Don’t Cry for Me Argentina

by Geoffrey Clarfield (April 2010)

This river of silver, Rio Plata, was discovered in 1516, by Juan de Solis, a Spanish explorer. He was the first founder of Santa Maria de Los Buenos Aires. While exploring its shores he was killed by local Indians, who then ate him while his crew watched from their boats.
I am taken by the way Argentines live their daily lives and I have a growing affection for them and their way of life. On the other hand, whether you can run a country on the same informal principles is an entirely different question.
While Europeans of Spanish descent established their authority here, Europeans of French and British descent did the same in Canada. In the eighteen hundreds, Argentina broke away from Spanish control and became an independent republic. In the mid 1800s Canada likewise achieved Dominion status. In the late eighteen hundreds both countries encouraged massive immigration from southern and eastern Europe and which profoundly changed the fabric of society.
I wanted to find out, all other things being equal, whether my prospects or the prospects of my second cousins and their children were any better, given the differences between the two countries. It is and was as close to a social experiment as you can get.
In 1959 when Fidel Castro rid Cuba of what all agree was a corrupt dictatorship my relatives told me that in Argentina he was compared to General San Martin, who along with Simon Bolivar liberated South America from the Spanish yoke in the early 1800s and established republics based on secular liberal principles. Like George Washington before them, both were Masons and opposed the ancient regime with its Zorro like connection between the church and the landowners.
I am back on Corrientes Street looking for books and CDs. Above me is an enormous poster. It is a ten foot high portrait of a dazzling young woman in her twenties or thirties, Cecilia Miliones. Cecilia started her career as a semi comic character in local soap operas. She then took a serious interest in singing Tango and gave up acting. She has been singing Tango to full houses and rave reviews.
It started out as an art form played by Argentines of African descent in the brothels by the port before the turn of the century. It was then taken up by the immigrant workers from Spain and Italy who mixed their melodies with instruments brought by German immigrants. Once it proved a hit in Paris the middle classes of Buenos Aires then adopted it as their own because, according to the cultural logic of Argentineans that anything that comes from Paris is valuable and worth cultivating. [Note that the Argentine writer, Alberto Menguel, author of A History of Reading, immigrated to Canada and wrote his masterpiece in the Toronto Public Library with grants from the government. Once famous, he moved to France.]

I am told that a generation ago it was learnt while dancing, among friends and in the family. Now, in order to dance Tango, Portenos insist that you need to take lessons.

There are basic steps and a wide variety of improvisations. In the Tango the male dancer leads. He is macho and his female partner is lascivious. Very often in a move she will wrap her leg around her partner in what looks like a sexual embrace, briefly exposing her underwear and nylon stockings. It is titillating and no doubt meant to be that way. It makes disco look as innocent as square dancing.
In 1926 the writer Vincente Rossi wrote that Tango comprises,

Each authority blames the other for not cooperating.

And maybe all of this is in some way related to the fact that Tango was born in physical isolation far from Rio de Janeiro and New York. Before the rise of the radio and TV, the poor of Buenos Aires needed some sort of art from to express their transplanted European but hybrid New World life and identity. Tango was the perfect mix and its isolation helped it establish its own framework, which like New York Jazz keeps transforming.
As Toronto and Montreal kept American spirits alive during the prohibition years of the depression, providing them with all the illegal alcohol that they could smuggle across the border, so did Jazz and big bands give their music to Canadian youth and thus preempted the development of a music that might have expressed Toronto in all its immigrant confusion. In the 1930s my parents would go the Palais Royal near the Exhibition grounds and dance to the big bands. What was good enough for New Yorkers was good enough for them. Nevertheless, it was Borges who summarized the history of the Tango in one sentence. In 1930 he wrote,
At the beginning it was an orgiastic mischief, today it is a way of walking.
This almost happened in the US with the recent bank meltdown but, Canadian banks held firm. No doubt, in Argentina, government corruption at high levels had much to do with the crisis. During one month after the beginning of the crisis, Argentina had five presidents.
My friends explained to me that there are now five social classes in Argentina. There are the upper classes, a small group of well connected multi millionaires who still hold much of the economic and political power in the country. There is a large but threatened middle class that maintains the European standards of the country in the professions. There is a working class who struggle to make ends meet. There are the poor who can eat but can barely clothe themselves and there are the indigent who have difficulty finding food to eat.
Psychoanalysis is one method that helps people integrate the disparate dimensions of the self in a turbulent social world. Its popularity can be explained by the fact that it is one way for Portenos to negotiate between the extreme and conflicted sensualism of the id filled world of the Tango, with its almost knee jerk blame defense mechanism, and the exaggerated and often unfair superego of Church and authoritarian politicians, who themselves most probably enter the church and politics after having experienced or practiced their methods as the children of, or the authoritarian heads of extended patriarchal families. Perhaps this is a core reason why so many people enter therapy. One can only hope that some of the new political leaders having been in analysis, will not model themselves on the caudillos, tyrants and demagogues of the past. Kirchner, despite the fact that he made his wife President after him, may be the first of a new breed.
On the other hand, an interest in Freud may simply be one way that Portenos mark themselves off as different from Argentineans who do not live in Buenos Aires. There is a world of difference between the city and the country here. It is hard to tell. No doubt who is and who is not ultimately happy or sad, is privileged and private information between therapist and analysand.
It is a beautiful day and I decide to take a walk in the botanical gardens and re-read Borges classic short story The Aleph. Everywhere I go there are 19th century marble statues surrounded by water and fountains with bronze sculptures. I could just as well be in Paris. I watch young lovers embracing under trees on wide benches, grandparents walking their grandchildren to the swings and various and sundry Portenos escaping the noise of the city for a few moments quiet.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an Anthropologist at large.

To comment on this article, please click


If you have enjoyed this article and would like to read more by Geoffrey Clarfield, please click here.