The Music of Immigrants | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Music of Immigrants


Joe Atkins

BUENOS AIRES—We're in the century-old Confiteria Ideal listening to the mother of all tangos, "La Cumparsita," and I'm thinking about the somewhat different world into which the tango was born.

Jorge Luis Borges describes it perfectly in his short story, "Streetcorner Man."

"He was admired for the way he handled a knife," Borges says about the Slasher, a barrio gang leader in his story. "Sharp dresser, too. He always rode up to the whorehouse on a dark horse, his riding gear decked out in silver. ... He usually wore a soft hat with a narrow brim ... it would sit in a cocky way on his long hair, which he slicked straight back."

Then one night, the Slasher's enemy—whom they called the Butcher—challenged him for his woman. "He called to the musicians to play loud and strong, and he ordered the rest of us to dance. From one end of the hall to the other, the music ran like wildfire. ... 'Make way, boys, she's all mine now!'"

The tango was the music of immigrants, Italians mostly, who came by the millions to Argentina in the late 1800s to work in its fields, ports and factories. The music was sad, fatalistic, reflecting homesickness and resentment against the "patron" who made their lives hell. They spoke a distinct dialect, lunfardo, the language of some of the greatest tangos.

The dance, sensuous beyond all other dances, tells of the importance of women in their lives. Women were greatly outnumbered in those Wild West years of Argentina, and when a man got one on the floor, he held her close, cheek to cheek, and his sharp, lunging steps were like the wave of a stiletto, a warning to other men to stay away.

Unlike these United States, where politicians from Donald Trump to Phil Bryant demagogue the immigrant as the source of endless problems, Argentina knows and values its immigrant heritage. By 1914, 58 percent of Argentines were first- or second-generation immigrants. Seventy percent of Buenos Aires' population was foreign-born. They were key to Argentina's rise to one of the world's sixth richest countries by 1920.

Argentina's most famous military leaders, politicians and artists—from Jose de San Martin and Juan Peron to writer Borges and tango crooner Carlos Gardel—were either immigrants or exiles during their lifetimes. "Deep down, (Astor) Piazzolla himself was always something of an uprooted, nostalgic migrant," Maria Susana Azzi and Simon Collier write in their biography of the creator of so-called "Nuevo Tango," who spent his formative years in New York City.

At a time when Republican politicians in the U.S. are demanding a ban on Syrian immigrants and a wall between the nation's southern border and Mexico, Argentina has one of the world's most open policies toward immigration. Laws were passed in 2004 and 2013 guaranteeing equality and workplace protection to the country's 100,000 Paraguayan domestic workers. They get maternity leave, paid holidays, and they cannot be forced to work more than 48 hours a week.

Migrants are a global phenomenon. Between 2000 and 2010, their number grew from 150 million to 214 million. Add war and political strife to economic pressures, and you've got huge portions of the world's population in a constant search for a better life. Exacerbating those economic pressures are neo-liberal policies that exploit cheap migrant work through trade agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These agreements may enrich hedge fund operators on Wall Street and fatten the coffers of the politicians who support them but usually bring nothing but misery on working people.

Argentina was one of the first victims of neo-liberalism, plunging into national bankruptcy and depression in 2001. The economy has greatly recovered—thanks in part to 12 years of pro-worker Peronist rule by the late Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina—but recent elections that put wealthy former businessman Mauricio Macri into the presidency could signal a shift back to the austerity principles that earlier put Argentina on the rack and more recently, Greece.

Workers in Argentina worry that Macri may turn the immigration issue against them by opening the floodgates to cheap, non-organized foreign workers from Bolivia and other countries. "How do you care for Argentine workers if you open the doors like what was done in the 1990s?" Hernan Pose, a member of the CTA (Central de trabajadores de la Argentina) workers organization, told me as he handed out anti-Macri leaflets in Buenos Aires' busy Calle Florida.

His colleague and fellow CTA member Rodolfo Olmos nodded. "Yes, it is a big problem." So immigration-friendly Argentina isn't immune from tensions over migrant workers. Let's hope its politicians don't look northward toward that big behemoth beyond the Rio Grande for models in how handle those tensions.

Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist, columnist and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Email him at [email protected].

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