When literature explains what history cannot: Mauricio Birabent, the man who “invented” Chivilcoy

Mauricio Birabent

Every life project is the story of an obsession. the of Mauricio Birabent It was Chivilcoy. He died on January 18, 1982, exactly forty years ago, and was born in 1905 in a room within that gigantic monotonous landscape that alternated with animals, trees, some mountains, few buildings and a lot of green desert. The story is not that old: when Birabent was born, Chivilcoy had been founded barely half a century ago, on October 22, 1853. The circumstances were confused, imprecise. There hadn’t been or had been so much time, he could clarify the germinal scene. That is why his obsession: he not only wanted and desired, he needed to unravel the origin of his land, define his identity, tell his story. Is a people without history not the very same nothing?

Chivilcoy, the foundation of a past begins with the voiceover of its director, Gerardo Panero, citing David Vines: “Every society is founded on a metaphor.” On the screen, the camera, presumably on a helicopter, shows the city from above, the straight streets, the silver membrane on the terraces and the furiously green treetops. The documentary is from 2011, lasts 26 minutes and is scripted by Hernán Ronsino. Historians, journalists and scholars of Chivilcoy point out in this short film something unavoidable: that no one investigated Chivilcoy better than Birabent, however the knowledge gaps that he could not fill with History were covered with Literature. And Birabent, says Panero, “stops being a historian to become a writer”.

Birabent came from a family that allowed themselves to imagine their children as the professionals of the future: he studied in the Capital, received his bachelor’s degree from the Colegio Nacional Rivadavia and entered the University of Buenos Aires to obtain his degree in Agricultural Engineering. As he read and wrote carefully, and had a drive that today we call curiosity, he became a journalist. started writing in The reason and later founded Clarity, both chivilcoyan newspapers. He was 29 years old when he posted The town of Sarmiento —Chivilcoy, of course, “the Pearl of the West”—, his first book but also the first book that narrates the history of the town. He writes it because the obsession was no longer capricious, personal, intimate, but rather he had to make it visible to clean up Chivilcoy’s image. But clean it of what?

Reading of “El pueblo de Sarmiento” by Mauricio Birabent (“Chivilcoy, the foundation of a past”)
Reading of “El pueblo de Sarmiento” by Mauricio Birabent (“Chivilcoy, the foundation of a past”)

In 1933, when he was appointed to the Municipal Archives, he read how the porteños saw their town: they said that its founders were a “flock of rough farmers.” And there’s nothing worse than hammering on a townie’s pride; there is nothing worse than challenging it. The town of Sarmiento It was Birabent’s first response to a debate that was seen at the national level: on one side, Buenos Aires growing by leaps and bounds, devouring nature, the customs of the margins; on the other, the towns of the provinces trying to tell their own stories. With this book, Birabent takes up the “roles” of the poet and traditionalist Sebastian Barrancos and the oral accounts of the locals. He builds —and somehow “invents”— the history of Chivilcoy.

Why “the town of Sarmiento”? time puts Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in Chivilcoy on October 3, 1868, days before he became President of the Nation, giving an effusive speech. In fact, he began to make contact with the neighbors much earlier: during his time with the Great Army of Urquiza. In Sarmiento’s head was a map of new and smart cities. That is why he entrusted Manuel Villarino start building. His role model was the new Baltimore, a city drawn to rule and compass in the United States of America. That afternoon in 1868 he said: “Chivilcoy is here, like a book with beautiful illustrative plates that speaks to the eyes, to reason, to the heart as well; and yet, not always and not everyone reads its brilliant pages with profit.”

Chivilcoy is a geometric city: a square in the middle, four avenues that sprout from its heart like veins towards the cardinal points and ring roads in the shape of crosses that a sensible drone could classify as mathematical rings. Before, long before, it was something else. Around 1840, the old district of Guardia de Luján existed, a conglomeration of wild fields where the neighbors lived lonely and slow routines. Not having a church nearby to pray, they decided to send a request to the then president Juan Manuel de Rosas to found a new party; he agreed and a primitive, extensive and voluptuous Chivilcoy was born in which future cities such as Chacabuco and 25 de Mayo still slept. The key moment is the foundation. That is where Birabent’s obsession is born.

"Chivilcoy: the region and the farms" by Mauricio Birabent
“Chivilcoy: the region and the farms” by Mauricio Birabent

The symbol of the foundation of Chivilcoy is a shovel. The story is a classic. Birabent knows her and investigates with the rigor that the case deserves, but the circumstances are confused, imprecise. In Chivilcoy: the region and the farms, his 1941 book, recounts what he was able to collect: eleven neighbors gathered at the farm of Federico Soarez They discuss the foundation procedure and the place where “the new shovel” will be nailed to define “the exact center of the future town”. It is October 21, 1854, noon and it is hot. The eleven neighbors taste a Creole lunch, they do not agree. The afternoon passes, the night, and the dawn arrives. They decide to go out. A caravan of horses, shovel in hand and “desk supplies necessary to draw up the minutes.” They tour the area; now it’s four in the afternoon.

The conversation about the suitability of certain places breaks up when four of the neighbors speed up their gallop and, suddenly, what Birabent is narrating is an action scene, a chase, between anthills, vizcacheras and straw. “Valentine Coria, young and agile, took the disputed shovel and ran with it, pursued by the other companions determined to catch up with him. Finally it was surrounded and overturned, but the polished blade of the instrument was firmly rooted in the ground, marking the center of the new population”, he writes. That place where the shovel was nailed like the Pampas version of King Arthur’s sword is today the main square, the absolute center of the entire city. It is a story told by popular myth, it is a literary story.

The word Chivilcoy is also literature because it speaks of mysteries. Birabent narrates the original context, the intersection between the native peoples, the white man, the gauchos, the extermination. It exposes the different hypotheses, which means “area of ​​abundant water” in Araucanian; also that it is the name of a cacique. “What does Chivilcoy mean? Could it have been that same, the primitive name imposed by the Indians to the place, or have successive traditions and graphic errors, very frequent in old documents, profoundly transformed its original morphology? Will it be like so many other regions of the country, adorned with names of indigenous flavor, but so transformed that they mean nothing more than the trace of an idea lost forever in time? Chivilcoy: the region and the farms.

The Monument to the Founders (“Chivilcoy, the foundation of a past”)
The Monument to the Founders (“Chivilcoy, the foundation of a past”)

Suddenly history, like this, with capital letters, is not enough. For this reason, as Birabent writes in The town of Sarmiento, a “relieving interlude” is necessary: ​​fiction. In the words of Gerardo Panero, “gives the floor to fantasy”. Sarmiento sniffed something of that epic literary whiff when he delivered his speech in 1868: “I promise to make a hundred Chivilcoy in the six years of my government, with land for each father of a family, and with schools for their children.” Emboldened, he says that Chivilcoy will be “the pioneer” and that he will demonstrate that “the pampa is not condemned, as it is intended, to give exclusively grazing to the animals, but that in a few years, here, as in the whole territory, it will be then seat of free, hard-working and happy peoples”. Just close your eyes to imagine the scene

just a few months ago, Marcelo Mosqueira, Enrique Balbo Falivene Y Federico Capobianco took Birabent’s method to the extreme in the comic Rollo’s journey, where the history of the shovel, that fantasy, that myth, that literature, becomes fantastic and flows freely with no more lifelines than those of the imagination. A boy has to find a shovel that has powers; with it you can make your father appear, lost days ago, disappeared, kidnapped. Today that literary symbol that grows larger over time is in the center of the city, in the main square, in the hands of the monument to Valentine Coria and the founders. It is a giant statue: a robust man in leather leans on the shovel while looking at the horizon that rises up Villarino Avenue: the future.


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