Mention Argentina and people think of solitary gauchos, sultry tango dancers or maybe Madonna emoting as "Evita."
Or at least they used to, before those romantic icons were supplanted by television images of people looting supermarkets and banging on pots and pans during massive and occasionally violent protests.
Dario Banegas and fellow Argentineans easily could have tossed in the towel. Their country's economy not that long ago was on the verge of collapse. They had a revolving-door government that saw five presidents in two weeks.
But Dario, 25 and eager to advance the cause of education in Argentina, chose to accept the challenge and work for positive change. He's an idealist anchored by an ample supply of reality.
As an English instructor in five high schools (bilingual, state and Catholic) in the Patagonia region, he is helping to educate about 400 students at a time. His work carries into weekends as he devotes every minute of every day to improving the lives of his teenage learners.
Even though a significant portion of them are pessimistic about their future, Dario attempts to convince them that understanding English can provide them with hope for the future and possibly lead to a better life.
"Some of my students just don't see themselves going anywhere, doing anything (of consequence)," said the visiting teacher at Central Lakes College, Brainerd. But with a strong international infusion led by American interests, Argentina is poised for recovery and an era of relative prosperity.
"Tourism is a big factor in the region where I live, Patagonia," said Dario. "I tell students they may find work as tour guides or other jobs related to international tourism. There is a lot of fly fishing, skiing, things like that. But some just won't try."
Not everyone is required to learn English. Argentineans have limited opportunity to study it or any other language other than their native tongue of Spanish. But Dario is fortunate. He began learning English at age 11.
"I was born in Buenos Aires and grew up in Gualequaychu north of there," he said. "I attended a Catholic school, Sedes Sapientiae, where we were taught English. And I had private classes."
He has had three years of French. Many people in Argentina are descendants of the earliest immigrants from Wales, Germany, Ireland and Scotland. The indigenous people suffered a similar fate to the American Indians: relocation to reservations or isolated regions such as the highlands of the Andes range.
Dario became involved in the American Field Service in 1999, when his family hosted AFS students from Boston and Milwaukee. That period also increased his interest in visiting the United States some day. He has been to most South American countries but never left the continent until he set foot in New York for a five-day orientation.
"Minnesota has the cold and snow, just as we do in Esquel," he said, referring to the city of 33,000 where he lives and works in southwestern Argentina. The community lies in a valley (elevation 4,300 feet) surrounded by mountains, forests and lakes.
"I am used to cold," he said, noting that in his country winter has taken hold. "I knew it would be summer here, but I was surprised when I came here and it was so warm."
As a good researcher, Dario knows a good deal about the United States. His college degree came only after studies that included American history and literature, as well as that of the British Isles.
During his time in Minnesota, Dario is available to make presentations about the Argentine culture, educational system, history, food, music, current issues and Spanish and Latin American literature. He is interested in visiting college classes relating to the cultures of Latin America, as well as classes in English composition, reading and American literature.
In Argentina, students attend classes from March to December with a two-week winter break -- in July. His work day generally runs from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., with a mid-day break from students. Depending on which school he teaches at on a given day, he may be back in the classroom at 5 p.m.
His substitute was selected with input from Dario, who is allowed to receive his regular pay while in the United States.
"Things are getting better, slowly," he said, referring to the economy and political climate of his country. The new president, Nestor Kirchner, was elected in May and appears to be trying to undue some of the social injustice and corruption plaguing Argentina. "He is trying to deal with it."
Unemployment remains at about 18 percent (down from 20-plus). Argentinean agencies and businesses involved in exporting are vanguards for the recovery. Operations that connect with American corporations for extraction of resources such as oil also have done well.
Political negotiation to increase or initiate taxation of the extractors remains a delicate issue for the new regime.
Dario is living with George and Pat Scott of Brainerd and can be reached at 828-4765 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
He is also available through the CLC Spanish Department at 855-8183.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.