Authentic. How many times do you hear that word during the trip? But is what we, the visitors, call autenthic, really so? And if not, is there anything that is actually authentic? Is there any way to recognize it as such?
An attempt at definition is probably a good start.
[It's four years later, I just finished a yearly philosophy course on the concept of authenticity, and I didn't come out with any actual solid conclusions (do you ever, in philosophy courses? Maybe it's the sign of a bad course, if you did...) about what it really means. Of course, the course dealt with personal authenticity, which is quite a different subject, but still...] Usually when you use the word it's about a certain aspect of life that is different than yours, or that we treat as different, old fashioned or simply strange, and we assign a certain value to its mere existence. More likely than not, it will be connected to cultural phenomenons, ones that are external and fairly obvious, like food, clothing, traditional ceremonies, dances, music, and so on. In most cases it will be used on people and places that are poorer, more "down-to-earth", more folk-y. I'd say those are the elements that make something "authentic", at least in the tourism sense of the word.
It's a subject that is very connected to the whole "culture as tourist attraction" issue, of course. I've noticed a quite obvious general trend in my subject matters in this notebook since Bariloche, from things that have to do more with me and my personal experience, to more universal matters, dealing with tourism, traveling, and the people in the places I've been visiting. I guess the style of traveling, and the way it changes (from trekking in the outdoors to hopping from town to town, in this case), directly affect the subjects I write of. That's quite understandable. Anyway...
The claim that by looking at something you change it is an old one. Old enough so that in the Coen Brothers' "The man who wasn't there" it's used as a worn out cliche (is it possible for a cliche not to be worn out...?) and a joke. But I think in this case it's a good answer. By the very fact that I'm sitting in the plaza in Mercedes and looking at people walking by in gaucho clothing, I "de-authenticize" them. Or maybe I give or assign authenticity to them, but a fake kind of authenticity, the touristic kind, one that can only come from an outside observer. For if I wasn't there, they would just be regular people walking on the street, dressed in their everyday clothes, walking to the market or back home. And what can be more authentic than that?
You could say that, in my eyes, a camera lens immediately damages the authenticity of what it's pointed at. It frames it, makes it into a symbol or an exhibit. The hat for coins next to the traditional musicians, or the neon sign which says "traditional dances", definitely damage the authenticity. The mere fact of the local highlighting that specific popular custom, and the fact that the tourist is out there looking for it, turn the whole thing into an act, a game with set rules and roles.
If you want real authenticity, I guess there's only one surefire way to get it: live there, get to know the people, understand the customs and live with them, until they (along with your presence there, I guess) seem perfectly normal . Then they will truly be authentic, at least for you.