WORDS BY SARA RAFSKY
PHOTOS BY SARA RAFSKY AND PAULO MARTINEZ
Children and parents pose for a photo next to one of many oversize statues of Jesus Christ at Tierra Santa.
Argentina is home to two amusement parks and one zoo where having fun means completely ignoring the voice in your head that says, “This is not normal.” I know this because I recently visited all three and returned home physically and mentally battered. Does a weekend spent ambling around a Christian “experience,” watching children pretend to run a government, and petting adult lions sound enticing to you? If so, Argentina is your wonderland—specifically the area in and around Buenos Aires, where these attractions can be found within an hour’s drive from one another. My experience was challenging, to say the least; however, I must admit that I wasn’t bored for a single moment. Least of all when I was seconds away from a gory death, but we’ll get to that later. For now let’s begin with the obvious choice: God.
Entering Tierra Santa inspires the thought, “What would Jesus do if he paid $8 to enter a theme park that depicted the CliffsNotes version of his life via kitschy revues and fiberglass statues?”
Before arriving at a suitable answer to this question, I was distracted by a line of women in flowing kaftans. They were running as though they were late for something. One tried to hide her cell phone in her headdress when she caught me taking her picture. Of all people, she should know that God sees everything. Especially here.
Every hour the Son of God rises out of this mountain like a holy Pop-Tart.
Billed as the world’s first religious theme park, Tierra Santa (Spanish for “Holy Land”) swung open its pearly gates 11 years ago on a 17-acre plot that was formerly a soccer field. Initial plans to construct a more traditional amusement park with roller coasters and other rides were dashed because of the dangers presented by the adjacent airport, which adds yet another layer of absurdity to the faux pilgrimage. Airplanes flying overhead make it a wee bit difficult to serenely contemplate the stations of the cross.
After the amusement-park concept was squashed, Armando Cavalieri, the head of the powerful Commerce Employees’ Union, which owns the land, conceived a religious-themed experience that would be both entertaining and faith affirming. Then, in a uniquely Argentine scenario, the unions, church, and private sector worked together to establish Tierra Santa, a theme park devoted to the life of God’s #1 Son.
Tierra Santa’s reenactment of Genesis is an extravaganza of lights and music. It looks like a nightclub on a Christian-themed cruise.
Highlights include a giant narrated nativity scene, a reenactment of the Last Supper accompanied by classical music, a statue of Jesus pardoning “the woman taken in adultery,” and a re-creation of the streets of Jerusalem that looks like it was dragged off a B-movie back lot. But Tierra Santa’s real showstopper is a 59-foot-tall mechanical Jesus who every hour resurrects above a fake mountaintop to the blaring sounds of the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The crowd gathers long in advance, vying for the best seats, and watches reverentially as he ascends toward the heavens.
I joined the eager throngs and witnessed what amounted to a Showbiz Pizza version of the Second Coming. With a large heart affixed to his chest, the Son of God ascended from the rock with a calm and benevolent—if not totally catatonic—expression. He then opened and closed his eyes, turned to bless the four cardinal points, and slowly began his descent until only his crown and all-knowing eyes were visible above the mountain’s edge. Finally the Good Shepherd disappeared, perfectly in sync with the last exultant “Hallelujah.” The crowd applauded wildly. Some people might think the whole thing was a tad sacrilegious, but most of the visitors I spoke with stressed the deeply spiritual nature of Tierra Santa.
A visitor looks on in sorrow as a fiberglass Roman scourge mercilessly tortures Jesus. Behind them stands a questionable replica of the Wailing Wall.
The presence of both a synagogue and a mosque in a Christian theme park was a bit odd, but then I spotted the statues of Martin Luther, Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and Gandhi peppering the grounds. I discussed these curiosities with Tierra Santa director María Antonia Ferro. Unlike her historically costumed employees, she wore heavy makeup, a leather jacket, and heels. A bejeweled crucifix dangling from her neck signaled her faith.
When I asked about the non-Christian aspects of the park, María Antonia told me that they were added to keep true to the spirit of representing Jerusalem as it really existed during Christ’s lifetime. She also stressed that the park maintains a “multi-religious dialogue” and that a number of visitors belong to faiths other than Christianity. When I inquired about the baffling statues of 20th-century figures, she replied that they were “leaders who fought for peace and were important people. We wanted to pay homage to them as well.” Left unexplained, however, was the significance of a statue I encountered of a citizen of ancient Jerusalem enjoying a cheesy slice of pizza.
A Roman soldier stands guard at Tierra Santa.
With that, María Antonia had told me all I needed to hear about Tierra Santa’s kooky version of biblical times. I was eager to reach the next destination on my Argentine theme-park journey—a magic place where political enlightenment is the highest calling and children exult in and pay respect to the country’s troubled democratic history.
La República’s executive building is a colorful castle that looks very similar to a certain fortified abode of Sleeping Beauty at Disneyland. Maybe people would pay more attention to world affairs if politicians actually worked in places like this.
LA REPÚBLICA DE LOS NIÑOS
Many Argentines believe that Disneyland is a rip-off of their own La República de los Niños—a theme park in the city of La Plata that teaches children the tenets of one of the most theatrical political ideologies in the world. The story goes that Walt Disney visited La República de los Niños (The Children’s Republic) in the early 50s and later adapted its premise for his own purposes in Anaheim, California. Of course, there’s no documentation to support this hypothesis, but Disneyland did open about three years after La República. Both parks also feature a make-believe land with fairy-tale castles, hordes of rambunctious kids, and parents shuffling around in sun-baked stupors.
La República dates back to just after WWII, when President Juan Domingo Perón and his wife, Eva (aka Evita), were irrevocably transforming Argentine society. A populist government guided by a strange combination of working-class advocacy and self-adulation, the Perón administration invested resources into civic causes and empowered the labor movement. In doing so, they also created a centralized, and many say authoritarian, government. The controversial Eva Perón Foundation, headed by Evita, was the centerpiece of the Peróns’ social program and did many nice things for orphans and children. La República de los Niños was an especially fanciful part of the foundation’s strategy and was created to teach kids about the rights, values, obligations, and inner workings of a democracy.
The park mostly works with kids through a partnership with local schools; however, it is open to the public on weekends. Selected children get to elect their very own congress and administration, which we all know is every ten-year-old’s secret fantasy. There are also amazingly kid-friendly attractions like a bank, a jail, a radio station, military and government buildings inspired by international landmarks, and even an awesome mock public trial against big tobacco! All children should be so lucky.
A girl fills out a make-believe loan application during a bank workshop at La República de los Niños. It’s good for kids to realize at an early age that they will forever be in debt. A child who elected himself speaker of the house steps up to the podium at La República’s congress building. The park’s architects—Gallo, Lima, and Cuenca—modeled the exterior on London’s Palace of Westminster. Of course, everything inside is scaled down to sizes appropriate for pint-size civil servants.
Considering the Peróns’ propagandistic genius, it’s easy to imagine that the park’s prime objective was to create a tiny army of future Peronists. La República’s administration, however, firmly rejects this theory. “I think the Perón government at that time was working fundamentally to prioritize education,” said Alberto Fernández Valdez, the director of the children’s radio station. “And Evita was the one who drove that privilege for children.” Alberto also told me that they force him to “play this horrible [children’s] music.” Later in the afternoon a song with lyrics along the lines of “Down with the pressure of the people, up with liberty” could be heard blaring through the park’s loudspeakers. It was creepy.
Eager to see young democracy in action, I sat in on an exercise in which the “bank” made a “loan” of 50 “pesos” to each kid. They were to use 13 of their allotted pesos to pay imaginary telephone bills. It didn’t seem to have much to do with the intricacies of the Argentine government until the organizer asked whether anyone could explain the function of the banking system. A boy shouted, “To pay fines!” and the children then filed in line to fill out “loan applications,” collect their money, and pay their bills. The result was sheer chaos, and the kids ran around the room screaming and bumping into one another.
Afterward, when calm was restored, I asked some of the participants their thoughts on the Argentine government and how they would do things differently. Seven-year-old Nicolás said that if he were president he would legalize skipping school, and ten-year-old Alejandro declared that he would buy sweets for everyone. Agustín, also ten, claimed he would improve security, a serious and constant problem in Argentina. Damián, another ten-year-old, expressed his desire to improve streets and ensure that people didn’t throw garbage everywhere. Perhaps a government run by little people with snotty noses and ice-cream-stained t-shirts wouldn’t be so bad after all. Maybe they had their priorities in order.
After grappling with government and religion, it was a relief to head to my most primal—and final—destination. I was on my way to a place that calls to mind a simpler time when man and beast interacted without fences between them.
Luján Zoo administrator Santiago Semino said that young children are generally not allowed in the cages of large animals as a safety precaution, but no one stopped this family from posing with this cute li’l carnivore. This boy gave the tiger a loving kiss after a zoo employee urged him to do so. He later ran back for seconds.
Visitors to the Luján Zoo can appreciate dangerous animals from afar, just like any other zoo. It’s also one of the few places in the world where patrons can pay good money for the chance to be mauled inside a cage. Along with a handful of attractions in Australia, New Zealand, and a few other locations, the Luján Zoo allows its visitors to stick their faces up to the snouts of vicious beasts.
Today, the zoo houses approximately 400 animals that span 50 species. Most are descendants of the Semino family’s private wildlife collection. Unsurprisingly, the place is a perpetual public-relations nightmare. Particularly damaging was a 2007 investigative television-news piece by the Argentine show Crónicas Extremas (Extreme Chronicles), which claimed that the animals were drugged and that the zoo employed minors and was in violation of a provincial law that prohibited human contact with wild animals. Implicit in all this was the unwritten but more important law that states humans should not mess around with brutes that can eat their idiotic faces in one bite.
Santiago Semino, Luján Zoo administrator and son of zoo director Jorge Semino, didn’t have much to say regarding either of the aforementioned laws, but he did give me his word that the animals were not drugged, citing as proof that the zoo was open to the public and offered internships. “It would be impossible to hide something like that,” he said. He added that felines are nocturnal animals and thus daytime visitors may get the wrong idea when they encounter big, lethargic cats. It wasn’t very reassuring.
Santiago led me on a tour of the grounds, yet it was impossible to identify what state of consciousness the animals were in. I only spotted a couple that seemed to be completely out of it, but the reason for their sluggishness was unclear. All around me, families and couples seemed to be enjoying their unlikely encounters. I decided it was time to have the full Luján Zoo experience for myself.
The puma that (probably) attacked the author. It’s impossible to be sure because they all looked the same.
When I got to the fourth cage, I mustered up the courage to bottle-feed a large tiger. I gingerly offered a trembling palmful of milk to its giant sandpaper tongue while the zoo staff admonished me to keep my hand directly under the tiger’s mouth. Afterward I felt invincible and walked carefree into the puma cage with head animal trainer Ariel Etchegaray.
The puma immediately took more interest in me than the other animals had. It approached me and stuck its mouth unnervingly close to my camera. Ariel shooed the cat away while I continued snapping photos.
The next thing I remember is a heavy weight landing on my back. I stumbled, unsure what had happened, until it became all too clear. I instinctively curled into a ball. Ariel managed to pull the puma off me and I tried to run away, but it jumped on my back again. As its heavy paws pelted my body and head I had just long enough to accept the fact that I was about to lose my face, or at least a limb. Ariel somehow yanked me from the puma’s paws, violently pushing me through the door of the cage, which Santiago then slammed shut. Ariel briefly remained alone in the cage but quickly escaped after wrestling with the animal for a bit.
I emerged in a daze. A crowd had assembled outside, and they stared at me in horror. Ariel and Santiago, each supporting one side of my shaking body, rushed me to the infirmary. Luckily, the ordeal was more terrifying than injurious. My wounds weren’t serious—some ugly bruising on my legs and arms, and mostly superficial scratches and swelling on my face. I got cleaned up and returned to the two men, both of whom appeared to be more worried about how my article would turn out than how my face looked. After I assured them I was OK, they nervously led me on to see the bears, but the rest of the day was mostly a blur. Santiago called and texted me in the days after the attack to see how I was doing. He expressed genuine concern, although for what and for whom was unclear.
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