From deluge, a culture emerges Inundation: The river robs thousands of homes, cattle and crops, but rather than despair, ++ Argentina romanticizes the tragedy.


SANTA FE, Argentina -- The immense pampas that begin to unfold here at the bottom of the Chaco Valley have become a slate lake. It is a mirror of the troubled sky, rife with stranded cows, submerged houses, squalid shelters thrown up on the higher ground.

It's been like this for months. And everywhere throughout this aqueous expanse, like perfect garden ornaments by pools and ad hoc streams created by the waters rushing across the once dry grassland, stand the white herons.

These birds have been displaced in their thousands from their fishing haunts, the channels where the Parana River's many tributaries, and the main channel itself, were once confined as it flowed down from the north out of Paraguay. The Parana River departed those channels this year, displacing from their homes some 150,000 of Argentina's people. Many houses were swept away, so as the waters drop there is nothing to go back to, except the place, and the rubble.

The herons? They've followed the fish.

One can live far from the Parana and still be within its reach. A report in La Nacion newspaper from a town called Gualeguay said that a fellow named Conrado Diaz caught three bushels of sabelo, a fine river fish. He netted them on a flooded highway right outside his town. Normally, Gualeguay is 30 miles from the Parana's banks.

On the pampas, when the river rises a foot, it can travel a mile beyond its banks. This year, El Nino -- a sacred name given to a devilishly eccentric weather system -- elevated the Parana about 30 feet above its normal level. In four months, 31,000 square miles of prime farmland and cattle land were engulfed.

In Santa Fe province (Argentina's breadbasket), about 140,000 cattle drowned. Nationally, 40 percent of the cotton crop was lost, 30 percent of the rice, 50 percent of the tobacco. Wheat and soy were devastated. In the Mendoza wine country wind and hail wasted the vineyards.

It was not a good summer. (Southern Hemisphere summers occur during Northern Hemisphere winters.) But winter is at hand and the waters are receding.

There have been floods here before, and people displaced, and the phenomenon of the flood has given birth to a genre of art; it turns mainly on the tragic experiences of the "inundados." That's what they call the people perennially displaced -- "flooded ones." The current flood is different from others only in its size and persistence, and in that so many nonpoor residents have been stricken, not only the people who live in shacks of wood and tin and straw, the river's traditional victims.

Troubadours of the Parana Litoral write songs about the river, its nearly annual floods, the people who live by it. Artists paint pictures showing these people as almost a race apart from other Argentines.

Arauncio, an artist from Santa Fe, is one of this nation's premier exponents and popularizers of river culture. He writes a cartoon strip of highly elaborate drawings in a number of national papers, work done with much the same detail as, say, "Prince Valiant." It is very romantic.

When the river rises and people begin to move, the government rushes in with tents and plastic, and for a long while you see little Hoovervilles pop up, congestions of shacks with ropes hung between them and laundry drying, and men and women sitting before smoky fires waiting for their kettles to boil.

Many years ago the government got the idea to shelter some of the inundados in empty railroad boxcars. One author wrote of a large family whose boxcar home became attached to a freight train; they went on a long journey to places they'd never been before.

The stories and pictures and songs are poignant, sometimes tender, occasionally maudlin. But the river is never condemned or cursed, but celebrated for its immensity and power and fierce beauty. And because they are stories and songs and pictures they become more and more symbols or representations of the reality of the flood and its victims. They are like the pictures in newspapers of afflicted people in wars, or those of lost children on milk cartons. They are elsewhere. They are someone else's.

All the towns along Provincial Route 1, from Santa Fe up to Corrientes, through the measureless ranches and the remnants of the colonies founded by French, German, English and Swiss immigrants, are muddied throughout. The colonies refer to the nationalities that established them when, in the late 19th century, Argentina opened up these territories to foreigners for settlement. There's Colonia Frances, Helvecia (Swiss). Farther up there is a place called Moises Ville, where Jews in search of Zion came to build a life away from the persecutions of Europe.

Most of these places have been visited by the river. Now that it is in retreat, the mud that it brought has been used to build barriers against its return. Immense walls of mud have been built and topped with nylon sandbags. The wind grows so strong across these plains that sometimes it almost seems to reverse the flow of the river. It can push giant logs upstream and create waves a yard high that slap against the mud dikes.

And when this happens it is hard to believe that beneath the roiled surface an immense and unstoppable evacuation is occurring in the other direction, pouring billions of tons of fresh water down past Buenos Aires and into the Atlantic. So powerful is this torrent of the Parana that the brown fresh water is visible 40 miles out at sea.

Provincial Route 1 is commercially important, and it has been cut on occasion; the foundations of a bridge across Arroyo Leyes were eroded. A jury-rigged bridge was put in place. One vehicle at a time can cross it. When buses come the passengers have to get out and walk across.

The inundados have gathered around the bridge, built their shacks near it. Normally they are a population dispersed throughout the grasslands. In these moments of distress, when they are forced together, they prefer the area near the bridge because the electric lines run by and they can tap in and light their shacks and pop on the television, and maybe see themselves on the news reports. These days no doubt they are watching Argentina's progress in the World Cup tournament in France.

The road north beyond the bridge is awash here and there, but passable. The water filters through the mud dike on the right going up, but dries quickly in the sun and wind. Every 10 miles or so men with spades and shovels and large yellow earthmovers reinforce the dike, build it higher, or stand around watching it with a strange and intense concentration. They drink mate, a tea made from tree leaves. They smoke endlessly.

At a low spot near Cayasta a cowboy herds half a dozen animals up onto the wet road and scatters them to the other side. When two of the beasts fall on the slippery asphalt he deftly turns his horse around, gets behind them and drives them over with the other cattle. As he gallops past the car you can see his sweat. He is working hard, easily as hard as the men with the shovels.

Everybody seems to be doing something to counter the flood, to elude it, to defeat it. All minds seem bent to that aim. Only the herons enjoy the day, and grow fat on fish left belly up in the grass.

Pub Date: 6/26/98

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