Friday, May 18, 2012

This legion of Argentine women can teach us how to survive tough times

 

By MARCELO GIUGALE

She was born in 1930. The child of poor European immigrants, who married the son of other poor European immigrants. They settled in one of Buenos Aires’ many barrios, those aspiring working-class neighbourhoods, where children of immigrants used to settle.

A life as a housewife would follow: husband, children, cooking, church, and an omnipresent TV set. Her story was unremarkable. There were millions of Argentine women just like her.

And yet, Alicia Tamburelli — that’s her name — and her generation would do something amazing, a dare that would define history. From the anonymity of their kitchens, and for decades on end, they managed to protect their families from the perennial failure of their country’s political class.

Start in 1947. Argentine women were “given” the right to vote. And they voted with gusto. But soon enough, democracy disappeared. Or, rather, it became intermittent, with years of military dictators in shiny boots, who didn’t talk much; followed by years of sleek civilians, who talked a lot.

Somehow, from the barrio, they all looked the same: distant, rich, arrogant — definitely not the kind of people Ms Tamburelli wanted her children to mingle with, let alone become.

Had those “leaders” at least been competent, it would have been easier to put up with them. But what a mess they made. They couldn’t keep prices stable, so inflation kept housewives like Alicia walking from grocery shop-to-grocery shop, always hopeful for a lower price.

They couldn’t decide whether private businesses were a good thing or a bad thing, so there were never enough jobs. Some years, the economy was “open” and full of cheap imported radios, refrigerators and cars.

And some years it was closed, so there was no way to get parts to fix the radios, refrigerators, and cars, when they broke down. At times, banks would pay a lot for your deposits, and at times they would just refuse to give you your money back: “A new government policy, sorry.”

If that was not tough enough, pensions were sometimes “pay-as-you-go” (meaning the government takes your money, spends it, and pays you whatever it wants, when you retire) and sometimes “capitalised” (meaning you are on your own).

What to do? How do you survive so much economic uncertainty, Ms Tamburelli? Very easy. Buy only what you need, use the rest to buy dollars and keep them under your mattress — literally. In other words, these women became fine macroeconomists.

How about public services, things like electricity, gas, and transport that any family required? Well, some decades they were truly “public,” and ridiculously cheap, but rarely worked. (Alicia and her neighbours were so happy when she was the first person to get a phone line — ‘only’ after five years on the waiting list.)

Some decades, the services were “privatised”, which meant that rich families owned them and charged a fortune for them, but the supply was plentiful.

And some decades, it wasn’t clear who owned what, who was responsible for what, and who paid for what. How do you live like that? You plan for the worst possible service: blackouts, cutoffs, strikes, accidents.

You see, there was almost nothing those incompetent politicians could do, that this great generation of women could not handle. The fact is, the Argentine government never managed to keep people safe.

For a while, it even went to war with itself; “disappearing”, some 30,000 of its own citizens. And they failed to control crime. Ms Tamburelli would proudly tell you that every asset in her family — the house, the car, the wallets — had been stolen at least once, and that she never bothered to report to the police; she knew better. Impunity became a way of life.

You just triple-lock the doors, don’t walk in the dark, and carry no jewellery. More than anything, you pray that your children come home safe, each night.

For one thing was clear: To these women, their children, and the children of their children, were the centre of life. That’s where they drew the line.

They would do anything to protect them against the incompetent madness of the politicians, which included letting their children go, letting them migrate in search of a better life. About two million did and now live abroad. Weren’t those families sadly separated? Yes, but they were preserved.

So, Alicia, “How did you and the ladies from your generation carry on?” Is there any advice for the next lot? Is there a “Tamburelli doctrine”?

There is, and it goes more or less like this: Never miss a day of work; all debts are bad; no expenditure is more important than your children’s education; always keep your hands clean; and never expect anything good from the government. Brilliant.

Alicia Tamburelli died on February 17, aged 81. She was one in a legion of Argentine women, that is coming to an end, triumphant in their anonymity.

Follow Marcelo Giugale on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Marcelo_WB