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The City and the Writer—In San Salvador de Jujuy, Argentina with Elena Bossi

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of San Salvador de Jujuy as you feel/see it?

Imagine you are in a taxi to the airport, and you receive a warning that a volcano has erupted in the Andes and because of the volcanic ash, flights are delayed. The taxi driver, if you live in my city, wouldn’t be just anybody. It would be Jesús Rodríguez. The person who brings your children to grammar school and takes them to their first high school dances. The one who once waited nine hours for you in the neighboring city’s airport. During trips with him, you will learn about his widowhood, about all he does for his children and grandchildren, about his endeavors, and about a niña santa (holy girl), La Juditha, who cures people in the Los Perales neighborhood and asked Jesús to take her out to look at toys so she could take a rest from the people who constantly surround her, hoping for miracles.

San Salvador de Jujuy is delineated by this scene. It is a modern city with an international airport that can be paralyzed by the yawn of the mountains, a reminder that you are not so far removed from the paleolithic period, and at the mercy of untamed nature. A city inhabited by wise and generous taxi drivers who are part of the family, and by miraculous girls who grow tired of curing and long to look at dolls in store windows.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I stopped the car at the bus stop because I saw Doña Choque. It isn’t easy for her to get up. She is eighty-six years old, has a cane, and one of her legs is stiff and she can’t bend her knee. She was born and raised in Valle Grande. When she was six years old, her mother died so her aunt raised her along with her three younger brothers.

She says that she does not know how to write, that she wanted to go to school like the daughters of her aunt, but that the aunt did not let her: Why do you want to go to school! What are you going to learn. You will not learn anything! she says her aunt would tell her.

Her three brothers died soon after.

I was distracted for a few seconds when I saw a baby outside the window of a Suran and I thought he was in danger. When I returned to the story, Doña Choque looked at the floor: I was very young and didn’t understand, didn’t know they died, that they were sick, didn’t know if they had been mistreated. And I thought, yes, she was very young but she knew. And I thought it was fortunate not to be able to take my hands off of the steering wheel, or stop looking in front, because otherwise I would have embraced her and released a cry that did not belong to me.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

While stopped at a traffic light, I look over at the diagonal corner of the intersection. Up ahead is an improvised table with a couple crates of fruit and a beach umbrella. From the table hang various newspapers held down with a river rock so that they won’t fly away. It’s cold out. A boy wearing a hat and, on top of the hat, the hood of his sweater begins to improvise some dance steps, and he does it very well. The music emanating from my radio suits his movements. I hope to see him dance a little more, but the traffic light changes. I turn the corner, wearing a smile.

Every corner of the city has a street vendor selling newspapers or fruit who dances, sings, or recites words of love.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Without a doubt, Néstor Groppa, whose numerous books of poetry and reflections paints a portrait of San Salvador de Jujuy in an original and secret way. And Domingo Zerpa, who was a sort of poet on horseback, between orality and academic, so his gaze on the Jujuy Puna (highlands) is as unique, tender, and heroic as the landscape itself. For narratives, I suggest reading Libertad Demitrópulos.


Is there a place here you return to often?

From the city itself, we breathe the air from the ravine; we intuit the colors that await us a little higher up. One shouldn’t leave San Salvador de Jujuy without seeing the city from the panoramic view offered by the Alto la Viña neighborhood and one should stay there, in the heights, while night falls and the lights go on little by little. Then, the mountains of the city acquire a certain bluish transparency that overlaps with the sky and one feels that he or she is in exactly the right spot.  


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Termas de Reyes is one of the places to get to know. There, the Reyes river rushes, dragging enormous rocks along with it. It is nestled between hills covered with wild peach trees and vines. The thermal waters that flow underground hold the promise of relaxing baths and to get there one must traverse the road in a panoramic zigzag. It is one of the most beautiful panoramas in my country.

One should sit next to the river, on one of the enormous rocks, drink some mates (yerba mate tea), and listen to the untamed sounds.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The cemeteries of my city are vital, different from those of the other big cities in Argentina, like Buenos Aires.

People exorcise death in many ways throughout the world. Here in San Salvador de Jujuy, the second of November, the Day of the Dead, is very important. Few care that the almanac marks this day in red or whether or not it is decreed a day off; it is likely that people won’t go to work because their dead are expecting them. It is only once year and it wouldn’t do not to honor one’s obligations to them. Neither the government nor the boss can interfere with this intimate and profound commitment that involves all ages and social classes.

The night of November 1, a table with bread is set up as a type of offering: the bread is in the shape of those things which the dearly departed loved in life. Their favorite foods and drinks are also prepared. The table is left set and everyone goes to sleep so that the souls can come and sit as they please, and eat and drink in pleasure without anyone startling them—if the dead frighten the living, it seems that the reverse makes sense, too.

The next day, November 2, the celebrations continue in the cemetery. Although I live in a very quiet place, on that day my house is surrounded by cars. People come to the neighboring cemetery from the morning on with food and drink: they share this lunch with their loved ones, those who are no longer here. They put pinwheels and colorful paper flowers on the tombs and have a sort of picnic.

The street vendors congregate in the entrance to the cemetery: popcorn, pink cotton candy, caramel apples, candies, ice cream, dolls, sweet breads. People sing and dance, too. On that day, the dead have permission to be out until midnight.

The families make themselves comfortable around the tombs. They sit in the grass or in their folding chairs, they open sodas and cartons of french fries. They talk, arrange the flowers, embellish the small perimeter of land, and come and go with buckets of water.

It turns out to be a great relief to think that your loved ones are somewhere and can still see you, listen to you, and enjoy something, even if only a little. The party atmosphere of November 2 expands into the rest of the year, and so the cemeteries of my city are filled with hope. 


Where does passion live here?

The city of San Salvador de Jujuy is part of the Humahuaca Valley, which is a world heritage site not only for its extraordinary landscapes but above all for its culture: its carnival and exhuming of the devil; its voices that so often have been silenced; its struggles so often repressed; its women who cook wonders, weave on looms, and tell stories that say we are all sisters everywhere.

I feel closer to these voices in the street markets where they sell fruits, spices, corn of various colors, and more than fifty varieties of Andean potatoes: pink, green, yellow, violet, and blue, as well as toys and questionable household appliances. Around these products, words fly incessantly, as do the garments woven by hand; the toothless smiles; the children who run, shout, and play; the people who haggle over prices; the alcoholic drinks that spurt from rather crooked spouts; the regional foods that let their enticing aromas escape.

In a corner is a fruit cart (imagine all the colors, you already can). The vendor laughs because a boy tried to hug and kiss her but she slipped away and looked down, half in enjoyment and half in shyness. The boy also laughs and stretches out his arms: “Come heeeeeeeeere, can’t you see that I want to knead you like dough?”

In those streets, around the stands, one inhales the border crossings between the cultures of Bolivia, Chile, Peru, and the north of Argentina. The exquisite exchange of so much immigration gives us the gift of histories, languages, knowledge, and flavors.


What is the title of one of your works about San Salvador de Jujuy and what inspired it exactly?

Seres mágicos (Magical Beings) is one of my most “jujeño” books, my little local bestseller. It is a sort of fantastic biology that talks about the strange creatures that inhabit legends. Why and when do witches, mulánimas (shapeshifting women), spirits, basiliscos (giant one-eyed worms) appear? What do they eat, where can one find them, and how does one exorcize them?


Inspired by Levi, “Outside San Salvador de Jujuy, does an outside exist?”

I live in this “outside.” Although my neighborhood lies within the city of San Salvador, to be seven kilometers from the city center is to live “on the outskirts” and here one sees toucans, a woodpecker who crosses the road like a tongue of fire, and some sleepless corzuela (red brocket deer) that lost their way. If one walks though the trails in blackberry season, one will see women, men, and children on the edges of the road, stretching themselves in the elastic poses of dancers to reach the highest branches.  

Right now, in the lethargy of this Saturday afternoon, a pair of beautiful, enormous magpies of vibrant blues and yellows are destroying the garbage bag and instead of going outside to scare them, I leave them in peace for the simple pleasure of observing them.  


Translated from the Spanish by Eileen O’Connor.


Elena Bossi was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina and has lived in the province of Jujuy since 1980. She writes fiction, drama, and essays. She has her doctorate in literature and is a professor and researcher at Universidad Nacional de Jujuy, where she teaches seminars on contemporary poetry and narrative as well as oral literature. Her novella Otro lugar (Another Place) received the 2005–07 Eduardo Mallea Narrative Prize from the municipality of the city of Buenos Aires. Among her other works are: Nino Cae (Nino Falls) (Lamás Médula, 2016), Puna (Highland) (El Copista, 2011), Los otros (The Others) (UNL, 2011), Amigas (Friends) (in collaboration with Penélope Todd, Rosa Mira Books, 2010), Leer poesía, leer la muerte (Reading Poetry, Reading Death) (Beatriz Viterbo, National Prize for the Art of the Essay, 2000), and Seres mágicos (Magical Beings) (El Copista, varias ediciones desde 1998). Her comedy En los brazos de Alfredo Alcón (In the arms of Alfredo Alcón) (INT, 2013) was selected to represent the province of Jujuy in the 2009 national festival. Some of her works for young adults and children were published in the magazine Billiken and by the following publishers: Santillana, Alfaguara, Sudamericana, and Homo Sapiens. She was a fellow and resident at the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa, at the Valparaíso Foundation for Artists in Almería, Spain, and at the Heinrich & Jane Ledig-Rowohlt Fundation in Chateau de Lavigny, Switzerland.  

Published Jul 24, 2017   Copyright 2017 Nathalie Handal

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