Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The immigrants' tango in Argentina: A model nation in immigration policies faces the possible return of neo-liberalism and new tensions over migrant workers

(To the right, the tango at Confitería Ideal in Buenos Aires)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – We’re in the century-old Confitería Ideal listening to the mother of all tangos, “La Cumparsita”, and I’m thinking about the crime and poverty-ridden barrio world into which the tango was born. Argentine writer 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.”

(Jorge Luis Borges in Paris in 1969)

Then one night the Slasher’s rival—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 Argentina’s poor creole natives and its immigrants, Italians mostly, who came by the millions to Argentina in the late 1800s. The music was sad, sometimes angry, often fatalistic, reflecting homesickness, resentment against the “patrón”, or despair for the woman who had made their lives hell. They spoke a distinct dialect, lunfardo, the language of some of the greatest tangos.

The immigrants came as a result of the governing elite’s “gobernar es poblar” (“to govern is to populate”) policy at the turn of the last century, a policy to import cheap European labor to work the newly cultivated fields in Argentina’s vast countryside as well as in its urban ports and construction sites, and also to lift the country beyond the creole culture that was seen as a hindrance to progress.

As “wealth … was routed to Buenos Aires and to Europe, it was thus confirmed that tenancy, sharecropping, and land speculation would be the agricultural destiny of Argentina,” Robert D. Crassweller writes in his monumental Perón and the Enigmas of Argentina. As for the city, “many immigrants, in fact, never penetrated beyond the capital.”

Thus, the creole and the immigrant were pitted against one another, not only in competition for work but also Argentina’s soul. The tango, created by the creole and adopted by the immigrant, reflected a world disconcerting to both, a strange, dark, unfamiliar world where the deck seemed stacked against them. Out of their struggle came the nation’s greatest art form and gift to the rest of the world.
“The pervasive sense of sadness (in the tango) is tied to the immigrant as a physical presence of the elite’s destruction of creole Argentina,” writes Donald S. Castro in his 1991 book The Argentine Tango As Social History (1880-1955): The Soul of the People. “Both the immigrant and the creole made the tango their vehicle for expressing their feelings.”

Castro quotes the writer Ernesto Sábato to explain further: “`It was as painful for the immigrant to hear the creole bitterness, as it was for the creole to see his country invaded by strangers.’”

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 in the United States where politicians from presidential candidate Donald Trump to Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant seem to have forgotten their own immigrant ancestry and demagogue the modern-day immigrant as the “other”, a source of endless problems, Argentina has a deep consciousness of 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 important in Argentina’s rise to one of the world’s sixth richest countries by 1920.

Argentina’s most famous military leaders, politicians and artists—from José de San Martín 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,” María Susana Azzi and Simon Collier write in their biography of the prominent master of so-called “Nuevo Tango”, who spent formative years in New York City.

At a time when Republican politicians in the United States are demanding a ban on Syrian immigrants and a wall between the nation’s southern border and Mexico, Argentina boasts one of the world’s most open policies toward immigration. Laws were passed in 2004 and 2013 guaranteeing equality and workplace protection to such workers as 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 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 (TPP). 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 an early victim of neo-liberalism and its insistence on deregulation, privatization, free market globalization, and crushing foreign indebtedness, factors that plunged the nation into bankruptcy and depression in 2001. The economic crisis led to the out-migration of hundreds of thousands of Argentines of European descent in search of a better life abroad. Ironically, the nation continued to lure low-wage, unskilled workers from neighboring countries in South America.

One of the most amazing stories to come out of Argentina’s economic struggles is told in Sin Patrón, a book by the Lavaca Collective (a worker-run collective of journalists in Argentina). It recounts how workers themselves took over approximately 170 once-productive companies that had gone into bankruptcy as a result of business practices that had saddled them with enormous debt while enriching corporate executives.

(Political posters featuring the image of former Argentine leader Juan 
Perón on Buenos Aires' streets during the November elections)

The economy recovered greatly over the course of 12 years (2004-2015) of pro-worker, left-leaning Peronist rule by the late Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina. However, elections in 2015 put wealthy neoliberal Mauricio Macri into the presidency and signaled a possible shift back to the principles that earlier had Argentina on the rack and more recently Greece.

Just as they did at the turn of the last century, native 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 this past November.

(Argentine workers Hernan Pose and Rodolfo Olmos on Calle Florida in Buenos Aires)

His colleague and fellow CTA member Rodolfo Olmos nodded. “Yes, it is a big problem.”

So even with its rich immigrant tradition and welcoming policies, Argentina isn’t immune to 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.

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