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Learning Spanish, Argentine Style

SAS students in Ashley Kerr's intermediate Spanish class meet with famed Argentine writer Mempo Giardinelli for a lesson in Argentine history, culture and, of course, Spanish. (Photos: Courtesy of Ashley Kerr)

As the professor of the Spanish class aboard the MV Explorer for the Fall 2013 voyage, the question was how to give my students the best cross-section experience of a fabulous country—Argentina—in which I had lived for an extended period of time.

I decided on organizing a field lab for the class that would permit my students to converse with locals about Argentine current events, see major historical sites, and participate in one of the cornerstones of the culture of Buenos Aires: the tango.

Our first stop was the historical Café Tortoni, where we met with Mempo Giardinelli, a famed Argentine author whose work has been published in more than 20 languages (our guide recognized him from TV!). In one hour, Mempo was able to give us a comprehensive overview of the Argentine educational system, literature, and his personal experiences with key moments of 20th-century history, including the Dirty War.

Mempo Giardinelli speaks to SAS students about the years living in Argentina during the Dirty War.

After having learned about this period in classes and Union seminars on the ship, it was fascinating to hear firsthand from an individual who went into exile to avoid being tortured or killed just because he was an intellectual. Mempo explained that although the country has had a very difficult history, the people are resilient and continue to work together to move forward. Although he spoke Spanish quickly, my students were able to keep up and I was so proud of them. We followed our session with Mempo with a tour of the historical center and a fortifying lunch.

The next part of the day was a tango class at the beautiful La Ventana tango school. As our teachers, Analis and Lucas, barked orders in sharp Spanish, we all focused intently on practicing the Spanish the students were learning in class, keeping the beat and following the steps of this timeless dance. The three young men in my class were in high demand with Analis grabbing them a new partner each time a song had ended. I think they were completely worn out by the end of the day!

Tango instructors at the famed La Ventana tango school give the male students some pointers before the lesson in a very historical Argentine dance.

Of course, having enough men was never a problem during the early development of tango; in fact, at first it was only men who participated, as the class learned from our instructors. Today, we think of tango as a very sensual dance, but during the field lab we learned that in its origins it was a dance meant to entertain working-class immigrants living near the docks. It is a mix of South American, European, and African influences, and thus represents the different ethnic groups that formed the Argentine nation.

In the early 20th Century, the dance gained popularity both in Argentina and abroad and came to be associated with the fashionable upper classes. Throughout the years, the different waves of immigration to Argentina as well as political and economic circumstances have left their mark on both the music and the steps of this beautiful dance. Its popularity rose when times were good and it receded slightly when times were bad. Thus, in many ways the history and current appearance of tango can be read as a key to understanding Argentina’s past, present, and future.

Today, tango is part of UNESCO’s Intangible Culture Heritage lists and is sure to continue to reflect and impact Argentina for years to come. As for my class, we finished the day with smiles, certificates of participation to be proudly affixed to cabin walls (with magnets), and a much better understanding of tango and the general characteristics of Argentine culture and society.

  • Arts
  • Culture
  • Education
  • History

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