La Boca a Patchwork of Colors and People

The polychromatic barrio of La Boca may look garish, tacky, and too touristy at first glance, but do not pass this Buenos Aires neighborhood by. A waterside community at the mouth of the Riachuelo River, La Boca (the mouth) was and still remains a neighborhood of working class immigrants. In the early days, the settlers, mostly Genoese from Italy, built their homes from the local shipyard’s cast off metal sheets and wooden planks and painted them using left over boat paint. The colorful ramshackle buildings are called conventillos; they weren’t single family homes but were divided up and shared.

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At the turn of the 19th century, La Boca with its gritty waterfront industries and struggling mixture of European immigrants and freed slaves, was the 2nd most populous neighborhood in the city.

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However, times became tougher for this already economically disadvantaged neighborhood when the new Puerto Madero was completed in 1897. The shipyard abandoned La Boca and moved north to the modern port.

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The neighborhood took another hit when their General Roca train line shut down in 1954.

This was when Argentinian artist Benito Quinquela Martín came up with a plan to save the neighborhood he was born in. He got the residents together and they copied the earlier immigrants by painting their homes and buildings in bright colors. Artist of all kinds began using the colorful plank conventillos as backdrops for their performances and the neighborhood took on a quirky bohemian vibe.

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With Martín as its champion, La Boca’s El Caminito (little street) was declared an open-air museum in 1959. The street is named for a Tango song co-created by another La Boca resident Juan de Dios Filiberto.

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Like neighboring San Telmo, La Boca claims to be the birthplace of Tango.

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But the summer heat was so intense the tango dancers waited in the shade eating popsicles.

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Some dancers braved the heat!

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There were several outdoor cafes where you could enjoy lunch and a show.

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We were all shopped out from our morning at the antiques fair in San Telmo, so we passed on the stores.

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Pee bombing a yarn bomb

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We relaxed and grabbed refreshments at La Perla, a riverside cafe bar. The bar dates to 1882 the same year, it is said, that young and disgruntled (mainly Italian) La Boca residents revolted and raised the Genoese flag of their homeland declaring “The Independent Republic of La Boca”. President Julio A. Roca came personally to chew out the rebels and tear down the flag.

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La Perla’s fileteado style sign reminds me of Humphrey Bogart.

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Inside – exposed brick, dark wood, antiques, memorabilia…

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and pictures of the gods 🙂

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Next, we wandered down a cobblestone alleyway, admiring artwork and the historic icons on the walls of the conventillos .

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I looked up Santos Vega when I returned home and discovered he was a mythic gaucho from the Argentinian pampas. Vega was a payador, a folk singer/poet, who was said to be unbeatable in the payada singing competitions between traveling gauchos. This folk music was a duel using improvised poetry sung back and forth, resembling a conversation or debate. According to legend, Juan sin Ropa (John without Clothes), who some claim was the devil himself in disguise, was the only cowboy poet to defeat Santos Vega. Some find symbology in this defeat, saying it represents modern immigrants replacing the guacho way of life. However, Luis Bayón Herrera, a Spanish screenwriter and director claimed,  “the gaucho spirit is eternal, always alive in the hearts of Argentineans……the soul of the singer will never pass away, the winds will vibrate to the echoes of his songs, and in the hearts of all his race the indomitable payador will leave an everlasting memory to prove a menace to the conqueror!”

I feel my heart swelling and I’m not even Argentinian.

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Graffiti artists have found plenty of wall space to canvas along La Boca’s defunct train tracks.

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Although this appears to be more historic conventillos, it is actually another kind of home.

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La Bombonera (the chocolate box) is home to the world famous Boca Juniors, a team founded in 1913 by a group of Genoese boys who wanted to play soccer.

It wasn’t a game day, so no 49,000 screaming fans.

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Instead there were kids playing and people grilling on the sidewalks. A reminder that La Boca still very much is a working class neighborhood of immigrants, many now coming from other parts of South America.

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