Néstor Pinsón

Tangos with smoke

fter over 500 years there is much at issue about the origin of Christopher Columbus and his role in the history of America and the world. What is funny is that he died unaware that he had discovered a new continent. Who stated that it was not The Indies but an unknown land was the Italian Amerigo Vespucci, from Florence. In his honor the new continent was called America.

Mr. Columbus, in order to gain credence about his voyage before the King and the Queen of Spain, made off with everything that was unknown in Europe and his contribution turned out outstanding, especially as far as food is concerned. In Spain people became acquainted with corn, manioc, potatoes, sweet potatoes, certain kinds of pumpkins or squashes, varieties of pepper, pears and apples, tomatoes and many others more. And, furthermore, they were amazed when they watched the natives of these lands breathing out smoke through their mouths and noses after having inhaled from a lit tube, formed with dried leaves, which contained chopped herbs.

These chopped herbs came from the leaves of a plant named tobacco, native to an Andean area between Peru and Ecuador. Later it was discovered that they contained an alkaloid called nicotine. Furthermore, the natives used to make some dough which they chewed nearly all day long. They were the forerunners in chewing tobacco. They also seasoned their meals with it, added it to drinkable water, to eye-drops they used when they had some ailment. It was used to rub their bodies if there was some pain or as a ritual to get greater courage and, also, as a protection before combats against enemy tribes. For sex too, it was more effective if, after being boiled, it was poured on women’s bodies.

As for the word “tobacco” there is no certain agreement among those who researched either. Some of them state that it was discovered in Tobago, a small island of the Antilles, now annexed to Trinidad. Others say that it comes from “Tabasco”, a Mexican city, or maybe from the Arab word “tabbaq”.

The thing is that Columbus, by spreading tobacco, turned out responsible of an enormous number of deaths, because the habit or vice quickly spread worldwide. King Jacob I of England (1566-1625, only son of Queen Mary Stuart) turned out a visionary because he condemned cigarette: «Repulsive for the sense of smell, unpleasant for the eyes, dangerous for the brain and harmful for the lungs».

Why cigarette? It is the diminutive of cigar. Some people say that in Spain tobacco was planted in an area near Toledo and that it attracted a large number of cicadas (cigarras) and that place began to be called “cigarrales”. From that to the final name of the product there was no more than a step, according to the ones who give encouragement to that idea. But it is most likely that it comes from a word in the Mayan language.

It is “pitillo” in Spain, “pucho” among us in lunfardo jargon, and more popularly “faso” which nobody knows its origin. When I was a kid I heard the variant “fasolari”, but the latter probably comes from an association with a soccer player of that time named Roberto Fazzolari.

Finally, coming to tango, in the early years of the twentieth century, girls of impoverished families from Russia and Poland appeared in Buenos Aires. They were picked up by the mafia to work as prostitutes. They were white skinned, fair haired women. They did not know our language and when they wanted to smoke they asked for a “papirosa”, which in popular Russian and Polish language mean cigarette. Extensively, they began to be known as “papirusas” or “papusas”. In lunfardo, beautiful women are named with those words. So those terms were immediately included in the lyrics of tango.

Celedonio Flores in his “Corrientes y Esmeralda” quotes: «en tu esquina un día, Milonguita, aquella papirusa criolla que Linnig cantó…».

Manuel Romero in “Nubes de humo (Fume compadre)”: «Fume compadre, fume y charlemos y mientras fuma recordemos, que con el humo del cigarrillo se nos va la juventud».

Enrique Cadícamo in “Humo”: «mientras voy haciendo anillos, con humo azul de cigarrillo, espiral que se retuerce en mi angustiosa soledad…»

Horacio Sanguinetti in “Arlette”: «Y veré tus labios tristes aletear, ya conocidos de hablar solos y fumar…»

Jesús Fernández Blanco adds a light of reality in “Por fin largué”: «Si no me alcanzaba el sueldo… jamás tenía ni para fumar».

And beyond the city boundaries, in the countryside, Homero Manzi in “Sosteniendo recuerdos”: «Contemplando la tarde, a la sombra del rancho, parecieras un alma, que se ha puesto a fumar».

And remembering frustrations while life passes by, José González Castillo depicts in “Sobre el pucho”: «Un callejón en Pompeya y un farolito plateando el fango y allí un malevo que fuma y un organito moliendo un tango». And further ahead: «Tango querido que ya pa’ siempre pasó, como pucho consumió las delicias de mi vida que hoy cenizas sólo son».

Enrique Santos Discépolo gives us in “Cafetín de Buenos Aires”, a pure example of melancholy when he says: «Como una escuela de todas las cosas,/ ya de muchacho me diste entre asombros:/ el cigarrillo, la fe en mis sueños…».

Cátulo Castillo focuses on a guy full of bitterness in “Color de barro”: «…soy el fuego de un cigarrillo que se tira sobre el barro desde lo alto de ese carro…». And again Cátulo, in “Café de los angelitos: «Yo te evoco, perdido en la vida y enredado en los hilos del humo, frente a un grato recuerdo que fumo y a esta negra porción de café».

And trying to comfort a friend, Enrique Dizeo’s number says “Quiere fumar”: «para dejarlo tranquilo y sacando cigarrillos, le dije: ¿Quiere fumar?»

One of the early estribillistas (refrain singers) in tango, Luis Díaz, was author of “Se tiran conmigo”: «Pobre la mina del quiosco, que todas las tardecitas me daba los cigarrillos de sotamanga, al pasar, un chabón que nunca falta hizo correr la boliya, el viejo la campanea y ya ni puedo fumar».

And Manzi in “El último organito”: «el ciego inconsolable del verso de Carriego, que fuma, fuma y fuma sentado en el umbral».

And Cadícamo in “No vendrá”, when the womanizer realizes that he is going to be stood up: «Por no estar tan solo y esperar, fumaré otro cigarrillo más. Pero algo hay que me hace pensar que no vendrá...»

In “Aquel tapado de armiño”, Manuel Romero makes the protagonist resign to his pleasure when he says: «Y yo con mil sacrificios te lo pude al fin comprar, mangué a amigos y usureros y estuve un mes sin fumar».

And there are many more tangos with cigarette smoke, and some in which nicotine is not enough so it is mixed with cocaine, in others ether is inhaled or a needle with morphine leads us to an artificial paradise (“Un paraíso artificial”), all in all, vices. But that’s another story.