“Tango Negro” Memories of Argentina

TANGO NEGRO, DC African Diaspora International Film Festival


I was ready to go. My first trip to Argentina and to the Latin American continent. My purpose was to do research for a documentary project that was never finished (read more in my article published in The Root). It was just before the start of the Iraq war in 2003. I was already on pins and needles. Before taking off I had a phone conversation with filmmaker St. Claire Bourne who was an informal and jovial mentor to the project at that time. “You’re brave,” he said.

Bourne’s words gave me another anxious pause. I was already concerned about being an American citizen abroad at this time. Added to that, we were both wary of the reception a woman of color would get in a country that aside from tango (which I was learning at the time), was also the land of the “disappeared” and the Dirty War. A harbinger for Nazi war criminals and their more recent offspring. The “Europe of South America.” A country with no Black people. Dr. Sheila S. Walker, who edited a collection of essays on Afro-Latino culture, debunked that last item when she gave me contact information for an Afro-Argentine cultural group. There would be at least 100 or so members still around I thought.

What was left of the African presence in Argentina? Would I recognize it? It was a twist of fate that gave me the clue. At the end of our first full day in Buenos Aires my guide and interpreter, filmmaker Ana Zanotti, took a bus back to our hostel. I got off the bus sooner than we planned leaving Ana to ring frantically to stop the bus and find me. I stayed and waited for her and we decided to walk instead. En route we heard drumming and found ourselves on a back street where young drummers and dancers – more than likely the descendants of European immigrations — were performing. It was the end of vacation and the new school year was starting the next day. The rhythm of the drums and dancers were familiar. African. Some Caribbean. Joyful. I knew I was safe.

TANGO NEGRO, a documentary by Angolan Don Pedro brought back memories of my serendipitous moments during my visit to Argentina. TANGO NEGRO reveals tango’s “African-ness” the roots of the music and the dance that has become the heart of traditional Argentine culture.

TangoNegroCaceresFor much of the film, we follow composer and musician Juan Carlos Caceres a master performer, musicologist, and enthusiastic citizen of the world who has spent his career embracing the African roots of tango for years. Caceres was born in Buenos Aires and has been living in Paris, France since 1968. Through a combination of interviews with Caceres, musicians, musicologists, journalists, scholars with performances in the concert hall and on the streets of Argentina and Uruguay TANGO NEGRO traces the dance’s early cultural significance as a depiction of the social life of captured African slaves.

The film can be seen on screen at the DC African Diaspora International Film Festival (ADIFF) which opens in Washington, DC on Friday, August 22 at the Goethe-Institut. The festival is now in its 8th year and this year’s screening leans Afro-Latino with films (documentary and narrative) and subjects from Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Brazil. TANGO NEGRO is also screening in New York presented by ADIFF.

TANGO NEGRO isn’t a concert film, though afterwards, you may want to find a tango compilation and listen to it more intently than before to identify the rhythms that go back to Sub-Saharan Africa. The film will appeal to anyone looking for the African presence in what was assumed an unlikely place. It definitely will appeal to the musicologist and anthropologist mindset in arts and culture. Fortunately TANGO NEGRO takes a break from the talk to go back to the music and dance, just to prove the point.

Speaking of unlikely places, at the time I was in Argentina, in addition to Buenos Aires I visited two cities mentioned in the film: Rosario near the river; and Cordoba near the mountains. Both cities were significant hubs for the trans-Atlantic slave trade bringing Africans into the South American continent. Our guide was historian and scholar Maria del Carmen Ferrer. Some would know her as “Chichina” who was the girl friend of the young Ernesto Guevara (aka “Che”) before he took off on his motorcycle journey that he documented as The Motorcycle Diaries.

Dr. Ferrer took us inside the great Nuestra Señora de la Asunción cathedral, a central part of the Jesuit stronghold and college town (to this day). The cathedral had three chapels: on the right was the chapel for Europeans or whites, the large center chapel was for Indians; and the small chapel to the left was for Africans. Later I learned Ernesto Guevara’s sister was doing research on African influences in Argentina’s architecture. African-ness was becoming big among scholars in Argentina.

TANGO NEGRO provides evidence that the subject hasn’t died. Though carnival was banned and cultural expressions of Africa-ness were more or less illegal and diluted with the immigration of mass numbers of Europeans to Argentina, tango still carried the DNA.

So what were the drums really saying that night? TANGO NEGRO may be a sign that it’s time to see Argentina again with a different purpose.

TANGO NEGRO, a film by Don Pedro (France) 2013, 93 min.
DC African Diaspora International Film Festival
Festival starts Friday, August 22 in Washington, DC

GOETHE-INSTITUT- 812 Seventh Street, NW, Washington D.C., 20001

Trans Informed: Writing Transgender Characters

Writers Eliott Deline, Joanna Maria Cifredo, Dane Edidi, Alex Mayers, and Everett Marron, DC Center for LGBT Community OutWrite LBGT Book Fair

Writers Eliott Deline, Joanna Maria Cifredo, Dane Edidi, Alex Mayers, and Everett Marron, DC Center for LGBT Community OutWrite LBGT Book Fair

This month I learned I was a “cis writer.”

Yes, I’m a latecomer to the party. That’s why I thought it pretty cool for the DC Center for LGBT Community to host a workshop on writing transgender characters as part of the OutWrite LGBT Book Fair August 1-3.

Before I go into my notes from the noon-time session, I thought it best to kick off with a little break down for slow “cis learners” like myself:

“So why do we say ‘cisgender’ instead of ‘non-transgender’? Because, referring to cisgender people as ‘non trans’ implies that cisgender people are the default and that being trans is abnormal. Many people have said ‘transgender people’ and ‘normal people’, but when we say ‘cisgender’ and ‘transgender’ neither is implied as more normal than the other.”
Source: “Trans 101: Cisgender”, Basic Rights Oregon

The guest speakers were published authors who are transgender. I put it in that order because they all say they don’t spend every waking hour thinking about their trans identity or oppression. And make a note: no one could survive popping 9 hormone pills a day. “Is this Valley of the Dolls?” writer Everett Maroon joked.

The workshop was more panel discussion than a hands-on exercise; and a great introduction to writers and new work featuring transgender characters from young adult fiction on up, contemporary and historical fiction. Alex Myers has made historical fiction his signature genre and describes his relationship to writing as akin to “working out.”

These writers are creating from page-to-page vs. page to stage/screen with the exception of Dane Edidi who is also an actress and performance artist. Dane also provided a show-stopping quote about finding a context for characters via research: “If you can find yourself in history, you can find yourself now.” Moderator Joanna Maria Cifredo asked the audience to add a hashtag to that quote.

Trans characters seen recently in television and film are for the most part coming from the creative minds of cis writers and portrayed by cis actors. Jared Leto is probably the most notorious of the cis actors for his Academy Award-winning portrayal of Rayon in the true-to-formula role of a drug-addicted trans prostitute in “Dallas Buyers Club.” The review from this panel (and in other reviews from the trans community )was not favorable. Rayon’s performance was said to be “consistently misgendered,” i.e. leaning on trans stereotypes.

I’d be interested in the group’s thoughts on what might be considered a “spot on” moment for trans characters and actors. Here are a few that come to mind for me:

Harmony Santana, a newcomer, made her debut in “Gun Hill Road” (2011), an independent production by Rashaad Ernesto Green, starring Esai Morales and Judy Reyes

Judy Reyes, Esai Morales, and Harmony Santana

Judy Reyes, Esai Morales, and Harmony Santana

Candis Cane played Billy Baldwin’s transgender love interest in the ABC drama series “Dirty Sexy Money” from 2007-2009.

Billy Baldwin and Candis Cane in "Dirty Sexy Money"

Billy Baldwin and Candis Cane in “Dirty Sexy Money”

Laverne Cox is currently popular, and got a Time magazine cover story (“The Transgender Tipping Point”), for her portrayal in the hit Netflix online series “Orange Is the New Black.” But, the panel noted the character doesn’t step too far outside “type.” She’s in prison after all.

Laverne Cox, Netflix

Laverne Cox, Netflix

Whether the writers for these stories honestly understand “the personal stake” the trans character is fighting for, may go without saying for the panel that a trans writer isn’t forced to validate the character’s humanity. There’s no need for “othering.” Elliott Deline who’s written two novels uses his own story for character development. But he’s ever mindful of his parent’s concern about his writing – “Will it make money?”

Dane advises even if the story is going to fall back on the drug-addicted “trans hooker,” ask “How did she get there?” Write a human story. That’s all there is to it.

“Talk to someone” is the panel’s advice. And to start that conversation, I’m more than willing to admit, I know nada.

Links to information and books by workshop speakers:
Joanna CifredoFire breathing T-Girl site
Elliott DeLine – author site http://elliottdeline.com/Books
Dane Edidihttp://www.ladydanefe.com
Everett Maroon – blog Trans/plant/portation
Alex Myers – author site http://alexmyerswriting.com

Who was Marjorie Hillis?


Marjorie Hillis (1889-1971) worked for VOGUE for over twenty years, beginning her career as a captions writer for the pattern book and working her way up to assistant editor of the magazine itself. She was one of a growing number of independent, professional women who lived alone by choice. In 1936 she wrote LIVE ALONE AND LIKE IT, the superlative guide for ‘bachelor ladies’ (who became known as ‘live-aloners’). It was an instant bestseller.
Three years after the book’s publication, at the age of forty-nine, Ms. Hillis bid a fond farewell to the live-aloners by marrying Mr. T.H. Roulston. Source: Hachette Books (may be awhile for you to receive LIVE ALONE AND LIKE IT from Amazon.com at the moment)

Apparently Marjoie threw in the towel for living alone at 49.

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