Beatriz Bequio

In the milonga we live in the present tense. Our backstories are checked at the door. You can dance with someone for years and not have the faintest idea who they are. Sure, you know very intimate details about them: the scent of their sweat, how their heart beats, the nuances of their embrace, the nature of their yearning. But the ordinary coordinates? Are they married? What do they do for a living? What do they think of the world outside of tango? These things are completely hidden. Even their last names are a mystery.

Though I had known Beatriz in that tango way for several years, all I knew was her first name and that she came from Montevideo every month or so to dance in Buenos Aires.

“Why do you want to interview me?” she said. “I don’t have an interesting story – not like those other people you write about.”

Even though I saw her infrequently, I did remember her name – something of a feat in the milonga where you dance with so many – and her beauty. Elegant and lithe and sun-drenched, she had a mane of silver hair that seemed to float behind her. Her arms were strong and her biceps were softly delineated beneath the flesh. She strode across the dance floor with an erect, forthright grace, glowing with the light of a thousand walks on Uruguayan beaches. Whenever I saw her, she was wearing a different dress; she is one of those milongueras who refuse to repeat an outfit. Eyes would follow her around the room. To remember her name, I used a mnemonic trick: she was Dante’s Beatrice.

There was some confusion about the time of our meeting for the interview and a few last-minute messages to firm things up.

When she walked into the café, I said, after the customary pecks on the cheek, “You were hoping I’d cancel, weren’t you?”

“Well… yes. I don’t know why I am here.”

Beatriz lives in the Palermo neighborhood of Montevideo, the barrio of the Llamadas where drum troupes fill the streets during Carnaval. She likes to walk the rambla. In summer, she goes to Rocha on the Atlantic coast. That is why we never see her in the city in summer. During the hot months, she is “haciendo playa” which translates as “doing beach.”

Retired now, she used to work as an elementary school teacher but her favorite work was her other job: teaching adolescents in jail.

“I have friends who still do that work but it’s become a lot harder, like the world we live in. Drugs are a big part of the problem. Now they don’t trust you. For them, a teacher is the same as the person who locks them up in their cell.”

This thought makes her serious and a black cloud floats briefly above her, casting a shadow.

I had never seen her this way; she is always so sunny and bright. This darkness seems out of place. To relieve her – and myself – I change the subject. I ask her how she got started in tango?

“I always liked it but for years I couldn’t. For a while I lived abroad.”

I nodded.

“And, before that, well, I was in jail.”

For our second interview, Bea had shown up in a gray-blue puffer jacket, jeans and tennis shoes. It was chilly outside but the reflections of a sun so bright they made you squint bounced off every smooth surface of the city.

These practical, outdoorsy clothes revealed a side of Beatriz I did not know. I had always seen in tango dresses that hugged her lithe, athletic body. But I was starting to see that there was a lot about Beatriz that I didn’t know.

In our first interview I was so shocked by her revelation that I really didn’t know what to say and at first my innate discretion overruled my curiousity. I guess I’m not a very good journalist after all. But when I got to writing, I realized there was a gaping hole right in the middle of my story. I had to ask her more. When our paths crossed at the milonga some months later, I asked if she would mind me mentioning her time in jail and if I might ask her some more questions about it.

She threw her head back and laughed. “Why would I mind? It’s all very public, as public as anything could ever be.”

So it was that a few days later she was seated across from me at a wooden table worn by a hundred years of patrons like us, cupping her coffee between both hands and holding her arms close to her body trying to warm up.

“I was 17 when I got involved in politics. It was a very dark time in Uruguay.”

Beatriz eventually joined the Tupamaros, an urban guerilla movement in Uruguay that fought for revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. The group’s slogan was “Words divide us. Action unites us.” In addition to the social work that Beatriz did, the Tupamaros engaged in armed struggle. When the government came after the Tupamaros, Beatriz began a clandestine life, living on the run for two years. About 300 members died in battle while 3,000, including Beatriz, were imprisoned.

In captivity there were months at a time when she had to wear a sack over her head. She would be taken to the bathroom just twice a day. But some of the soldiers were nice to them. They’d say, “I’m going to stand outside for 10 minutes and you can take the hoods off until I get back.” At another prison she was sentenced to hard labor. She broke rocks with a pick in a place called “The Garden” where the guards would yell at her if she raised her head.

Beatiz refused to be broken by the experience – it seems to be her nature – and tried to make the best of tough times.

“For a while we were even kept in a stable. There was a horse in the stall on the left and a horse in the stall to the right and a soldier with a bayonet standing in there with us. We used to torment the poor fellow saying we were going to break out and he was going to get in loads of trouble.”

Though doing time was easy for her, it wasn’t the case for everyone. She tried to look after those who were having a harder time than she was.

“For some people it was very, very difficult, especially for the women with young children. We had to take turns keeping one woman company at night, otherwise she would try to commit suicide.”

Beatriz lifts the cup of coffee to her lips but does not take a sip.

“Even today there are those who never adapted to life outside; we say they are “encuchetado” (stuck in their bunks). They miss jail, the comaraderie, the shared purpose. They never figured out how to join society again.”

After spending three years in prison, Beatriz was released. Not feeling safe in Uruguay, Beatriz sought refuge in neigboring Brazil then got asylum in Sweden, where “everyone went in those days.” After five years in exile, she returned to Uruguay in 1985 when the military government ended and democracy returned. The Tupamaros laid down their arms and joined a political party on the Left. One of their former members became president of Uruguay in 2009.

Back in Montevideo again, Beatriz worked as a teacher. For twenty years, she taught in prisons in the morning and in public schools in the afternoon.

“I tried to give the prison kids everything we weren’t given when we were in jail. The time they spent with us was the best part of their days.”

Beatriz smiles as she remembers.

“All the same,” she sighs, “We didn’t save many. After they got out of jail they’d be back inside after a couple of months.”

It hadn’t been easy starting from scratch but once Beatriz got back on her feet she started taking tango lessons with a woman who had studied with Rodolfo Dinzel, a legendary teacher. Beatriz took classes with her and she must have been a quick study because eventually the professor asked her to be her assistant.

“I was so proud,” Beatriz said.

“These days I don’t assist in classes anymore. I just dance for myself. I go to milongas and come about once a month to Buenos Aires – except, of course, in summer.”

I had trouble reconciling the graceful Beatriz of the milonga who loves to get dolled up with the former member of an urban guerilla outfit who was sentenced to hard labor and lived for months at a time with a sack over her head. But the biggest mystery was how she emerged intact from such an experience. But Beatriz seems blessed with a lightness and joy that nothing and no one can take away.

“I never would have guessed you had been through such an ordeal,” I said. “You always seem so happy when I see you at the milonga.”

“Why wouldn’t I be happy?” she said. “I’m alive. I’m free. And that’s a gift.”

“Tango has a magic about it,” she said. “It’s like you are meditating. You are in another world. You feel different. I am absolutely happy dancing tango. Two of my girlfriends from prison dance tango too, so we see each other sometimes at the milongas. I still belong to the movement and I still participate – just not as actively as before.”

She becomes serious and looks at me.

“The world has to change. It can’t go on like this. Maybe I won’t see it; but it has to happen. It would be very frustrating to think that we had fought all our lives for something and it didn’t mean anything.”

She drifts off for a moment but eventually tango pulls her back: “The great thing about tango is that when there is a connection, it is immediate. What does it matter what someone does for work, how much money they have, their politics or even their name. I don’t know if it’s a law of the milonga… but no one ever asks those things. You just surrender to the dance.”

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16 responses to “Beatriz Bequio”

  1. Thomas G McCarter Avatar
    Thomas G McCarter

    Great interview! Keep it up!

    1. People of Tango Avatar
      People of Tango

      Thank you Tom for your encouragement!

  2. Susan Rogers Avatar
    Susan Rogers

    Following a great introductory paragraph, you’ve painted such a chiaroscuro of bright sun and blackest night. So carefully crafted, creating a breathless atmosphere of passion and danger that expresses everything that wasn’t said. And what had to be denied, what still has to be denied, for life to go on. You chose a tough subject and drove it home. Chapeau!

    1. People of Tango Avatar
      People of Tango

      Muchas gracias, Susan!

    2. Alix Avatar

      Beautifully put. This is an exceptional piece, Kevin.

  3. Megan Avatar

    Love this, Kevin! Thank you!

    1. People of Tango Avatar
      People of Tango

      Thank you Megan! Great to hear from you!

  4. Paul Perry Avatar

    Gotta love Tango… Thanks for this. Excellent!

    1. People of Tango Avatar
      People of Tango

      Gracias Paul!

  5. Maria Avatar

    Such a powerful piece. I could see Beatriz and hear what she has to say. It’s amazing you conveyed so much in few words. Bravo.

    1. People of Tango Avatar
      People of Tango

      Many thanks María!

  6. Jorge Torres Zavaleta Avatar
    Jorge Torres Zavaleta

    Great writing, Kevin!!!

    I am glad to see you are breaking out of the lenght you are accostumed to.

    It’s wonderful to see you try your hand at new things!! At least for me they are new. Perhaps you have worked at this genre, new to me, for years. Iwouldn/t be surprised, since you do it excellently. Gran abrazo

    1. People of Tango Avatar
      People of Tango

      Jorge! A honor coming from a writer like you. Yes, I wrote more than 500 words this time. Could become addictive! Abrazos! Kevin

  7. Henry Earl Scott Avatar
    Henry Earl Scott

    A beautiful and moving story Kevin! It reminds me of the importance of not making assumptions about people you see and don’t really know. This woman has had a very complex and interesting life…

  8. Terence Clarke Avatar
    Terence Clarke

    Hello Kevin,
    A fine piece. Looking forward to the others. Take care…

  9. Angela Avatar

    Thank you, Kevin. The photo is so good,nice job!

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