Cultural Fusion: Poles in Latin America
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Poles in Latin America, 'Untitled' by Bernice Kolko, photo: courtesy of Fundación Zúñiga Laborde A.C. (Mexico), Бернис Колко, «Без названия», фото предоставлено Fundación Zúñiga Laborde A. C. (Mexico) / Courtesy Fundación Zúñiga Laborde A. C. (Mexico)
Polonia in Latin America can take pride in their very own president of Costa Rica (Teodoro Picado Michalski) and a reported king of the Haitian island of Gonâve (Faustyn Wirkus). But many more Poles have immigrated to the region, finding new customs, opportunities, and especially weather there. How have they adapted to Latin American culture?
Across the Atlantic
Poles have long immigrated to Latin America – and for a variety of reasons. Peasants, encouraged by propaganda, were attracted by the possibility of taming the Brazilian wilderness, or working in sunny Argentina. Others wanted to escape political oppression in Poland. Scientific and geographical research were other alluring factors. Daredevils longed for exotic adventures, while others even arrived in Latin America by chance. Not all wanted to settle there, but fate often took them by surprise.
In the 19th century, colonial republics transformed into autonomous states, although they remained politically and economically dependent on Spain and Portugal. Brazil and Argentina, the places with the greatest number of Poles in that part of the globe, opened their doors to immigrants from Europe.
Significant waves of Polish emigration were linked to unsuccessful uprisings and world wars. Polish Jews found shelter in Mexico and Central America. Peru needed innovative engineers, and the inaccessible Andes drew travellers to Chile. Not all newcomers thrived. The different climate, distinct culture, and language barrier precluded swift acclimatisation. What was imagined as a paradise sometimes turned out to be a depressing mirage. How did Polish artists and writers find their way in such conditions?
From the ships to the salons
The Return of Polish Émigré Literature
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Witold Gombrowicz, 1963, Buenos Aires, Argentina, photo: Miguel Grinberg / Klementyna Suchanow's archive / Fotonova
There’s a saying in Argentina that Mexicans descend from the Aztecs, Peruvians from the Incas – and Argentineans simply got off a ship.
The ‘Chrobry’, with the writer Witold Gombrowicz on board, docked in Buenos Aires in the middle of winter. According to the press, the date was 20th August 1939 (although in his novel Trans-Atlantic, Gombrowicz states that it was 21st August as the date of his arrival, and in Testament, the 22nd). Details of the stay in Argentina that lasted 24 years can be found in Gombrowicz: Ja, Geniusz (Gombrowicz: I, Genius), a 2017 biography of the artist by Klementyna Suchanow.
The ‘Gombrowicz effect’, or the writer’s impact on Argentinian literature, has been thoroughly analysed by Ewa Kobylecka-Piwońska in her Spojrzenia z Zewnątrz (A View from the Outside). The scholar brings attention to what she calls a ‘suspension of the Polish context’ in the works of Gombrowicz and his introduction into the Argentine canon – the evidence of which is found in Historia Krytycznej Literatury Argentyńskiej (A Critical History of Argentinian Literature).
According to Kobylecka-Piwońska, Gombrowicz’s novel Ferdydurke is referenced in texts by many other authors: Gombrowicz is immortalised as the uncle in Germán Garcia’s Cancha Rayada and as Tardewski in Ricardo Piglia’s Artificial Respiration. Copi and Aira imitate the poetics of the Polish artist. Younger inheritors of the Pole’s style have also used his cynicism to come to terms with their own country. Argentine critics point to the fact that Gombrowicz quickly recognised the importance of Borges in their national literature and managed to hold his own against him.
The photographer Zofia Chomętowska arrived in Buenos Aires when the ‘Campana’ docked on 18th September 1948. On her way, she stopped in Paris – where, just as back home in Warsaw, she ran a store called Krynolina. From there, she went on to San Remo, where she opened a guest house. She was able to travel thanks to her British passport, which she received as a result of her third wedding (to Robin Food-Barclay; they got married after knowing each other little over ten days).
When Chomętowska moved to Argentina, she brought her children, sister, nephew, and a Mercedes, whose unloading she captured with her Leica camera. Chomętowska was fascinated by cars, but her biggest passion was photography. The Correo Fotográfico Sudamericano (The South American Photographic Post) included her in their list of outstanding newcomer professionals.
She never abandoned the profession, although her work was never as prolific as it was in Poland. To provide for her family, she had to establish a studio, where she printed on plastic, glass, and china. While her photographs preserved in archives include those of official political events, those of her own family and the neighbouring migrants prevail. Amongst others, these feature the sons of Róża Chłapowska, who later married Karol Orłowski and became an influential figure in Argentinian Polonia.
Chomętowska’s later return to Poland resulted in a prominent exhibition of her photographs of Warsaw, which was presented in Buenos Aires, Cordoba, and Uruguay.
Argentina's Curious Battle Over the Legacy of Gombrowicz
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Zofia Chomętowska with her Leica, c. 1933 © Gabriella and Piotr Chomętowski, Fundacja Archeologia Fotografii
Wiktor Ostrowski, a Polish engineer, photographed and chronicled an expedition that resulted in the highest summit of the Alps. He settled in Argentina’s capital in 1947. In 1954, he published an enormously popular book that describes the memorable quest, which was later put out in Poland as Wyżej niż Kondory (Above Condor Mountain).
Until the very end of his stay in Buenos Aires, in 1975, Ostrowski remained an active member of the local Polish community. One of his many contributions is the Ignacy Domeyko Library, which continues to operate in Dom Polski (the House of Poland). This living monument of Polish culture boasts the richest collection of Polish books in South America, consisting of more than 20,000 works.
This institution certainly inspired Gabriela De Mola, who runs Dobra Robota – a publishing house that specialises in Polish literature translated into Argentinian Spanish. When asked by Tomasz Pindel about her surprisingly narrow field of interest – she has no personal ties with Poland whatsoever – De Mola answered:
It’s because of Gombrowicz. I’ve known him for some time. His books stick with the human mind, as if they had a physical impact upon it.
These weren’t the only Polish artists who found inspiration in Latin America. After the war, Polish music was popularised by the Chopin choir, led by Adam Dyląg. Army theatre troupes performed plays by Aleksander Fredro, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, and Stanisław Wyspiański. The Polish landscape and traditions were reproduced on canvas by the award-winning painter Piotr Pawluczuk, and extraordinary portraits were created by Feliks Fabian.
In Frida’s homeland
Teodor Parnicki was known to say that he still would have written a novel about Mexico had he actually never gone there. The story of his life is as fascinating as his works. Born in Berlin, he grew up in Russia and China, where he learned Polish well enough to write in the language. His best novels were created in Mexico, however, where he arrived in 1944 as a cultural attaché. When the war and his diplomatic mission ended, he chose to stay there for more than two decades.
Historical novels were Parnicki’s favourite, but unlike Henryk Sienkiewicz, who described the lives of knights, he wrote about thinkers and poets. Parnicki claimed that in order to complete Tylko Beatrycze (Only Beatrice), he gathered materials for five years. The first three pages took him two weeks – but the rest of the book was finished within 24 days. The pace of Parnicki’s work is as surprising as his imagination, particularly when it comes to how his works present Polish history. In them, the country regains independence after the November Uprising, Zygmunt Krasiński is appointed ambassador in Petersburg, and Adam Mickiewicz becomes minister of education, as well as prime minister.
Several months before Parnicki’s arrival, nearly 1,500 Polish political prisoners from Siberia found shelter in a desolate hacienda called Santa Rosa, located near the city of León. The neighbourhood is often remembered positively by exiles, as they could find employment there; they also had their own newspaper and theatre. Others, however, perceive Santa Rosa as an isolated refugee camp, with strict discipline and frequent police control.
This chapter of history closed in 1946, when the hacienda was closed, although its lease ended in May 1947. The Poles who lost their homes subsequently struggled to find reasonable jobs. The majority of those who left for the state of Jukatan died due to poor sanitary conditions and the unfavourable climate. Some of the former Santa Rosa residents were taken to the US.
Between the wars, Mexico was often treated as a temporary stop on the way to the US. Most immigrants from Poland during that period were not even considered ‘proper’ Poles. In his 1926 report W Kościołach Meksyku (In the Churches of Mexico), Melchior Wańkowicz wrote, with irony:
All of them – they’re 'modern' Jews, the kind who fill up the provincial cinemas.’ […] A chubby baker from Białystok confides this in me, as he picks out five challas for a señorita: ‘Jews are everywhere.’
Bernice Kolko travelled in the opposite direction. The photographer from Grajewo moved to Chicago in 1920. In the 1950s, she settled in Mexico. There, she completed her famous project devoted to women. Her series of subtle portraits showing Mexican women performing their everyday chores was captured in the midst of their struggle for voting rights, which they successfully secured for themselves in 1953. Kolko was Frida Kahlo’s close friend, and it was she who documented the Mexican artist’s final days.
In 1938, Mexico became a home away from home for another artist of Polish Jewish descent – Fanny Rabel. Like Kolko, the painter and mural creator was engaged in the cause for women’s rights, but she made her name in history thanks to her graphics presenting Mexican children. She studied at La Esmeralda School of Painting and Sculpture, where she attended Kahlo’s courses. Paweł Anaszkiewicz, a Polish sculptor working with metal, graduated from the same school in 1988.
The poet and translator Edward Stachura lived for some time in the neighbourhood of Kahlo’s Blue House. He would describe himself as ‘neither French, nor Polish, nor Mexican’. His fascination with Latin American culture, which increased during his scholarship trip, resulted in his translations of Aztec songs, short stories by Juan Carlos Onnetti, and poems by Borges. Sted also translated Polish poetry into Spanish.
Frida Kahlo’s Polish Connections
The search for literary connections between Poland and Mexico leads to La Epifania ranch. For several years, it belonged to Sławomir Mrożek, who depicted it in his Dziennik Powrotu (Diary of A Return). Another characteristic figure is Elena Poniatowska, a descendant of prince Józef Poniatowski. This laureate of the Cervantes Prize – considered as important in the Spanish-speaking world as the Nobel Prize – is now in the process of writing a book about the Poniatowski family. She complains about the lack of sources in Spanish, having never mastered the Polish language herself.
Elena Poniatowska: The Mexican Polish Writer & Anti-Princess
Chileans learned two lessons from Poles: one in mineralogy and one in photography. The former, conducted by Ignacy Domeyko, began in 1838 and would ultimately revolutionise higher education. The latter came 135 years later, when several generations of photographers were trained by Bogusław Borowicz (known as Bob).
One of Domeyko’s friends was Adam Mickiewicz. They met at the University of Vilnius, where they were imprisoned for their activism as part of the Philomath Society. The Polish poet portrayed his friend as Żegota in the third part of Forefathers’ Eve. Domeyko was forced to leave his homeland after participating in the November Uprising. From Prussia, he went to France, where he obtained a degree in mining engineering. In the autumn of 1937, he was offered a position at the University of Chile.
Domeyko was probably attracted neither by financial benefits nor by the possibility of living in an exotic country. He wanted to explore the mineral riches and the mountain range – a true paradise for a geologist. He intended to spend several months in Chile, but instead stayed for five more decades. He taught classes, began with a series of experiments, after which he would provide the necessary theory. In his free time, Domeyko explored the Andes – for scientific reasons, of course.
After working at a provincial high school in Coquimbo, he later moved to the sunny capital, where he found employment at the University of Chile. He was soon appointed rector, and would remain in the position for 16 years. Unsatisfied with his success as a geologist (although he discovered many precious resources), he reorganised the entire system of higher education at the institution. Ever since, the university has both carried out research and provided instruction for students, who thus enjoy opportunities to apply their knowledge in practical settings.
Bob Borowicz, the ambitious and determined photographer from Poznań, came to Chile in 1951. He used to say that what attracted him there was the beauty of the local women, but he may well have been kidding. Bob was known to joke about everything – even his time spent in a Nazi concentration camp in Mauthausen.
Borowicz earned recognition for his black-and-white portraits, as well as women engaged in various activities, their faces hidden. In the 1960s, he documented poverty, children living on the streets, and beggars who came to the capital in search for job opportunities. Bob received several prestigious prizes and loved working as a teacher. Thanks to him, in the 1970s, photography became a new course of study in the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Chile.
Borowicz was known to tell his students that what matters is the ability to capture the right momen and to work with natural light, as well as aesthetics and composition. He never accepted photographs with too many details, and if the model lacked a spark in their eye, he would crop the prints with a razor.
One of Borowicz’s first students, Elisa Díaz Velasco, remembered that during classes, Bob was simultaneously demanding and funny – for instance, he once took his socks and shoes off, posing with his legs in the air, still holding his camera. He died in 2009, and until the very end, he only ever took photos with an analog camera. He used to say that ‘a modern human is never complete without knowing photography’.
Ignacy Domeyko: The Philomath of Chile
A plane in exchange for a bike
How could a Polish writer, who sold all his belongings to afford the trip to Guatemala (including the famous bike on which he rode across France), survive in a country with a completely distinct culture? Andrzej Bobkowski found a solution to this problem.
He grabbed five pieces of carbon paper, an atomic pen and a ruler he liked to chew on, and then locked himself in his room. When his project was complete, he headed to a bamboo forest to grab some sticks. After a month of carving with a kitchen knife, the first batch of 20-U model airplanes was ready. These, he sold in a local toy store – and that’s how his business began. Later on, Bobkowski established an aeromodelling club, which competed at international events. The writer’s flourishing (although not always profitable) venture was disrupted by his own illness and death.
Bobkowski wasn’t the only Pole who came to Central America driven by the desire to become a ‘rowdy tramp’ – as he explained in his letters to Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. In the 19th century, Gustaw Adolf Tempski – a painter, sketch artist and Indian art aficionado – spent several months in Guatemala, where Józef Warszewicz was conducting his botanical research.
Other remarkable Poles in its history include Piątkowski (first name unknown), the designer and creator of a central park, cemetery and several public buildings in the capital, as well as Józef Leonard, a polyglot, poet and teacher (among his students was the Nicaraguan lyricist Rubén Dario). Both took part in the January Uprising, along with Jan Łukasiewicz-Luka.
Leonard later obtained an architecture degree at the University of Paris, moving to Uruguay after the collapse of the Paris Commune. Soon, Leonard became an inspector of public works in Montevideo – where he designed, among many others, the presidential palace, General Artigas boulevard, a seminary for women and a psychiatric hospital.
Maria Rostworowska, a notable Peruvian historian of Polish descent who wrote monographs on the Incas, also contributed to a hybrid Latin American-Polish culture. Krystyna Chałupczyńska’s paintings are highly appreciated in Columbia, and The Undivine Comedy by Zygmunt Krasiński was translated for the first time in Latin America by Inez Lulueta, in collaboration with Anna Kipper.
Discovering the Unknown "Modern Classics" of Poland
polish emigre culture
Originally written in Polish by Agnieszka Warnke, 20 Aug 2018; translated by AJ, Apr 2019