Argentina, to the point of caricature, is traditionally characterized by a dichotomy between "civilization and barbarism", a phrase drawn from an 1845 work by president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888), who would later be president. I've also been characterized by it for the past few days, since I recently gave a class presentation on The Slaughter Yard (c.1840) by Esteban Echeverría, the foundational work of Argentine short fiction and a fervent critique of the government of 19th-century caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas. For people like Sarmiento, Rosas was the epitome of barbarism in Argentina. My presentation also discussed "The Feast of the Monster", by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, which was a rewriting of The Slaughter Yard interpreting President Juan Domingo Perón as a second Rosas; for people like Borges and Bioy Casares, Perón also embodied barbarism. (For many other people, of course, he represents an Argentina breaking free from its endemic classism.)

According to this traditional mindset, civilization equals modern society, urban, rational, and sophisticated, while barbarism manifests itself in rural ignorance and superstition. It was in the name of civilization that Rosas was overthrown and exiled, ending his reign of terror; it was also in the name of civilization that the Argentine government exterminated the natives of the pampas in the military "Conquest of the Desert." Civilization is, of course, a cultural construct, and naturally fluid, so I think Argentina can proceed to exalt civilization in its future even while nixing the violent "us vs them" mentality that it has, in the past, seemed to necessitate. At any rate, the civilization/barbarity dichotomy is by no means irrelevant, even when we recognize it as fluid; culture is indispensably fluid, and it's what a society builds itself on.

I went on a one-day visit/pilgrimage this past Saturday to Luján, a city a little over an hour west of Buenos Aires by bus. It's an Argentine mecca, given that its main attraction is the big, beautiful basilica housing the miraculous 17th-century image of the Virgin Mary which came to be called Our Lady of Luján. The building is a wonderful imitation of Notre Dame in Paris, and its light pink stone exterior evokes the Casa Rosada even as its interior color scheme of sky blue, gold, and white (the colors of the resident Virgin) evokes the Argentine flag. The priest at the 11:30 Mass wore sky blue vestments in honor the basilica's patroness, and there was a procession in the plaza that evening complete with folk dancing.

There were lots of stands outside of the basilica, all selling religious tchotchkes. Mixed in with the thousands of representations of Our Lady of Luján were a few items honoring folk saint Gauchito Gil, a figure whose cult is not approved by the Church but who is, nevertheless, revered by rural people throughout the country and who is also linked to popular pro-Rosas sentiment.

The juxtaposition of the Virgin and the Gaucho is a useful one. What could be more barbaric than the cult of a small, old statue of the Virgin Mary, first promoted in the 17th-century by a slave? Yet the cult of Luján is hallowed by the devotion that was felt by the nation's Founding Fathers. What could be more barbaric than the gaucho? Yet Argentina's national epic, Martín Fierro, is a celebration of the gaucho.

To the pagan Romans, the cult of the Virgin Mary itself—honoring the peasant mother of an executed Palestinian Jew!—must have been the epitome of barbarism. Yet, beginning with the conversion of Constantine, we arrive at Palestrina's "Regina caeli." "Civilization" can be elitist to the point of terrible violence; but so can "barbarism." The 1976-1983 Argentine military dictatorship certainly killed people for being Peronists; it is also true that the short story by Borges and Bioy Casares mentioned above was based on the 1945 murder of a Jewish student for refusing to say "Viva Perón." What constitutes civilization and what constitutes barbarism shifts, and Argentine society, destined to persist in its great beauty in the midst of the evils marring it, cannot be Manichaean.

The French basilica on South American soil dedicated to the cult of an Iberian Virgin first promoted by a slave, suffused within by the Argentine flag and featuring a prominent banner with a "Prayer for the Patria", might just be the perfect symbol for a nation struggling (like our nation, and like all nations, perhaps) to allow its acute sense of diversity be a cause for growth rather than destruction.