Sunday, November 06, 2011

Land of the Jaguar

Enter a Google search at your own risk. You may emerge from it hours later, bleary eyed and stiff jointed, when your body demands food and a bathroom break.
I had this experience recently while doing a translation from Spanish to English about the jaguar in Argentina. There are between 200 and 300 of these magnificent animals left in this country and the numbers keep dwindling. A few very dedicated lovers of the jaguar are doing their best to save it from extinction in Argentina. They call themselves "Red Yaguarete" (Jaguar Network). As part of their efforts they raise public awareness through publications so I help them periodically with translations to English.
Recently, they focused their interest on a large ranch in northern Argentina and the possibility of turning it into a national park. The group is trying to convince the government and the public of the benefits of such action. The ranch "Estancia La Fidelidad" is a large property. At 618,000 acres it is similar in size to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park (521,000 acres) and the Petrified Forest National Park (93,500 acres) combined. Located in the Dry Chaco in northern Argentina, it is crossed through the middle by the Bermejo River, one of the larger rivers of the area. Dry Chaco is a harsh land, hot and dry, with low human population and still relatively rich wildlife. A few rivers carrying water from the eternal snows of the Andes Mountains cross the region. The land is so flat that they spread widely in some areas creating wetlands rich in wildlife. It is in these places that the jaguar finds abundant prey and prospers.
Recently, as part of their efforts, "Red Yaguarete" surveyed the native flora and fauna of the ranch by jeep and by canoe, subsidized by their own funds. This is the report I am translating.
Google proved extremely useful. Through searches I learned that the "carpintero de los cardones" is called "White-fronted Woodpecker" and that the "oso hormiguero bandera" is the "giant anteater". But then, I wanted to know more about the reasons why this large ranch had become available. What had happened to the owners? Google obliged by giving me more than 62,000 entries, practically all of them in Spanish, for "Estancia La Fidelidad" including maps and videos.
A recent newspaper article caught my attention. The owner of the property and his widowed sister-in-law, who lived with him, were brutally assassinated last January by unknown people. Manuel Roseo was an older Italian immigrant, who lived in a very modest residence, although his huge property was valued at 200 million dollars. In the months preceding his death he discovered that somebody was using false papers and selling some of his land. He started investigating this matter and it is possible that this led to his murder. The story has all the makings of a mystery novel. It would be incomplete without some illegitimate children who could claim the inheritance. Not surprisingly there is a woman who says that her teenage daughter and eight year old son are Roseo's children.
So many questions! How did a poor Italian immigrant come to own this valuable land? Why did he continue to live like a day laborer? What was his relationship with his sister-in-law? What about the other woman and the possible heirs? And, who was selling his property behind his back? By adding the word "asesinato" (assassination) I could locate more than a thousand entries about the subject; not that they provided any clear answers to the mystery. I had to stop.
The next day I resumed my translation. Soon I needed to search another word in Google. This time my quest led me to a book published in the 1850s, an early survey of the Argentinean and Paraguayan Chaco, including descriptions of the land, flora and fauna and the peoples of that time. Thomas Jefferson Page, grandson of the American president was a ship captain commissioned by the United States to do a survey of the land north of La Plata River. He traveled the main rivers up north, all the way to Paraguay in his ship the "Water Witch" during the years 1853 to 1856 making maps and taking detailed notes, including some diplomatic activities along the way. The entire text of his book is available as an e-book and quite enjoyable and easy to read.
Thomas J. Page described some of the plants and animals and the lay of the land of a large part of the Dry Chaco. All this was useful for my purposes. It also covered many other matters, which I couldn't stop reading. He befriended the Argentinean president, general Urquiza, and gave him a ride up the La Plata River in his ship.
He attended a dance of the little angel ("Fiesta del angelito"). This is a peculiar tradition of several South American countries. When a child dies, the little body is dressed in the finest clothing and sat on a small chair, high in an altar decorated with candles and flowers. The parents and guests dance merrily all night and may even lend the little angel to other friends and relatives for subsequent celebrations until decay puts an end to this. The thinking is that heaven rejoices at the arrival of such a pure soul and that the family should be grateful that the baby went straight to heaven without enduring the trials and tribulations that the rest of us cannot escape. Needless to say, Google provided abundant entries to the search "Fiesta del angelito" that could take hours to read.
Thomas J. Page went so far north that his ship entered a region where the national borders had not been settled yet and Paraguay considered as part of their country. He was taken prisoner and released few days later; his maps were confiscated.
It was time to put this reading aside and to get back to my translation. One final tidbit, though: Thomas Jefferson Page went back home to Virginia; soon the Civil War broke up and he joined the Confederate navy. I had so many questions: Did he own slaves? Did he pass his genes to some of them the way his grandfather did? What did he think of Argentina, where slavery had been abolished the year of his arrival and where mixed race marriages were not uncommon?
More Google searches were in order. But, I really had to go now.

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