by Ricky Toledano
The roaring of drums in the public square was disruptive and irksome, but not because I dislike percussion. Whether Indian tabla or the samba at home in Rio de Janeiro, I can often be found at local musical events where there is that sound of the heartbeat, the one that seizes the soul. The problem was encountering such bass at a different kind of musical event, in another country, where such pounding rhythm was completely unconducive to tango, and where it was rudely interrupting the dancing couples. The clamor was coming from the other side of the square by two different groups of impromptu drummers, who were getting along neither musically nor socially.
When a squadron of police arrived to break up the Venezuelan’s música de tambor from the Uruguayan’s candombe in Buenos Aire’s Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo, I realized I was not the only one with a dislike of cacophony. But after having spent a few days in the neighborhood, I suspected there was more to the scuffle than a complaint about public nuisance.
It was in an adjacent café that I couldn’t help but to question what the police presence was all about. The young waiter mustered no more than the uncommitted explanation that someone must have complained about the drummers in the neighborhood. His answer was disappointing not only because it was obvious, but because I was hoping he would recognize the accent of foreign Spanish – just as his was – and then confide in me a little more to let me in on the mild yet present tension I had been noticing in neighborhood, like that of a lizard poised on the wall.
There were Venezuelans everywhere in San Telmo, and they were not tourists. The UN Refugee Agency has estimated that a staggering 4m Venezuelans have left their country, of which 140,000 have made it to the opposite end of the continent, Argentina. I heard their wonderful music spilling out onto the street from restaurant kitchens and bars. The accents of these latest of refugees floated in stark contrast to those of natives on the streets of the neighborhood, the quintessential barrio of Buenos Aires that drips with nostalgia – as only it could – because urban tourism, especially around all things European in origin, clutches yesteryear as if a baby in grave danger.
For years I have been conducting my own silent study on nostalgia, noticing how I enjoy its benefits at the same time that I despise it, paying special attention to how it does not accommodate new narratives easily – if at all. I was hoping the waiter would confirm some suspicions of mine about the way migrants, like the waiter himself, were being assimilated and inserted into the narrative of Buenos Aires.
Argentina had been one of world’s most prosperous nations at around the beginning of last century. Even after horrendous economic decline over the years, that legacy surrounds you luxuriously in the capital. It draws tourists from all over the world, despite the country falling into noticeable poverty over the short period that I’ve known it. Returning to San Telmo after more than ten years, it was surprising to find the dodgy and decayed neighborhood had gentrified, joining the ranks of other Buenos Aires tourist venues for much more than its famous Sunday antique fair, which has blistered and rushed down the entire run of Defensa Street to the city center in an enormous and crowded bazaar that had very little to do with the tradition of tango and antiques.
Times had changed. Not only had I heard about the recent violent crack-downs on the use of public space in San Telmo, I had run into some grumbles, including one from an older, local, not-so-gentleman with a full head of white hair that stood in contrast to the dark wood of the centenarian bar at the table next to me. He had casually tried to contract my sympathy about the Venezuelans, Paraguayans, Bolivians and other “illegals” who had “taken over the neighborhood”. Since the Southern Cone of South America is so very European in culture that it even drips with melancholy – an emotion scarcely found in most of Latin America that beats it away with the happy drums from African and Amerindian traditions – I could only imagine how the overwhelming music and culture of alegría in his neighborhood could make a curmudgeon even crankier. Nevertheless, his loneliness met my desire to talk to a local, which means his conversation had been welcome until that last crack of his. I didn’t like what I was reading between the lines of his words, but I decided not to infer any more meaning to them than necessary: this world is already filled with people much more competent than I am at jumping at the opportunity to be offended and to correct others. My silence was enough to change the subject – respectfully – the way his and my generation had been taught to contradict elders.
It would be a few days later when the answer I would like to have given that old and cranky man was found on the street in Montevideo, Uruguay. Amazed by the city’s street art, I had been hunting it through the streets of the city when I was struck by a billboard plastered with the message Nadie en el mundo es ilegal.
No one in the world is illegal, it read. And read. The message reverberated in my mind as it was repeated on the wall, making me contemplate how truly preposterous it is to call someone ‘illegal’. What a useless and melodramatic adjective for describing a person. Of course illegal means against the law, but what law is that? Think about it. Many countries pride themselves on being founded by immigrants, even after histories of colonization and slavery, yet they create another fallacy of meritocracy in a law that has nothing to do with promoting the common good. It is a law that enshrines privileges for some to the detriment of others who are hurting no one; a law determining who can seek prosperity and who cannot; a law so scantily dressed as a safety measure it is pornographic; one that gives some the right to uphold a convenient narrative; the right not to help others; the right not to like others; maybe even the right to hurt others; a law that gives you the right not to share this world. I have a piece of paper that says I can pursue my happiness here and you don’t.
Is it contagious?
Of course not. But I have this hunch that ‘illegality’ as a way of excluding people from a specific narrative of a country is connected to nostalgia – and nostalgia is most certainly contagious. Generation after generation can get infected with the longing for partial-pasts, if in fact they had ever existed. I find such hypocrisy particularly rancorous in the Americas. Where there had always been the proud stories of inclusion – regardless of immigration or slavery – the region seems now to be conveniently succumbing to amnesia in order to justify stories of exclusion and the desire not to share one’s space. Seeing the very nations that had taken such pride in having been built by peoples from all over hurdle children into concentration camps, attack refugees in need of food and medicine, reject migrants after profiting off of them, chant in rallies to send immigrants “back”, and continue to brazenly covet indigenous lands is revolting to say the very least. It makes one question whether such countries really have a value for freedom, for democracy, for human life. It seems they do – but only until a certain point.
And that point is where they start building a wall.
The funny thing about walls, however, is that they don’t really do a good job of keeping others out while they do an excellent job of keeping one in, imprisoned and ageing like a piece of forgotten fruit in the fridge, maybe turning one into a cranky old man – even if trapped in a young body – because nothing dries the skin and causes more wrinkles than having a half-value: the values for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for some, but not for others, means one is left with no values at all. Moreover, it is very difficult to be happy while boxed in walls, pretending in vain to be disconnected from All That There Is. Walls do not separate space; they exist in Space; therefore, they separate nothing, says the Vedantic maxim. In light of such wisdom, I’ll build a wall around me and the universe will stop the people I don’t like… So there! shines even more pathetically. One’s success in life will always be proportional to the success of others both near and far, people who often go unseen. That is why one is never to believe in meritocracy: while one’s best efforts are always commendable and are to be encouraged and cultivated, no one is the sole owner of one’s success – or failure. It is the Law that, although we may choose our actions, under no circumstances can we select their results. They are delivered to us according to the rules of an invisible and infallible Order we do not control. One will never be able to put up a wall between oneself and that Order, any more than one can build a wall between the individual and all the people who produced the very food and everything else that was necessary to carry one to triumph. No one can go anywhere worth going without that support from the Universe—not even a curmudgeon in a bar in San Telmo.
I slammed the old wooden chair down, disguising my irritation as I extended both a hand and a smile to the old fart when saying good-bye.
One thing is to share public space, another is to occupy it, but I realized that that is not where the greatest challenge lies when accommodating others – strangers – as I bid the old man farewell. The challenge in dealing with people who are different from us, who are unlike us, who have different habits, thoughts and stories than ours lies within a private place, hidden deep inside. And that is where I did an exercise in making room for the old man within me as I walked out the door: I tried to imagine how much it might hurt to see the streets of his home no longer serve as the stage of his fondest memories. How difficult it is to accept change. Nevertheless, when insisting on that interior world from others, timing is everything. Whether across an old wooden table in a bar or beating drums in Plaza Dorrego – especially on Sunday evening after the market and its hordes of tourists, street vendors and antique dealers have left the square open once again for locals to pile up their bags on the ground and reach out to hold one another in dance – is really asking for too much of that internal landscape from individuals.
Although the students, maestros, couples, friends and strangers of all ages who whirled around together in the local, cultural tradition of tango tried to accommodate the foreign drummers in the square by turning up the volume of their tango music, it did not help much, since nothing overpowers percussion. That is why I was relieved when the police arrived to end the cacophony and to let the local custom of tango prevail. At the same time, I felt sorry for the foreigners who were silenced and unable to share the public space the way they wanted on Sunday evening.
Was it easier to share space in the past? I think that there were not so many of us, thereby giving more space to be tolerant. Whereas I am quite the recent product of migrations, weaving easily with the multicolored yarn of diversity, is it fair to expect the same agility from the old man? I am sure he would think the past was better when everyone just wore sweaters of plain gray yarn – happy – because there was less choice anyway. The past can be truly seductive, despite all the evidence to the contrary and the fact that no one has ever returned from it. That is why I have always been suspicious of nostalgia: it always sprouts in the present, no matter when it was sown from the seeds of what people prefer to remember, and never from the dead seeds of what they prefer to forget. It takes great courage to look back on one’s past truthfully, and it takes even more to look forward to the that black hole, the ultimate truth awaiting you.
As the great Rita Lee said, “Ageing is not for sissies”.
“Of course the past was better, Ricky!” said a great and wise friend in Brazil, who is old enough to remember the recent past of the contemporary and uncomfortable Rio de Janeiro we had been analyzing over a beer. A little stunned by his exclamation, I sifted through his words, trying to sort out the pebbles of sarcasm. In seeing me struggle while scratching my chin, he asked, “Do you know why? Do you remember the theme song for the World Cup in México, 1970?”
“Of course not. I was born the year after.”
“Well, I will never forget it: ‘90 milhões em ação’”, he began singing and pumping the table before he stopped to explain, “Today we are not 90m in action: We are 208m! That means that the population has more than doubled in less than 50 years, but that is not the worst of it: the country has not developed to sustain such growth. Back in those days, there was industrial production. I lived in Vila Isabel district – happy as all youth are and as everyone always remembers their youth – in a carefree city of 4m inhabitants. The city has swollen into more than double that amount in a city without infrastructure or jobs! Without space! I could walk across town at ten-years-old (today we don’t let our children so much as open the front door alone!) to visit my father who worked in a textile factory that employed a lot of people. A lot of them! I remember him taking me around the factory to see an army at work… and it was not the only one in Rio de Janeiro! Today we are a nation that just produces commodities – which have been mechanized – and the people still insist that they need formal labor contracts to guarantee a future threatened by technology that changes every day… as if such guarantees even mean anything in developed countries!”
Taking a dramatic pause before making his point, he stretched out his arms to breathe deeply before he hilariously bellowed the obvious in his baritone voice: “É lógico que o povo tem saudade da época da ditadura, pô!” Of course people miss the dictatorship! Everyone misses the past, dammit!”
“Nostalgia!” I responded, biting the hateful word between my teeth. It is an emotion I despise even more when applied to a past that did not even exist. We had been discussing the results of the recent presidential elections in both Brazil and the US, in which roughly 30% of voters seemed to support a song-and-dance about returning to a past time of greatness, circa the 50s – a time associated with full employment, consumption and happiness that somehow does not include a time of Jim Crow laws, dictatorships, or any of the many customs by which peoples of African of Amerindian decent were prohibited from sharing public services and space with the ruling class. The nostalgia referred to a time so whitewashed it was called ‘the golden years’, an imaginarium conveniently devoid of the wars and other hypocrisies of the era – including the other bellicose adventures against the many make-believe enemies that not only remain lucrative today, they are still causing mass migrations of peoples from all over in search of safety and prosperity. If that were not enough, there are now environmental calamities to be added to the toxic mix, whereby entire breakdowns of society as it had been known are underway. What is worse is that nostalgia is truly contagious: older generations can easily contaminate younger ones with a longing for selective pasts when there were – supposedly – happier days, times of neither division nor discord in an era of grey sweaters and no choices.
I could only laugh when my wise friend placed his final arguments. Of course! The past is always happier! I thought. I remembered mine: I lived in a dictatorship – my father’s – whose authority was unquestioned. No democracy was allowed in the house under any circumstances, which means I had to learn at a very young age how to place unsolicited opinions very, very carefully. Yet, somehow, I was freer, surrounded by limitations and unable to choose anything, except for playing outside in the world my parents trusted enough to relax and have no idea where I was for most of the day, which means they got a break from me; I got a break from the tyranny; they probably got a break from each other, which means all of us had something to talk about at the end of the day. That also means that there were less egos rubbing against each other all the time within a household that had more rules and less options than many nowadays. I watch in agony at friends raising children today, pretending to like playing with their children during all their free time, enslaved as their childrens’ chauffeurs and bodyguards, pretending to like the friendliness of democracy in their households, which are now apartments, little prison cells where they are incarcerated to take care of children without any help – unless, of course, they pay “illegals”.
It looks like I am turning into a nostalgic and cranky old man. It is indeed presumptuous to affirm whether there was more or less friction among egos in society forty years ago. Regardless, the friction of rubbing our bodies together in tango is better and certainly more exciting than that of rubbing our egos against one another – if not for the fact that there are few things more abrasive than opposing narratives of the past, of the story of a nation, of who gets included in it and who is illegal.
A nation without compassion, exactly like a human being without compassion, has but a half-value. It is the worst of all poverties. That is why even though they could not reach the shores of salvation, the refugee children found dead, floating in water of the Rio Grande or in the waters of the Mediterranean, get put on the bill of the nations that reject them, even if those children never reached their shores.
It may very well be that you cannot help everyone, that you cannot embrace and dance with everyone. If you cannot, it’s okay, just never hurt anyone. Extend them a hand, because everybody in this world is legal.
All images and video by Ricky Toledano