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Category: In the press

119. new york times, 10 jan 1999

Written before tourism took off in Argentina, this interesting piece by Barbara Cansino skillfully avoids many of the clichés found in more recent articles about Recoleta Cemetery. It’s also interesting to see how things have changed since then:

“In Buenos Aires the elegant neighborhood of Recoleta is the fashionable place to stay, to while away hours in cafes and museums, to walk the poodles in the park. And when it’s all over, it’s the place to end up. Across the grassy way from the outdoor cafes, a great white portal marks the most exclusive address of all: Cementerio de la Recoleta, Recoleta Cemetery, burial place of Argentina’s elite. Here patricians and presidents, heroes and heroines, rest in astonishing grandeur.

Mausoleums built side by side resemble Greek temples, Gothic chapels, Egyptian pyramids, fairytale grottoes, postmodern boutiques — or just elegant little houses. They have marble steps, wrought-iron doors, appointed interiors. There are marble Saviours and Madonnas and sculptures of the departed and their pets. The city skyline gives way to palm trees and cypresses, crosses and steeples, busts and domes, great stone angels reaching to heaven. The mausoleums can cost the earth. And the earth they are on, occupied by generations of the high-born departed, is the scarcest — and costliest — land in the country.

Recoleta Cemetery is one of the world’s extraordinary graveyards, a study in architecture and sculpture, a country’s history, mores and soul. A number of tombs are national historic monuments. It is a place of spiritual beauty and extravagant taste. And thanks to Madonna and Broadway, it is hotter than ever as a tourist attraction. Travelers stream through the portal, cameras in hand, and ask the custodians the way to ”Evita.” Some even ask for ”Madonna.”

Evita’s tomb says ”Familia Duarte,” her maiden name, and — with a simple black facade on a narrow side street — is nothing special by Recoleta standards. The masses of flowers, however, the crowds of visitors and the fact that she is there in the first place — surrounded by the rich she despised and who despised her — are ironic. In this enclave of wealth, with tomb inscriptions from national banks and the elite Jockey Club, the plaques to Evita are from the Buenos Aires Taxi Drivers Union or the General Confederation of Labor, an umbrella organization of unions. The inscription in Spanish on the latter plaque ends with her battle cry, first used by Spartacus in leading a slave revolt against the Romans:

”. . .I keep the hope for glory,
I wish only to serve
The humble and the workers”
I will come back and I will be millions. . . !

Eva Perón plaque, Recoleta Cemetery

On a given Monday there are three huge floral arrangements at her tomb. Carnations, roses and fuchsia are stuck in the door wherever there’s space. Fourteen people are crowded three deep, most of them tourists, posing for photos in front of the plaques, discussing why they are there.

A curator from Bilbao: ”I visit cemeteries. In Paris I go to see Oscar Wilde. Here I came to see [Domingo] Sarmiento, one of the fathers of the country, and Eva Peron, who worked for the poorest of the country. She was a myth who overshadowed Peron.” A tourist from Dallas: ”I saw the musical five times in Los Angeles.” A British Airways flight attendant: ”Argentina’s not Argentina without Eva Peron, is it? And I thought Madonna, the actress who portrayed her, should have won an award from the Academy.” And, on a quiet weekday morning, away from the fray, an old woman with no teeth and holes in her shoes stops at the tomb, touches Evita’s face on a plaque, deposits a bunch of daisies and prays.

Evita aside, the main attractions of Recoleta are the architecture, the grandiose aura, the sense of rubbing shoulders with Argentine history. The cemetery, inaugurated in 1822 and redesigned in 1881, encompasses 13.5 acres. The departed include Argentine presidents and vice presidents, governors, generals, admirals, industrialists, publishers, judges, doctors, professors, writers, poets, scientists — and their families. Some of them — Alvear, Dorrego, Pueyrredon — are familiar from the Buenos Aires streets and plazas that bear their names. Others, such as Jose Estrada, are known from the Literature of Argentina shelves in bookshops. Still others, such as Dufour, Barchiesi, O’Shea, Zoltowska or Breitman, reflect the many facets of Argentine society…”

The original article, along with two more pages of text, can be found here. The above photo is by the post author.

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066. mansions of the night

Marcelo writes about a recent photo exhibit:

Even though I’ve loved photography for a long time, I never had the chance to show my pictures in a exhibition. A couple of months ago, Eugenia—a dear friend from the “El Acorazado de Bolsillo” poetry magazine—offered to let me set up a one-night show in an old house in the city of La Plata (70 km south Buenos Aires). I had no doubt about the topic: images of cemeteries. I also chose the date for the show, November 2nd, traditionally known the Day of the Dead in many Western cultures.

I had a huge amount of photos to choose from, but most of them were taken with my old BenQ camera with very low resolution & I couldn’t make good large-size prints with them. But a week before the exhibition, Robert & I went again to Recoleta Cemetery & found a sky full of clouds, perfect for the macabre style of pics I wanted. Those photos were the core of the show.

Las Mansiones de la Noche, Marcelo Metayer

The exhibit was named “Las Mansiones de la Noche” and was a really great experience… a lot of people looking at the photos, discovering images & unexpected tricks of shadow and light. It’s as if the photos weren’t mine anymore… they belonged to the beholder.

Las Mansiones de la Noche, Marcelo Metayer

Now I’m trying to exhibit the pics in other places. Next time it could be in Buenos Aires… who knows?

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060. herrera-noble

Herrera-Noble, Recoleta Cemetery

Roberto Noble founded Clarín on 28 August 1945 & is currently the most widely distributed newspaper in Argentina with over 400,000 copies printed daily… notable for retaining the tabloid (not broadsheet) layout to this day. The entire first edition was released as a PDF for its 50th anniversary in 2005. Below is that first front page headlining the atomic bomb dropped in Nagasaki & subsequent end of World War II:

Clarín, first edition

After Noble passed away in 1969, his wife—Ernestina Herrera de Noble—has successfully managed the paper. In the 1990s, she branched the company into all types of media. Currently the Grupo Clarín owns:

  • an AM station (Radio Mitre)
  • an FM station (99.9)
  • the AGR publishing facility
  • multiple regional newspapers
  • a national news agency (DyN)
  • the Canal 13 Buenos Aires public tv channel
  • three major cable stations (24-hr news coverage with Todo Noticias, sports coverage with TyC & classic Argie programming with Volver)
  • the Multicanal & Cablevisión cable networks
  • much, much more!

Herrera de Noble appeared in the news in 2002 after being indicted for adopting two children during Argentina’s last military dictatorship (1976-83). The children were up for adoption since their parents had been killed by the government & supposedly figured among the nation’s estimated 30,000 desaparecidos. The trial was later ruled in Herrera de Noble’s favor & charges dropped. But the results weren’t good enough for some people… additional DNA screenings performed in December 2007 proved negative for two families claiming to be birth relatives. Important not only for healing wounds caused by a dictatorship 40 years ago, other families will likely think twice before attempting to claim the enormous fortune of Herrera de Noble.

The adopted children underwent further DNA screening in July 2011, with results compared to the national DNA database of families who had children stolen during the years 1975 & 1976. All results were negative & hopefully the issue has been put to rest. At this point, many feel a formal apology should be issued since President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner & Grupo Clarín have been at odds for years… CFK likely hoped to send Ernestina Herrera de Noble to prison for human rights violations.

The Sociedad Argentina de Actores y Compositores de Música left a beautiful wreath in January 2008 on the anniversary of Noble’s death. During his time as a Representative in Congress, Noble pushed through a 1933 law establishing intellectual property rights.

S.A.D.A.I.C. wreath, Recoleta Cemetery

Ernestina Herrera de Noble passed away on 14 June 2017 at the age of 92. Clarín published an extensive biography of her life & success at the helm of company holdings. Three weeks before she passed away, Herrera de Noble was absolved from another court case backed by CFK’s former government. Ernestina had the last word after all.

Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery, Ernestina Herrera de Noble

Last image published in the online edition of Clarín.

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057. new york times, travel section

Our former walking tours of Recoleta Cemetery appeared in the 04 Feb 2007 travel section of the NYT:

To most visitors, the Recoleta Cemetery in the upscale Recoleta district (intersection of Junín and Guido) is known as the place where Eva Perón’s body is buried. But the graveyard is also the final home of several presidents, scientists and other influential Argentines. Urban Explorer [a company ran by Robert from 2003 to 2008] offers a history-filled recorded tour through the Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Modernist-style mausoleums. Highlights include the tomb of Luis Ángel Firpo, an Argentine heavyweight who once knocked Jack Dempsey out of the ring.

The original article can be found here.

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041. map recommendation

Budget Travel magazine (published by Frommer’s) highlights Buenos Aires in their latest edition.

Budget Travel, Dec 07/Jan 08 issue

Among their suggestions for activities while in town is a visit to Recoleta Cemetery… & to buy a map from me. I couldn’t agree more :)

Budget Travel, Dec 07/Jan 08 issue

For more info, click on the “walking tour map” link in the left sidebar. Thanks to all those who have already purchased a map… proceeds help keep this blog going!

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035. clarín, 11 nov 2007

Very few burials in the city’s first public cemetery

Recoleta Cemetery, between tourism & abandon by Nora Sánchez

In plain sight are delapidated roofs, vegetation, unlocked doors, deteriorating caskets & broken glass & marble caused by lack of maintenance, theft, & vandalism. But each day it receives more & more Argentine & foreign tourists.

Each day Recoleta Cemetery receives hundreds of Argentine & foreign visitors. The total is calculated to be 1,500 per week, although guides say that there are more than 1,000 per day. But while tourism is on the rise, the actual functioning of what was the city’s first public cemetery is on the decline. In the first 6 months of this year there were 127 burials, less than one per day. As certain families have left no descendants, there are vaults decay due to lack of maintenance & forgetfulness. Tourists stroll between sepulchres with faded names & broken marble.

While searching for Evita’s tomb or discovering the sculpture by Lola Mora on the López Lecube family vault, the visitor encounters others not so well cared for. Like that of Luis Vernet, first governor of the Falkland Islands, which has broken ceiling vents. The July 2006 hailstorm was disastrous. Glass rooftop fixtures were destroyed & not all were replaced. There are coffins which are practically out in the open. “People who take my guided tours ask me why nothing is done for those monuments,” says historian Eduardo Lazzari of the Council of Historic Studies of Buen Ayre.

Broken casket, Recoleta Cemetery

“There are many neglected vaults, but that does not mean that they are abandoned,” states architect Antonio Constantino, head of the Dept of Works of the General Cemetery Administration. “In fact, they continue to serve their purpose. In some cases it is difficult to determine if the owners passed away completely or if they live in another city. Furthermore, a cemetery should not be pristine, & it’s ok that some tombs reflect the passage of time.”

Disorder can be seen in certain open vaults, as if someone had been digging for posthumous treasure. “Although it has been stopped with better private & public police surveillance, until recently antique dealers used the cemetery to collect items to sell,” reveals Constantino.

Cobwebs accentuate the gloomy atmosphere, broken by cats that sleep in the sun on top of certain tombs. Someone feeds them well between the sepulchres. Life also breaks through with plant life invading vaults where no one visits.

Vegetation, Recoleta Cemetery

“So-called abandoned vaults are really not abandoned: since they are private property, when the original owner dies they are passed on to their heirs,” explains Horacio Humberto Savoia, of the Friends’ Association of Recoleta Cemetery. “It’s true that in some cases it is difficult to find them but not impossible. We have contacted families who own vaults in poor condition &, under the guidance of our association, repairs have been done… even complicated restoration.” The entity collects funds by selling maps at the cemetery entrance for 4 pesos.

“For the last 10 years basic repairs have been done, from the walkway tiles to the drainage system & lighting,” says Constantino. “Two galleries of niches have also been restored so they can be used & the third will be repaired soon.”

But the vaults, granted under a law of perpetual concession, should be maintained by their owners. “Some [tombs] pre-date the existence of the Civil Code,” affirms Lazzari. “Since a new census/inventory has never been done, the present condition of all the tombs is unknown. And the property register is given to the owner.”

Owners pay an annual fee of 38 pesos per square meter for vaults that are valued from U$S 22,000 to numbers with 5 zeros. “There are those who pay the fee but fail to maintain the tomb,” says Constantino. “Sometimes damage from humidity in one vault affects its neighbor & if the owner can’t be found, we have to authorize the affected neighbor to repair both.”

In the stone of a sepulchre, a tourist named Andhy [sic] clumsily scratched, “Fuck him, yeah.” Also some vaults with niches have broken marble through which half-open boxes seem to creep out. “There is a lot of vandalism: last year some kids hid inside after closing hours & did a lot of damage at night,” tells Constantino. “The sword for the bronze statue at Lavalle’s tomb has been welded over 20 times because it’s constantly being pulled on. Finally it was decided to keep it in a safe place.”

“One time I counted how many people entered in one hour & the number was more than 1,000,” Lazzari points out. “People come in with bags & plaques have disappeared. Also the goths come here, kids who wear all black, to take pictures & shoot films. Once I saw a girl who only wore a black overcoat so she could have naked photos taken inside.”

Savoia, who led a protest against a light & sound show two years ago in the cemetery, adds: “You can’t lose sight that the purpose of a cemetery is that the dead rest in peace for eternity.” Lazzari, whose family also owns one of the vaults, assures: “It doesn’t bother me that people visit the cemetery, but the existing infrastructure is inadequate.”

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Original article in Spanish located here. The photos above are from Robert Wright.

While I think the general tone is sensationalist & lacks proposing solutions, some important points are raised. Recoleta Cemetery itself is far from neglected, but private property has suffered the brunt of Argentine history. When there are multiple political & economic crises, family tombs are not a priority. Providing for your living family is obviously much more important.

Since a number of vaults are classified as National Historic Monuments, the federal government needs to step in to maintain at least those chosen tombs & mausoleums. And in our 100s of visits to Recoleta Cemetery, neither Marcelo nor I have seen any vandalism or theft in progress. Not to say it doesn’t happen, but I think the article played it up a bit.

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