THE DIVINE POET OF THE JAILHOUSE   4 comments

The divine poet of the jailhouse
By Alberto Paz
Copyright (c) 2000-2012, Planet Tango. All Rights Reserved

At around 6 in the morning on March 30, 1910, three British sailors witnessed a knife fight among a group of five men who had spent the whole night drinking and dancing at Cafe La Loba Chica, steps away from the corner of Mexico and Paseo Colon. It is not known whether what they saw would ever make it into the embarrassing and offensive lore of British tales that have been written about Argentina and particularly about the tango. They might not have known either that making deep cuts into the groin area, where the blood of sex flowed, was the way homosexuals solved questions of honor at knife point.The Englishmen alerted policeman Juan Quintana who upon arrival at the pool of blood immediately recognized Andrés Cepeda. The cop had seen him in innumerable rounds of recognition, manyamientos as they were called, a common practice of parading suspects through all the precincts so they could be known by all the cops. The action was also called yirar, where the term “yira, yira” that inspired Discepolo‘s tango of the same name originates.Andrés Cepeda, a poet, small time delinquent, anarchist and homosexual, was a legend in the Buenos Aires lunfarda at the beginning of the 20th century. His tangos were sung by Carlos Gardel. What the British sailors did not know then was that they had witnessed the death of “the divine poet of the jailhouse.” One of the first poets of the Argentine tango, Cepeda was a friend of Carlos Gardel, Fray Mocho, Gabino Ezeiza, José Razzano: of men who somehow marked forever the Argentine culture. One hundred years later, a group of researchers continue to discuss heatedly the details of the life of Andrés Cepeda.Why is there so much debate about a delinquent with more trips to jail than poems? It could be the fascination provoked by a man who could have been the star of his time but preferred to be faithful to his disquieting convictions. In spite of many discussions and the well-intentioned sugarcoating of this story at the time, and invented romances with women, there isn’t a single researcher that can avoid the topic of homosexuality, even when most of them would have preferred to do so. Cepeda did not give them that opportunity even when he also made sure to leave a heap of false tracks about his personality.

He was born in 1869. Like many children of his generation he ran away from home at a very early age, and became part of the invisible population of homeless kids roaming the streets of Once, Paseo Colon and the shantytowns of Pompeya and Boedo tugging along their shoeshine boxes, and peddling newspapers on the street corners. He was part of a generation of rebel and homosexual children who lived and slept in makeshift huts near the port. At age 15 he fell so ill that he was taken back home where his sister nurtured back to health while reading to him and instilling his interest for the written word. That signaled the birth of the boy poet of the street.

When he turned 20 Andres Cepeda got a job writing for an anarchist publication. By the time he was 24 he had become a frequent target of arrests and brushes with the police. His lifelong police record included a collection of burglaries, public intoxication, disorderly conduct and carrying illegal weapons. He was never booked for his anarchist militancy. There was never any mention of his sexual orientation.

The available research on Cepeda shows a willingness to believe in his heterosexuality and to reject any clues of homosexuality. Some have gone as far as assuring that he lived with a woman, based only on rumors that Cepeda always denied. It is a fact that he routinely falsified information about his life. Still, his biographers insist, without any proof, that as an adolescent, Cepeda fell in love with a girl and it was her rejection of him and her cheating ways what led him to drinking and the bad life. And since there is no solid evidence to back up their belief in his heterosexuality, they also swear that an impossible love with a high society girl drove him to a life of vice.

It is evident that his biographers don’t seem to have wanted to peek into the abyss of Cepeda‘s personality. They deduce that his poems have always been about heterosexual love. There seems to be a real problem in maintaining a dialog regarding the history of homosexuality in times when it seemed tolerable for it to coexist with sexual diversity. Even so, there was still never any admission of homosexuality allowed on the record. It was so unthinkable as to imagine that Carlos Gardel could had written, sung and published songs about the love between two men. Composer José Razzano, Carlos Gardel‘s friend, and also a friend of Cepeda, years after Cepeda’s death went as far as say that the police used to lock him up for being an anarchist, in an attempt to clean up to his image, perhaps out of guilt for having misappropriated the rights to Cepeda compositions. Anarchist sounded more romantic than quarrelsome thief. The police records were so unreliable and so prone to invent causes, that there was not much that could be assured on the matter. Most likely the man was a mix of lunfarda life, a bohemian underworld character who could meet all those characteristics.

By 1906 the city had become one a big continuous prison for Andrés Cepeda. He was systematically persecuted . If he crossed from one precinct to another he was arrested for the manyamiento, the yira, the customary parade in front of the beat cops in order to keep them acquainted with him. He was ill, sad and felt that the world was like a giant foot of an elephant pressing against his chest. He wrote a letter to the Chief of police that read:

“This is terrible, Mr. Chief, and I know the magnanimity of your heart. I am ill and since I’m being denied medical assistance I appeal to you asking for your help in being sent to a hospital. I am a human being and as such I esteem my existence even if it is so miserable and sad.”

As anyone except a romantic like him would have expected, nobody paid attention to his plight. To be sure there is some other loose, generally contradictory information about Cepeda’s life. It seems that he wrote all his poetry while in jail. His works were popularized by word of mouth by the old roaming troubadours from the porteños districts. Of the first fourteen recordings made by Gardel in 1912, five were authored by Cepeda. Actress Lola Membrives also included works of Andrés Cepeda in her repertoire.

In 1925 when Carlos Gardel was asked to include the tango hit Tiempos viejos (Old times) in his repertoire, he agreed on the condition that a verse that mentioned Cepeda was changed because it wasn’t kind to the memory of his friend. Gardel‘s version says,

Remember brother, Mireya the blonde
whom I took away from the crazy Rivera (
instead of Cepeda), at Hansen’s?

Death for Andres Cepeda came from a short deep cut, red and fast. He knew why the knife cut into his groin. The groin where the blood of sex flows. Researcher and popular minstrel Victor Di Santo wrote that the reason for the fight was never revealed officially, since there were no arrests and no witnesses willing to talk. For decades a version circulated that the fight was about settling a dispute among homosexuals that went wrong. This opinion, although never confirmed, was not denied either. Yet Di Santo must have known about two papers from the Porteña Academy of Lunfardo, that clearly confirmed Cepeda’s homosexuality. In one of the reports, academy members had interviewed an old poet named Martín Castro, with whom they talked about popular old writers. When the conversation turned to Cepeda, Castro said that he had aberrant sexual inclinations. An individual humiliated by Cepeda had become the target of ridicule from his friends and acquaintances. For that he had emigrated to Montevideo, but later returned to Buenos Aires and got his revenge by stabbing Cepeda.

The other paper said something similar with a twist. In an interview with an old scoundrel who had shared jail time with Cepeda, the old man assured that the death of Cepeda was the epilogue of a dispute for the possession of a young boy between Cepeda and his killer, who were both homosexuals. Andrés Cepeda fancied young flesh.

Whether it was an act of revenge or a dispute over a young guy boy as a sexual trophy, is difficult to know. What it is known is that for the assassin things didn’t go so well. Just a short time later in Palermo, on Tagle street, near the railroad tracks, he was stabbed to death. The debts of the suburb always were paid.

Andrés Cepeda had the opportunity to identify his assassin seconds before he died, when asked by officer Quintana. He did not do it and that gesture inspired two tangos that Carlos Gardel would sing years later. Barely disguising some names, the “deed” of Andrés Cepeda was recorded in Sangre maleva (Blood of a fighter), with music by Dante Tortonese and lyrics by Juan Miguel Velich and Pedro Platas:

Through La Boca, Avellaneda, Barracas, Puente Alsina,
Belgrano, Mataderos and in the entire suburb
strutted his bravery the southpaw Cruz Medina,
who was a good friend, without any ostentation.
Tempered up in the suburb, he was brave and bold among louts,
He lived weaving dreams there on the alley,
where the cops walked their beats at night
and in the neighborhood café moaned a bandoneón.
He was brave without cheating, without godfathers and without glory;
without crumbs of as much history, but good looking and all action.
Caseros saw him take a risk without relaxing a bit,
and in the ninth precinct is recorded his courage as a man.
But one dark night he fought in Avellaneda,
and in a corner of the tragic suburb
three shots sounded and on the sidewalk
fell wounded a man brandishing his knife.
Help came running and the police arrived
finding the smiling audacious and brave bully on a pool of blood
mortally wounded, rebellious in his agony,
with the full manly voice, without blinking he spoke;
Don’t ask me officers who the man who wounded me is,
that will be a waste of time because I’m not a snitch.
Let me die and nobody be astonished,
that a male to be a man, must not be an informer.

Another tribute written in code is the tango No fue batidor (He wasn’t a snitch), with music by Enrique Mora and lyrics by Germán Rein:

The porteños districts, saw him walk by
showing off his silhouette in every occasion.
And there in Mataderos, he went to take refuge,
imposing his manhood as a man of action.
As a fair man he conquered for himself,
not only great fame, but someone’s heart,
for whom one night he gambled his life
in a duel against another one man.
With no sponsors nor witnesses
the rivals face each other
and a shot broke the silence of the night.
And the fighter handicapped
because of the unequal weapons
fell there with his chest stained by blood.
Suddenly came help to the alley
and laying on the street they see the the man
that yesterday ruled among brave bullies
and today a romance his hands handcuffed.
Surrounded by cops, the rebel holds out,
does not give in a bit and in as much pain,
with rage gesture, his lips he bites,
to not give the name of the one who wounded him.
And the fighter already beaten,
anticipating his agony,
watching at the police,
begged in his pain:
“Let me die in calm,
without disclosing his name
that the man to be a man
must not be a gossip monger”.

It is reassuringly impressive to read the lack of prejudice on the part of the authors who obviously knew about the homosexuality of Cepeda or the myth about his sexual orientation. Nevertheless, they spoke not only about his “male courage”, his “deep male voice”, and his “manly attributes as a man of action” but they made him an example of masculinity for not being an informer, a finger pointing gossip monger, snitch.

Although it was not a common knowledge that the two tangos were inspired by Andrés Cepeda, those in the know knew perfectly well that they were. For them it was quite clear that it was a tribute to a famous anarchist with a reputation as a delinquent and a homosexual. In neither of the two songs did they use the subterfuge of the woman for whom the man might have died, which would have added exactly the heterosexual interpretation that the authors were not willing to do.

Andrés Cepeda, blonde, face pricked from smallpox, with an enormous mustache, lived fast and died at forty. His poetry was sad, very sad. He had the virtue and the disgrace of being the comet that embodied the spirit of the turning of the century.

He shone, he spread fire, he disappeared. The police raided his funeral and arrested everyone. With his death, Buenos Aires lunfarda also began to disappear, bearing too many betrayals from then on. And as the name Andrés Cepeda didn’t show up in the songs he wrote, and the songs continued to be sung well into the twentieth century, the muddy world from where he originated was also denied to him. The police took care of arresting everyone.

Reference source : HISTORIA DE LA HOMOSEXUALIDAD EN LA ARGENTINA by Osvaldo Bazán – Buenos Aires: Editorial MAREA, 2004

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4 responses to “THE DIVINE POET OF THE JAILHOUSE

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  1. Alberto,
    You manage to always have such interesting material to stir our imaginations.
    Thanks,
    Terri

  2. Very interesting! I love hearing about history. Thank you so much Alberto.
    One little thing: I think you call Cepeda, Carlos Cepeda in the article at one point instead of Andres.
    Thank you again,
    Madalyn

  3. Hello the comment was from Madalyn Klein this time not Nelson Avila
    I love hearing about the history.
    Nelson could help to write it.
    Best Madalyn

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