LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 69
Page. 92 - 101
Text and Pictures: Carolina Aldao
SANTIAGO DEL ESTERO
My first impression of the city was of chaos, the skies criss-crossed with wires, bustling with people everywhere, noisy streets, honking horns, chaotic traffic. I was extremely tired and that seemed to magnify all the sensations around me. I urgently needed to find an oasis with air conditioning, a comfy bed, a good shower, a swimming pool, and a good meal. The Carlos V Hotel was my salvation. "Santiago is fantastic", said Graciela Paladea the first person to open the doors to this province, so alien to me.
Santiago del Estero is the oldest city in Argentina. It was founded by Francisco de Aguirre in 1553 on the shores of the Dulce river, as a dependency of Santiago de Chile until in 1563, when it became part of the government of Tucumán. Years later it would be from this city that the founding expeditions to Salta, Jujuy, Catamarca, La Rioja, Tucumán and Córdoba departed, thus earning its name as the Mother of Cities.
It is said that when the first Spaniards arrived, there were indigenous tribes, the Tonocotés, Sanavirones and Lules living on the banks of the Salado and Dulce rivers. These different ethnic groups had their particular styles of life and culture but had one thing in common which was the cultivation of maize in the days when the soil was still fertile and covered with trees. Subsequent floods, lootings, fires and even the odd earthquake all conspired against the original architecture of Santiago, leaving no trace of it behind. The Plaza Libertad is the square around which the most relevant structures have been erected.
The Museo Histórico de la Provincia, Dr Oreste Di Lullo, is housed in the oldest mansion of the city (1820) with its spacious terraces, interior patios and nine rooms which tell the history of Santiago. Two blocks away is the Museo de Ciencias Naturales y Antropología Emilio y Duncam Wagner. It would have been unforgivable to miss the opportunity of seeing this superb archaeological collection.
On the religious side Santiago is very intense, also known as "the mother of churches". But I only got to visit the Santo Domingo convent - which holds a replica of the Holy Shroud, a gift by King Felipe II to Santiago del Estero, brought by the Jesuits in 1585 - and the Cathedral Basílica Nuestra Señora del Carmen.
The indigenous communities
Under Spanish rule, the various native communties were all considered as one. They were reorganised in Indian settlements - at the end of the 16th century - by the Spanish viceroyalty in a process they called "Indianisation". Subjected to the authority of the Catholic Church, these settlements were always set up in the vicinity of a small chapel. There were around 37 of these in Santiago, becoming the means of subsistence of the church thanks to their work. Weaving, agriculture and livestock was the main source of income. In time they became very integrated with the Spaniards and black population. The Indian women preferred to join their lives to the latter, as their children, despite belonging to a lower social class, would no longer be considered slaves nor Indians and would no longer have to pay taxes.
By the end of the 19th century, immigration and the railway brought about enormous changes. Trade was born. New settlements were created leaving the old ones behind.
José Froilan González. A patio with a large carob tree casting its shade on disseminated ceibo tree trunks and hides. Froilan is a man of strong features and a friendly smile.
He has been making "bombos" (drums) for over 38 years. He uses the wood of at least 25 year old ceibo trees as it is spongy, fibrous and damp, which allows it to stretch. He uses an axe to give the drum a smooth outer surface and hollows the gouge with a mallet, beginning at one end, then turning it over and repeating the process at the other end. The quality of the sound of the instrument not only depends on the wood, also the right type of hide is essential. "The hides we use are goat or sheep skins and preferably of unborn animals, because as the foetus grows, the leather thickens. So the finer the hide, the better sound it will produce. Even the drumsticks have their secrets. His "bombos" travel around the country and abroad, reaching remote cities such as Brussels, Hamburg and Paris.
Selva Contreras. For thirty years she has been making dolls out of "chalas" (corn husks). In a gentle manner she explains that this art has been passed down from generation to generation in her family. In Rottemburg, Germany, there is an exclusive museum where the finest nativities are exhibited and Selva's creations have been on display there now for three years.
Javier L Paz. Immersed in his cluttered workshop, completely oblivious of the outside world, covered in sawdust and surrounded by wood and guitars, this 75 year man is a unique artisan in his own right. He patiently spoke to me of the different kinds of wood used to make his string instruments. Guitars, violins, harps, mandolins, bandurrias, charangos all parade in through Javier's doors to be repaired with his magic healing touch. He proudly told us that his guitars defy the heat "not like those made in Buenos Aires that die in the summer because they are made with overlaid plywood". His guitars are known all over Argentina.
My guide, Rodi Villagra and I headed to Atoj-Pozo where the scenery was incredibly beautiful, scattered with wild cactus and the woodlands offering a different landscape to what we had seen so far.
We passed through Charquina to Bajo Chico on oue way to La Blanca.
Looking for weavers we came across Amalia de Ramirez who had her loom set up in the patio at her house. It was protected from the rain by a tin roof held up by four wooden sticks. Sitting around the loom as we shared a mate, we were told how difficult it had become to make a living off this trade. Many times their works have been entrusted to a middle person, never to be seen again.
She explained the entire process behind the finished product from the shearing of the sheep, to the basting of the wool, how they twist the yarn, washing and boiling it to rid it of the strong smell. The dyes are made from the carob tree and different plants; even the soot that is stuck to the walls of their kitchens is used on occasions for this purpose. The whole process takes 20 to 30 days, after which it is ready to use. Her designs are based on the simplicity of the surrounding landscape.
On our way to to Atoj-Pozo, we experienced the most amazing sunset extending itself over the desert. We stopped to meet Eudocia del Valle, a poncho weaver, discovered a hidden chapel in Shispo and went on to Carciano where Mirta and Hugo Villavicencio live with eight of their eleven children, who all have specific tasks behind the loom.
Back to the city, my journey had come to the end. I sadly bade my farewells to its people, to the music of their guitars and the rhythm of the chacareras, the dance that can keep them up until dawn.