Saturday, 7 May 2011

Tales from Argentina - The O'Gormans......... (Part 3 of 6)

Growing Up

When Ladislao was ten, his uncle Celedonio gave him a hat for his birthday.

The previous day he had noticed a great commotion in the house and he assumed it was because secret preparations were under way to celebrate his age reaching double figures.  His dearest wish was to be taken to Buenos Aires – a five month round trip in those days – and he was sure this was being planned.

A few months earlier his grandmother Consuelo had called him to her bedside and told him in a tired voice that he should always obey his uncle for he owed him a very great debt of gratitude in taking him in.  Naturally he promised he would, although he kept to himself that he had begun to notice of late that he was expected to perform all the most menial tasks that his cousins were forbidden from doing, and that he was no longer being treated as a member of the family.  He saw that the old lady seemed to be entering a world of her own.  She died a few days later, and Ladislao had felt very much alone since then.  The situation was alleviated in some measure when his uncle realised that he was a good reader, and had started to call him into his office to read his correspondence out to him.

On the morning of his birthday he rose early and made his way to the kitchen, where food was being prepared.  He waited for somebody to wish him many happy returns of the day but it was as if he was transparent – they were busy rushing around and did not seem to be even aware that he was standing in the way.

By the end of the day he could keep up the pretence no longer.  He was hurt and angry, and finally his family noticed, but that was only because kind and loyal little Zoila reminded them it was his birthday.  Uncle Celedonio hurriedly made amends by inviting him and Zoila to join them for dinner, as the special occasion being planned was the entertainment of two special guests, who would be visiting them to discuss politics with Celedonio.

It was a wonderful evening for Ladislao.  The men were kind to the boy and when they heard that he was longing to go to Buenos Aires they told him at length of their own impressions of the capital, which they knew well.

When dessert arrived Celedonio seemed to remember his nephew’s birthday and on impulse removed his own hat from the hat stand in the hall and gave it to the boy.  It was clearly too big for him and Ladislao stood awkwardly with it, his face flushed with pleasure but not knowing what to say, when one of the guests – a journalist named Juan Bautista Alberdi who was to become one of the most influential liberals and political theorists of his age, saved the moment by saying to the boy –

“That hat will be very useful to you the day you travel to Buenos Aires.  You must come and see me when you do and I will help you to lose yourself in the city.”

Juan Bautista Alberdi during the 1830s

At ten years of age and almost the youngest in a large family, Camila had learned to stand her own ground and be precocious when the occasion demanded.  From her black nurse Blanquita she understood about Candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian religion brought over by the slaves from Africa, and was fascinated by the wild dancing she described.  Her greatest wish was to attend a Candomblé street party. 

It was unusual but not unheard of for a white child to attend a black gathering, and although Joaquina was reluctant at first, she consulted with the priest at their parish church of El Socorro, and he counselled that she should be allowed to go so as to get it out of her system.  Once would be enough, he said confidently. She attended with Blanquita and some of the servants, and was immediately drawn into the dancing.  Soon she was whirling round and found herself the centre of an admiring crowd who applauded her enthusiastically.  She playfully took a bow, and as she looked up she saw a pretty white teenage girl sumptuously attired in a red dress, clapping and laughing. 

It was Manuelita, the only child of  the Governor of Buenos Aires, Juan Manuel de Rosas, and Encarnación Ezcurra.  There was an eight year difference between the two, but there was something innocent and fun-loving about Camila that greatly appealed to Manuelita, accustomed as she was to being surrounded by sycophants and people trying to impress her.

Despite the difference in age the two girls were inseparable for the rest of the evening, and they became fast friends.  Governor Rosas strongly encouraged his daughter to attend these gatherings regularly – black people represented a third of the population of Buenos Aires at that time, and he was keen to consolidate his popularity with them.  Before they said goodbye Manuelita had informed her that her father intended to be present at the following Sunday’s Candomblé, and he would want to see her dance.  She would therefore send a carriage to collect Camila at 5 p.m.  She then disappeared closely escorted by several soldiers.

Juan Manuel de Rosas enjoying Candomblé

Camila was bursting with news of her success when she got home, and for once her father was pleased with her.  Here from an unexpected quarter was an opportunity for closer links with the ruler of the country.

In 1838 when Camila was thirteen years old, Encarnación Ezcurra, wife of Juan Manuel de Rosas and his solid supporter, died suddenly.  The city was immediately plunged into mourning and the interiors of every public building were draped in black cloth.  Four thousand soldiers escorted her coffin round the clock.  There were rumours that Rosas had not permitted her to receive the last sacraments for fear that she would reveal compromising information about her husband.

A month or so later an invitation arrived at the O’Gorman household.  It was written by Manuelita personally and had black and red ribbons in one corner.  “Long Live the Blessed Federation and Death to Unitarians!” had been inscribed by her personally across the top.  The letter was addressed to Camila personally and informed her that the Governor’s daughter would be at home to her friends the following week.

Camila had visited the Governor’s home before but had never been invited formally.  There was no doubt that Manuelita held the child in high esteem – she was too young to be motivated by self-interest, a frequent problem for the daughter of the most powerful man in the land.  They now shared piano lessons and enjoyed playing four-handed duets together.  Manuelita represented the older sister that Camila would have liked to have; Carmen and Clara often made fun of her, or were contemptuously dismissive of their little sister.  However the invitation gained the child so much prestige within the family that they were falling over themselves to offer her advice and their best clothes to wear. 

The real shock came from her mother who suggested a new dress for her – she had never owned a dress of her own, with two sisters from whom to inherit the hand-me-downs.  Astonishingly when she couldn’t decide between a pale yellow dress and one in cream, her mother purchased them both.

On the day of the gathering she found herself accompanied by her eldest brother Carlos.  Normally taciturn with her, she was further surprised to find him on his best behaviour – and in the carriage on the way there she learned why.  With the keen support of his family he intended to press his suit with Manuelita.  The recent commotion at home owed nothing to her parents’ pride in their little daughter’s friendship with the young lady, or even to respectful mourning the death of the Governor’s wife, and everything to their speculation with her childish friendship so as to gain advantage for their son.

The afternoon’s entertainment was a subdued affair, in keeping with the first family’s bereavement.  This meant no piano music and no singing, the common bond between Camila and Manuelita.  She seemed distant and grown-up to the young girl and Carlos made no headway with his suit.

Contemporary attire for a young girl

In the summer when Ladislao was 14 he began to read in earnest.  His thirst for knowledge centred around understanding current affairs in Argentina.  In his naive and simple way he attempted to discuss his liberal ideas with Celedonio, his uncle, who lost his temper with him and ordered him never again to speak of such things.  Ladislao was crushed.  His uncle had after all taken him in as an orphan and he owed everything to him.  He felt he had repaid his kindness with gross ingratitude and was never to oppose him again.

Celedonio’s star was rising and in 1841 he was to be appointed Governor of the Province of Tucumán.  For all his rough and ready intelligence and lack of schooling, he had learned well the importance of being on the right side and not asking too many questions.

Camila was sickened and frightened by the gory heads on spikes and the smell of terror all around her whenever she ventured out in the carriage.  She had seen a pamphlet wishing death to the savage Unitarians and she did not understand what ‘savage’ meant until she read Pedro’s letters to Blanquita when he described with relish the torture inflicted by the Mazorca on its victims.

Mazorca executions 

With indignation and passion beyond her sixteen years she challenged him on the following visit to Matanza.  She knew him to be an intelligent man, so how could he condone such bloodthirsty revenge on people who thought differently to Rosas, and – far worse - on the wives of these Unitarians whose sole crime was being married to them?  He responded brusquely telling her not to put on the airs and graces of the ruling class.  Blanquita was distressed by this exchange between the two people in the world she loved the best, although they were very fond of each other and made it up later.

Camila sought consolation from her grandmother.  As they talked she had intended to ask her the question the old lady enjoyed answering “How did you lose your fortune?”, but somehow instead her words got scrambled and she found her self asking “When did you lose your mind?”  Before she had time to apologise for such a rude question however, her grandmother had already replied and she could see that it was not La Perichona she saw before her, but Anita Périchon de Vendeuil, lucid and bitter.

“I didn’t lose it”, she said, “I hid it away”. 

She went on to explain that she had grown weary of being judged, of not being understood, particularly by her own sons.  “They had already locked me up.  I hid my mind from them before they could take that away from me too.” 

Seeing her granddaughter’s horrified look, she added gently “there is more to it than that.  I know I have changes of mood and lucidity and I don’t understand why, and that isn’t their fault.  Now tell me, are you in love yet?” 

“No abuela, and I don’t think I ever shall be,” she sighed.   Anita merely smiled.

“Are you in love?”  Father Colombres asked Ladislao.

The lad was now eighteen and would soon be reaching the point of no return in his chosen calling, the Church.  He felt restless and troubled but he could not identify why exactly, or what he should do about it.  He tried to explain it to the kindly bishop, which prompted his question.  In shocked tones he replied in the negative, it was just that he doubted his vocation to be a priest. 

Father Colombres heaved a quiet sigh of relief.  Vocation doubts he understood, and knew how to deal with.  He did not want to lose his bright postulant.  He suggested to Ladislao that he should go into retreat for a while to clear his mind, and shortly after that visited his uncle the Governor to obtain his approval.

Celedonio agreed, but Father Colombres noticed that he shrugged his shoulders as he said it, and left him in no doubt that he considered his nephew to be weak, indecisive and seriously lacking in initiative; if he did not become a priest he would never command any respect in life.  Going on retreat was for women,  however Celedonio was first and foremost a rosista, and as such wanted Ladislao to be ordained as quickly as possible, for Rosas wanted priests to teach the younger ones the party line on religion.  Father Colombres reflected as he made his way home that this was to be the beginning of a process of subjugation of the clergy to the Governor of Buenos Aires.

Father Colombres

Ladislao liked being on retreat.  He was given a tiny cell, and spent the day in silence.  He liked not having to talk to anyone; it helped to clear his mind to continue with the career mapped out for him.

After the death of his consort, Governor Rosas started to rely more heavily on his daughter Manuelita, who was now 27 years of age.  She lacked her mother’s fierce and overpowering character, but her gentle nature and cordial manner was a hit in diplomatic circles.  She was a good secretary to her father and understood him better than anyone – the effect of the contrast in their characters made them a unique and invincible team.

Manuelita Rosas

As the all-powerful despot that he was, he could dispose of his subjects at will if he deemed it necessary, and if he decided to be merciful he would let it be known that he had changed his mind after his daughter had pleaded with him, thus the concession was to his daughter and not to the victim.  There was a subtle difference.  It had been his weakness as a father and not his flexibility as a ruler that had prompted his change of heart.

Camila admired Manuelita but was terrified of Rosas, and the more she got to know her friend the more she realised that his own daughter was frightened of him too.  She had told her young friend once of a letter she had seen written by her father to John Henry Mandeville, the British ambassador, in which he stated that he foresaw a civil war in Argentina and that if he so much as doubted her courage before the sacred oath of freedom he would not hesitate to plunge a dagger into his daughter’s heart.  He could not tolerate fear.

There were some changes within the O’Gorman family.  Far from advancing his courtship of Manuelita, Carlos had become engaged to someone else, and seemed happy.  Camila’s youngest brother and playmate Eduardo had decided to join the priesthood, much to her dismay, and had become very solemn. 

She was lonely, and troubled by the daily violence and the way people hurriedly changed the subject if she mentioned it.  So she did what was natural for a young lady at the time – she went to her church, the Parroquia del Socorro, and confided in the parish priest who heard her confessions every week. 

This is the Parroquia del Socorro in Buenos Aires,
where the O'Gormans worshipped

The clergyman was aware that Rosas kept a very close eye upon men of the cloth in case of disloyalty, and wisely did not comment on all she told him, merely suggesting that when she married and had children one day, she would forget about all this.  However, in the meantime, why not visit the church more frequently and help others – for example read the Bible to the older folk, or teach children their first letters.  Camila readily agreed to this and so started her daily visits to El Socorro, where she found a new sense of purpose.

That year Ladislao finally got to travel to Buenos Aires.  He was still at the seminary when his Uncle Celedonio the Governor sent for him and instructed him to leave for the capital the very next day.  Naively, he still thought his uncle was at last fulfilling his promise to him years earlier, but as he listened to the Governor barking out instructions he had to recognise that this had been long forgotten. 

He was required to travel the 800 miles by coach with all speed to hand over some important documents to the office of the Governor of Buenos Aires, Juan Manual de Rosas.  He had been chosen because as a curate he would arouse no suspicions at the provincial borders where with all certainty there would be road blocks.

He did as he was told, and during the few weeks before he returned to Tucumán he walked as much as he could from one church to another.  What impressed him most however was his very first sight of the River Plate basin, as wide and limitless as the open sea.  As he gazed in wonder he imagined himself in a frail craft far over the horizon, and he felt that God would be with him.  This sense of the mystery of infinity served to reaffirm and strengthen his faith.

He was to return to the city for good two years later.

Source:  Wikipedia; "Camila O'Gorman, la Historia de un Amor Inoportuno", by Marta Merkin, 1997, Editorial Sudamericana.
Next Post:  Ladislao and Camila meet.

Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archives

Befores and Afters

A change from the usual.  I started off with duds, did an inexpert job in Photoshop, and came up with something different.  I don't think the final results look like a photograph at all - more like a drawing, but an interesting contrast.  See what you think.

Río Colorado, Patagonia


Carmen de Patagones


Museum, Carmen de Patagones


Plaza, Carmen de Patagones


1 comment:

Joyful said...

Another interesting story installment. Sorry I've fallen behind in the reading of them. The photos are interesting too...and I think the first edit looks most like a painting. Very lovely.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...