Biography 25.3 (2002) 531-535
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Doña María Roldán was an Argentine meatpacker and a union leader working in the industrial town of Berisso (near La Plata) from the 1930s on. She died in 1989. Shortly before her death she gave her "testimonio" to Daniel James, an English oral historian of working-class origins who teaches in the U.S.
The result of the engagement is an exceptional book, a joy to read—whether you are interested in the Argentine meatpacking industry or not. The secret to its success is the writing. The author skillfully draws you into his subject, making you eager to know more about Doña María, entangling [End Page 531] you in the web of Peronist political intrigue and the Argentine labor movement, presenting you with a wealth of information, then questioning the very means by which the data has been gathered and reproduced, and the versions constructed. The book doubles back on itself: a life history is recounted by Doña María, then contextualized and interpreted by James. But the self-reflexive author of the book is always aware of what he is doing. Above all, he is modest. Although he draws on a wealth of theoretical writings (cultural history, literary criticism, travel writing, and anthropology), these never detract from the story at hand. The story is indeed Doña María's, but also Berisso's, and ultimately, James's too. What emerges is a powerfully emotive engagement between a largely sympathetic historian, who genuinely wants to know more but cannot entirely sympathize with Peronism, and a tough working-class woman who has a story to tell and insists on telling it her way. It is the meeting of minds and the problems James encounters in his writing of what he originally thought was a straightforward testimony that prove so fascinating. Thirteen years later, his confessions as an oral historian framed by hers as a trade union activist make for compelling reading. James provides no easy resolution to Doña María's tale of struggle and betrayal—there can be none. But he does provide us with an uncommon insight into something that may seem obvious but is too often forgotten—that history is made up of the experiences and feelings of individual men and women, the vast majority of which will never be recorded. Doña María's story is about the effects of industrial decline and aggressive neo-liberal policies on working people, and as such will resonate across the post-industrial world. Her story sounds strangely familiar to all of us who witnessed similar events elsewhere, not least in Britain and the U.S.
The book opens by setting the scene and recounting the collective memory of Berisso as expressed in the town's monuments. This entails describing and interpreting the Civic Centre's murals and statues, their history and relevance to the community. The town is relatively modern, emerging around a salting house set up in 1873, and subsequently attracting a large immigrant population. The two British packing houses, Armour and Swift, now demolished, were the location of intense union activity in the 1940s, which established Berisso as the cradle of Peronism. The Berisso workforce played a key role in the events of 17th October 1945 in the Plaza de Mayo, when they demanded Perón's release from prison and ensured his subsequent electoral victory in 1946. Berisso presents itself as an immigrant/working-class Peronista community, an identity which is ratified and at the same time—despite herself—deeply undermined by María Roldán's own story. Following our tour of the Civic Centre, Part II of the book provides the testimony itself (85 [End Page 532] pages), recorded in the late 1980s, edited and translated by James. The account is divided into "chapters"...