March 17 marked the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, destroying not only the embassy, but also a Catholic church and a nearby school. 29 people were killed, the vast majority of them Argentine civilians — only four of the victims were Israelis — and 242 people were injured. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Argentina’s history until two years later a similar attack on the AMIA, the Jewish federation building, killed 85 and injured over 300 people.
The latter attack occurred in the neighborhood of Once (pronounced Ohn-seh) at 9:53 AM, which is also the title of a fotonovela, written by Ilan Stavans with photographs by Marcelo Brodsky. The Spanish term fotonovela describes a comic book with photographs instead of illustrations. In English, the terminology varies, but often the Italian word fumetti can be found for this art form since it originally emerged in Italy in the 1940s. In the 1960s, photo comics became popular throughout Latin America, often in the form of movie adaptations.
Fumetti appear to be a to be an outdated, low-brow cultural phenomenon, and so it is surprising that the Mexican-born academic Stavans and Argentine photographer and artist Brodsky use this format to tackle a traumatic historical event such as the terrorist attack on the AMIA building. But it’s even more surprising that it works. “Once@9:53am” is a fictionalized account of the hours prior to the bombing. It is an intimate homage to the Buenos Aires’ historic immigrant neighborhood, comparable to New York’s Lower East Side, and its communities. It is a visually appealing countdown to the moment when the catastrophe changed the face of the area forever.
The original Spanish edition of the book was published in Argentina in 2011. Penn State University Press now brings this fascinating, out-of-the-box work to a North American readership, both in Spanish and English. The expanded edition contains a new essay by Stavans, tackling not only Argentina’s complicated history of attempts at coming to terms with the terrorist attacks, but also putting the narrative in the wider context of Latin American Jewish identity. This essay alone makes it worth picking up the book. “Once@9:53am” is a unique work in a unique form that should not be missed by anyone interested in Latin American Jewish culture.