Mirta Vázquez

Women in tango

It is known that we, individuals, are socially placed according to the coordinates of time and space in which we are bound to live. From psychoanalisis it has been sketched the idea that the present subject is not the same of previous centuries, since his position is determined, in part, by history.

It is after the teachings of Jacques Lacan that it is possible to think about the signifiants that mark a subject and which conform what he called «the subjectivity of a period». Each period has a discourse of its own and each generation generates, precisely, signifiants that represent it.

Taking this into account, a few years ago I began a research to establish those common places which defined women in the poetry of tango.

My first work was: «The place of woman in tango poetry», but as soon as I was going further I found myself with the necessity of spotting the social place of women in Buenos Aires. I decided to place it between 1880 and 1960. That is to say, from the birth of tango until some time after the first half of this century, considering its features in accordance with the way popular poets saw it.

My surveys and readings follow a course and, consequently, the conclusions I draw are still partial. Nonetheless, as soon as I go on, the following hypothesis is confirmed: the social place given to women depends on the subjectivity of the time. That is to say that the discourse in force determines its value.

Lacan thinks that we cannot talk about «Woman», since there is no universal which contains it. This means that the feminine pleasure is inscribed into the particularity of each one. Instead for all men there is an equivalent way of sexual pleasure. It is from the heterogeneity of the pleasures that Lacan determines, through psychoanalisis, sexual difference. That is to say that the latter neither relies on biology, nor on anatomy (transvestism and transformism evidence it), but on a position of the subject towards her or his own sex.

A well-known Jacques Lacan´s syntagm is: «Woman does not exist». That is to say that there is no representation of woman since in the unconscious, sexual differentiation is not inscribed.

One of the tasks of the artist is precisely to create it. It is known that there were, at all times, women who have occupied the place of an inspiration muse. At the same time, art succeeds in creating a kind of woman that sometimes becomes the paradigm of her time.

In my research about tango lyrics, I have found authors, mainly men, who have been creating a kind of porteña woman. Chronologically considering nearly a century is possible to verify the discourse changes and the kind of woman that corresponds to each time.

I place the tango time from its birth in 1880 as music and dance until the 1960s, since from then on another kind of woman springs up in Argentina (and maybe in the world). So popular poetry remains, for me, displayed on the lyrics of the songs of the incipient national rock. So appears the «girl with paper eyes», while tango starts a two-fold trend: on one side the instrumental development is emphasized, especially in the styles of Astor Piazzolla and Eduardo Rovira, while on the side of the lyrics, the city of Buenos Aires is preferred as protagonist rather than its women. Curiously a female poet begins to stand out: Eladia Blázquez.

In the lyrics of the early tangos is possible to find a certain kind of woman who reappears throughout time and who embodies either the mother or the prostitute.

This duality, observed by Freud as typical of man's choice of object, has amazing features in the porteño man. To begin, it can be said that he chooses those women who can fit to these two positions at the same time.

Ángel Villoldo, in “El Porteñito” writes:

Y al hacerle la encarada
La fileo de cuerpo entero
Asegurando el puchero
Con el vento que dará.

In fact, in our city the pimp was called, mockingly, the «coffee with milk pimp», because he owned only one or, at the most, two pupils who worked for him but he did not run a whorehouse. The enterprise bias of prostitution was brought by foreigners and, in general, was exploited by them. That is to say that the macho porteño, besides business, was tied to his woman by love bonds.

One of the functions to which the mother is associated is that of nurturing. So, by getting sexual pleasure from the same one who feeds him, the ruffian manages to get together the mother and the whore in one person.

It may be objected that not all porteños were ruffians, what it is true.

But it is true as well that the unhabitants of the city began to share a new language, lunfardo.

On that respect I must make a digression . That which is transmitted by means of word shapes the wishes and likings of the individuals who inhabit a language. Language, as woman, is not universal: there are languages as there are women . Language as woman are creations. To each time corresponds a way of speaking as also a type of woman. Little matters if she, such as the author describes her, exists in reality. What I highlight is that each one of those who do exist does not have another chance but placing themselves according to the discourse that determines them.

Lunfardo is used by poets since the very creation of tango-song and, in general, this beginning is considered with “Mi noche triste (Lita)”, by Pascual Contursi.

There we already have masterly condensed the two typical features of the city of Buenos Aires woman. As mother she appears in the verses alluding home, its keeping and arrangement:

Cuando voy a mi cotorro
y lo veo desarreglado,
todo triste abandonado
me dan ganas de llorar

Siempre traigo bizcochitos
pa'tomar con matecito
como cuando estabas vos

Ya no hay en el bulín
aquellos lindos frasquitos
adornados con moñitos...

It is obvious that in these stanzas man misses a maternal woman and evidences a type of love in which tenderness prevails while in passion-love which ties him to the woman-lover he says so:

Percanta que me amuraste
en lo mejor de mi vida
dejándome el alma herida
y espinas en el corazón,
sabiendo que te quería,
que vos eras mi alegría
y mi sueño abrasador
para mí ya no hay consuelo
y por eso me encurdelo
pa'olvidarme de tu amor.

Y si vieras la catrera
como se pone cabrera
cuando no nos ve a los dos.

This tango marks the beginning of one of the typical of tango love dramas: forsaken man. Likewise this paradigmatic woman also begins to be built, who, with different nuances, will be repeated in so many lyrics.

In this case, man cries the two-fold loss: the sexual woman, debased in her condition of object of pleasure and the maternal woman raised to the rank of object of idealization.

From this perspective I say that the woman created by tango lyrics was a blend of weakness and strength.

Her position of dominance drives her near to the feature that Lacan highlights in what is the Mother for the small child: allmighty. When losing her, man destroys himself. It is a passional dimension of love incarnated in a type of woman that is capable of driving man to the worst.

Archetypes spring up of the creation. Like the milonguita, that loose woman.

In the early lyrics loose women abound, those who trying to get rid of a poor social environment find prostitution as the only way out. “Flor de fango”, “Margot”, “Zorro gris”, “El motivo (Pobre paica)”, “Mano a mano”, “Ivette” or “Milonguita (Esthercita)”, are clear examples.

I transcribe some paragraphs from “Flor de fango” by Contursi:

Justo a los catorce abriles
Te entregaste a la farra,
Las delicias del gotán,
Te gustaban las alhajas,
Los vestidos a la moda
Y las farras de champán.

Fuiste papusa del fango
Y las delicias del tango
Te espiantaron del bulín;
Los amigos te engrupieron
Y ellos mismos te perdieron
Noche a noche en el festín.

It is interesting to see how in these verses Contursi reflected the decision of a teen-aged girl who for having some fun had, necessarily, to «lose her honor». On many occasions I have heard that in this way tango has indicted women. I think that, in this case, it rather justifies her, since it understands that society does not allow another possibility.

He comes back with the subject in “El motivo (Pobre paica)”:

Mina que fue en otro tiempo
la más papa milonguera
y en esas noches tangueras
fue la reina del festín...
Hoy no tiene pa'ponerse
Ni zapatos ni vestidos,
Anda enferma y el amigo
No aportó para el bulín.

In general all desire related to luxury and pleasure is thought through the guilt-punishment pair, since each one who chooses them will end badly: alone, lonely, without love, anguished, or, lastly, murdered.

At last, in “Ivette”, Contursi mixes, with a sarcasm that anticipates the grotesque, the loose woman with the forsaken man. Of her he says:

Mina que fuiste el encanto
de toda la muchachada
y que por una pavada
te acoplaste a un misché.

And after enumerating the gifts of dubious taste he had given her, he concludes like this:

Recordando sus amores, el pobre bacán lloró.

Margot” presents a similar scheme. Its lyrics were written by Celedonio Flores and from the start it depicts a woman who a man guesses, through subtle signs, the humble origin she tries to hide.

Se te embroca desde lejos, pelandruna abacanada
que has nacido en la miseria de un convento de arrabal
hay un algo que te vende, yo no sé si es la mirada,
la manera de sentarte, de charlar o estar parada
o ese cuerpo acostumbrado a las pilchas de percal.

A little further he determines, again, that the reason of her doom is her desire. fue un guapo haragán ni prepotente,
ni un cafishio de averías el que al vicio te largó,
vos rodaste por tu culpa y no fue inocentemente
berretines de bacana que tenías en la mente...!

In this case, unlike Pascual Contursi, Flores does not allow any alibi to the woman. Guilt does not fall on the environment or the others but upon herself, hence the anger with which he curses her at the end and the resource of calling upon the other, the mother.

Y tu vieja, pobre vieja, lava toda la semana
pa'poder parar la olla con pobreza franciscana
en el triste conventillo alumbrado a querosén.

Furthermore he discovers love, behind the hate, when he names her as «mi Margarita».

In “Mano a mano” he foretells her an awful end:

y mañana cuando seas descolado mueble viejo
y no tengas esperanzas en el pobre corazón...

Francisco García Jiménez, author of “Zorro gris” sentences with these words the end of the loose woman:

...era el intenso frío de tu alma lo que abrigabas
con tu zorro gris.

Finally in “Milonguita (ESthercita)”, a name that turned out generic for all loose women, Samuel Linnig writes:

¡Estercita!, hoy te llaman Milonguita,
Flor de lujo y de placer, flor de noche y cabaret.
¡Milonguita! Los hombres te han hecho mal
Y hoy darías toda tu alma
Por vestirte de percal.

In brief, I think these tangos are clear examples of the kind of woman found in the cabaret ambiances between 1917 and 1920.

There were two possibilities for women: marriage and with it motherhood as an escape or sinking into vice and doom. Placed at one and other end of the mother-whore pair, salvation through love had not still taken form, what later would appear in poets like Enrique Santos Discépolo or Homero Manzi.

That is to say that in the first two decades of the century, our authors created a woman mislaid by pleasure but condemned, by that, to pain and loneliness. So this peculiar type of woman springs up, the Milonguita, whose end, according to Linnig, is eloquent:

Ay, que sola, Estercita te sientes!
Si lloras... dicen que es el champán!...

Originally published in the Club de Tango magazine, Nº 37, Buenos Aires, July-August 1999.