La Gata

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On Thursdays, couples engrossed in an intimate candlelight dinner conversation at the Design District's One Ninety Restaurant may be surprised when a slightly miffed elderly woman, wearing a red sequined dress and fishnet stockings, tells them to shut their traps because she's going to sing. Their surprise may turn to shock as she raises a stiletto heel to a man's chair while belting out a tango song to the winsome whine of a bandoneón. But soon they will be clapping their hands and yelling "bravo" to her nostalgic performance.

At 77, La Gata's voluptuous figure is not as perky as it was when she traveled the globe, singing for her supper and serving as a distraction from the latest dictatorship for her adoring audiences. But her voice is still full, her body is as agile as a cat, and her spirit is ageless.

La Gata's green eyes are piercing, and when she dresses up for a show, she steps with a sway and flaunts sassy expressions at the audience, often telling them how happy she is and how loneliness is beyond her comprehension. But when she's at home, she ages, lounging about without makeup in cat-print pajamas, and with her strawberry blond-tinted hair in a messy bundle. She becomes hysterical when her kitten Ufa wanders into the street, and often phones her friends to remind them that they should call her on a more regular basis.

Every conversation is a trip into the past, but hers is a long and wandering memory. Sometimes she picks up too far after the part where she left off and then gets a little cantankerous when you ask her to repeat the story. But after a few wisecracks, she softens and fills in the details, plugging in the names of journalists, politicians, and actors for whom she sang during her adventures.

Kicked out of a convent in Buenos Aires where she was raised until she was 22, this Argentine orphan, whose official name is María Angelica Milán, learned to get by on her good looks and spunk.

"The nuns handed me twenty pesos and told me: öIt's your life, you're free to do what you want.' So I thought, what was that famous phrase? öBroad and alien is the world?'" she asks, citing the title of a 1941 novel by Peruvian writer Ciro Alegría.

"And I said, öThe world is broad and it's MINE!'" she exclaims to a young man she has never met before, and with whom she is about to share a drink, on a recent Thursday evening at One Ninety. La Gata's table is soon crowded with international bohemians showering her with kisses and settling in to hear her stories.

"People who lose a father or a mother to the war always have an aunt or a sister to turn to. The only thing I ever had were friends," La Gata tells her thirtysomething singleton pals.

The first months outside the convent were the hardest. At night she would sleep in the bathrooms on Buenos Aires's streetcars or in the production room of the city's Astral Theater, showing up at the cafeteria next door for handouts. Artists and journalists befriended her there, putting her in contact with entertainment representatives, who paid her to pose for advertisements for the U.S. firm J. Walter Thompson. She says she also used those contacts to get herself a meeting at the Casa Rosada, Argentina's national palace, with one of President Juan Domingo Perón's officials, who used his influence to slip La Gata some small parts in movies such as Marihuana and Madre Alegría. "I had no idea how to work, but I would lend my face because it was an agreeable face in those years," she recalls.

At the time, Buenos Aires nightlife was flourishing with tango and cinema, and Argentine nationalism was high. "President Perón inculcated us with a love of our country. There were a lot of decrees on national culture. For example, 70 percent of radio programming and music had to be Argentine," says La Gata, who began singing professionally herself in the early Fifties.

The rags-to-riches story of Perón's glamorous wife, Evita, also enhanced national morale and fostered the bohemian movement. Evita, herself a singer, was a major supporter of the arts. Her death in 1952 left a hole in the country's heart, and a gaping image problem for the president, whose popularity was widely based on the affection the poor masses held for his wife.

In 1955, Perón was ousted in a military coup. Two years later, La Gata left the country out of a desire to make a name for herself in places such as Peru and Chile, so she wouldn't have to compete with so many other tango singers.

In Chile, La Gata appeared at Santiago's Bim Bam Bum Theater, where Isabel Allende later debuted as both a cabaret dancer and a writer. Then she moved to Spain for nearly a decade, opening a flashy tango bar in the Canary Islands while conservative dictator Gen. Francisco Franco ruled the country with a heavy moral hand. In 1968 she went to Paris for a year, and gave a show at the exclusive Club Regine in front of celebrities such as Brigitte Bardot. "I wanted to sing at the Moulin Rouge but it was closed because of the strikes," says La Gata, explaining that her venue options were somewhat limited because France had been brought to a standstill by student protests demanding the resignation of President Charles de Gaulle.

Between 1973 and 1976, La Gata returned to Buenos Aires for a short-lived comeback before heading to Mexico, opening tango bars in Mexico City and Cuernavaca. Finally, as the peso became devalued, she made a run for the U.S. border in 1986, performing throughout New York City and New Orleans for several years before moving to Eustis, Florida with a group of Argentines who wanted to open a restaurant and hire her as a singer. Unfortunately their plans fell through, so La Gata came down to Miami and spent the next thirteen years working as a cleaning lady for a Bal Harbour resident for $600 a month. "I guess I thought that was it for me," she says, whose conversation topics, like the tango songs she sings, often center on stories of love and loss.

Suddenly, last year, La Gata fell in love at age 76 with 31-year-old Fabian Sequi. Sequi offered her a couch to sleep on for nearly a year while he recorded her album, Una Voz, Un Bandoneón (A Voice, A Bandoneón), along with her 80-year-old bandoneón player, Alfredo Pedernera. Sequi "was like an angel. He helped me to believe in myself again," she says. "Maybe that last night before he moved back to [Argentina] something could have happened between us, but it didn't. I think it's better that way."

Pedernera, himself a cute but obstinate old globetrotter, thinks La Gata "should quit pining over men half her age." Then again, he admits, he's had the companionship of his wife for most of his lifetime of on-the-road adventures.

Today La Gata rents a humble one-bedroom apartment in the Design District. She pays for it with the money she makes from her Thursday-night shows, painting portraits, and a few other odd jobs. Neighbors have donated extra Tupperware, old furniture, and Ufa the kitten to her. Nevertheless, her defiant but melancholy outlook is evident in her performances.

"I thank the universe that it never gave me anyone to hold me back because I always did what I wanted to do," she says. "But sometimes I think it hurts me a little when I realize I'm all alone."

Thankfully, La Gata has never feared growing old. "Singers are ageless because they are the transmitters of messages," she says.

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Julienne Gage is a Miami-based anthropologist and journalist who has worked as a reporter and as a civil rights and international aid communications specialist in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. Her fieldwork has exposed her to many forms of cultural expression, and during her master’s in anthropology, she studied at Cuba’s Center for the Investigation and Development of Cuban Music.
Contact: Julienne Gage