Ernesto Sábato (born 1911), novelist and essayist, one of Argentina’s most challenging 20th-century intellectuals, once said,
“To deny Argentine nationality to the tango is an act so pathetically suicidal as to deny the existence of Buenos Aires.”
Who would ever put into doubt the legitimacy of the origin of the tango? The Argentine detractors of tango, that’s who.
During the first half of the twentieth century, some prestigious Argentine writers dedicated themselves to discredit the tango, to deny its origin or to reject it. Because of their prestige or the excellent positions they occupied, their opinions were echoed in some national and foreign newspapers, besides being exposed in lectures and chats or being expressed in their books. Many of the lies that have made it into the lore of the tango can be attributed to the detractors of the tango.
For example, Ezequiel Martinez Estrada (1885-1964), originally from rural Argentina, established a reputation as a poet; he also published a few short essays. In 1921 he married the Italian-born artist Agustina Morriconi, who definitely subordinated her career and unquestioned talents to his; she was, by all accounts, the muse of much of his poetry. Beginning in 1924, Martínez Estrada taught literature at the Colegio Nacional of the Universidad Nacional de La Plata. He would continue this for decades, losing the job only when Juan Domingo Perón rose to power in 1945 (and returning briefly after Perón fell from power in 1956).
In 1933, responding to the 1930 military coup by José Félix Uriburu, Martínez Estrada published Radiografía de la pampa (X-ray of the pampa), the first of a series of rather pessimistic sociological-psychological-historical essays that would make his reputation. It is in the context of that publication that he wrote,
“The tango, the music of the night, saddens these places of diversion [the cabaret], because in its rhythm brings reminiscences of the abject past, and the sophisticated voices of the refused life. It was born at the end of the workday of the black uprooted from his land and enslaved in the tobacco, sugar and coffee plantations. The tango encompasses in its cadences the slavery and the will to sink in the flesh its own fatigue, until turning it into pleasure.”
It is important to clarify that the slaves in Argentina were always used in domestic chores and not in plantations. Argentina never had coffee plantations. Martinez Estrada seemed to have forgotten that slavery was abolished in 1813, long before the existence of the tango. Even more important is that in 1933, the tango had already undergone a major evolutionary process under the inspiration of Julio De Caro, and that the upper class, inspired by the success of the tango in Paris, had built the cabarets where the tango was being danced, ten years earlier.
Like many detractors of the tango Martinez Estrada resorted to the vilest of lies, the use of racial stereotypes from a time before he was born to deny the tango its national identity and roots.