Memories of Tango
I think tango and I think of women. I think tango and I think of Perón. Let me explain: as a child I used to hear tangos sung by our maid, a woman who had left the pampa to come down to the city, and whose political leanings were the exact opposite of those of my parents. Justa was a fervent peronista. Thanks to Perón she had discovered that she could be more than a maid. My mother let her have two afternoons off a week so that she could attend the School of Nursing founded by Evita. I remember how good she looked the day she graduated, decked in her brand-new blue uniform, which she then hung carefully in her closet and put her white apron back on. But this is only indirectly related to tango. During Perón’s first term in office nationalism was the order of the day and radio stations were made to broadcast national music. National music meant the music of the provinces but it meant, above all, tango. Tango was so national that tango orchestras were called orquestas típicas—“typical” orchestras. Justa cleaned the house to the beat of tangos played on the radio and would sing along while I followed around. I remember Zorro Gris, for example, “Grey Fox”, a characteristically misogynist tango where a man accuses the woman who’s left him of having a soul so cold she cannot warm it with her grey fox wrap. Perhaps I remember it because my mother also had a grey fox wrap, and the dissecated fox’s head, lying between her breasts, both disturbed and fascinated me. But all this had little to do with Justa, who sang while she pushed a very heavy brush along the oak floors to make them shine. I learnt words: percanta, bulín, gil, words that I knew not to repeat before my parents, aware that neither Justa nor I would benefit from this vaunting of new knowledge. Justa also sang a tango that went “Su nombre era Margot, / llevaba boina azul, / y en su pecho colgaba una cruz.” I liked that tango because my mother’s name was Margot. Justa liked it, I suspect, because it afforded her the perverse pleasure of shouting out my mother’s given name instead of the usually diffident “Señora.” Tango, the language of tango, was the voice of resistance. I identified with Justa but never learned the words to any one tango, just fragments. Every now and then I recite them to myself, use them as a charm that does not necessarily ward off evil but brings pleasure, much in the same way I turn to stray verses from Racine, memorized roughly at the same time. These are literary luxuries: they comfort me.
I think tango and I think of the woman who taught me to dance it. “She knows how to lead,” people said admiringly of my aunt. Leading was crucial to tango and role playing essential. My father, who was a bad dancer, did not know how to lead and seemed not to care. My aunt, instead, moved with incredible dexterity, leading the body of her partner with the lightest of touches. She was able to make her partner’s body—mine, on the occasion—do, as if by its own initiative, whatever she wanted it to do.
It is curious that in a dance with such specific roles—the leader, the one that is led—there is so much gender instability. This is not just my perception: any critical study of tango mentions these gender oddities. At the beginning tango was supposedly a dance between men. As such, scholars suggest—perhaps not wanting to consider other discomfiting possibilities—it was the enactment of a duel in which the more daring man won the lead. Sexuality is only recognized when tango goes heterosocial: then, instead of being a contest between lowlifes, it becomes a scene of seduction between a man and a woman. Yet the homosocial nature of tango never quite disappears. Salacious postcards of the twenties often show scantily-clad women dancing a tango together. Films contribute their bit: think of the immensely seductive tango danced by Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli in Bertolucci’s The Conformist or, for that matter, in the transvestite, parodic tango performed by Jack Lemmon and Joe Brown in Some Like It Hot.
I think tango and I think of certain women’s voices, like the voice of Olga Orozco, the poet, who, like the “Malena,” celebrated in the tango by that name, knew how to sing tangos como ninguna, like no one else. Olga’s version of “Sur,” sung in her low-pitched, smoky voice, gave one the shivers. I think too of the long tradition of female tango singers I discovered as an adult, starting out with Azucena Maizani and Rosita Quiroga, continuing with Ada Falcón, Libertad Lamarque, Tita Merello, and still alive in Susana Rinaldi and Adriana Varela. Even in those cases—or perhaps especially in those cases—tango showed its ambiguous streak, its tendency to transvestism, to provocative sexual confusion. These women, some, in fact, in drag—Azucena Maizani often performed dressed like a neighborhood tough—physically took over the male “I” singing the lyrics. But tango’s transvestite effects do not need an actual change of dress. Simple linguistic transvestism does it just as well, operating the twist, the gender crisscrossing through a repossessed first person. The primal scene of tango, its mourning and melancholy, stages a male “I” mourning the absence of a woman who has left him for a richer lover or a more glamorous life. But when that “I” is embodied by a woman, a woman who mourns the loss of another woman and sings her desperate love to her not imitating male diction but in her own voice, tango fully reveals its complexity, its infinite seduction.
I have said that I only remember fragments of tangos. But Argentines, even those of us who did not grow up dancing or singing tangos, casually quote them when we speak, not really knowing what tango we’re quoting from. “Veinte años no es nada,” “Twenty years is nothing,” a line sung by Gardel, has passed into language. Argentines speak through tango, or rather we “speak tango”: “cuesta abajo en la rodada,” “no habrá más penas ni olvido.” Tango belongs to what Borges calls our “slight mnemonic archive,” a random collection to which we refer, seriously or in jest, and more often than not seriously and in jest. Borges wrote somewhere that the tango “Loca” touched him more than the national anthem. My mother used to say she wanted “La Cumparsita” played at her funeral.
A friend of mine—to go back to women—suffers from Alzheimer’s and seldom speaks these days but she remembers bits of tango. If I say to her “Veinte años no es nada” she joins in, without missing a beat, as if waking from a dream, “que febril la mirada errante en las sombras te busca y te nombra.” She doesn’t remember her mother’s name or what she had for lunch ten minutes ago but tango has the power to bring her back.
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