Néstor Pinsón

The city lit with streetlamps and small lanterns

t was on March 19, 1931 when the whole city of Buenos Aires was lit by electrical lamps. Let us remember that the first one —installed as a trial test— dated back to 1853 and the first electric plant was built in 1887. Electricity was first installed downtown and later was brought to the neighborhoods.

The last streetlamp deserved a ceremony. It was then that the mayor José Guerrico climbed a ladder used by the men who used to light up streetlamps and blew it out. It was located on Avenida del Trabajo and Escalada and there a memorial plaque was placed. Today we can see it at the Cornelio Saavedra museum: an impressive streetlamp fed by fuel alcohol.

Tango that described in its titles and later, thoroughly, in its lyrics, all the objects and events of the city, lately paid homage to that streetlamp. It was with the title “El último farol” with words by Cátulo Castillo and music by Aníbal Troilo.

The primitive narrow streets of the city which were completely dark were rather suitable for robberies, deadly quarrels and other misdeeds. It was in 1744 that the first possibility of improving such situation took place. The then governor Domingo Ortiz de Rozas ordered that on the doors of the local stores and other kinds of shops their owners had to place lights —tallow candles— from sunset till the following dawn.

Exactly thirty years later, viceroy Vértiz made place streetlights in different places of the city which the neighbors had to pay. But it is said that only in the surroundings of the Plaza de Mayo the areas of the sidewalks were hardly seen. The tallow of the candles was replaced by stearin and fortunately the stench that they caused disappeared.

By the mid- nineteen century another fuel was used: it was an oil made from turnip seeds or horse fat but it did not completely replace the previous one for several years. They had already tried with gas but only after several decades passed it was used, however, partially. Not more than a 30 % of the streetlamps used it because kerosene was cheaper. These two fuels co-existed until fuel alcohol appeared. Then up to 1920 the three were used.

The data collected show that there were 5029 streetlamps in use until electricity covered all the streets with its three lamps, one on each corner and the third in the middle. But in tango they already were before “Mi noche triste”. We chose only three titles as examples:

Adelante con los faroles” by the guitarist Pedro Iparraguirre, born in 1879.

El farolero” by Arnaldo Barsanti, playwright, bandleader and composer. Also a diplomat in Germany at the time of World War II, a great promoter of tango and leader in some recordings of the “Quinteto Polito”.

A la luz de los faroles” by Rosendo Mendizábal.

When lyrics came and so many poets sprang up the little streetlamps witnessed love encounters, knife fights for a woman and they were also protagonists of the spleen of each author.

José González Castillo wrote “El pregón”, “Silbando” and “Sobre el pucho”. In all these lyrics the streetlamp has a place.

Pascual Contursi in “Bandoneón arrabalero” describes in first person how he found an abandoned “fueye” thanks to the light of a streetlamp that lit it.

Also Homero Expósito used the artifact in “Yuyo verde” and rose it to title in “Farol”, consecrating it as one of the street icons that tango recognizes.

José de Grandis wrote “Farolito de mi barrio” and José Eneas Riu created “Farolito viejo”.

Finally a short ride along the Celedonio Flores’s poems tells us that he liked streetlamps. In “Muchacho” he wonders if the protagonist had pleasure in the moonlight or by the light of a streetlamp. In “Sentencia”, in his long confessional statement before the judge, the though guy, weeping, says that his mother was like a streetlight in his life.

In tango lyrics there are many more lamps, lanterns or lights but not all of them are on the street. Among the latter ones, the most famous is, undoubtedly, “Farolito de papel”, with lyrics by Francisco García Jiménez.