Reyes’s hands, veiny and brown, would mix flour and water to make tortas fritas with the same gentleness they stuck a knife into a lamb’s throat. From Chiloé he’d brought a way of talking that dropped letters in many words; and memories of his father carving a canoe out of a tree trunk, of a stone mill turning wheat into flour, of circles of women spinning wool and singing: images from a faraway fertile land that, in the dry steppe where he lived now, seemed to him like fantasy. Not for me fishing and canoeing, hooks and nets, he used to say. But if you paid enough attention, you could tell from what he didn’t say that a part of him wanted to go back.
Reyes worked for my grandparents at their sheep station by Lake Cardiel in southern Patagonia. He arrived alone in the 1950s, and died alone some fifty years later. His coffin sits in our family vault in Piedrabuena, next to Grandpa Eladio and Grandma Angelina. He called himself a chilote, and so did everybody else, a euphemism whose meaning I didn’t know back then. He told me of a dinosaur skeleton hidden in a cave. He told me of a cave painting of a one-horned bison on a rock wall as tall as a mountain. He told me of a lady named Margot whom he had fallen in love with in Punta Arenas. Reyes was old enough to be my grandfather. I have no recollection of my mother’s father. I vaguely remember Grandpa Eladio. But I remember Reyes as if he were still right here, offering me a maté.
My grandparents’ sheep station is one of seven that surround Lake Cardiel. On a map they look like rectangular petals springing out of a blue daisy. In contrast to the Patagonian postcard pictures of snow-capped mountains and lush forests, it sits on the meseta: a tableland of low thorny bushes and grasses with yellow tips and dark roots. It is a desert of sorts, an expansive terrain that entrances the mind and always brings on a calmness in me.
Originally an open territory where the Tehuelche and Mapuche indigenous people roamed freely, hunting guanacos and rheas, moving their tents day after day following the rhythm of a nomadic life, it was subdivided by the Argentinian government in the early 1900s, once the occupation of southern Patagonia was complete. The best land went early on into the hands of the Braun-Menéndez tycoons and other powerful landlords, mostly British. The remaining acreage was subdivided into lots large enough to support a few hundred sheep and a household, and sold at favourable rates or simply assigned to families or men willing to put up fences, build houses and barns, and work hard to reap the fruits of the land: mutton and wool. At about the same time, the roaming lands of the Tehuelche and the Mapuche were reduced to a few small reservations, one of them about fifty kilometres from the Lake Cardiel shore called Reserva Lote 6.
My grandparents Eladio and Angelina purchased the estancia in 1946 from the first white man to hold title there, a Spaniard like my grandfather, a thin guy with bulging eyes who lived alone until he got himself a Tehuelche woman. The woman died on the farm and her grave lies beside the road leading to the house, a rectangular structure of iron bars that looks like a pen for a small animal. At the head of the grave is a cross engraved with her name: teresa barros. As a child, that grave scared me like nothing else on the farm, but it was also alluring, like the bottom of a well can be.
On a gravel road not far from the estancia, my eight-year-old brother Roni, a dark-haired boy, died in a car crash. I was two when it happened. Five years later my father, his eyes as blue as the lake, died in another car crash. By then my mother had separated from him and moved me and my siblings 2,000 kilometres away, so time and distance plotted against our going to the funeral. Six months later Grandpa Eladio passed away, from cancer and sorrow over the death of his eldest son, and the option of going to his funeral was not even on the table. By the age of eight, I was surrounded by death, living at close quarters with the ghosts of the three older men of the family, though I had never seen a coffin or attended a service. The grave of the Tehuelche woman – those iron bars rusted by rain and wind – was my first palpable image of mortality, and I projected all the others onto it, as if the death of Teresa Barros had been the original one, and all the rest had sprung from it. I knew nothing then about the ugly details of the conquest of Patagonia and the genocide of native peoples that opened the way for settlers. Nonetheless, her grave was preparing me to recognise historical truths.
Barrientos was younger than Reyes by more than twenty years. He wore dark shirts with a white kerchief around his neck, and bombacha trousers with a knife in the waistband. His cheeks and nose were reddish, his eyes black and sombre. As a memento of an old fight, one of his front teeth was missing. He liked telling the story of that fight. You could tell he liked it by how he lowered his voice and threw punches in the air. He spoke like an Argentine, but where he came from was never mentioned. Some people called him paisano, another word that hid something I didn’t discover until much later.
As Reyes grew older, Barrientos took over the butchering. His knife had a silver pommel with engraved flowers and traces of blue paint on the petals. I kept him company while he slaughtered. He showed me how to hang the carcass upside down so the blood would drip from the hole in the throat. He taught me to dress the carcass by sliding the knife between the flesh and the inner lining of the skin. Once he asked me to slip the knife in above the belly and work my way down slowly. He helped me haul the guts out – our hands covered in hot blood – and we threw them to the dogs. The lungs were red. The stomach, green. The dogs growled at each other over the feast.
The first day of every summer visit to the farm, Grandma Angelina sent me to the despensa to pick a pair of espadrilles. The despensa was a large room separate from the house where cans of peaches and pineapples with blue and yellow labels were stacked on shelves, next to bags of flour and rice, maté and sugar piled on wooden pallets. There were also tins of condensed milk and motor oil, cans of corned beef and pâté de foie, cartons of matches, jars of tomato sauce and pears in syrup and every other imaginable provision.
Sliding my feet into the espadrilles, feeling the hard hemp soles and the soft denim, transformed me. I turned into a rougher version of myself: a gaucho, a true Patagonian, a real man. At the time I was attending an all-male Salesian school where playing the guitar, reading books and shying away from fights was met with insults and beatings. My stepfather, echoing my classmates, called me maricón as a constant reminder of how little of a man I was. So those espadrilles, in my mind, turned me into an equal of Reyes and Barrientos and the other hands, men tougher than my stepfather and rougher than the roughest of my classmates. And believing I was like the peons for a while let me forget what people back home told me I was.
It wasn’t just Reyes and Barrientos I spent time with. During the shearing, which went on for almost a week, the farm was invaded by a crew of long-haired men with baleful stares who travelled like gypsies from farm to farm turning fleece into wool bales. Many shearers came from northern Argentina, where the shearing season started, and worked their way southwards through the summer. There were more than twenty men who lived on mutton, bread and maté; rolled their cigarettes with one hand; sang folk songs accompanied on a beaten-up guitar; and, when night came, stretched out in the corners of the barn and faded into silence. Their hands and faces were brown, like Reyes’s. I still remember the guttural and whimsical language they spoke among themselves, which sounded like music.
As a young teenager, I sat with them silently at their breaks. I shared their maté, smoked their dark tobacco. One late evening, they passed around a girlie magazine – nude women looking into the camera with a stare that was as arousing as it was frightening. They looked at the photos and whispered to each other. I could hear their quiet laughter, and I laughed too.
Ismael came with the shearing crew the summer I turned eleven. He was an antsy young man with long skinny fingers that moved like a concert pianist’s. He was the oiler, responsible for the smooth running of the motor that, through a mechanism of arms and gears, kept all the clippers swaying in unison, creating a hypnotic beat that gradually regulated the pace of every other movement in the barn – from the shearer to the fleece-sorters, from the bale-presser to me sweeping the floor.
Many years later I saw a photo of the young Kafka that reminded me of Ismael. He spent his short breaks cutting jumping jacks out of used oil tins. He painted smiley faces on them that looked like evil clowns, and put them together with a meticulousness that meant they barely needed a pull of the string to start moving. He gave me one with a crooked smile and a half-closed eye. I kept it for a few days and then I threw it away. It was too frightening to look at.
By the mid-1800s, the original settlers of southern Patagonia – the indigenous nations that had lived there for centuries – were faced with the relentless arrival of new settlers. These were mostly fair-skinned men with long beards; men with no children, no estate and no reputation to look after, social outcasts from every corner of Europe and North America. These were people willing to journey to the other end of the world to make a quick buck hunting whales, wolves or nutrias. Some came looking for gold, after newspapers reported in 1883 that sparkling nuggets had been found on the muddy coastline of Tierra del Fuego. These men considered the world inherently hostile and unfair, and didn’t see much difference between shooting a guanaco and an indigenous person. After the few years it took to exhaust all gold reserves, most of the Selk’nam population lay underground with a deadly bullet from a gold prospector; while the rest were being deported to the Salesian mission on Dawson Island to die a slow death of isolation and sadness.
By the dawn of the twentieth century, the territory taken from the indigenous peoples had been subdivided and was in the hands of assorted landlords. The prospect of work attracted European field hands like my great-grandfather, who crossed an ocean for wages two or three times higher than back home – men looking for a new Jerusalem in which to grow the next branches of their family trees. But most of the hands they’d work alongside were Tehuelche or Mapuche, tough men cheated out of their land and language; scorned men hiding behind words like chilote or paisano; men sentenced to a life without wife or children: the last branches of their family trees.
I visited Grandma Angelina shortly before she died. My aunt Ursula had called me. It can happen any time, she said. So I went. Grandma was eighty-six, and still washed clothes on the cement washboard, gave me jars of sour cherry and calafate jam to take home, and went fishing with me on the lake. She passed away three months later of a weak heart, and I returned for the funeral. Her face in the coffin was unrecognisable. The flowers of the wreath I ordered on the phone were plastic.
After that trip, distance and her absence from the farm discouraged me from going back – until an idea for a novel made it indispensable. The novel would be called Los hombres más altos, the first of a trilogy about southern Patagonia told through the lives of the Tehuelche people, the field hands and my family. Twenty years had passed and there were many memories I needed to reclaim: the redcurrants, round and shiny as pearls, I picked under the Lombardy poplars; the dry smell of corn cracking inside the grinding mill; the wind howling through the willows. I wanted to see again how the cañadones turned yellow and orange at sunset, how the blues of the lake danced to the movement of the clouds. I wanted to lie down on a haystack, bury my nose in the fleece of a fat sheep, see light until midnight in the endless summer days.
By the time I returned to the farm, I was living in Buenos Aires, a city of millions. There I disappeared under clouds of smog coughed up by forty-year-old trucks, tripped on the broken sidewalks and shared the narrow bike lanes with carts of indigent dumpster-divers who were part of my daily routine – features of a so-called ‘peripheral’ country that used to upset me when I was younger, but had begun to comfort me. Through the chaos and the frustrations, I recognised an unruly humanity that I would miss in the orderly subdivisions of Washington, or on the manicured boulevards of European capitals.
As a man of fifty who had lived in the US and Europe for over a decade, I considered myself almost cured of the fascination with the North that most Argentines seem to be born with. A line joining South Africa, Argentina and Australia made more sense as the centre of my world – southern hemisphere countries that share similar colonial histories, vast and mythical inner territories (Patagonia, Outback and Karoo), and the singularity of celebrating New Year covered in sweat and wearing bermudas and short sleeves. Countries with troubled histories of genocide and dispossession, children of colonial parents who need to talk to each other without the mediation of the north.
I was harbouring a southern feeling, a deep connection with the South of this real world, where I was born and will probably die. A unique world – in the words of J.M. Coetzee – with its unique skies and its unique heavenly constellations, where the winds blow in a certain way and the leaves fall in a certain way and the sun beats down in a certain way that is instantly recognisable from one part of the South to another.
As I researched my novel about the Tehuelche I uncovered the horrors of the Argentine occupation of Patagonia – the killings, the concentration camps, the invisibilisation of thousands of people under a veil of lies and oblivion that most Argentines are still happy to accept. As I dismantled one by one the official narratives of what is still called ‘the Conquest of a Desert’ and replaced them with the reality – a blatant invasion of a foreign territory half the size of the original Argentina, inhabited for centuries by indigenous nations with complex lives and interrelations more humane than the Spanish and Portuguese ex-colonies ever had – it became clear that Argentina, infected by the colonial disease of the North it had fought so bravely to free itself from, had turned into an even crueller coloniser. I began to discern new norths and new souths.
On the flight to Lake Cardiel, as I looked out at the endless plains that cut off Patagonia from the rest of the continent, it occurred to me that there was not only a south, but also a south of the south – and that was where I was heading.
I was driving Aunt Ursula’s truck when the blue waters of Lake Cardiel appeared in the middle distance. I prefer for men to drive, she said before taking the passenger seat. Ursula is my uncle Muñeco’s widow, a short lady with an easy laugh who recently retired as a school principal. While we skirted the edge of the lake, she told me how most sheep stations in the area had been abandoned. Persistent droughts, the meagre price of wool and the ashes of a Chilean volcano that killed half a million sheep in the early 1990s were the last blows to a system in agony – a failed colonisation project. My aunt and my cousins, however, are set to defy the trend. Our grandparents’ farm, which they now run, is one of the few still in operation in the area.
The deserted sheep stations, once inhabited by people I knew and cared for, were not the only changes. Ursula warned me about her ‘improvements’ to the house, but it was still shocking to see Grandma’s square kitchen turned rectangular, her pastel-green walls painted a hideous beige, the white enamel wood stove replaced by a black iron one. Outside the house, among the four acres sheltered by willows and poplars planted by my grandparents, the vegetable garden had vanished. The crisp lettuce that Grandma harvested right before lunch, the crunchy radishes and the juicy potatoes, had been replaced by produce bought in the supermarket before we left town – wilting already in the back of the truck. You can’t find anybody to take care of a vegetable garden around here any more, Ursula apologised. And too much bending is not good at my age, you know.
The house of the peons had also been upgraded. There was a new tin roof and a larger bathroom, but I could still recognise the green bench where I used to sit and talk to Reyes, the oval table where we played cards with Barrientos. I knocked and walked in like I used to. A stocky man, wearing a black beret and a red waistband, was seated by the wood stove listening to the radio. His name was Tito. We shook hands and I grabbed a chair. I didn’t seem to need the magic of the espadrilles – as soon as I started talking, my accent changed and I knew what to ask. We started off discussing the national rodeo competition, then I asked about his dogs (two furry mongrels I had seen outside the door), and then his horse (which I hadn’t seen yet). He fixed a maté and told me about his last visit to town, how he lost his second horse betting on dice. It wasn’t a very good horse, he said. We were both feeling increasingly comfortable. He talked about his brother, how he was killed by a truck while walking along the road on a moonless night. He was very drunk, Tito said. There was also a story of a brothel, a new black Dominican girl everybody fancied. Tito’s stories were painfully similar to those I used to hear from other peons thirty years before, men trapped in cycles of isolation on the farms, relieved by occasional days in town splashing all their wages on cheap liquor and worn-out women. In a place where many things are changing, the fate of the peons remained unaltered.
At some point, I asked Tito where he was from. He told me he grew up in Reserva Lote 6, that he was a Tehuelche. I looked at his narrow eyes, at the whiskers growing on his chin. I looked at his hand as he passed me the maté gourd, the nail of his middle finger turning purple. My heart raced. I was lost for words for a moment, and then all I was able to talk about was the novel I was writing, the research I’d been doing about the Tehuelche. I explained to Tito their rituals and hunting methods. He smiled and said nothing. Then I ranted against the Patagonian invasion, against Argentina freeing itself from the metropolis only to turn around and kill, displace and subjugate tens of thousands of indigenous people. Tito kept smiling, but I was not sure he understood why I was telling him all this. I didn’t know how to go on. Should I talk about Tehuelche students in Salesian schools, made to kneel on corn kernels as punishment for speaking their native tongue? About the children abducted from their mothers to be whitened in state institutions, as late as the 1980s? Should I admit that I cried watching a documentary about 85-year-old Dora Manchado, the last living speaker of their language – Dora, who recalled how she hid her indigenous background to avoid being treated like dirt? Tito’s silence told me to shut up. He went back to the topic of the rodeo, we drank a couple more matés and I left.
Back in the house, Ursula was baking bread. The aroma coming from the oven was different from Grandma’s in ways I couldn’t explain. I asked her about Reyes and Barrientos, but I already knew the answer. Most peons in our family’s sheep station have been indigenous, she says matter-of-factly, but we never called them that. Clouds drifted sluggishly over the lake. Tito’s dogs were howling in the distance. It was almost sunset, and the blues of the waters, the ochres and oranges of the cañadones, the browns of the meseta were getting brighter and brighter.
My gaze wandered through the window, towards everything and nothing, while I thought of the hands – the hands that helped me up onto a towering horse, the hands that taught me how to shuffle a deck of cards, the hands that scythed the alfalfa and sheared a sheep – the work, the habits, the repetition of care. Hands that helped me see myself differently from what my stepfather and the school bullies told me I was – and I was grateful for that. It may have been the same white-European-male system that hurt us all, a system that conceived and built just one world, with little room for different strands of humanity and less for indigenous people. And yet to think of that only highlights my privileged position: the one barely grazed by shrapnel being tended by the heavily wounded.
Feature Photograph: Fabián Martínez Siccardi, age seven, at his grandparents’ sheep station, Lake Cardiel, Argentina, 1971
All photographs courtesy of the author