Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Slumming in La Boca

La Boca
La Boca is a slum for tourists. Named for the mouth of the Rio Riachuelo where the waterfront of Buenos Aires was located in the late 19th century, La Boca was also home to the dock workers, butchers, seamen and poor immigrants from Italy and Spain who lived in delapidated splendor. If you were looking for a bar or a brothel, or a place to dance the once forbidden tango, La Boca was the place to go. And, according to the guide books, it remains as unsafe today as it was then, outside of a few streets where tourists, and the businesses that nuture their needs, congregate.

Which is not to say that La Boca is not charming. It is. Many of the buildings are constructed from corrugated-metal siding, and back when there were ships in the harbor the paint that was used on them was borrowed by inhabitants to paint their houses in bright colors. It is the pastel collage of colors in the urban landscape that defines La Boca's charm.

This abundance of color must have attracted artists, for there was a budding art scene there before World War One. The most famous graduate was Benito Quinquela Martin, and I was given a book of his impressionistic paintings of ships and dock workers for my birthday. Quinquela lived on the waterfront in La Boca and his house (he died in 1977) is now an art museum which contains his own work (and home furnishings) as well as a varied collection of paintings and sculpture by Argentina artists, old and new. There is also a selection of painted wood bowsprits from old ships, but they don't compare with the beautiful examples that I saw in Neruda's house. From the top floor terrace of the museum there were excellent views of La Boca, the harbor, and not far away La Bombonera, the stadium where the local Boca Juniors soccer team holds sway.

La Boca
This was our second attempt to visit La Boca. During the first, shortly after we arrived in BsAs, Lorraine, Toni and I walked through San Telmo on the way to La Boca but we got lost and had to wave down a taxi. Trying to find a celebrated restaurant, the taxi driver also got lost. This time, we jumped in a taxi near our apartments in Palermo which took us directly to the tourist center of La Boca a half hour's drive away. Ground zero is a short alley called El Caminito, the Little Walkway, which was made famous by a 1926 tango song. It is lined with colorful houses and a large number of artists who have set up shop to sell their representations of the neighborhood and the tango dancers and musicians who got their start there.

Spreading out from the harbor are several streets along which tourists navigate through the many independent salesmen, assorted folks looking for a handout, and stores selling cups and other objects with your name on them. Pictures of Carlos Gardel, the icon of the tango, abound, and store signs are painted in the picturesque and colorful fileta style. There are wood cut-outs behind which you can pose and get your picture taken (the Lonely Planet describes them, perhaps ironically, as "fun"). Buskers play for coins and many of the cafes feature a couple of dancers and musicians which comprise an instant "Tango Show!"

Tango in La Boca
Lorraine, Toni and I browsed for souvenirs and then paused for lunch at La Perla, a dark and cozy cafe on a corner of the center of La Boca. The walls were filled with photographs and I found one of Marcello Mastraioni when he visited the area in the 1990s. There was a photo of Gardel and, inexplicably, a poster from an old Mohammed Ali boxing match. During lunch, Lorraine discovered that her money belt was missing. She last had it during our visit to the museum when she bought some post cards. It didn't seem possible that someone could have lifted it out of her purse where she'd put it, but it was gone nonetheless. We returned to the museum but it was nowhere there. On the taxi ride to school for our Spanish class, Lorraine received a call that her student card had been found but not the money and credit card. She spent the rest of the afternoon cancelling the card and having money wired to her from home. It's not easy being a tourist.

La Boca is not unlike Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, a former working class waterfront area that has become a tourist mecca. Or perhaps it is more like the now touristy Latin Quarter in New Orleans where jazz had its origin in the bars and brothels after the Civil War when discarded band instruments were taken up by freed slaves and turned into a kind of music unheard before. The same thing happened in La Boca when the bandoneon, a small accordion from Europe, was used, along with the guitar and African rhythms, to make a new kind of music called the tango.

Tonight we are going to see a full-scale, high-priced tango show at a restaurant in the city center. I doubt that it will be as good as one after World War One in the back room of a La Boca brothel, but it might give us some idea what that was like

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