Old pandemics: Yellow Fever in Buenos Aires
Chacarita Cemetery: a forgotten emblem of the city
Welcome Avatar! Today we will be talking about an old pandemic that was far more deadly than our recent one, and that left a mark on Buenos Aires and Argentina for good: the Fiebre Amarilla pandemic (yellow fever) of 1871, right after the Paraguayan War.
Start of the pandemic
One of the worst pandemics on the South American continent started in 1871, right after the military boats started returning to Buenos Aires over the Paraná river after the 5+ year war in Paraguay. It is likely that one of these boats carried the yellow fever virus that would leave its mark on the city for good.
In just six months, about 7% of the city’s population died from the virus, and officials thought the virus spread by air or water contagion (in reality the yellow fever virus is transmitted only by a mosquito, the Aedes aegypti, which is the same mosquito transmitting the dengue virus.
In the 1870’s, hygiene standards were lacking and accumulated pools of water and trash was the ideal breeding ground for these insects.
Buenos Aires in 1871: a lot smaller than now
Since Buenos Aires is locatedd on a plain, the city had no drainage system, except for the particular case of a few thousand inhabitants who obtained water without impurities thanks to the fact that in 1856, at a proposal by Eduardo Madero, the Western Railway decided to increase the caliber of the pipe that transported water from Recoleta.
For the rest of the population, the situation was very precarious in terms of health and there were many sources of infection, such as conventillos (semi-shanty towns which are now revalued, similar to PH structures), generally inhabited by poor immigrants from Europe or Afro-Argentines.
Another source of infection was the Riachuelo river —the southern limit of the city— which had become a sink for sewage and waste dumped by the salting and slaughterhouses located on its coasts. If you look at the Riachuelo today, not much has changed in that regard.
In addition, waste of all kinds was used to level land and streets. Streets were very narrow, there were no avenues —the first was Avenida de Mayo, inaugurated in 1894— and the squares were few, almost devoid of vegetation.
The city grew rapidly due mainly to the great foreign immigration: at that time there were as many Argentines as foreigners (another 1:1 ratio just like the dollar peg), and the latter would surpass the native population a few years later.
The first Argentine census of 1869 recorded 177,787 inhabitants in the City of Buenos Aires, of which 88,126 (49.6%) were foreigners. Of these, 44,233 - half of the foreigners - were Italian and 14,609 Spanish.
The true scale of this yellow fever pandemic is quite impressive when you look at mortality data from the years before and after the tragedy: the year 1871 ended with a total of 20,748 deaths in the city, against 5,886 the previous year, and 5,982 in the year before that, in 1869.
So in total about 11-15% of the city’s population died, which required one essential thing that was missing: burial grounds.
For this purpose a large plot of land was designated on the (back then) outskirts of the city. Today, the Chacarita cemetery is completely enclosed by the rest of the city, but is still very extensive and one of the biggest green spaces in the heart of the city:
Chacarita Cemetery: a hidden gem not many people visit
Most tourists will only visit the Recoleta cemetary, which is a must in terms of its beauty and famous people buried there. However, if you have some more time in the city, Chacarita has a completely different vibe and is also still a very active burial place.
The older section of the cemetary is like a city in and of itself, with many grave houses like the ones you’ll see in Recoleta.
The newer graves are impressive in and of themselves and look like underground skyscrapers with walls of graves:
A key difference with Recoleta is the extension of the premises and the underground burial catacombs, which is a very efficient (yet kind of creepy and crazy) way of keeping the dead stashed up in net rows and columns.
Almost as if this post mortem excel sheet still honors one of the key sports porteños practice during their lives: queue up and stand in line for something.
Many famous porteños are buried at the Chacarita cemetery. Here you can find a complete list, but some include Carlos Gardel, Gustavo Cerati, Roberto Arlt, Roberto Goyeneche, Aníbal Troilo, and more.
Another thing you will notice is that not all grave sites are maintained equally, and in the outer parts the cemetery is simply in decay. The same thing with a lot of old little family grave houses: many are missing doors and metal etc, all robbed for melting and reselling over the years.
In the last few years the police started requesting people to show their backpacks on the way out, but in terms of valuable items that have already been snatched, many of those are irreplaceable. At the same time, that also gives the whole old section of the cemetery a special atmosphere, with less of the Disneyesque vibe that you get at Recoleta.
See you in the Jungle, anon!
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