domingo, marzo 01, 2009

Diego Armus (2003) Tango, Gender, and Tuberculosis in Buenos Aires, 1900-1940.

Diego Armus. 2003. Tango, Gender, and Tuberculosis in Buenos Aires, 1900-1940. In Diego Armus (ed.), Disease in the History of Modern Latin America. Durham: Duke University Press.

In Argentina, between 1870 and 1950 tuberculosis was one of the main causes of death (though still prevalent in marginal populations such as indigenous people). In this article, Armus focuses in three lines that collide in the first half of 20-century Buenos Aires. He follows the development of Tango, of gender relations and the growth of Tuberculosis in order to show how they not only were entangled but how one was used to think the other. For instance, when waves of immigrants came to Buenos Aires, a city that in 1930 had almost 2.5M people, the relationship between the elites and the newcomers was in many aspects very tense and, thus, it was portrayed in the media and in Tango lyrics. Tensions between the center and the neighborhoods (one of the key spaces of social integration and argentinization according to Armus) of the city (still important today) started to arise when the elites felt threatened by the mass of immigrants slowly but steadily enclosing the center. In this context, metaphorical associations connected TB as a romantic disease of refined and sensible people with gender anxieties. Although most men died of TB than women, women were more visible in the media and literature as having TB than men (men were associated with syphilis). Anxieties that were showing signs of a society with a relatively high social mobility, in which the barrio “becomes the emotional geography of the poor” (106), but in which women were sanctioned for their movement from the barrio to the center. TB was imagined as a disease of excess (of passions, consumption) in a context in which people were over-exploited and worked in very poor working conditions. In these circumstances the figure of la costurerita appeared in the Tango lyrics. She represented the consumptives who contracted TB because of excess of work and difficulties but who did not leave behind the barrio, “the costureritas are protagonists of a journey fed by the desires and dreams of rapid social ascent, which can also end up in tuberculosis” (111).
The other figure Armus brings is the milonguita, a character that kicked off with the explosion of Tango with the help of the mass media through radio, movies and newspapers. Women were the subject (and object?) of Tangos such as “Don’t leave your neighborhood”, which started to portray how women became artists, coperas or queridas. Armus says, “Whatever their status, all these women had bet on a life away from the domestic barrio ideal. Their choice for a more autonomous life led many men to see them as a threat to the ruling gender order” (114).
Ultimately, comparing the milonguita (or milonguerita) with costurerita provides Armus a powerful approach to gender and power issues in the formation of the Argentina “multicultural” nation because it helps to show male fears and the struggles that men and women had when they tried to achieve social mobility within the Argentinean society.

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