FAMILY GONZALEZ: PERSONALITIES WITH HEARTS OF GOLD
In the province of Tucumán, lives a family that I have come to consider my own, although it is not. A family, which has showed me such love and affection that I can hardly believe anyone ever would towards a “stranger”. This family is the Family Gonzalez, a group of lovely people bound together by name and history — a family whose warmheartedness I shall never forget. This is a small overview of this family and the places where I stayed with them. (The only people missing in this post are the ones who were actually behind all this: my Finnish friend Milla and her Argentinian husband Ruben Gonzalez.)
San Miguel de Tucumán
San Miguel de Tucumán is the capital city of the province of Tucumán. The center of the city is mostly of so called colonial architecture, with European style buildings surrounding the main square and its nearby pedestrian streets. On the streets, one can occasionally hear local musicians playing zamba, gato or chacarera (typical rhythms of the Northern regions), buy colorful handicrafts imported mainly from the provinces of Salta and Jujuy, and try out the famous panchuque (unless you’re a vegetarian like me, because it’s a sausage wrapped in deep fried dough).
Family Gonzalez in Tucumán
In San Miguel de Tucumán (which locals simply refer to as Tucumán), lies the house of Juan Gonzalez, his wife Sofia and their daughter Rebecca. In the same courtyard is also the house of their eldest daughter Mirta, her husband Miguel and their daughter Carolina. The two houses are separate buildings, yet located on the same grounds since a couple or years, which is when the building of Mirta’s own house was finally finished. This complex is where I stayed for ten days.
Juan Esteban Gonzalez
Juan Esteban Gonzalez is one of the kindest and most genuine men I’ve ever met. Originally from Amaicha del Valle, he was born into a very poor family. When still a teenager, a rich boy which Juan Gonzalez knew from work, took a liking to him and taught him how to drive trucks. Already a few years later, Mr. Gonzalez (who had no driver’s license back then) was weekly crossing the infamous hills from Amaicha del Valle and Tafí del Valle to San Miguel de Tucumán by truck. Let me add, that at the time, the mountain roads were narrow dirt roads which only few men dared to drive on. As Mr. Gonzalez was one of them, he was later on offered a job as bus driver in San Miguel de Tucumán – a demanding job which he nevertheless picked up rather fast due to his experience with trucks (although what he had to learn from scratch was continuously keeping an eye on the passengers while at the same time handling traffic and charging for the bus tickets). In fact, Juan Gonzalez was a great bus driver all the way from his twenties until his retirement.
Note: nowadays, the steep roads leading to Tucumán from the Calchaquí Valley are paved, yet even so their serpent-like form is no easy task neither for a bicycle nor for big vehicles.
Since her husband’s taking up the job as a bus driver in the city of Tucumán, Sofia has lived in the outskirts of San Miguel de Tucumán. However, every three weeks she goes back to her home village Fuerte Quemado, which lies at the very edge of the province of Catamarca in the Calchaquí Valley. There, she takes turns with her sister on taking care of their 90-year-old mother in three week shifts. On those weeks, Sofia’s husband either stays home alone or in the company of their youngest daughter, Rebecca. (According to Juan Gonzalez this is very unfortunate for him, as on those weeks he is left without the fantastic cook Sofia is!). Yet, as tradition has it there’s no other way, as the duty of daughters is to take care of their parents when they grow old. For Sofia, this can sometimes be a lonely road, as when in Fuerte Quemado, she cannot leave her mother alone for a visit to the nearby village of Santa Maria.
Rebecca, the youngest daughter of Juan Gonzalez and Sofia Aybar, is a unique character with a strong personality. She is full of smiles, yet very determinate when something doesn’t suit her. Perhaps the most evident side about Rebecca is her deafness, which surely affects her life a great deal. Her parents do not speak sign language, and so when home, Rebecca mostly communicates with reading lips, writing and speaking in sounds which the rest of the family mostly interpret flawlessly. Because of her deafness, Rebecca neither works nor studies, so what keeps her occupied is television and her beautiful handicrafts done with a crochet hook.
Mirta Gonzalez and her family
The eldest daughter of Juan Gonzalez, Mirta, lives with her family in the courtyard of her parents. The warmhearted Mirta is a bikini waxer, her husband Miguel a security guard and their daughter Carolina a graduate in dental mechanics. Mirta very recently opened her own beauty studio together with a hairdresser, and now the hard-working woman attends clients from Monday to Saturday from morning until late in the evening, with only Sunday left for house duties, grocery shopping and rest. Mirta’s daughter Carolina has turned out just as hard-working her mother: Carolina dedicates most of her home time to studying and doing molds.
From Juan Esteban’s house in San Miguel de Tucumán I left to the original home of the family, the Calchaquí Valley…
The Calchaquí Valley
The Calchaquí Valley lies in the northwestern region of Argentina, along the iconic Ruta 40 (which e.g. Ernesto ”Che” Guevara wrote about in his Motorcycle Diaries). It reaches all the way from the town of Belen to the town of Cafayate, and spans across the provinces of Catamarca, Tucumán, Salta and Jujuy. Once inhabited by numerous indigenous tribes (Quilmes, Calchaquíes, Tafí and Yokavil), the valley is nowadays annually visited by tourists who come there to explore its unique beauty and archeologically and anthropologically important sights. The most visited towns include Tafí del Valle, Cafayate and Santa María. (My personal favorite: Amaicha del Valle.)
Family Gonzalez in Tafí del Valle
I stayed in Tafí del Valle only one night, which was enough for me to meet four further members of the Gonzalez family. Because as fate has it, Tafí del Valle is home to Juan Timoteo Gonzalez, cousin of Juan Esteban Gonzalez. Mr. Juan Timoteo lives with his daughter Roxana, her husband Mario and their son Dylan, on a hill outside the village center. Eleven years ago, Juan Timoteo had a bad attack of diabetes, resulting to loosing his both legs through amputation. Since then, Juan Timoteo has been in a wheelchair, with his extremely warmhearted daughter Roxana looking after him.
Family Gonzalez in Santa Maria
From Tafí del Valle I headed to Santa Maria, which lies in the province of Catamarca. There, I was welcomed by Juan Esteban’s eldest son Hugo Gonzalez, his wife Paola and their two lovely daughters Guillermina and Paulina. I stayed in Santa Maria for two nights and two magical days, during which I learned a great deal about the history and the present day of the valley. I also discovered how, to a great extent, the material history of the people of the valley is being constantly replaced by Westerners.
I shall miss this family greatly. Thank you, Family Gonzalez, for everything!