What else is to be alive?

Free and uncompromising, María Elena Walsh created a world of her own that lives on

Writer and singer María Elena Walsh died yesterday morning in Buenos Aires after battling hard and long the bone cancer she first been diagnosed with in 1981. When the news hit TV broadcasts, around midday, my wife and I had a pang of sorrow and then a knee-jerk reaction: switch the channel so our 5-year-old daughter wouldn’t find out so bluntly that the woman she calls “my friend María Elena Walsh” was gone.
It is not because she was a frequent visitor to our home – in fact, by the time my daughter was born Walsh had already retired from the scarce public life she had. But María Elena Walsh has been (and will remain) a strong presence in my daughter’s life, just as she had been in her father’s and even her grandparents’: she has been listening to Walsh’s songs ever since she was born, and when she was 2 we started our bedtime reading sessions with her Cuentopos de Gulubú (before her third birthday, she could recite her favourite story, Don Fresquete, almost by heart, and we have gone through the novel Dailán Kifki three times already, always at her bequest). This Christmas, Santa brought her baby brother a DVD with CGI clips of her songs – the baby is interested enough, but she is the one begging for three and even four daily repeats.
She is not alone in her fandom: artists, officials and personalities across the board and the Spanish-speaking world lamented María Elena Walsh’s passing yesterday, and not only for her children’s  songs, poems and stories, but for the music and literature she dedicated to adults, with anthems like Como la cigarra, Serenata municipal, Oración a la Justicia, Canción para la tierra de uno or Dame la mano y vamos ya taking a well-deserved spot next to classics like La tortuga Manuelita, El reino del Revés and La Reina Batata (songs which, in turn, go well beyond the realm of bland kiddie fodder and include strong political overtones in defense of freedom, pacifism and the right to be oneself).
She had that rare quality (born of talent, determination and fierce work ethics) that allowed her to bridge both worlds: she brought surrealism, European cabaret and Lido-style varieté to the moralized stiffness of children entertainment, and in turn brought the florid yet fluid style of her writing (equally rooted in modernism and the traditions both of Spanish Siglo de oro poetry and folk poetry and music, of which she was an avid collector and consummate performer) to the adult world.
María Elena Walsh was born in 1930. “My parents and my grandfather on my mother’s side were Argentine. My other grandparents: Andalousian, English and Republican Irish,” she wrote in Cuento de la autora, her own life story explained for her children fans included in the book Chaucha y Palito. In this delicious and honest account, she describes a childhood lived in a middle-class suburban home that was “very big, with a garden, patios, fruit trees, a henhouse, dog, cat, canaries, turtle, bicycles, books and a piano. What more can you ask?” Her first literary loves were Dickens, Perrault, Jules Verne and Lewis Carroll, as well as limericks and nursery rhymes (two popular English traditions that she would masterfully bring into Argentine literature through her writings).
She had many artistic lives, and the first started very early on: at the age of 15, she had already published poems in the newspaper La Nación and the magazine El Hogar, and “two years later, in 1947, encouraged by some writers I had known through those publications, I emptied a book-shaped piggy bank where my parents had saved coins and small change for me and paid for the printing of a book of poetry: Otoño imperdonable (Unforgiveable Autumn).”  The book was well-received, and earned praise from the likes of Pablo Neruda and Juan Ramón Jiménez, who offered their home in the US as a sort of writer’s retreat for the teenage María Elena. She would later refer to her relationship with the Spanish master in mixed terms, a generous yet fierceful figure that would cast an imposing shadow on her writing.
When she returned to Argentina, during the Perón years, she did not feel at ease: “Young people, like myself, students and intellectuals, rejected the lack of freedom and rebelled any way we could. And, as cyclically happens in Argentina, we felt like taking off,” she writes. She travelled to Europe with singer and companion Leda Valladares, and in Paris they would form a successful folk duo performing the music Valladares had compiled in her trips around Argentina‘s North-East. They recorded two albums in Europe, and became a regular feature at the Crazy Horse cabaret. In the late 50s, they returned to Argentina to travel the Andes, compiling music and recording two albums that would foreground these hidden cultural gems to broader audiences. Meanwhile, she started to write poems and songs for children. “It’s only when you’re far away that you better fall in love with your home. The mother land is loved and yearned for like childhood is, and maybe for this, for this nostalgia, for this need to play in my own language once again, I started writing rhymes for children,” she explained to her younger readers.
When she returned to Argentina she compiled those poems in Tutú Marambá, and in 1962 she set music to some of them and premièred Canciones para mirar at the San Martín theatre. That show, a varieté for children often revisited by performers to this day, transformed the scene and turned her career around for good, and the album where she recorded the music (with Valladares for the last time) remains a classic. It was followed by Doña Disparate y Bambuco, another timeless play.
As children testify half a century later, and as all artists in the genre acknowledge, María Elena Walsh is the non plus ultra of children’s music and theatre. Her infinite imagination, the seemingly effortless magic of her puns and verbal twists, her endearing characters, her profound understanding of what makes kids tick and how
In the late 60s she returned to the “adult” music world with Juguemos en el mundo, offering a brilliant spin on the trendy protest song. With commitments closer to the human than the political (peace, equality, freedom, the pangs of exile, the follies and injustice of modern life), she used razor-sharp irony, her deep knowledge of the cabaret world and folk music and a peerless sensitivity to create songs at once beautiful, hard-hitting and loaded with a brand of humour that spoke of her Anglo heritage.
Still, the message was so loud and clear enough that, when the military took power in  the 1976 coup, Walsh was one of the bravest, most vocal personalities to denounce the atrocities and censorship of the times. The pressure on her was such that she gave up music and live performances in 1978. Still, because she did it with the oblique slice of a Swift rather than the blunt force of a protester, some knuckleheads in the so-called “progressive/intellectual” circles labelled her a mild, compromising figure. Some people are just too blind to see beyond their noses, if that they see.
The rest of her life was devoted to writing fiction and memoirs, both for children and adults. A living legend, she still reserved the right to speak her mind (even if her opinion was bound to be unpopular) and be as recluse as she wanted – she had a well-developed distrust of artistic backstabbing circles and the press. Her last book was Fantasmas en el parque (2008), where she made her first open and explicit reference to her homosexuality and her 30-year relationship with photographer Sara Facio.
As for myself, my two María Elena moments were, I must confess, botched. I saw her at the lobby of a hotel in Montevideo in 1998, and went to greet her in awe – I’ve never been that starstruck and inarticulate. Still, she was gracious even at a check-in desk with her luggage still unpacked, and I got her autograph (the only one I’ve ever asked for) on her personal Manuelita stationery.
A year ago, the Herald was inches away from getting an interview with Walsh, but her weak condition took a turn for the worse and the meeting was cancelled, literally, at the last minute. Before leaving home I asked my daughter if she had any messages she would like me to pass on to the author of some of her favourite stories and songs: “Tell her I love her very much,”  she said. I never had the nerve to tell her the interview had been cancelled because María Elena was ill and in pain.
Like a friend wrote on Facebook, in my house María Elena Walsh lives on: every night, at bedtime, her unparallelled writing comes to life and brings smiles on me and my children. When they grow up, they will discover new sides of her to keep them company, and rediscover the old ones when they become parents themselves. What else is to be alive, can anyone be more alive than that?
Buenos Aires Herald, 11/1/11