Lunfardo is a Spanish argot of popular origin still spoken in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, and made famous by the tango. Its etymology derives from European languages which have influenced the Spanish language in Argentina, enriched by the immigrants: Occitan French and the Italian dialects, from Genovese to Piedmontese and the inevitable Neapolitan. Strolling through the streets of Buenos Aires, with ears pricked, we approach the essence of Argentinian popular culture: tango, literature, football.
Step 1: Tango
Continuing down the avenida 9 de julio, we reach the famous obelisk at the crossing with calle Corrientes. Street artists play poignant tango melodies on their bandoneón, a wooden accordion originating from Eastern Europe. We go into an internet point and consult the city’s portal dedicated to tango (www.tangodata.gov.ar), to find out about forthcoming concerts and shows. Argentinian national music strikes us for its syncopated harmonies, of clear Italian origin as are the great composers who made hits of these, one of the greatest being Astor Piazzolla, the son of an immigrant from Puglia.
The tango is a “sad thought that one can dance” musician Enrique Santos Discépolo once said; it is a dance based on improvisation, characterized by the passion filled with nostalgia and hope of those who had arrived in Argentina to improve their social status. The origin of the lyrics is a secret slang spoken by prisoners so the guards would not understand them: the lunfardo. It is for this very reason that many of the words in lunfardo are constructed by inverting the order of the syllables of the original word, according to a procedure defined as vesre, which is obtained by reversing revés (reverse). In the same way, tango becomes gotán, a term which inspired the famous group, Gotan Project; amigo (friend) becomes gomía; cabeza (head) becomes zabeca.
Step 2: Literature
Plaza de Mayo, which has remained the city’s heart since the colonial times, expresses the history of Buenos Aires with the Cabildo, the palace of the Spanish administration, the Casa Rosada, the present seat of the Government and the Cathedral. Listening to the people talk, we realize that many words absorbed from the Lunfardo have changed form and significance with respect to the original language, while other terms deriving from the Spanish spoken outside Argentina are considered archaic. Strolling along the banks of the Rio de la Plata, we meet a mina (girl) and we are sadly unable to catch all the nuances of her vivacious language, quite different to the Spanish we had studied. Feeling very analfa (ignorant), we decide that the moment has come to study the basics of Lunfardo.
At number 1860 of Avenida Santa Fe, in the Barrio Norte, we come across the El Ateneo bookshop, which was opened in 2000 in what was once the Gran Splendid theatre, founded in 1919, of which it has kept the original architecture with its 4 rows of boxes and 500 seat stalls. Today, shielded from the stress of the metropolis, the boxes are still there, the stalls have been replaced by book shelves lit by the soft light of the first floor. Records and DVDs can be found on the third floor. We come across a book, Lunfardía by José Gobello, an essay which in 1953 started the legitimation process of the Lunfardo language, that culminated in the foundation in 1962 of the Academia Porteña del Lunfardo (www.todotango.com/alunfardo), and which obtained the recognition of six thousand words by the master linguists. Poema para las seis cuerdas è is a collection of poems published in 1965 which Jorge Luis Borges dedicated to the tango. The great Argentinian author would have smiled if he had known what we were feeling at that moment, lost in a maze of books which seemed to interrogate from the height of their upper circle us imperfect actors striving to recite on the stage that which has already been written. We snap back into reality and skim through a novel for children: The Team of my Deams by Olguín Sergio, set in Villa Fiorito.
Step 3: Football
Villa Fiorito is a villa de emergencia, the Argentinian equivalent of the favela, situated 20 km south of Buenos Aires. This is where Diego Armando Maradona, el pibe de oro (the golden boy) was born. Diego became a star when he joined the Boca Juniors (www.bocajuniors.com.ar), the historic football club founded in 1905 by 5 Italian immigrants from a suburb of Genova called Boccadasse, which they recreated in Buenos Aires in the Boca district, reviving, as well as their own musical traditions which merged into the tango, the favorite sport of the Genoese people. Apparently, according to the legend, they planned the foundation of the club here, in Plaza Solis, where we resume our tour after having crossed the picturesque Calle Caminito. Even the colors of the football club speak of immigration: yellow and blue are the colors of the flag flown by the first ship the 5 immigrants saw as they entered the harbor of Buenos Aires: a Swedish ship. We are not surprised therefore when we find out that the players and fans of this football club are known as Xeneizes, a transliteration of the Genoese term Zeneize used to indicate the people of Genoa.
Boca Juniors has played since 1940 in Bombonera stadium, which we go to, thrilled to watch a match there. When Boca scores, the fans start jumping rhythmically, like they were dancing. La Bombonera no tiembla, late: the Bombonera does not shake, it beats, as we were told by a group of supporters, jokingly nicknamed bosteros (made of dung). We are now ready to write a reportage on our journey, keen as we are to use the words in Lunfardo that we have learned. We shall try to send it to Pasionsports (www.pasionsports.com), the sports site. There is plenty to be inspired by: everything around us speaks an original language which mixes music, irony and the spirit of survival enhanced by the supreme art of migration.
by Federico Gurgone