The smell. Walking down a street in Floresta, forty years after I left Argentina, I find that the neighborhood is still there: a multitude of old houses and middle-class buildings and cheap cafés and shops that don’t sell anything, librerías at every other corner where you can get pencils and notebooks and shiny pink backpacks and world maps, with or without national borders. The streets are quiet. Maybe that’s why today it feels more removed from Buenos Aires’ downtown than it did a few decades ago.
I leave the avenue and walk down Moctzuma lane, then Delambre, then Bernaldes, and I’m lost. But after walking twenty minutes towards (what should be) Paternal, I see a small group of men in their thirties warming their hands around a little fire in the sidewalk in the middle of a workday. And there’s the smell. They’re making choripán, pork-sausage sandwiches, on rusted grids of wire, mounted over four bricks on each side, the sausages some five centimeters from the burning coal and the bread, cut in half, waiting on the side.
It’s an improvised grill and a permanent feature of street life in Buenos Aires. The straight lines of noon shadows over deserted streets are a still picture of Italian neorealism. But the silent conversation, the wrinkled faces, the pale smoke, and the sound of the heat slowly charring the tripe filled with minced pork trimmings is as porteño as a Berni painting: its characters melancholic without being sad, poverty that is worthy but not idealized. And there’s the smell.
In “Casa Tomada” (“House Taken Over”), Julio Cortázar told the ghostly story of a brother and a sister living idly in a massive family house, knitting and reading. One day, abruptly, the house begins to be “taken over”: on the other side of the walls, the brother and sister hear the muffled voices of new occupants; they flee, barring themselves in other parts of the house. But as the invasion continues—an invasion by an eerie presence they never see—they eventually flee the house altogether, locking the door behind them and throwing the key in the sewer. The reader never learns who the invaders were.
Those unseen sounds of invasion worked as a metaphor in 1946, when the story was written: the middle-class fears of Peronism and terror of masses invading the public space, what a congressman called “the zoological flood.” But because the invaders remain indistinct, feared more than glimpsed—and not glimpsed because they are feared—such words tell us less about the multitude than about those who fear them.
Today, perhaps, it’s the smell: felt before being seen, feared before it’s known.
Here is where you were supposed to find middle age men making choripán on a weekday: construction workers taking a break at a construction site or unemployed people safely out in the outskirts of the city, the distant working-class suburbs of Buenos Aires province. There’s nothing to fear in these scenes. Not until it becomes an invasion, until it becomes a caravan marching inward, choripán and unemployment, the smell spilling over into new territories.
For several years, choriplanero has been a new word at the center of a right-wing revival in Argentina. Chori is a familiar diminutive of choripán while planero is a neologism of its own, a creative outburst of the new right, denoting those who receiving planes (welfare benefits) from the government. It hints at the irrational weakness of poor people, insisting that those who mobilize or vote or express support for Peronism or unions or popular leaders or indigenous activists—or hope for basically any forceful change in their situation—are acting out of mindless hunger. If they go to a rally, it’s because they have been offered food; if they vote, it is because they want benefits from the government. Choriplanero.
Those who name, conquer.
A reactionary word in itself, choriplanero describes what the conservative wave reacts against, and what, in turn, defines the conservative imagination. That poor people are the objects of politics—manipulated by unscrupulous bosses and power brokers who seize their will in exchange for basic needs—while only professionals and elites—CEOs and architects and proctologists—are authentic subjects, freed from the constraints of hunger and need, and able to channel their ideas through institutions. Respectability comes with time, and what poor people should learn is to wait. Denouncing choriplaneros energizes the conservative political base in Argentina, as well as letting them see (and not see) what they’re looking for. Young professionals who identify themselves instinctively with Obama or Macron (or with anything young and athletic and “moderate”) can’t help but notice the choriplaneros at protests see in them people co-opted by greasy promises.
Rallies in defense of public universities? Choriplaneros.
The pro-choice movement? Future choriplaneras.
Protests for the public pension system? Don’t even mention it.
A general strike? The zenith of choriplaneros.
Needless to say, choripán is ubiquitous in all these rallies, like the monetary incentives and promises of help before an election. No less than CEOs and proctologists, the masses find ways to obtain benefits from their engagement in politics and in the construction of the volonté generale. But believers in liberal institutions can so easily become zealots of individualism, unable to see material exchange as anything but a contamination of the political transactions that citizens are supposed to have. If someone from a poor area goes to a rally, the liberal only approves if he goes by himself and he gets no benefit from his participation. And of course, if no choripán or social benefit is given or promised. Nunca.
Poor people’s food is always about social distinctions and political hierarchies; poor people can’t eat a damn sandwich or enjoy the smell of a grilling chorizo without it becoming something else. And so it is their political will: poor people’s options for change are always doctored, manipulated by the demagogues who curtail their liberty. With the rise of industrialization, it was unions, as when Henry Ford proclaimed that he would ban unions in his plants (and he did for as long as he could) not because his capital would overpower individual workers’ demands, but in the name of workers freedom, workers who without unions are “unorganized and therefore cannot be trapped.”
that industrial world crumbles, populist politics speaks a spectral language,
talking about “workers” to people who are not working, have not worked in a
generation, and have no chance of regular work on the horizon. In this linguistic
void, conservatives only see the raw subjugation to power. Clientelism is what explains
the choriplaneros, and food becomes
the means of their subordination; in a macho version of feminized weakness, poor
people give away their virtue for food or some other temporary improvement in
their lives. Of course! Poor people, millions of them, find ways to improve
their lives—ways to eat or get a house, even!—through clientelistic
relationships with patrons, one of the few ways that are actually available in an
increasingly unequal social fabric. People may demand a choripán to go to a rally, though not anybody with choripanes can build a political
movement. Eat a choripán and you’ll
still be poor. But you were going to be poor anyway.
Choripán is experiencing a revival. There are inevitable variations, the choripán made with organic bread that tastes like the old days, or with less salt, or more cumin. In the trendy Palermo neighborhood, there are choripanes served on rustic cardboard plates for the price of two or three social plans. In this way, the big spenders and tourists can acquire the flavors and smells that populated those same streets of Palermo in the nineteenth century, when African-descended followers of the dictator, Rosas, grilled meat and sausages around his estancia. There’s a choripán with a light chimichurri, one called “original,” and one sold at a Peronist-themed restaurant for those (mostly from the left) who have discovered Peronism late in life and embraced it with untimely passion. The revival will even reach the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, where right-wing president Mauricio Macri will offer choripán to Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Theresa May: it will be a carnavalesque moment disingenuously mixing the powerful and the plebeian.
The US has had its own ways of scrutinizing poor people’s food; American barbecues have been conquered for patriotic purposes, but barbecue is a signifier if you are black. It’s hard to be black and eat blood pudding without a taint, a stigma that at least brings back another history of barbecues as a communal space for slaves separated from their owners and, as such, a space for rebellion. When Gabriel Prosser organized his rebellion in 1800 Richmond, Virginia—one of the first to claim inspiration in the successful and violent abolition of slavery in Saint Domingo—it was around a series of barbecues. Wasn’t Nat Turner carrying a pig for roasting when he meet his two co-conspirators in the forest? Of course he was.
In a way, “choriplaneros” reminds me of the Reagan-era “Welfare Queen,” the very American way of stigmatizing poverty instead of fighting against it. But there is a hemispheric difference between choriplaneros and welfare queens. The idea of “welfare queens” nurtured a conservative movement in which racism and classism boiled down to an economic equation: the indictment was that the beneficiaries of social programs misused public funds and conservatives wanted their money back. But in Argentina, the term choriplaneros was coined to spotlight something else: the poltergeist of collective action. It is, of course, also about the poor, dark-skinned, and women (who, in the conservative imaginary, get pregnant to get public benefits), and about squandering money on these irredeemable people. But above all, it is about how they mobilize, how they act, think, remember, organize, and identify themselves collectively as a group. It’s the primeval fear of the Argentine right: the fear that they might eat together, and of the they that eating could produce.