The Matriarch


I’ve often asked myself, who really was Antoinette Castillo-Von Furstenburge-Aragón? I first knew her as Anna. On the day we met she was a lost soul seeking peace and hope. Later, she became Michael Aragón’s wife. Who was she really? That is a question whose answer I will never know for certain. What I do know is what she herself confessed to me. And I trust that what she told me is the truth. The Anna I knew was a beautiful and caring woman who provided Michael Aragón with the best years of his life. She raised their three children with love, kindness and great élan.

Her family history was illustrious. Anna’s life began as most of us would wish ours too. She was born into a family of Spanish New World Colonial aristocrats. These conquistadors had settled ten generations earlier in what is known today as Argentina. Both her parents were descendants of Spanish gentry and that meant much in the Americas. She was an Estanciera, a woman of the land holding estate class. The family coat of arms could be found everywhere on her family estancia. The crest was a white shield divided in half by one vertical blue line. Placed on either side were lions facing one another in profile and above a golden castle, perched on the top of the shield was an inscription that read, "For Honor."

Brought up as a proper young lady should be, Anna spoke French before learning Spanish. As a young child she was tutored in the finer things in life; the music and art of the masters. Matisse, Van Gogh, and Michelangelo were but a few of the names with which Anna became familiar. She was taught history. In particular, Anna learned of the world of antiquity, and of course, the golden age of Spain. Her physical training included horseback riding, her greatest joy. Riding daily in the pampas, she perfected her art. Anna’s long rides on those high grassy plains of Argentina imparted to her a love of nature. The Gauchos under direction of her uncle Clause took great joy in watching the exuberance of their young charge. Anna was as wild as a young mare and reckless to be sure. As the daughter of an Argentine newspaper publisher she enjoyed the benefits of social status.

Her father was a greatly respected author, playwright, and newspaper publisher with a keen mind. His father, Don Ramon Castillo, had been President of Argentina. Anna’s father also owned a chain of newspapers. This made him a powerful ally to many left wing sympathizers. But his wealth, land holdings, and position made him an enemy to those who desired to make Argentina a fascist state. Don Castillo’s liberal views troubled many in high positions. For some his views were a threat. Though his was one of the two hundred prominent Estanciero families of Argentina, Anna’s father was not trusted. Others in the Argentine oligarchy warned him. But he paid no mind. The all-powerful Argentine Military Junta continually had the Don watched. In that way there was little about him they didn’t know.

The military, once the plaything of the wealthy Estancieros, was now a power to be reckoned with. Since June 1943, the landed gentry could no longer control the young up and coming Colonel Juan Peron and the young officers. He and his military friends were dashing, full of themselves, believing only in what they could see and touch. And touch they did, everyone and everything. These soldiers took the women they wanted and demanded power and prominence. Their leader Peron was supremely confident, tall, handsome, and charismatic with a sense of the dramatic. But most of all he was greedy. He felt the souls of those surrounding him. The Colonel understood his fellow travelers, their needs, and wants. He and those of the power elite fed those needs and wants until they created a corps of officers willing and able to carry out their wishes.

During the revolution of the Grupo de Oficiales Unidos power shifted in Argentina. The Estancieros and their political party, the Partido Democratica Nacional, were no longer the masters of their own destiny. The mantle of power was now worn by a more organized group; one who intended to control Argentina’s wealth and honor to their own ends. It was the military that now guided Argentina. The great land holdings of the Estancieros could no longer guarantee power. Only force of arms could ensure absolute control. The military now stood where the Creoles once had dominated the political arena. The original inheritors of the mantel of colonial Spanish tradition and social primacy now meant nothing. The time of the Estancieros had passed.

Peron changed the balance of power in Argentina for all time. A strange new melding of Argentine political factions now joined together under his Peronista banner. Of these the Descamisados, or Shirtless Ones, were the greatest force lending their support to Peron. They had found a hero in Peron. These industrial workers followed him blindly, as did the military. Peron was now as much a symbol of Argentina as Cana, the national drink, or the local Spanish accent, Rio Plantense. In a short period of time this strange charismatic man had become the heart and soul of his country. Embodying the dreams, fears and hatreds of his people, Peron now stood as the undisputed leader of Argentina. He had no rivals; they had long since been disposed of. It was said that he and his cronies were no strangers to the Coima, the Argentine version of the bribe. But none dared prove it. Don Castillo’s editorials that hinted at Peron’s bribery did not help his case. In fact they may have sealed his fate.

Another supportive Peronista group, the Anti-Jewish organization, Tacuara, had allied themselves blindly behind the causes of their new leader. They carried out his every command, no matter how disgusting or evil it might be. Their hatred of the Jews was legendary. It was these who attacked the Jews and seized every opportunity to liable the Jewish merchants. Every problem in Argentina was laid at the doorstep of the Jews. Peron found an easy target in them. As in Germany, the Jews were responsible for all of Argentina’s problems. They received no praises for their preeminence in business or their contributions in South America. The Jews became a favorite Peronista target.

To be sure Peron had real enemies. But these were the artisans and intellectuals, both of who had little power or control over what mattered. And what mattered was money. Through money power flowed. And with power more money flowed. The military viewed these artistas as children to be toyed with. When placed under pressure they buckled. The loss of a part in a movie or play usually did the trick. Standing for nothing and with no one, in the end, they always cooperated. The artisans were merely beautiful people playing a part. Nothing mattered to them but money. The Intellectuals were another matter. They demanded special attention. The Junta began its eradication process. Slowly and silently intellectuals began to go missing. Many at universities lost tenure and jobs. Publishers began canceling contracts for vague and questionable reasons. Argentina had become unenlightened.

In the days of Anna's youth the threat of a global war had ended. Argentina was then safe. The great Third Reich with its swastikas and menacing storm troopers became a faded memory. A defeated Germany disturbed Peron greatly. He admired Adolf Hitler, even boasting a signed photograph of the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler. German engineering and military prowess had always intrigued Peron. He saw the Reich as an excellent example of a dictatorship that worked and he hoped to model his new Argentina after Germany. He was saddened by the loss of her greatness. Because Peron had a special place in his heart for the Germans he did all he could to save them. An arrangement had been reached between the two countries before the war’s end. The Germans would have a safe haven in the event of losing the war. Peron had traded German security and safety in Argentina for Nazi gold and appropriated Jewish works of art. Argentina had become a haven for many that were fleeing the war ravaged European shores of the nineteen-forties.

The Americans were rebuilding the European countries and economies destroyed by the war. And things on the American continents were looking up. South America had always welcomed Europeans and Argentina was no exception. Those who arrived after the first Great War were appreciative, willing to work, and happy to share. With hard work these immigrants helped transform a backward Argentina. Taking their rightful place in their newly adopted country these settlers became Argentines. But the latest arrivals were different from the original Spanish settlers and the many other European immigrants. Nothing like their not-too-distant relatives the latest arrivals were hungrier, greedier. They would stop at nothing to secure their futures. Wanting what they had lost in Europe, they coveted their neighbor’s large estates and social status. They would align themselves with the devil himself in order to recreate in Argentina the world they had lost in Europe.

The early German settlers of the nineteen hundreds were a strong hearty people who established their own farming communities and towns. Many settled in the high mountain country and built towns resembling the villages of their own Bavarian Alps in Germany. The most profound trait among these German immigrants was their stubborn adherence to their traditions. They held fiercely to their Germanic tongue and customs. German xenophobia reigned supreme. No matter where they settled they were Germans first and Argentines second. To them, Argentines were strangers. They were not bad people, they just weren’t Germans. German attention to detail was different from other Argentines. They were meticulous in all things. Their farms, estates and businesses were run with military precision. It was as if order was their religion. German towns were above all, clean. Unlike other Argentine towns, the streets were swept daily. Working sixteen-hour days, the Germans didn’t suffer from the need for siesta. They rested only on Sundays and prized hard work and discipline above all. There was no room for laziness in a German town.

It was the German way to marry only their own kind. Other Argentines were to be respected, even helped in times of flood or disaster but they were never included in the neat orderly German world. When the Germans did marry outside of their own it was calculated for some advantage. A German son might be forced to marry the daughter of a wealthy Argentine landowner or a rich merchant but never a Jew. This was never allowed. After all, Germans were still the Master Race and the Jews were still subhuman. Their seed would not be corrupted. And so over a period of time the German immigrants began to change the face of Argentine society. Over subsequent generations the Germans had emerged as a wealthy class who excelled in school and performed well in all disciplines. They held lofty positions in academia, law, and commerce and in the most important institution of all, the military. Theirs was a rise to power through hard work and industry. They were a respected people. Still, Argentine relatives and hosts were kept at a polite distance.

In the years of 1945 and 1946, there were many newcomers to the German community. These new Germans were shadowy figures standing apart even from their German relatives and friends. There was never an announcement about the arrival of a new German; they just seemed to appear. These new Germans were secretive. There were persistent rumors about the new arrivals. In many cases they seemed to be held in almost reverent esteem. No one quite knew what line of work they had engaged in back in their Fatherland. Whenever a discussion about these newcomers started a new topic was quickly introduced. Soon the rumors became increasingly exotic. It was said that these new Germans were escaped Nazi war criminals or ex-military officers of high rank. There was talk of German gold bullion taken from conquered countries, large caches of jewels and stolen Jewish art treasures. One frequently found these new German arrivals in the company of high-ranking Argentine army officers and highly placed government officials. Traveling in the loftiest of Argentine social circles these newcomers could be found at the most fashionable eateries and nightclubs. It seemed that nothing was too good or too expensive for them. Several examples of affluence were cited which fueled rumors of stolen Jewish wealth. Never did there seem to be a shortage of money for the new arrivals. Many purchased beautiful homes and estates using cash.

It was said that there were secret gathering places where the Germans came together to celebrate their Fatherland and hold secret Nazi ceremonies. Large red banners with black and white swastikas were hung during these ceremonies. Descriptions of these gatherings included solemn military ceremonies, complete with military flags and uniforms. Many of the wealthy Germans were seen in full military regalia saluting one another in the familiar Nazi fashion. Such were the persistent rumors that never seemed to end. But as the years went by rumors became less and less important. German activities became an accepted part of the Argentine cultural landscape. Eventually non-Germans were invited but only the very rich and powerful. Many of the rich and famous were now related to the Germans through marriage. With the war now over, the future was the central concern. All Argentines, including the Germans, had a vested interest in cooperation for the greater good. Building a greater Argentina was the political focus. Seaports, dams, roads, cities and power plants were needed for the swelling population. But the future was full of problems for Argentina.

Antoinette's father and many others saw the future as bleak and harsh. The United States was now the world’s only true power. Europe lay in ruins and these nations could no longer afford to buy Argentine wheat. To make matters worse the world prices for precious Argentine wheat had fallen. The once highly prized Argentine beef was also selling poorly abroad. The United States, not Argentina, was now the greatest exporter of beef and other commodities to her new European wards. Because sales of Argentine products had slowed an uneasy feeling spread over the land. The once carefree Argentine people were now pensive, apprehensive. Argentina’s economy was experiencing a post-war dislocation. Everywhere there was anger and despair. A once happy and prosperous Argentina was ill. Despair began to take hold all over the country. As Argentine factories began closing unemployed workers had nowhere to go. Jobs were becoming scarce. The once secure and growing middle class was disappearing as the ranks of the poor began to swell.

There had always been those who owned the land and those who worked the land. This, however, was in the Argentina of the past. The new arrivals from Europe would not accept the colonial mentality of their Spanish neighbors. These new arrivals brought with them education and trades for which they were well-paid. Many established small shops and businesses. Others purchased land from the rich dons and established estancias and farms although on a much smaller scale. As this group became more prosperous it also became more demanding. The courts were used to resolve disputes, rather than the dons. This was the new Argentina. The two worlds composed of old landed gentry and the nouveau riche was now locked in a life and death struggle for power in Argentina. There would be no sharing of power. Only one strong master would survive. With the army as the final arbiter of disputes the old ways would give way to the new.

Money was now the symbol of power, not land. No longer could the needs of a few landowners be considered more important than that of the masses. The once great estancias were being sold off in large chunks to pay the new taxes and facilitate needed growth. The Old World was being demolished to make room for the new. With progress the byword, nothing less would be accepted in the new Argentina. Argentine cities were to become her beautiful young face to the world. And that face was becoming distinctly European. Great cities demanded more housing. More housing demanded more streets and better roads. New schools and administrative buildings were erected to educate and administer. As cities grew the police and army grew. It was the government and its military, not the dons that would decide upon the use of the land. The army, once a backwards institution, was now its own instrument of change.

Feeling that the spoiled youth of Argentina’s elite could use the discipline the Army offered, it was becoming fashionable for the sons of the rich and powerful to attend military schools. Later, society demanded that their young men be inducted into the Army's officer corps. It was here that the German cultural influence was felt as nowhere else. The Germans had arrived to save the Argentines from themselves. The German love of uniformity and military parade had found a new home. The uniform and the parade of the Argentine army were now distinctly German. They brought to the army a sense of discipline that the Argentines lacked. Argentine softness and lack of discipline was to become a thing of the past. German precision would replace Latin lack of conformity. A sight to behold, the new army was taller and blonder. This was the new face of Argentina. And no matter what discomfort they felt, the average man had always looked to the powerful to guide his destiny. Argentine citizens were accustomed to a system in which the average man was powerless. Argentines could be counted on to conform, to accept.

There was another wind of change in the new Argentina and it didn’t compliment the new German order or its discipline. This trend had also come from abroad and it was called Communism. Offering its own brand of change, communism provided hope to the downtrodden masses. But first, these masses would have to be taught about their plight. The communist germ had found its way into the Argentine body politic. It infected the Argentine university system and traveled unopposed through the educational blood stream. It found fertile soil in the intellectual community. Unlike the army with its love of discipline, this germ prayed on those with a passion for non-conformity. The Army taught the harsh reality of discipline from without, but communism grabbed at the individualistic soul within.

A new age had dawned and Argentina was beginning its life and death struggle. This quiet land of the estancia was about to begin a new chapter in its history. It was a chapter which would end in bloodshed and loss of life, even for the very rich.


06/29/2015 10:59 AM