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ISSUE:  Spring 1997

The city of Santa Fe is the capital of Argentina’s central province of the same name. It was founded by the conquistador Juan de Garay some four centuries ago. It is a flat, nearly treeless grid, white and ivory like an Arab town on the plain. The main plaza has a few torpid palm trees, some eucalyptus giving a feathery shade, several imposing government buildings of gray stone. On one corner of the square stands a picturesque white church with the numerals 1647 etched on its spire; within is a bell with a most unmusical clung. This place, the Merced, once served as an administrative outpost in the south for the vast Jesuit-ruled state that was created in Paraguay and northern* Argentina in the early 17th century to shelter the Guarani Indians from Spanish and Portuguese slavers. It endured from 1611 to 1768, when the Jesuits were expelled from Latin America. Two other churches stand nearby, the dark cathedral, also facing the plaza, and the Church of San Francisco, just beyond, near the water.

When I first came here more than 30 years ago, I was drawn to the tannic scented shops where they made black saddles, and to the breezy old taprooms, with their languid fans and snowy white tables; I went to the butchers’ stalls in the market and other places that were full of stories. It was a busy city at the time, with lots of bustling cafes and a nightly promenade up and down San Martin Street. In the early days, before my Spanish had advanced, I would sit at cafes along San Martin and read the English-language Buenos Aires Herald, shipped out overnight from the federal capital 250 miles down river. The promenade continues, but decades of economic depression and political crises in Argentina have given Santa Fe a down-at-heel look these days. The Herald’s influence has diminished and no longer reaches this town, which signifies a decline of the once large English-speaking population of Argentina. But even in decline, Santa Fe has its appeal. It is expressed in the old Spanish houses that remain, with their walls the color of old bone, the black window bars that protect the secrets of the household; they have a simple dignity I’ve never seen in dwellings anywhere in the world. They are deeply rooted in the past, these buildings, and one can imagine their disdain at the frailer constructions of modernity, utterly without pride, growing like weeds all around them.

In winter Santa Fe is wet and cold, subject to furious winds, the “pamperos.” In the summer it is torched by such heat that even the large insects that thrive there rarely crawl out for fear of shriveling in their carapaces. The sun is a hammer; the streets the anvil. Time has abraded old Santa Fe as much as it ever will. It is an immutable stone lying on the riverbank, inured to the wind, no longer affected by the unceasing rub of moving water.

The place is innocent, but not entirely. Firm in my memory is a plaza called the Parque de las Palomas near the port. Ships come up here to take the grain and seed of the pampas off to Europe; some continue all the way north into Paraguay, for the Parana, like the Amazon, is a river sea. The park has benches, a statue of a mother and child, a garden cooled in summer by a mammoth ombu tree. An aviary is there where hundreds of pigeons thrive. Every so often in the daylight hours the pigeons rise in a living cloud, circle the plaza, and reascend into the aviary. The sound of their wings is metronomic and delightful. I used to bring my little girls to feed the birds. I have pictures in my album: the children laughing, blinking in a blizzard of wings, casting bread into the eager beaks.

Years later after my children had grown and on one of my visits to Santa Fe, I saw workmen digging up the Parque de las Palomas. They were searching for the remains of victims of the Dirty War of 1976—80, when some 9,000 people, mostly young, disappeared and were destroyed by the agents of a lunatic military government. Someone in the city’s administration, determined to expunge the stain of that criminal aberration by finding every bone and the whereabouts of every disappeared victim, had decided the park— such an innocent locale—would be an unlikely, and therefore fruitful, place to look. They dug everywhere, even beneath the statue of motherhood. No remains were found, so the flower beds and grass were replanted. It is all right to go back there now. On my last visit I took my new grandson.

Of that vast and poignant vista comprising the town, the river, the pale green sweep of the land, it is the river which continues to impress me most deeply. The Parana is a limitless universe, opaque and impenetrable even to the taciturn boatmen who fish it and traverse it from one end of their lives to the other. It goes everywhere. It forms islands and washes them away; it destroys with indifferent power all flora not native to the pampas that it can reach, and it can creep for miles across the near level steppe. Imported ornamental trees and bushes, anything inappropriate to the place, is extirpated. It rises and descends with the seasons. At least once a year its waters probe the streets of Santa Fe and those of all the riverside towns. It glides in languidly, magisterially, though without evident malice, merely exercising its timeless prerogative. The “inundados,” the flooded ones, whose houses are invaded by the intrusive waters, camp out in tattered tents on the higher ground. They escape in their canoes. It is a flight repeated every few years.

Folksingers write songs of the Parana, and poets poems; painters render its Euclidian vastness from every possible perspective. The river encourages culture and sustains life, and occasionally it takes it away. That is the context of the first story told me in Latin America when I first came, three decades ago. It is a simple story, with nothing magical or surreal about it, unlike so many of the stories told in that part of the world. One could make more of it, impose a meaning, but that can be done with any sequence of events that produces a definitive outcome, any story. I have now come to believe that the story remains with me because it does not surrender readily to metaphor. Yet it can, and does, allude to things beyond itself. The story of Santa Fe which unfolded many years before my arrival, many years before I was even born, is the story of a cat, a priest, the church on the inlet. This was the church built by pampas Indians under the guidance of the Franciscans who Christianized them.

It is a true story, or true to the extent that it has a place in the formal, written-down history of Santa Fe. Charles Darwin related it in his Voyage of the Beagle, the book that described his travels around the world during which he collected the evidence to support his great theory. Darwin went to Santa Fe searching for fossils; he learned there of the near sacral ferocity of the beast in question.

The jaguar is one of the two great South American carnivores. The other, the puma, is the more formidable. Yet the puma will not attack human beings—this according to the renowned naturalist of Argentina, W.H.Hudson. In fact, wrote Hudson, the puma will not even fight back when attacked by humans. His explanations for this are only speculation, but without a trace of anthropomorphism. He suggests that human beings perhaps emit a scent that dulls the cat’s predatory instinct, maybe even disables its reflexes of self defense. But with all of his understanding of that vast, flat region where he spent his youth and wrote about so intimately, he didn’t really know. It was just an intelligent surmise.

The jaguar has no such disinclination or disability when it comes to humans. It is the larger of the two cats and even today may still be found in the more rustic parts of Argentina and Paraguay. The puma roamed the pampas and the desert of Patagonia. The jaguar preferred the forested and riverine regions north of the pampas, and the river islands, but both overlapped. The two cats are mortal enemies and were ever at each others throats in the territories they shared. Naturally, among the country people there is a greater fear of the jaguar, which is referred to simply as “el tigre,” the tiger. In Paraguay the Guarani call this animal “yaguarate.”

The jaguar of the story enjoyed its early existence probably in the reaches north of Resistencia in Argentina or in Paraguay. The Parana courses through those sleepy regions, slides by such towns as Coromba in Brazil, Concepcion in Paraguay, past the rustic capital, Asuncion. It is fed by waters surging out of Brazil’s Mato Grosso. That is where its immense watershed lay, spread across thousands and thousands of square miles. Through the spring and high summer those territories receive the heavy rains until, saturated, the water begins to disgorge southward down the Parana through the grasslands of Argentina.

One year when this gargantuan process of evacuation was underway the cat was captured by the river. Possibly it had clambered out onto a tangle of vines, water plants and sticks after a rat or some amphibious rodent, when the whole mass broke loose and swirled away from the shore. This happens frequently at that time of year, and the proliferation of this detritus in the Parana is the first sign of the coming flood to people down river. The people call these floating islands of natural debris “camalotes.” Often, in their course southward, they flower and ornament the spare beauty of the river. It would be a rare thing for an animal with the quickness and heft of a jaguar to be marooned on one.

No one knows where the cat had been taken out onto the water, but surely it must have been a long journey. For days the trapped animal clung to the drifting “camalote,” growing hungrier by the hour; thirsting for the blood of cows within its very sight, the few pigs surviving on the reedy elevations, it dreamed of the spoor of armadillos, the buzzing of dragon flies over the land. It drifted past the silent towns of the littoral, the abandoned wattle abodes of the “inundados;” it eyed the tent villages on the higher ground. To the south, in Santa Fe, the windowless church waited, sepulchral, dank and musty. A frayed maroon carpet ran up its center aisle like a beaten path leading to the gold door of the tabernacle where God dwelled. There were candles alight on the altar, lambent and feeble and barely illuminating the great beams flying overhead, the ribs of the nave, or the bowed and murmurous forms of the living congregation.

I remember that the story was told to me in a church: not in the Church of San Francisco, but in the cathedral where my sister-in-law was married. We were gazing, my companion and I, at a darkly varnished painting of one of the martyrs. It was on the wall above us. St. Steven, I think it was, and conversation turned to those who died for their faith, and the distinction, such as there is, between those and others who die during the simple exercise of it, though not necessarily asserting it. Is that a lucky death? Is such a question impious? This occasioned the story.

It was shortly before dawn when the camalote drifted from the main stream of the river into the inlet and nudged the beach below the Church of San Francisco. The first mass of the day was in progress. The priest blessed the host and bowed his head, his back to the congregation, mostly women in their shawls, the maids of the gentry who rise early to stoke the fires of the day. Suddenly the church was filled with fury. An unendurable cry tore the air anticipating an explosion of innocent slaughter. There are no written accounts left with much detail, only a brittle newspaper clipping or two. What is known is that the priest was the first to die, then one of the communicants at the mass before several others, not in flight or panic, managed to isolate the cat in the sacristy room. The law arrived as light was being born in the river. The jaguar was shot, dragged out of the church and thrown on the grass.

“Great folklore,” I responded. “You can make what you want of it. Nature’s cruelty. Man’s folly in believing he can create safe havens. God’s indifference.” Then, with even more exaggerated sarcasm, “Did the cat represent the devil?” But it all fell away meaninglessly on the still air. My companion did not smile. She walked out and I followed her across the plaza and beyond, to the river church. When we arrived, we entered through a small door beside the main entrance. We did not turn into the church itself but into an atrium garden thick with giant banana trees. Their leaves cast about like huge paddles and the yellow chaff from them littered the ground. Amidst that natural clutter and exuberant growth we found the pitted gravestone almost engulfed by the loam. Magallanes was the name, a Portuguese. The date was 1825.

“He was the one,” said my friend. Then we went into the sacristy where a heavy altar table stood precisely in the center of the room. A deep scar curved across it very nearly dividing the entire plane of its surface. This was the mark of the cat’s claw.

Then I came to believe the story, along with many other stories told to me afterward and in stranger places than this one. The more important things to me, I have found, are usually revealed unexpectedly, though they are not always obvious. Rather, they are like points of light exploding in the bright day, not readily discernible. There is that moment when they are there, that instant when they are recognized and seized by the mind with haste and alacrity, or lost forever. In the church I grasped the singular if simple notion that credulity is the only proof against the corrosion of cynicism. One does not have to readily believe in the improbable to live successfully in this world, but one has to feel it.

Even today I have no difficulty in imagining what happened in that church. And my imagination’s re-invention of it all is as valid as the actual occurrence since all the participants and witnesses and victims are long dead, part of the earth again with the cat, with the priest. Therefore it lives only in the imagination. That is its home, the past. It is part of the communal knowledge; it is in the world the way the story of Troy’s destruction already was when Homer wrote it, belonging to all Greeks, all peoples. It cannot be taken as the emblem of a single life’s passion or tragedy, or of that life’s search. It belongs to the collectivity, and resides in the minds of the people of Santa Fe. It is one of that community’s continuities. Parents tell their children of it; I told mine. And though my rendering of it may differ from the way it was told to me 30 years ago, it remains legitimate as long as I adhere to the principal points and remember that no matter what I do with it, the story and its elements are independent of me. Those who hear it and believe it become one of its guardians.

The jaguar leaps across the years; its great paw, the claws glistening like the eager beaks of predator birds, is curiously held, frozen in the eye of the mind. The attack recurs again and again, and the blood splatters across the starched white and gold fringed altar cloth. It is an unguided malevolence laying waste to life and purpose in what are regarded as halcyon times. There are no safe moments, no safe places. The jaguar is sanctified in time, - and the instrument of an awakening. As the river gives up the pacu, the surubi, and sends the white flesh of these fish to nourish those dependent on these waters, so it also yields this deadlier spawn, and compels a mortal symmetry.

These days the river has no direct access to the Church of San Francisco. The entrance to the inlet has been cut off by a roadway. The inlet is a lake now with a boating and swimming club across from the church and a bright yellow beach where the Santafecinos come to escape summer’s heat. The occasional tourist who arrives in the city will be directed to the church, for it is the oldest one in Santa Fe, built by the Franciscans, who came with the conquistadors. There they sell medals and holy cards and give away pamphlets describing the church’s origin. The Indian people built it, Indian people who are as absent from the region today as the puma and the jaguar.


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