The special night that I am about to describe began very much the same way that less special nights begin—planless and aimless—arriving at some bar with the idea of drinking the cheapest of beverages provided at cede establishment, and then eventually finding our way home. The evening was cool but breezeless, one that tempts with the prospect of summer without actually providing. Jere, Pato(friend) and I were seated on a bench alongside a pedestrian causeway that was in a recent past notoriously dangerous, but now an area bouncing back with fervor. Bars, hostels and cultural centers line either side of the street along with dark windy trees whose curving limbs create a mottled canopy above. The street is perfect for strolling, meandering or barhopping, all of which are good pastimes for the planless and the aimless.
Reclining on one of the benches that stripe the sides of the street, we may have been swigging a bottle of wine purchased at a grocery store, this being the most economical of all possible nighttime options—and thanks to Argeninta’s lack of open container law, an option that is entirely risk free. A group of glassy-eyed, drum toating, dredlocked youngsters ambled by in front of us; one of them recognizing Jere, broke off from the group to come and give him a big hug. What a long time it had been since they had last seen each other, they agreed, and how was Jere’s father and brother. He was presented to Pato and I as Ricky, and would later become the star of that evening.
Ricky had the ruddy brown and red complexion of someone who had been drinking, sallow, dropping eyes, long straw-like brown hair that fell in matted clumps, motionless on his shoulders. He wore colorful yet unkempt baggy pants and shirt, a beaten-up, brimmed leather hat and had a homemade drum strapped across his back. He was the kind of bohemian whose popularity has faded in the states, but that still lives in Latina America; the roaming nomad, the homeless artesian or musician, living hand to mouth, selling crafts in a plaza, sleeping in parks and along doorsteps.
He knew Jere from the long ago and mythical time when they both lived in “el barrio de la Gloria,” a place that haunts all of the stories Jere tells me about his past, a place that as it has been described to me, is an intense combination of the most horrible social realities paired with the most wonderful human resistance. Poverty, guns, drugs, fear being a constant backdrop to daily life, and the necessity of hustling to get by. Children steal fruits and vegetables from nearby farms, or work for change guarding parked cars from the peril of teenagers, women swindle goods under their clothing from grocery stores to resell, while their men rob houses or cars. These stories are not the subject of this post. Most, if not all of them are not mine to tell.
Hearing these histories make me feel like a child listening in on the memories of her elders. Despite the fact that we are of the same age, the life they describe is so vastly different from the ones that they fortunately lead now. In the midst all of these terrible qualities, within this barrio live some of Jere’s favorite people- musicians, friends and family, more simple and honest than you can find anywhere. World famous musician Manu Chao was said to join in turbulent drum circles here, and some of Jere’s friends who belong to one of the barrios “murgos” (musical group I will describe later) have toured Europe, sponsored by the Argentine government. This is a place that he will never take me. Sometimes Jere returns with his brother when I am at work or have plans. They joke about bringing me along, but the subject is always dropped quickly and soundlessly, like a leaden ball into a river.
Though I had heard many stories about this place, I had never met anyone besides Jere’s family who had lived there. And so on this chilly spring evening, I was seized with a combination of fear, excitement and curiosity to finally see this little piece of Jere’s past standing before me. We shared our wine with Ricky and he offered us a fat joint he was puffing. What were we doing later he wanted to know. He was on his way to the house of someone called Gato (the cat), another friend from the barrio, who had just moved into a new rented abode. It would be a celebration, did we want to join.
When word got out to the rest of his crew that Pato had a mode of transportation, we were triply invited. They had been planning to walk which would have taken, as we soon realized, close to an eternity. We all piled into Pato’s vintage 1980’s truck and we were off, heading north along the main road.
In Mendoza’s center, the street San Martin, is a hubbub of people and commerce. Four lanes wide, it is well lit at all hours, and lined with generous sidewalks, tall manicured apartment buildings, elegant stores, and government offices. Without turning once this same street evolved before my eyes, violently shedding all indications of luxury the farther north we went. Street lamps became less and less consistent, instead of fortified buildings, small crumbling brick homes replaced them, and a thick layer of dust began to spin its web around houses, plants, automobiles and the street before us. Just before the road and all signs of human life dissolved completely into the dessert and the night sky, we arrived at our destination.
Gato lived in a little cottage on the back of his landlord’s property. We stumbled along the brick path and entered his new home. The house was enchanting. Ducking under the low doorway and emerging into the house’s main room, felt like peeking in on the lives of fairies or forest gnomes. Thick wooden beams striped the low ceilings above, archaic stone floors met our feet, fantastical swirls of color and pattern decorated the walls, and a slab of tree trunk formed the surface of the kitchen table. The handful of guests sat on low stools and benches cradling their various instruments between their legs, and across their laps. After a subdued exchange of greetings and welcomes, the murgos began.
A classic murgos consists of two elements, percussion and voices. Groups of murgos can have as many as fifteen people, half drummers, half singers. On this evening, everyone was doing a little of both. The rhythms began. Those without traditional drums found empty glass bottles or scrap metal to clang. The beat was contagious, the tiny room swelled with heat and energy and bodies began to pulse. Then the voices started up. These were songs that were either classic murgos tunes, or ones specifically created in La Gloria. About eight or nine of the group were well practiced, and performed complicated harmonies, singing boldly and even carelessly at the top of their lungs. Their voices, like hammers, were radically unselfconscious of where their sound might land. Those who did not know the words joined in at the choruses, silently shook to the beat, or simply sat back and listened. Wine in tin cups passed around the circle; weed in various forms accompanied it. Besides being musically and rhythmically enthralling, many of these songs tell captivating stories. The majority of them talk about life in the barrio, about a distrust of conventional authority figures like police and politicians and even academics. They talk about the resilience of the people who live there in the face of such terrible conditions, about the university of the street- the street being a source of all kinds of unconventional knowledge that is unrecognized by mainstream society.
Ricky was often the one to lead these chant-like songs. Banging on his drum, he would throw his head back, screaming the words. His voice was hoarse from exhaustion and chain smoking, and yet no one cared when it cracked, when he became so inebriated that the words to his songs were hard to distinguish, or when he discarded his drum altogether and began a stilted and awkward dance across the floor. He hardly stopped talking for more than five minutes all throughout the night. If he was not singing he was recounting a story, or a joke. He was the centerpiece of that party, the kind of person who lives every moment of their life with a dangerous and reckless passion, a passion that at any moment might hurtle that individual into death or destruction. For this reason people like Ricky are magnetic to those around them. We crave and yet are terrified of the passion possessed by the Rickys. We love to be near them because we ourselves feel more alive, more adventurous, but we are careful not to stay for too long. We return to our warm beds in our rented or purchased houses, while the Rickys either sleep alone, or don’t sleep, or find another clump of people to mesmerize. Later Jere told me that Ricky was dying of cancer. Like a star near the end of its life, he would be the fiercest and brightest just before disappearing altogether.