Battles Over Public Space in Buenos Aires: A Case Study of Murga Porteña

In my first two weeks in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I’ve overcome some technological challenges, battled with a nasty cold, and witnessed first-hand a festive street performance by the murga troupe Cachengue y Sudor. The video above focuses on dancing and is only an excerpt; other segments of the performance feature singing or a dialogue to critique a political/social issue in present-day Argentina. The murgueros (the people who “do” murga) literally occupied 3 lanes of a major avenue (Avenida San Juan) – although this area was blocked off legally (with the use of a permit), taxis and other vehicles expressed their protest through honking. This tension with passing traffic, plus the cold and foggy weather (not to mention that it was already 1am by this time), did not faze the murgueros or audience members – the atmosphere had a joyful energy which seemed almost infectious. All around me, people – predominantly ages 20-40 is my guess – were enthusiastically clapping, spontaneously dancing, socializing and smiling, eating empanadas and choripán, sharing beverages (ie. beer) and cigarettes, and well, smoking a lot. The murga performance took place right outside of a bar/restaurant which hosted several other musical acts earlier that night in the neighborhood of Boedo. The history of this neighborhood is tied to the tango and working-class communities, however today it is home to largely middle-class inhabitants.

Cachengue y Sudor is one of over 100 murga troupes in contemporary Buenos Aires. Murga is a popular cultural practice that is central to the urban carnivals in Argentina and Uruguay. The term refers both to the artistic genre (to “do” murga) and to the troupes (to be “in” a murga). My fieldwork focuses on the relationship between the revitalization, reinvention, and growth of murga and transformations in urban public space initiated with neoliberal restructuring in the 1990s. Among one of the most significant changes in the last 10-20 years is the rise in inseguridad (insecurity) – this is a topic I read about before coming to Buenos Aires, but in only a few hours upon my arrival to the city I realized that fear of crime and violence – particularly among middle-class porteños – is literally palpable. My taxi driver from the airport – a man of at least 60 years of age from Vicente Lopez, a middle-class area just north of Capital Federal – told me that there has been an increase in robbery, which he believes is due to an increase in delinquency and drug use among youth (particularly in villas miserias) and a lack of state control. Within the same day, a married couple in their 60s who live in Villa Crespo (a middle-class neighborhood) told me to be careful to keep an eye on my bag at all times. The wife told me how her purse was once cut (at the handles) and stolen while she was getting off a bus, and suggested that I consider purchasing a bag made of sturdier material. Based on pre-fieldwork reading and initial conversations with murgueros, it seems to me that what’s happening is that the increase in inseguridad – which has been documented as the result of widening socio-economic polarization in a neoliberal Buenos Aires – has provoked a fear that is in turn further heightened through daily conversations and media reports to produce feelings of paranoia that make people – mostly middle-class residents – afraid to be in public space. It is this fear frenzy and the resulting withdrawal into the private realms of middle-class homes and upper-class barrios privados that murga troupes such as Cachengue y Sudor seem to contest by reappropriating public spaces in a jubilant and lively manner.
Mariana Pardes, MA Candidate, CLACS

One thought on “Battles Over Public Space in Buenos Aires: A Case Study of Murga Porteña

  1. I enjoyed reading your blog and watching the video of the performance. The murgueros seemed to be having a good time! Good job!!!

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