Christmas in the Summertime
By Ethan G. Salwen.
After a year and a half of living in Buenos Aires, my beautiful Argentine girlfriend dumped me. A month later it was Christmas, and I needed a distraction — and maybe some beer. It was a great time to satisfy my curiosity about Villa 31, the notorious slum. Everyone had been insisting I would die if I went there.
The people here in Argentina’s capital are known as Porteños, and they can be both mistrustful and selflessly helpful. When I got to Villa 31, this man warned me to be watchful, by repeating “ojo,” or “eye” in Spanish, because I was a walking target with my big fancy camera. Then he invited me to tour his community radio station, perched above the makeshift buildings of Villa 31′s open marketplace. Not a bad start to my first visit. We were only a street away from the busy Retiro bus terminal, and less than two miles from the Casa Rosada, or Pink House, which is the White House of Argentina.
Even the dogs were giving me the ojo. But at this time of year, it’s summer on this side of the globe, and everyone was dressed comfortably and casually. There were Christmas decorations, but no sleigh bells. I could see I wasn’t going to die here. And instead of making me a mugging statistic, my trusty camera helped me win friends: when I snapped a shot of the dog, young men, mostly shirtless, cheered “Foto! Foto!”
Christmas may be a religious holiday, but it’s also another opportunity to indulge in the great Argentine mania for grilling meat. The intoxicating, smoky aroma of asado, or Argentine-style barbeque, started up a little early even though everyone — children included — would be staying up all night.
Children were everywhere. Some began tearing through the alleys and passageways, some of which were only ten feet wide.
Adults were busy getting ready for the long night ahead. Some of them offered me beer and sparkling wine, which I happily accepted.
I saw one man sweeping his doorway. Others prepared coals for their asado.
Kiki has lived here for thirty years, and he stuffed me with asado. He seemed to know everyone who passed by, exchanging greetings and the traditional Argentine kiss on the right cheek.
Kiki introduced me to his swarms of family, and his son even invited me inside to dance to updated versions of traditional cumbia music. Not only did I feel like family, I had forgotten about my love troubles.
The children carried their own lighters to set off firecrackers, sparklers, and bottle rockets.
At midnight on Christmas Eve, the celebrations reached a crescendo, with toasts, hollering, and children setting off their biggest and noisiest fireworks.
As I sat between two of my new friends, I felt a bit ridiculous for having been wary of visiting Villa 31. I didn’t die. I no longer felt lonely or heart-broken. And I realized I was having the best Christmas of my life.
Ethan G. Salwen is a writer and photographer from the United States with a gift for using his camera as a diplomatic sidekick wherever English isn’t spoken. He currently lives in Buenos Aires, where he continues to improve his Castellano, the Spanish spoken in Argentina.