Friday, April 18, 2008

Homer Simpson's Brazil, Capital of Buenos Aires

What's most bothersome to me, an Argentine-American, about the controversial dialogue among Homer Simpson's bar buddies regarding Juan Perón that has caused a stir in Argentina is what it says about how little each of my cultures grasps the other.

If you've missed the news, an episode of "The Simpsons" that mangles recent Argentine history has caused apoplexy in that nation's Congress and public opinion. The dialogue in question is the following:
Moe: "Who wants to abolish democracy forever? Show a hands!"
Carl: "I could really go for some kind of military dictator, like Juan Peron. When he 'disappeared' you, you stayed 'disappeared!' "
Lenny: "Plus his wife was Madonna."
To Argentine ears, the dialogue sounds something like this:
Marcelo: "Who wants to bring back slavery? Show of hands!"
Carlos: "I could really go for some kind of slaver, like Abraham Lincoln. When he enslaved you, you stayed a slave!"
Leonardo: "Plus, he was married to Vivien Leigh."
You remember, I trust, that Honest Abe was the author of the Emancipation Declaration and that Vivien Leigh was the English actress who played Civil War-era Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind.

Similarly, Juan Domingo Perón was a general who was cleanly elected to the presidency by landslides three times (1946, 1952 and 1973). He stood for unions, voting rights for women, the 8-hour day and almost every major social advance in Argentina in the 20th century.

The folks who, between 1976 and 1983, brought about a government campaign of kidnapping, torture and murder leading to the disappearance of an estimated 30,000 Argentines were rabidly right-wing military men who overthrew Perón's third wife, Isabel, from the presidency.

Madonna (born Madonna Louise Ciccone) played Peron's charismatic and still-revered second wife in the eponymous film musical Evita.

Sure, The Simpson's Moe, Carl and Lenny represent classic Average Joes you find in small-town or neighborhood bars anywhere venting hot air about things they know nothing about. The American me knows that these characters' mixups are supposed to be humorous.

Attributing the disappearances to the twice-widowed Perón is tantamount to blaming globalization on Karl Marx or saying that Adolf Hitler founded the State of Israel. Yet the Argentine me, who actually knew at least one disappeared person, finds the joke distasteful, perhaps as difficult as a Shoah victim's friend might find humor about Auschwitz.

The problem is not humor itself. Holocaust survivor Primo Levi's memoirs of his stay in the death camp "as a guest of the German government," as he facetiously put it, is full of humanizing humor that is perhaps the most effective testament to the absurdity of the Nazis.

Rather, the issue is how could one culture to which I belong know so little and be so callous about another culture to which I also belong?

I would be a billionaire by now if I had a dime for every time people who theoretically studied U.S. high school geography place Latin American countries within cities, as in "Brazil, capital of Buenos Aires." (Note to dropouts, or people whose diplomas should be recalled: Brazil is a country, Buenos Aires is the capital of Argentina.)

How can we Americans have the audacity to claim economic and military global leadership of a world about which we know so pitifully little?

Granted, we are not alone.

When I was in secondary school in Buenos Aires I delighted in responding to queries about the United States with tall stories, such as the one that all city buses had soda vending machines. No one ever became the wiser -- until they eventually came to visit me here in adulthood.

Therefore, I might conversely ask how Latin Americans can bear to hold as deep a grudge against the abuses of American power when there is so much about the United States that reflects their deepest dreams and aspirations.

These are the questions that bedevil a Hispanic man trapped between two cultures whenever the two collide, as they do all too often.
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