Que Quilombo!

Que quilombo!

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Just about anywhere you look in Argentina, you’ll catch a glimpse of a quilombo.

It’s a mess, a screw-up, chaos. Lack of control.

It could be a bunch of protesters marching on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. It could be fermenting wine that’s leaked throughout a bodega in Mendoza, the paperwork you need to complete to open a bank account in Argentina, a big line up at Cerro Catedral ski hill, or a pile of plastic bags stuck to an iron fence on the Patagonian Steppe.

It’s the government, the police, the parking downtown, the traffic, the airport, the check-out line at the grocery store, the problem with public schools here and the squaters and piqueteros following their own rules.

It could be a terrible disaster, or a simple mess. It’s complicated, hectic, disorganized. Either way, it’s a quilombo. And it’s happening all the time.

The proper translation of quilombo is a whorehouse, technically, although it’s no longer used in that context. The deeper roots lead to a word to describe a place where fugitive slaves hid out in historic Brazil. Both, of course, were illegal.

I was out recently hiking with friends, one of whom is a native French speaker and the other a native German speaker. We realized that the slang word used in such a scenario in all three languages refers to the same thing – a whorehouse.

In German, man sacht Bordell for a chaotic frenzy. In French, on dit un bordel. In Spain, one could say “eso es una casa de putas” and make the same point clear.

As one may want to avoid ’shit hitting the fan’ by saying quilombo in the wrong company, you can opt for the even sneakier Lunfardo version, bilonqui. Now that’s truly getting out of hand!

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