I've been writing some notes for a friend who's visiting Buenos Aires soon. I've done this a few times and I always want to add, email and ask to be included in a tour of ESMA. It seems a cruel suggestion to someone going to enjoy a few weeks in tango paradise. & yet...
The Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, the naval engineering school, or rather the large mansion that was the officers' quarters, was one of the most notorious of the places where detainees were taken during the 1970s into the 80s. Not that there's anything at all frightening to see there: parts of it were even rebuilt so that it wouldn't agree with any accounts of the few survivors. The ESMA campus has now been taken over as a 'Space of Remembering' and they arrange tours which recount what is known about what happened there.
I remember clearly the morning I visited. It was cold and overcast, and I was tired: I'd been late at a milonga the previous night. It was a cold morning, but I came away feeling colder than I've ever felt in my life. It's my impression that we can accept the coldness of the weather but it's nothing compared to a cold human heart, which chills you mind and body, the numbing cold-heartedness of people who can decide that other people are not worthy of being treated as humans and can be played with, tortured, almost as a game. It seems that there was hardly even the excuse that they were trying to get information. The prisoners were kept in the loft in the roof of the officer's quarters, and dragged down into the basement every now and again. Then a van would come by, on Tuesday mornings if I remember right, to take the living remains of humans for a flight out over the ocean. To be close to this, close geographically but mercifully not close in time, can only make you feel colder than you've ever felt.
All of which suddenly helps to make real sense of the embrace of tango in Buenos Aires. Maybe the embrace is as it was in the golden age, but we shouldn't ignore what has happened since. Sure there's nostalgia for the golden age, and quite right too, but I don't think one can ignore a decade or more when it was risky for young people, young men in particular, men who are now in their 50s and 60s to be out in the streets, and when everyone lived through a time when it was known that people were 'disappearing', when the authorities weren't protecting but often persecuting the people, when the 5am knock on the door was always possible, and when the country was very isolated. There's one sure way of feeling warm again and that's holding someone else very, very close. It makes sense that tango became popular once democracy of some kind was restored.
So don't take the embrace lightly, it really matters. Sure, tango is fun, but if you dance there and are taken aback by the immediacy and warmth of the embrace, it's serious too; think of the background. Visit ESMA if you're there, support the Space of Remembering: if we ignore history we don't like it can creep back and take hold of us again.
It's taken me a while to make this connection, and I hope it's not fanciful, but I can't help thinking that what happened then is part of tango there now.