March 23, 2012 9:09 pm

First Person: James Peck

‘I left the Falklands and took Argentine nationality’

I was born in the Falkland Islands – my family has been there for several generations. My father was a policeman and my mother worked in the Post Office, but they separated a few years before the war. I was 13 when the conflict started. My father went into the mountains to fight with the Parachute Regiment, a kind of local resistance.

When Argentine soldiers came through Port Stanley, I sometimes bought food for them in the shops because they weren’t allowed to. I remember thinking “What the hell is going on? Why is all this happening?” I still think that – it was all so unreal that if you try to rationalise it, you can’t.

Before the war my mother was living in Port Stanley too, with an Argentine man. There were a few mixed couples. But after Argentina surrendered, my mother’s boyfriend had to leave – the British army turned up and told him he had 20 minutes to say goodbye and then he was put on a ship. Argentines were the enemy.

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I married an islander and had a son – he’s 20 now and at Bristol university. My wife and I separated, and, in 2000, when I was in Buenos Aires for an exhibition of my work – I’m a painter – I met an Argentine and we later married. We shuttled back and forth between the islands and Argentina, but we split up in about 2008-09 and I ended up back in the islands. I still came to Buenos Aires to visit our children, who are now nine and five. I just wanted to live with the kids, so I began to look into how to get Argentine papers. I had started thinking about what being British was anyway. It wasn’t the same as in 1982.

Buenos Aires is my home now. I had some very good friends in the city who were ex-conscripts and they helped me get my papers. The Argentine officials were really surprised and I ended up being presented last year with my National Identity Document by Cristina Fernández, the president. It was a big thing. When people ask where I’m from, I say the Malvinas, not the Falklands. I say I’m Argentine, it’s what I am. At the end of the day, I find the whole nationality issue boring because here we still are, coming up to the 30th anniversary of the war, and nothing has changed.

There comes a time when you look at the world, and it’s changing, and you have to ask yourself: do you want to be in on that change, or be like my mother and lose everything? If you want to be with the people you love, you just do it – you don’t put your country first, you put your family first. My mother asked the [Falklands] governor if her boyfriend could return, but he told her Argentines were never going to be allowed back again.

There’s a lot of anger in the islands about what I’ve done. Sometimes I dream I’m going back and that explains some of the aerial shots of islands and cut-up maps I use in my paintings. The imagery just started to come when I got home after a scholarship to art school in Chelsea. I never intended to paint about the war, although I have timed my new exhibition in Buenos Aires to coincide with the anniversary. Sometimes I incorporate poems and I had been working with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land for ages before I realised that the first word is “April” – when the war started – and the last words, “Shantih shantih shantih”, mean “peace”.

My oldest son is quite proud of his home, but I’m not. So much has changed – the arrival of a lot of money from the fishing industry, for a start. I don’t like all this oil exploration either. People say, “We’re going to be rich,” but I tell them, “You’re going to have warships patrolling the place for 50 years.”

My life has made me realise that you can cross borders, that things aren’t black and white. My parents died before I took Argentine citizenship. I don’t know if they’d be turning in their graves. But they didn’t have Argentine children. I do.

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