Buenos Aires: Dancing in the streets
Story and photos by Chris Welsch
Sunday, August 26, 2001
A native of Buenos Aires, and a proud Argentinian, told this joke to sum up the country's reputation in South America.
Three South Americans are walking together as a rainstorm begins to drench them. Thunder booms and lightning flashes.
Tango Dancers in Buenos Air
The Bolivian covers his head. "Ay, my bad luck never ends."
The Chilean cries, "Let's run for shelter!"
The Argentinian just smiles between lightning strikes. "God is taking pictures of me again!"
Walking the streets of Buenos Aires, that streak of hubris is evident. Women click by in tight black dresses and Italian heels. Men dressed sharp as knife blades speak into their cell phones. The buildings and broad avenues speak of empire.
The dance of Buenos Aires, naturally then, is the sexy, outrageous, mesmerizing tango.
In transit from one place to another, I had only a couple of days to explore the city. And that's what I most wanted to see: the tango. Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Great Wall in China, the tango is an iconic tourist cliche. But, like the Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall, it's a wonder that must be seen to be believed. Or so I'd heard.
When I stepped out of the hotel in the early-morning light on a summer day in February, the air was as heavy as a backpack loaded with sand. I did not see then, and do not see now, how anyone could be moved to dance in such heat.
I wondered about the wisdom of even a slow shuffle when I saw our tour guide approaching us with a clipboard in hand. A walking tour of Buenos Aires was the order of the day, and a local tour agency had sent a history teacher from the University of Buenos Aires to lead the march. I'd been assured that the tale of the tango was on the itinerary.
After introducing himself as Jose Benclowicz, he handed me a palmful of change. "We'll be traveling by bus, and this is your fare."
Teacher and historian Jose Benclowicz, who gives walking tours of Buenos Aires.
First things first -- names like Jose Benclowicz are not uncommon in Buenos Aires, which has long been a magnet for immigrants.
A city of 13 million, most of its residents are of European descent: 80 percent are Italian or Spanish, followed by Germans, Welsh and Irish. Benclowicz said there's a sizable community of Eastern European Jews like his parents from Poland, who fled Germany before World War II.
We hopped off the bus at San Martin Square.
The square is shaded with magnificently sprawling Ombu trees and centered on a massive statue of Jose de San Martin, the general who drove the Spanish out of Chile and Argentina.
There Benclowicz told us of Buenos Aires' humble beginnings.
Spaniard conquistadors tried to create a settlement in 1535, but the Karandias Indians drove them out. A second Buenos Aires (a sailor's idiom for good trade winds) was founded in 1580, near the mouth of the Rio de la Plata. "This was the northern limit of the town then. Now it's the center," Benclowicz said.
San Telmo neighborhood --abandoned by the wealthy during epidemics in the 1800s--has been redeveloped with tango bars.
Pointing to the French-designed 19th-century buildings around the park, Benclowicz said they were also a legacy of San Martin's heroic efforts to win independence from Spain.
"After independence, Argentines rejected all things Spanish," Benclowicz said. "Colonial-era buildings were torn down, and the city rebuilt with French architecture and ideas."
We walked, we got on buses, we saw how Buenos Aires is divided along class lines. After epidemics of cholera and yellow fever in the 1870s, the rich abandoned their neighborhoods to the immigrants and built magnificent mansions and public buildings. (The poorest neighborhoods were quarantined, and one epidemic literally wiped out Buenos Aires' black population.)
It was at this time that Argentina's economy boomed by exporting beef and grain to Europe, and it all went out through the ports of Buenos Aires. The people of Buenos Aires still refer to themselves via that heritage: They call themselves Porteņos.
"Buenos Aires is divided into perfect quadrants," Benclowicz said. "We have the north -- the rich quadrant -- and we have the center, which divides north and south, and we have the south -- the poor quadrant. Buenos Aires was built that way in 1880 and still is that way.
"Now we are going to see that the rich weren't satisfied to have their own neighborhoods during their lives -- they had to have an exclusive address in death, too," he said.
The Recoleta is Buenos Aires' expensive neighborhood for the dead.
Next to a colonial-era church in the city's financial district, it's a massive maze of marble mausoleums, built in an amazing array of architectural styles. It's laid out with avenues and streets, and even within it, there is a pecking order. In the 19th century, a prime plot of Recoleta land went for about $500,000 in today's dollars.
Some of the mausoleums are decorated with sculpture that would be at home in the Louvre, with multiple stories and basement crypts.
In this city of stone, the unshaded sun radiated. Sweat poured off my chin as we came to the crypt of the cemetery's most famous resident: Evita Peron, the wife of populist Argentine President Juan Peron. A former prostitute with a flair for public gestures, she was loved by the people and feared by the upper class and the generals who did their bidding.
She remains a popular figure in Argentina. A fresh rose was stuck into the black marble door.
"Evita died in 1952," Benclowicz said. "Peron had her mummified. In 1955, a coup deposed Peron, and the generals took her body. They were afraid it could be an inspiration for a counter-coup.
"The captain who was in charge of hiding the body went crazy and ran away with it," he said. The Argentine army chased the captain down, retrieved the body and shipped it to the pope.
"The pope? Why?"
"They didn't want a popular uprising around Evita, but they were afraid of what would happen if they destroyed the body. The pope agreed to take it."
The pope had the body buried in Milan, Benclowicz said. But in 1972, he gave it back to Juan Peron, who was living in exile in Spain.
When the generals in power allowed Peron to return to Argentina in 1975, he brought the well-traveled mummy of Evita with him.
Then there was another coup d'etat.
"These generals didn't know what to do with the body, but still they feared it."
So they put it in the Recoleta, where the narrow passages between mausoleums would keep a crowd from gathering. As a final insult, they didn't put Evita in her family tomb, but with some distant relatives named Duarte, he said.
"The irony is she is surrounded by all the people she hated in life, and who hated her," Benclowicz said.
By bus and foot we made our way to La Boca, the poor neighborhood on the south side of Buenos Aires where the tango was born.
"Let's have a little quiz," Benclowicz said. "At the turn of the century, what were Argentina's three biggest businesses?"
I made a half-hearted stab at it, but kept striking out on No. 3.
"The most important was corn and beef. The second was the train, the railway industry. The third was prostitution."
Benclowicz said that thousands upon thousands of immigrants were pouring into the country, and 85 percent of them were men. "That created a problem of supply and demand," he said.
"The brothel owners had to create a form of entertainment to keep men happy while they waited for women. The wait could be hours. That's why at first the tango was only danced by men."
From his clipboard, Benclowicz pulled a grainy black-and-white photo: It showed two burly, mustachioed Italian men, dancing cheek to cheek while a piano player looked on.
La Boca (The Mouth, because it's at the mouth of the river) is now a tourist attraction, but at the turn of the century it was a rough neighborhood of bars and flop houses, with ramshackle buildings painted in a rainbow of colors.
Residents bought or stole surplus paint from boats, and they used what they could get to decorate their homes and businesses. The neighborhood is painted the same way now as a form of historic preservation, Benclowicz said.
La Boca centers on the Caminito, or Little Street, a short passage that was the heart of the brothel district. Now it is full of souvenir shops, bars, ice cream parlors. Local artists display paintings of tango dancers. Street performers tango for change most days, Benclowicz said, but that day the street held only sweaty tourists in shorts and sandals.
Benclowicz noticed that I was starting to fade. The heat was getting to me.
"In Buenos Aires, people don't get altitude sickness, they get humidity sickness," he said.
"I'm not kidding," he said.
Dancing a feeling
It wasn't until the next afternoon that I saw the tango. I was walking down Calle Florida, one of Buenos Aires' pedestrian shopping streets, when I saw a crowd.
I shouldered in. A man and woman, both in black, held each other in tight orbit, as if it weren't just their hands connecting their bodies, but attention so intense it riveted them together with invisible chains.
The music they moved to, a bystander told me, was by Carlos Gardel. He died in 1935, but remains one of Argentina's most popular musicians. It was sad and sweet, with the wheezing sound of the accordion-like bandoneon rising and falling above the rest of the band.
As the man and woman came together, moved apart, and came together again, the dance told a story, of flirtation, seduction, rejection and ultimately union.
Some in the crowd were tourists, but most were Porteņos, on their afternoon lunch break. All were mesmerized. Those of us with cameras were busy clicking away; the flashes popped every few seconds.
The dancers flew across the street, legs a blur, then the man spun the woman and bent her back until her pony tail touched the ground.
The song was over, the dance ended. The crowd was silent for a moment, then broke into applause and whistles.
I think if God had a camera, he would have been taking pictures, too.
-- Chris Welsch is at email@example.com
©Copyright 2001 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.