Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Tales from Argentina - The O'Gormans......... (Part 2 of 6)

The Story of Camila O’Gorman and Ladislao Gutiérrez


In an age when the arrival of a male child was a cause for celebration, Camila was the third daughter in a family of six born without fuss or fanfare in the dank winter of 1825.  The labour had been very long and had worn her mother out so that when she sank into a deep sleep she was not even aware of whether she had given birth to a boy or a girl.  The servants who attended the birth noticed that the child was very quiet and didn’t cry, which they felt was a bad sign.

Her parents were Adolfo O’Gorman and Joaquina Ximénez Pinto, a marriage of convenience such as was typical among the upper classes in a country where the culture was unchanged from the colonial days.  Marriages were important alliances for wealthy and influential families and love merely a lucky coincidence.  The Church too had its own vested interest in perpetuating its own and their wealth, using all its influence with the society matriarchs to ensure that the rich and the God-fearing kept together.

Adolfo was a strict and aloof man whose attitude to women had been highly coloured by his mother’s past.  Anita O’Gorman, his mother who has also been known as La Perichona, and about whom you learned in the last post, had brought shame on the family with her affairs and had preferred a licentious existence to being at home where she belonged, bringing up her two sons.  For this he would never forgive her.  Now her sun had set and he kept her in seclusion on the farm in Matanza, in a separate cottage where she lived amidst the faded grandeur of her past.  All her needs were taken care of, but Adolfo had ensured that she could not shame his family further or have contact with visitors.  He never used her name, merely referring to her as the Witless One.

His wife was a virtuous woman, but he had no time for her; she bored him and he let her see it by abruptly leaving the room if she started a conversation with him.  It seemed to him that she did nothing but complain.  When he heard that she had given birth to their third daughter, he didn’t return from the farm to see the child, and when he eventually did, declined the offer to pick her up, merely commenting that she was too small for his taste.

Joaquina suffered badly from headaches, and as a good catholic woman she accepted that they were the cross she had to bear.  There were times however when they were useful for keeping her husband away;  a moistened lace handkerchief across her brow as she lay in her bed with her eyes closed was sufficient to ensure that she had a quiet night.

A matron from Joaquina O'Gorman's time
- how she might have looked

At the time of her birth Camila had 2 brothers and 2 sisters, a third brother being born shortly after her in 1827.   The boys were all to have honourable careers.  Carlos would become a businessman like his father, Enrique was to join the forces of law and order and in time become a Police Officer, eventually founding the Buenos Aires Police Academy, and the youngest Eduardo became an ordained priest of the Jesuit order.  Their father was proud of their respectable occupations. 

The three daughters on the other hand were merely expected to bring no shame or dishonour upon the family and to marry well and have plenty of children.  His mother’s past scandalous behaviour was a wound that would never heal and he would ensure that his daughters behaved with the rectitude proper to their station in life, and never embarrass him.

Camila was looked after by Blanquita, a young black woman, the daughter of former slaves indentured to the O’Gorman family.  She had grown up as a child attendant to Joaquina, and was now old enough to take charge of her mistress’ youngest daughter.   Blanquita – ‘little white one’ - was a name that stuck when her family noticed her fondness for the little white flowers of the orange blossom (‘I like the little white ones – las blanquitas’).  She became devoted to Camila as soon as she saw her for the first time, and became attuned to her every cry and smile. 

She noticed early on that her charge screamed when she was put to her mother’s breast – the first of her children to do so.  A wet nurse was sought and though Joaquina was jealous at first, she eventually accepted the situation.  In any case she found that what with the organisation of the household and the servants, the attention demanded by her older children, the daily attendances to their parish church of El Socorro and the house gatherings she attended with other society matrons, there really wasn’t much time left for Camila.  And now that she was free of her obligation to feed her little daughter she found herself pregnant again, and with relief she passed her day to day care over to Blanquita.

Whereas in other well-to-do families the older matriarchs might have tut-tutted at this partial abdication of responsibility, Joaquina’s mother had died several years earlier, and her mother in law – La Perichona – was a recluse at the farm of Matanza, so the transition passed very smoothly to wet nurse and young servant girl.

Dancing the minuet, 1831

Ladislao Gutiérrez
Ladislao had been born in 1824, the year before Camila, and 1300 kilometres or 800 miles away, in the north western province of Tucumán.  Seventy-five years earlier his great grandparents had arrived from Spain and acting on advice headed north to Tucumán, only to find when they got there that it was a very impoverished area.  Nevertheless they purchased land at the foot of the Aconquija chain, and finding themselves short of funds, could not buy the cattle with which to stock it.  They opted instead for renting the land out for pasture, which reduced the income they had anticipated but was enough to live on.  They had five children, and of the three that survived, the only daughter Consuelo is the one which concerns us here.

Consuelo had two children, Angustias and Celedonio.  Young Celedonio was destined for a military career and eventually rose through the ranks and became a general.  His sister Angustias married a man of mixed Spanish and native blood, who died while she was expecting their first child.  She died in childbirth herself, leaving her newborn son Ladislao an orphan.  The family decided that he would carry his mother’s surname, and would be cared for by his uncle Celedonio, the general, and when his wife gave birth the following year to a daughter they named her Zoila and the cousins were therefore brought up together. 

(Tucumán, Lonicera archive)

Their grandmother Consuelo worried about Ladislao’s future.  He was a dreamy child who would disappear for hours walking in the starkly beautiful and rugged mountain landscape of Tucumán, staying out late because he enjoyed lying on his back staring up at the stars.  Being of mixed blood would be a hindrance to promotion in the military ranks, not to mention any social advancement. 

With the viceroyalty and its commercial structure now history, there was little commerce to be had because traders no longer plied between the River Plate and Perú.  The economy was centred around Buenos Aires 800 miles away and there were few opportunities for one such as him, even if he studied hard.  She decided therefore that the best career for him would be the Church.  He was still a little boy when she said to him words he would never forget.  “You have been chosen by the Lord”, she told him, and he felt very happy that as an orphan he had been singled out for such an honour.  He never doubted the vocation chosen for him.

Bishop Colombres kept an eye on the shy and sensitive future postulant, and gave him his first lessons in catechism.  By contrast his uncle was known as a man of poor education, an authoritarian and though astute and a good judge of men in the field, he was essentially a practical man who had no time for niceties and treated Ladislao somewhat roughly and with little compassion.

General Celedonio Gutiérrez

During the hot months of the year the O’Gormans would do what other society families did – they packed up and left humid Buenos Aires for their country estates.  It was not a prospect that was greeted with unmitigated pleasure by the womenfolk.  Their estate was in La Matanza some 30 kilometres (18 miles) south west of the city, to which they travelled by carriage.

The gentrification of the countryside had come about as a result of the example set by ruler Juan Manuel de Rosas, who was from a family of wealthy landowners and famous for joining in and doing whatever farm work was required - even as he was pursuing his political career - demanding no special treatment from his workforce.  When he became Governor of Buenos Aires in 1829 at the age of 36 his popularity was based on the fact that he saw himself as a ‘Restorer of the Law’, pledging to bring order and strict discipline back to everyday life, although he resorted to brutal methods to achieve this. 

The naturalist Charles Darwin met Rosas in 1833 near the Río Colorado as he was travelling through Patagonia, and was most impressed.  He later recounted a story about the governor having himself whipped for inadvertently breaking his own rule of not carrying a knife on Sundays.  This, he noticed, appealed to his men’s sense of egalitarianism and justice.

Charles Darwin, around 1830's

It soon became apparent that the rule of law and his particular interpretation of it were one and the same thing and it became a dictatorship.  He led the Federalist party, who wanted a federation of independent provinces within Argentina, whereas their opponents the Unitarians promoted the concept of a unitary state centred in Buenos Aires. 

The party he espoused sported a scarlet emblem, and the Unitarian’s colour was blue.  Thus he considered it a personal slight if each an every one of his citizens did not wear something scarlet – a ribbon, a badge, and red dresses or accessories for the ladies whenever possible. 

Federal Soldier of Rosas's time

Wearing blue was of course suicide, as was the discovery by servants – and their reporting it for a few pennies to the authorities -  that their masters were in possession of blue underwear or nightwear, and even if a shift contained too much blue embroidery.  As far as the men were concerned, if they had beards they even had to take extra care not to trim it in the form of a U, which might have betrayed secret support of the Unitarians.  To ensure a long and healthy life it was essential to show at all times that Rosas’s party was heartily supported.  For example, it was safer if all letters had the following written carefully and prominently across the top:

“Long Live the Blessed Federation!
Death to the Disgusting and Savage Unitarians!”

The press was censored heavily; Rosas personally vetted the daily Buenos Aires newspaper, La Gaceta Mercantil.  He had spies everywhere, and was assisted by a political organisation called the Sociedad Popular Restauradora, the Popular Society for the Restoration (of the Law), unofficially run by his wife, the redoubtable María Encarnación Ezcurra. 

Doña Encarnación Ezcurra, wife of Rosas

The military arm of the party was known as La Mazorca, consisting of former soldiers and policemen, guards and thieves.  On the flimsiest evidence they would comb house by house, arresting, torturing and delivering instant executions, usually by slitting the throats of the suspects, whose heads were subsequently displayed on spikes throughout the city as a warning to others.  Terror was his most effective government tool.  He used to say that he knew he was no saint and he did not seek praise; he wished it to be said of him one day that he imposed order and virtue at any cost.

Rosas considered himself to be a farmer, and in fact re-energised agriculture and animal husbandry.  Many merchants started to move their interests and capital to the countryside as it became fashionable to live off the land.  The children of immigrants learned to prefer barbequed beef to the paella of their ancestors, maté to tea, and so on, though it took the women a little longer than the men.  Refined society matrons often took a dim view of having to accompany their menfolk to their farms where they were expected to stay indoors and there was less socialising than in the city.  It was less comfortable; they felt more vulnerable both because of the presence of wildlife from which they feared injury, and because of unfamiliar locals from whom they feared rape.  Their daughters were kept indoors as much as possible.

A chic city lady from the 1830s
to show contemporary fashion

For Rosas, this was as it should be.  One of the guiding principles of his era was to promote austerity at all times among the middle classes.  Ostentation was despised, and for those who loved their satins and perfumes, a sojourn in the country estate was the equivalent of being buried alive.  This was so for Camila’s mother Joaquina, who would inevitably develop one of her splitting headaches as soon as she arrived.  She would head straight for her bedroom and not emerge for several days.

Their father Adolfo would take the two eldest boys out from sun-up to sundown to learn about farming, and the two eldest girls, Clara and Carmen, would have jobs to do at home, which had to be performed in strict silence out of consideration for their mother’s headache.

Blanquita would look after the two youngest children, Camila and Eduardo.  Camila loved to sing loudly, which infuriated her mother when she was nursing a headache, and on one particular occasion Blanquita was forced to take Camila to the chicken run and tell her that the chickens would enjoy her singing because they didn’t get headaches.  This also meant that she could watch her as she washed the clothes nearby.  What she didn’t realise till too late was that Camila could also be seen from a little cottage within the grounds at the rear of the farm. 

In it lived Doña Ana María Périchon de Vendeuil O’Gorman, alias La Perichona, alias the Witless One, as her son called her.  He had forbidden his family to go anywhere near her, but Camila was too young to know.  Age and lonely imprisonment had caused the old lady to drift in and out of a dream world of her own, but when she heard the eight year old singing lustily in the chicken run she was having one of her lucid days, and she called her over and asked her to sing to her.  Camila and Anita were clearly fascinated with one another, as Blanquita realised too late.  She dragged the child away after promising them both that they would see each other again, and swearing them to secrecy.

So a sort of game evolved, with Blanquita monitoring somewhat nervously.  Camila would sit outside her grandmother’s window and talk to her.  Sometimes she was lucid, sometimes not – Camila preferred her when she was carried away in a flight of fancy, which she would play along with.  She would express herself in extravagant language and flowery phrases, and refer to the viceroy as though he was about to turn up at any moment.  One day Camila asked her what love was.  She had heard Blanquita tell the others in the kitchen about her newly discovered love for Pedro, who tended the horses.  Anita was replying at some length, for it had ruled her past life and she had loved many people, when suddenly Camila saw her father approaching.

Hurriedly bidding her goodbye she had the sense to pick up an egg from the chicken run and explain to him that she had been gathering eggs.  He seemed to be in a good mood and took her hand.  She skipped happily beside him as they made their way back to the house, and then she inadvertently spoiled the moment by asking him whether he had fallen in love many times. 

“What sort of talk is that – what on earth are you talking about?” he bellowed, abruptly letting go of her hand.  The child realised that she had made a mistake, but did not understand why.  There were questions better not asked.

She was sad when March arrived bringing summer to an end and their return to the capital.  Reluctant as she was to say goodbye to her grandmother, she noticed that Blanquita was distraught at having to bid farewell to her new love Pedro.  Once they were settled back in Buenos Aires his letters started to arrive.  Blanquita could neither read nor write, and seeing her upset, Camila promised to learn as soon as possible so that she could help her.

She was as good as her word.  She persuaded her mother to let her join in with her siblings’ lessons, and was soon getting the teacher to devote more time to her and teach Camila her letters.  Within a short space of time she was able to read slowly and hesitantly – and all the servants started to ask her to read letters to them, preferring her beginner’s style to the more competent but inquisitive abilities of the local parish priest.  She enjoyed it all immensely.

Male fashion, 1830's

Source:  Wikipedia and "Camila O'Gorman, La Historia de un Amor Inoportuno" by Marta Merkin, 1997.  Editorial Sudamericana.

Next post:  Camila and Ladislao growing up

Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's digital archives

Patagonia, 2009

Tomás with his dog Felipe



1 comment:

Joyful said...

A fascinating second installment ;-)

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