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Authentic Argentine

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Wife Easily Switches From Sociology of Knowledge to Nuances of Homeland

Mónica Bordón knows that most Americans instantly think of the tango, red meat, Eva Perón and maybe even Madonna from “Evita” when they meet her. “But I don’t tango. We do like steak but your steak is good here too,” and “‘Evita’ was a movie, not historically correct but entertaining.”

Enter the real thing: Mónica Bordón from Mendoza, Argentina’s most famous wine-producing region. This handsome and fit 60-year-old wife of Argentine Ambassador José Octavio Bordón has a quick smile and twinkle in her eye, but this Eisenhower Fellow is no lightweight. She is equally comfortable talking about world issues as she is about lifestyles back home.

Her professional field is the sociology of knowledge, in which she has been a professor, researcher, policy advisor and analyst in Argentina as well as a researcher and visiting professor here in the United States. She is also a mother of three and now, a proud grandmother of one.

“I am fascinated with the relationship between the way people think and live and the new technology,” she said, giving the example of how differently children play now. “Their lives are much less physical, using the computer for school, games and watching TV.

“You can’t deny that relationship or ban the technology. You must face new problems. Anything new can be a huge problem or a big advantage,” she said. “Technology, for instance, is not good or bad. It’s how it’s used. For example, when print was invented, that process began what later printed the Bible and pornography—good and bad. What’s most important is how technology changes our lives.”

More than 20 years ago, she fondly remembered teaching her second child Ignacio the computer when he was just 10. “I’ve loved this technology since then. I was not only the first in my department to have e-mail, but the first in the university. I had to write a whole program back then to get access.”

Today, Mónica uses e-mail to keep in touch with the couple’s three busy children: 35-year-old Matilde, a Johns Hopkins graduate and World Bank staffer who is working in Kenya; 32-year-old Ignacio, an economist who is married and the father of her 3-year-old grandson; and 25-year-old Juan Manuel, a Spanish philologist who is working in Buenos Aires as a journalist.

For now she can only talk with her grandson Joaquin by phone. “I can’t wait to teach him the computer so we can e-mail each other and he can play on the computer. There are so many good games and learning programs,” she said.

Mónica is proud of her career and of how Argentine women have progressed in what many believe to be the most European of South American countries. “We will probably have a woman president next time,” Mónica said. “Somehow, Evita [former first lady Eva Perón] started this whole process. She got women the vote in 1951. The Senate is now 43 percent women; the house, 33 percent, and we have two women out of seven on our Supreme Court.”

Explaining how this equality emerged in Argentina, Mónica pointed to “a large middle class with an excellent educational system” that prepares women, as well as men, to govern.

Mónica and Pilo, her husband’s nickname, were classmates in their university sociology department when they met. “We were in the same class, political club,” she recalled. “Times were tough, even dangerous in Argentina then with the military coup…. There were curfews and some of our friends—classmates and teachers—were taken away and even killed. We learned to be very careful. And we feel very lucky.”

Later, when her husband joined our conversation, he recounted their first encounter. “I met Mónica when we first began university and she had just returned from the U.S. Our first conversation was about the United States. I thought that was a sign for me that we would be living and working together for the rest of our lives,” the ambassador said. “It’s impossible to imagine my life without Mónica.”

“My husband is so romantic,” she said. “I’m much more practical, analytical.”

After they received their bachelor’s degrees in Buenos Aires, where university studies last five years, they married at the ages of 24. “He’s older though, by nine months,” Mónica noted.

They moved to the beautiful countryside in Mendoza, where they return to their home every summer. They also keep a 14th-floor apartment in Buenos Aires.

Ambassador Bordón is an appointed official, a diplomatic first-timer who has served in Washington since June 2003. But he is no neophyte (see also the April 2007 cover of The Washington Diplomat). His public service career started in 1983 when he was elected congressman for Mendoza province, where he later served as governor (1987-91) and as national senator (1992-96). As a presidential candidate in Argentina’s 1995 national election, he finished in second place with 30 percent of the vote.

“We loved campaigning,” said Mónica, “but I was his pollster and I knew it would be difficult to win. It was up to me to give him the bad news.”

The Bordóns came to Washington in 1992 when he was a Wilson Center research fellow teaching at Georgetown University, where Mónica also worked as a visiting fellow and later as a visiting professor.

But she had also stayed in the United States much earlier in her life as a student in the nonprofit American Field Service International, living in Baltimore, Md., and attending Bryn Mawr High School. “I loved it from the first moment. I was so lucky to live with a wonderful family. The father was a Latin teacher at Gilman School for Boys so we lived on campus. At the time, I was 17 and thought it was wonderful to be surrounded by all those boys!”

As wife of the ambassador, Mónica hosted 14 of her old high school classmates at the couple’s residence and organized a grand reunion with her American host family.

“Being here in high school was an incredible experience,” she recalled. “It’s a huge advantage to live with an American family and go to school, learn the American way of life and culture. I was able to help my husband a lot when we came back together.”

When asked what the differences are between U.S. and Argentine culture, she responded in a surprising way. “The importance of the American rules, all kinds of rules…. We have rules but we don’t pay so much attention to them. Here, if you don’t play by the rules, like driving in traffic, you get a real ticket,” she said, throwing her head back and laughing.

“Then there are all these wonderful political and social charities, organizations and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] like the American Field Service and the Eisenhower Fellowships that help with the global dialogue,” she added, before delving back into the lifestyle differences.

“In daily life, it is the timing that is so different. In Argentina, we live at night. Our parties start at 9 or 10 and we stay up late. We get up at about the same time and go to work and go to school. I guess we sleep less. In Mendoza, we still take siesta from 2 to 4 in the afternoon but not in Buenos Aires, where life is a rush like New York.

“My problem is going back and forth,” she continued. “Each time I go to Argentina, I get sleepy at 10 [p.m.] because I’m still on Washington schedule. And then by the time I get used to staying up late, it’s time to return here and I have to switch all over again. Here you go out as early as 5:30 [p.m.] and are expected to leave promptly at 8:30 [p.m.]. We never tell people when to leave.”

But despite these little problems, she loves life in Washington. “During the week, we get out for a walk or even an hour of exercise whenever we can. We love to walk along the Potomac and the C&O Canal and go into Georgetown. We try to do that each weekend, both Saturdays and Sundays, and that’s the time we can talk and catch up from busy weeks with separate schedules.”

In town, Mónica walks wherever she can from her Q Street residence near Dupont Circle. Although she readily admits that she misses her professional work, she loves the chance to catch Washington’s latest cultural attractions, especially museum shows. She’s a devoted member of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Women’s Committee and participates avidly in lectures at the Meridian International Center and Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Other work also keeps her busy inside Argentina’s rococo residence. “Since this is an old house, there is always something that has to be done. See, the workmen are here today. Under these old carpets on the stairs, there is marble,” Mónica explained.

Just then, she excused herself to run up the spiral staircase, which encircles a fancy old elevator that’s still in working order. She returned immediately with the handsome “Embassy Residences” coffee-table book, in which her friend and co-author Lily Urdinola featured the residence. “Lily loves to remind me that she did me such a favor,” Mónica quipped.

“When we arrived, a lot needed to be done on a tight budget. The dining room was so sad looking. It had to be painted and everything needed to be more colorful, interesting and dramatic.”

Now, throughout the mansion, there are heavy decorative plaster motifs, some with gold leaves, and almost every room has a marble fireplace. In the spacious dining room, Mónica’s dark red walls beautifully complement the sensual red, pink and white canvases of well-known Argentine architect and artist Miguel Ocampo. “His paintings remind me of Georgia O’Keeffe’s,” Mónica noted.

Everywhere, Mónica has also sprinkled in important touches of Argentine spirit and artifacts. “This is my mate collection,” she pointed out, picking up one of the dozen or more intricately carved silver cups that Argentines use to pass around mate, the heavy caffeinated green tea that is often the center of Argentine hospitality. “We pass the cup around, from one guest to another, with the host making sure the mate is just right, each time. I know Americans might not like that because they would think of the germs. But there is an art and a science to being a good cebador, the one who brews the mate. When we go to the beach at home, we always take a thermos of hot water. There is no picnic without mate.”

In addition to the beach back home, the couple has enjoyed long hikes along the Appalachian Trail and down the Grand Canyon, as well as trekking along the Inca trail, where they spent three nights in tents on their way up to Machu Picchu. “We love to hike in Patagonia too,” she added.

In fact, the second time I dropped by, Mónica had just returned from a two-day driving trip to Charleston, S.C., with her husband, who spoke with the state governor as well as to the students and faculty of the College of Charleston. He was also the first ambassador to participate in Charleston’s World Trade Center Ambassadors’ Series.

“Before this trip, I thought my favorite American town was Nantucket and now I have two: Nantucket and Charleston,” she said, beaming. “Just eight hours out of Washington, we found a completely different country…. I love to go on trips like this with my husband. This is the real United States and this is where we meet the real Americans.”

About the Author

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999