to dialogue, discontent and unanswered questions around the missing people of the dictatorship. It is a bare museum preserved as a place to learn about, imagine and understand all the happened within those walls, all who disappeared and all that is left to be rectified. It hosts workshops, conferences and featured speakers. The space both keeps the memory alive and fuels the debate in the continued quest of answers around the question of disappearances during the dictatorship. Culture is not only famous oil paintings in a museum and women dressing to folkloric dances at fairs. It is shared memory about history as well. The complexity of the issue and the extraordinarily wide number of civilians involved, either as “adopters” of the disappeared babies, monetarily supportive or in other ways, is astounding and makes it an issue very much on the minds and in the daily cultural life of citizens. In 2006, one of the most important witnesses was kidnapped and has not been found. The sudden disappearance of an important witness as crimes were to coming to light has only made the trials and the presence of the past crimes more heavily felt. Now people assemble there to discuss recent events, new perspectives, to learn and generally share in an open and sparsely decorated space the memory and tragedy of a past era.

Carmen James is a Ph.D. student in the Philosophy and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia.  Her Masters thesis, titled “Imagination: A Practice of Attentiveness for Building Understanding,” was completed in May 2011 when she graduated from the same program. She is interested in strategies for incorporating a curriculum of aesthetics and ethics into schools, such as the way aesthetic experiences, particularly poetry and cultural centers like museums, can be morally and philosophically educative and how these types of experiences are critical for identity formation and for developing flexible and open modes of understanding. She has experience teaching at the elementary level, as a full time Kindergarten and First Grade teacher along with part-time experience at other ages. She has explored questions of culture, education and urban identity abroad, most recently in 2011 working with a grant in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She graduated with an A.B. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University where her Senior Thesis was titled “The Poet and the City.”