Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Day of the Dead

Carlos Gardel
No, it's not El Dia del Muerto, and anyway, South Americans do not celebrate it with the ghoulish flair that Mexicans do. But the dead do have an honored place in two cemeteries in Buenos Aires. Last week I visited Evita´s tomb in Cementerio de la Recoleta, and yesterday I made a pilgrimage across the city to the most honored gravesite in Argentina, the tomb of Carlos Gardel in Cementerio de la Chacarita.

Gardel, El Zorzal Criollo, The Songbird of Buenos Aires, as I've written here before, was THE tango singer in Argentina, indeed the entire Spanish-speaking world. In his day in the 1920s and 1930s he was Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Valentino and the Beatles all rolled into one adored celebrity. When his plane crashed in Colombia in 1935 he was mourned by thousands. It was said that a woman in Havana committed suicide when she heard the news and women in New York and Puerto Rico drank poison, even though none of them had ever seen him. The day of his death, June 24, is celebrated annually with a pilgrimage to Chacarita.

His picture and his voice are everywhere in BsAs. I learned of him before this trip and collected dozens of his recorded songs which I listen to on my iPod. His name is a key which has opened numerous conversations here with porteƱos. So it was with a sense of anticipation and excitement that I made the journey by subte to Chacarita. Out front of the cemetery, vendors were doing a brisk business selling flowers. I had to ask directions several times, from a security guard and several workman, before I found the site.
Carlos Gardel's Tomb
It's on the corner of two streets and features a lifesize statue of Gardel in the pose for which is was most famous (missing is his trademark hat). His right hand is position to hold a cigarette and pilgrims frequently put a lit cigarette in place. There was the stub of one there when I arrived. The walls around the statue are covered with plaques thanking Gardel for his music and for favors received, as if he were a saint. While I stood there an older man walked up and crossed himself. St. Carlos.

Chacarita, like Recoleta, is a city of tombs, some quite elaborate. I went in search of another important Argentinian buried there, Juan Peron. For some reason he is not buried with his first wife, Eva Duarte, who rests eternally across town. Again, I had to ask directions. There were no crowds of pilgrims to guide my way. I finally found Peron on a side street, in the tomb reserved for his families.
Juan Peron's Tomb
There were flowers to mark the spot, but nothing that announced the tremendous significance this portly general had for a generation. Peronistas still exist; indeed the current president, Kirchner, belongs to the party that continues to bear Peron's name. But Peron, who symbolized politically the weird conjunction of fascism with a kind of worker's socialism, is probably unknown to the pierced and tattooed, belly bearing and pants sagging younger generation.

The graves of both Peron and Eva are drab and almost hidden within their respective cemeteries, making them little more than footnotes to the history of Argentina. But along with Gardel, they continue to tug at our psyches, reminding us both of the power and the fleetingness of fame and celebrity.

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