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San Antonio de Areco: (Contested) Tradition as a Way of Life


PhD, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina

Photo by C. Pérez Winter, 2015.

In The Invention of Tradition, Hobsbawm and Ranger suggest looking into how traditions are invented, institutionalized, or just vanish over time (Hobsbawm and Ranger, [1983]2000). Traditions are the products of a social construction process that reinforces the bonds between a place and multiple versions of its history (Massey, 1995), created to fulfill different needs and serve special functions (protect/preserve power relationships, cohesion). To ensure a tradition’s persistence, people establish norms, institutions, discourses and rituals (Hosbawm, [1983]2000). Although tradition is about evoking the past, actions and their interpretations take place in the present. This generates palimpsests of meanings that are disputed by different actors at different times, leading to traditionsˈ (dis)continuity. Thus, tradition is a tense and hard process.

As Hobsbawm proposes, it is possible to find traces, meanings, and even the devices used to perpetuate or disrupt traditions. Hence, the study of invented traditions will allow us to analyze how ideologies and power relationships between different sectors of a community undergo a constant process of legitimization and contestation. In this article, I will discuss the notion of tradition by examining the case of the San Antonio de Areco district, located in the Province of Buenos Aires, Argentina. I will suggest that the Pampean regional tradition, although legitimized at San Antonio de Areco, evoking the values and customs described by Ricardo Güiraldes[1] (1886-1927) in his masterpiece Don Segundo Sombra[2] (1926), has also been contested and resignified, particularly over the past decade. Some of these tensions regard questions such as: If tradition is an invention, why should it be celebrated? Who is included in the idea of tradition? Should Tradition Day be about celebrating national or regional (the Pampas) folklore and customs? To delve into these tensions, I will analyze current strategies that certain actors are implementing to construct other narratives beyond the folklore literature with an emphasis on the figure of the gaucho.

The Gaucho as a National and Local Hero

During the formation process of the Argentinean Nation-State (c. 1860-1880), rurality and the gaucho were perceived by certain sectors of the liberal elite—such as D.F. Sarmiento—as symbols of barbarism that needed to be replaced by technological advances in the countryside and the labor of European immigrants. At the end of the 19th century, the national government launched an immigration program oriented towards shaping a white and European society in Argentina. By the early 20th century, however, immigrants (who, at the time, accounted for 30% of the population) encountered difficulties to incorporate the social and political values of the dominant class led the ruling elite of the Argentinean state to strive to reinvent the nation. In this context, tradition became a relevant strategy to unite and subordinate the population. Hence, gauchos, as elements associated with the Pampas[3]—the most fertile area in a country already known to be the barn of the world—, were used as representations of Argentina’s national identity (Svampa, 2010).

By the late 1930s, Tradition Day was created in the Province of Buenos Aires. Some years later, it was extended to the rest of the country. It would be celebrated every November 10th, marking the birthday of José Hernández (1834-1886), the author of Martín Fierro.[4] In 1938, San Antonio de Areco (Figure 1) had successfully become the official site of provincial and national festivities. Nowadays, the gaucho figure is already part of the Province of Buenos Aires’ identity (Ratier, 2018) and San Antonio de Areco[5] is known as its “gaucho sanctuary” (Pérez Winter and Troncoso, 2019).

Figure 1. Location of San Antonio de Areco district, Argentina. Source: C. Pérez Winter.

In San Antonio de Areco, tradition is organized around and structured by the representations of the narrative of Don Segundo Sombra. Every year, when Tradition Day is celebrated, values and visual images that are presented in Güiraldes’ novel are represented, especially during parades by organizations that promote tradition. The main city of the district, also San Antonio de Areco, is visited by gauchos, accompanied by their families and horses, resembling the times when herdsmen were free to move cattle across the Pampas without wire fences (Figure 2).

With the designation of Tradition Day on November 10th, 1938, several cultural, heritage and tourism projects were promoted by the local elite in San Antonio de Areco city and district. These were successfully implemented to institutionalize a static and nostalgic version of regional tradition. The Ricardo Güiraldes Gaucho Museum (Museo Gauchesco Ricardo Güiraldes, MGRG) was founded in 1939 at the new Criollo Park (Parque Criollo). The park was constructed as a recreation of a typical Pampean countryside estate (estancia), including the original Pulpería[6] La Blanqueda, mentioned in the novel Don Segundo Sombra. Among other initiatives, the Friends of Criollo Park Association (Asociación de Amigos del Parque Criollo) was created in 1962 to assist in the park’s management; the History Study Board (Junta de Estudios Históricos) was established in 1970 to conduct research and protect local heritage; several laws were enacted to define and protect tradition. Similarly, tourism developed after the creation of the Criollo Park, which became an international tourist attraction and has been honored with multiple formal cultural heritage recognitions.[7] By 1990, San Antonio de Areco had already consolidated as the cradle of tradition, featuring a homogeneous community held together by the recreation of the values and versions of a seemingly subtle past described in Don Segundo Sombra (Pérez Winter, 2018).

Figure 2. Parade of traditionalist centers at San Antonio de Areco city. Source: photos by C. Pérez Winter, 2015.

San Antonio de Areco: Tradition as a Contested and Tense Process

Besides the attractive image of gauchos and their horses, tension over what characters and what values and customs should be evoked by tradition has always been present in San Antonio de Areco. Although some tensions were already rising by the late 1930’s, when the local elite finally united to preserve tradition understood it as a mark of distinction and a profitable resource for tourism development.

However, the local community is rarely evoked in tradition activities and has a very small share in profits derived from tourism. Therefore, local neighbors complain that every resident pays the same taxes but only those in the historic center enjoy better living conditions. Others do not agree with the idea that most recreational activities—especially during festivities—are mostly related to tradition or with the fact that they are planned for tourists. At the same time, there is a third group that advocates a more inclusive tradition that would show other versions of the past, including multiple social and political subjects, such as local personalities (Pérez Winter, 2018). For many years and until 2011, this was the form of tradition evocation that prevailed, until a tradition resignification process gained strength.

In 2011, for the first time in the history of San Antonio de Areco, a non-local mayor was elected. He belonged to a party (Frente para la Victoria) from a branch of Peronism. His government attempted to implement inclusive policies in tourism and culture by promoting varied types of attractions and activities throughout the year. Also, non-hegemonic local neighbors had the opportunity to hold strategic management positions in very special spaces: MGRG, Heritage Management Committee (Comisión de Preservación Patrimonial), History Study Board (Pérez Winter, 2018). Therefore, those contested places were resignified by new ideas of tradition showing a more comprehensive history of San Antonio de Areco. Although publications exist that describe the presence of other actors in the formation of the district and the region, these were produced by non-local scholars (Garavaglia, 2009; Lagunas y Ramos, 2007) or depict a past free from conflicts (Burgueño, 1936). Nowadays, local researchers in San Antonio de Areco’s history are revealing other facets of this district: publications (Coppa, 2010; Pavanello and Arellano, 2015; Pérez Winter et al., 2019), audiovisual documentaries[8] or thematic exhibitions.[9]

Final considerations

I argue that the invention of traditions is a dynamic process characterized by (dis)continuities and tensions. In the Pampas region, there are multiple places where tradition is evoked and continues to be celebrated. However, San Antonio de Areco is the district that has managed to gain formal recognition for the gaucho tradition.

Particularly regarding the San Antonio de Areco case, it is clear that tradition is not a closed idea or process, but rather a dynamic concept that is constantly being recreated, resignified and disputed. From a local elite perspective, this means promoting the idea of an aesthetic gaucho and the myth of a white and European Argentina, along with attempts to freeze a fragment of a place that represents a selected moment in time. From a contested local perspective, it involves looking at tradition as a representation of a more complex past and a more inclusive idea of community. This means understanding “that the past of a place is as open to a multiplicity of readings as is the present” (Massey, 1995: 185). And across the different presents in San Antonio de Areco, parts of the community have always tried—and are still trying—to unveil a more complex composition of society and its tensions by delegitimizing simple, masculine and corseted versions of tradition.

[1] R. Güiraldes had a family countryside estate or estancia called La Porteña in San Antonio de Areco district. He spent his childhood and youth there, where he became familiar with local gauchos. That experience inspired him to write the novel Don Segundo Sombra while he lived in Paris. The book was translated into 18 languages.

[2] The story is about Fabio Cáceres, an orphan raised by his aunts. During his adolescence, he runs away from home following a man who will become his godfather and role model, Don Segundo Sombra. He teaches Cáceres the skills and traditional knowledge required to survive in the countryside and become a gaucho.

[3] According to the Argentinean Ministry of the Interior, the Pampas region includes the provinces of Buenos Aires, La Pampa, Córdoba, Santa Fe and Entre Ríos.

[4]Martín Fierro (written in 1872) is an internationally renowned poem that has been translated into 33 languages.

[5] It is located in the north of Buenos Aires Province and has 23,138 inhabitants. It comprises the main city, San Antonio de Areco, and three towns: Villa Lía, Vagues and Duggan.

[6] It is a historic rural groceries store and bar.

[7] The historic center, the MGRG/Pulpería, La Porteña, the Old Bridge (mentioned in the novel Don Segundo Sombra), the train station, the city council palace and the principal church were all declared National Heritage sites in 1999. The grave of Ricardo Güiraldes also received this recognition in 2014.

[8] For example, by naturalist Carlos Merti, available at:

[9] Members of MGRG organized an exhibition about the local printing house Colombo in 2018 and created a hallway dedicated to different gaucho representations.


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