Endearing is not a word often used to describe Buenos Aires’ porteños, or indeed the denizens (too consumed as they are with their own affairs to feign concern for their fellow pavement pounders) of any city so sprawling and self-consciously busy. But how else is one to describe the delight evoked in the people of this savvy, cultured metropolis by the word ‘India’? Confronted by our halting Spanish, people would ask me and my wife 'De dónde son ustedes?', and upon hearing “somos de la India,” universally, uniformly, every single time, faces would crease into smiles. “Que lindo,” people would say, how beautiful. “Mira,” an elderly woman selling maps outside Recoleta Cemetery stage whispered to a colleague, look, “son de la India,” as if we had said Xanadu.
I am aware that this wonder may be underpinned by fantasies of elephants and swamis; aware that were I to live in Buenos Aires such exoticisation might soon pall, might soon come to seem like condescension; but, in the moment, I was flattered and charmed. It was a gentle, gratifying introduction to people I had been told, albeit mostly by Brazilians, were prone to hauteur borne of a misplaced conviction in their city’s beauty, elegance and sophistication.
We began, as all visits to Buenos Aires must begin, by gawping out of a taxi window at the Avenida 9 de Julio, incomparable in its width and shopsoiled grandeur: more than a dozen lanes of traffic divided by rectangles of green, the Obelisk towering overhead, the buildings on each side, a mix of gorgeous nineteenth-century public palaces and prosaic office towers, lined up like opposing football teams. It is a first intimation of the city’s size — nearly three million people live in the autonomous city itself while a further ten million live in the greater area — and its pretensions. At the turn of the twentieth century, you could forgive porteños their lofty ambitions. The wealth of the recently federalised Argentinian capital was evident in the commissioning of European architects to design its grand edifices, to give it a face to match that of any city in Europe.
From the 1830s to the 1930s, the war-scarred working classes of Italy, Spain and to a lesser extent Germany, Britain and Ireland poured into Buenos Aires, making Argentina second only to the United States as the destination of choice for the European exodus. This immigration — not to forget the criollos: people of purely or overwhelmingly Spanish descent born in Argentina (lower in their caste system than the peninsulares, Spanish-born colonists, but higher than mestizos or those of Amerindian or African descent) whose resentment of the power accorded to peninsulares was the catalyst for Argentinian independence, won in the first decades of the nineteenth century — means that Argentina’s population, like Canada’s or the United States’ rather than most of Latin America, is of predominantly European ethnicity.
Buenos Aires is defined by immigration, particularly Italian immigration, and its culture is composite, cosmopolitan, its face, quite literally, turned towards Europe. The Italian influence is evident in everything from the architecture, to the distinctive accent and slang, to the consumption of mounds of pasta and ice cream, to the porteño’s fidelity to the aesthetic of ‘bella figura’ — that is, to cutting a dash, putting forward one’s best face. The fans of Boca Juniors, along with arch city rivals River Plate the most iconic of Argentina’s football clubs, are known as ‘los xeneizes’, a reference to the team’s Genoese founders and the Italian immigrant neighbourhood of La Boca where the club is based.
La Boca, a tough working-class neighbourhood, site of the old port, is now a tourist trap, or at least the slice that is El Caminito, a small, as its name suggests, pedestrian path. Restored at the end of the 1950s, El Caminito has brightly painted houses, restaurants and tango. On any given day you will see busloads of tourists eating parrilla, Argentina’s delicious grilled meats, buying memorabilia at the many cheap souvenir shops, or paying ten pesos to have their picture taken with their heads atop bawdy cardboard cutouts of tango dancers. Do not be put off by the schlock; everyone needs to make a buck and as a tourist accept that you’re an easy mark. El Caminito is great fun. I confess, only slightly shamefacedly, to posing for a picture with my wife, a fedora placed as rakishly as possible when you consider I was hunched over with my head squeezed through a cardboard hole. And I insisted on giving a life-size papier-mâché sculpture of Diego Maradona a kiss for those goals against England in the 1986 World Cup, one a masterpiece of cunning, the other a masterpiece of skill; Maradona managing within five minutes to both cheat the English and dazzle them into submission.
If you go on a guided tour, your guide will warn you of the dangers of La Boca, of the very real prospect of being mugged or assaulted if you wander from the police protected confines of El Caminito. During the day, if you’re as watchful as you would be in any large city you don’t know, you should ignore your guide’s well-intentioned alarmism and at least visit La Bombonera, the ‘chocolate box’, Boca Juniors’ stadium. There’s a fine museum, best visited during the week when Boca are not playing. If you’re not a fan of football or sport generally, visiting the museum, as opposed to actually attending a game, might not help you understand the fans’ fervour but will at least put it in context. The fans’ love for Maradona is evident everywhere. Even on a small wall, erected mysteriously on a patch of scrubland near the stadium with rusting, listing goalposts, the nets (if there were ever nets) long disappeared, you will find a perfectly executed mural of Maradona — graffiti as religious iconography.
Maradona, I was repeatedly told in bars and cafés in Buenos Aires, is adored while Lionel Messi is only respected in part because, unlike Messi, who was signed by Barcelona when he was eleven, Maradona played in Argentina in front of the worshipping crowds at Boca. Messi, a little like Sachin Tendulkar, is an unimpeachable sportsman: gifted, polite, rigorously professional in his conduct and lifestyle, an ambassador for his sport. Maradona is an entirely different creature, not an ambassador or an ideal representative but the embodiment of his people’s spirit. His people love him because he plays and lives as they would if they could. The singer Manu Chao wrote a song to this effect for the Bosnian-Serb filmmaker Emir Kusturica’s modestly titled documentary Maradona by Kusturica. “Si yo fuera Maradona,” Chao sings, “viviría como él,” like Maradona he too would live life at a thousand miles an hour, with a thousand friends, everything at maximum intensity. Maradona is a Rabelaisian figure, a man of outsize appetites and capabilities: a man who can win the World Cup by himself, who through sheer force of personality can lead an unfashionable team like Napoli to the Italian title over the likes of AC Milan, Inter and Juventus; a man who can nearly eat himself to death; a man who can resurrect himself so completely from cocaine addiction and links with prostitution and the mafia that he goes on to host a television show of unsurpassed popularity, interviewing the likes of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez who look honoured to be in his presence.
Some might say Eva Perón, the second wife of the country’s former president Juan Perón (elected to office thrice but able to serve only one full term, his second interrupted by a military coup and his third twenty years later by mortality), played by Madonna in the film of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Evita, competes for the same space in the Argentinian popular imagination as Maradona. Her tomb at the Recoleta Cemetery, with its perpetual queue of tourists bearing flowers, Ricardo Gianetti’s ethereal statue in the plaza bearing her name, the museum dedicated to her, and her face painted on the sides of buildings is evidence enough of her place in the public’s sentiments. Maradona, though, strikes me as a figure from epic literature like Martín Fierro, the gaucho created by the nineteenth-century poet José Hernández, a romantic figure for urban Argentinians of rural life, of hardy independence. The gauchos were key figures in the struggle for independence from Spain. With tongue only partly in cheek, I put forward Maradona’s handball goal in the wake of the Falklands War as another symbol of Argentinian resistance. And is his life not a picaresque to rival even Don Quixote, a statue of whom can be found on Avenida 9 de Julio? If saying I was from India was a sure way of winning a smile in Argentina, another was to simply say ‘la mano de Dios’, the hand of God that knocked out the English.
From Maradona and Martín Fierro and epic poetry it is but a short leap to Jorge Luis Borges, a scholar of epic poetry, though such was his enthusiasm that ‘fan’ is more the mot juste. Borges wrote a book of essays on Hernández’s great poem, seeing it as forging an Argentinian identity, an authentic expression of the gaucho and by extension the Argentinian soul rather than an urban fantasy. Of course, Borges himself, whatever his feeling for the gaucho, was resolutely urban, a creature of Buenos Aires as much as Woody Allen, say, is a creature of Manhattan. Borges wrote not of the pampas, nor the hardscrabble lives of gauchos, but of Buenos Aires taverns and the demimonde. He made epic the fraught lives of gangsters and tango dancers, of working-class Italian toughs making new lives on the streets of a new Palermo, thousands of miles from the Palermo they had left behind. Borges’ Palermo, scene of glorious lawlessness, is now a fancy Buenos Aires neighbourhood full of towering apartment buildings, designer shops, Mercedes showrooms and women in stylish clothes and tourists traipsing from the Japanese Garden to the splendid MALBA, the Latin American Art Museum. Of course, Borges, a bookish child and bookish adult, enjoyed a similarly placid life in Palermo, a life spent at his desk in the library, at the café with such friends as the artist Xul Solar (whose bright strips, angles and curves you can see at the aforementioned MALBA), and looking at tigers in the zoo.
In Buenos Aires’ oldest café, the roomy, high-stained-glass-ceilinged, wood-panelled Café Tortoni you will find a waxwork of Borges drinking coffee with Carlos Gardel and the poet Alfonsina Storni. Ropes fence them off from the café’s present clientele, mostly tourists who at peak times form a line that stretches down the Avenida de Mayo. The Tortoni, with its waxworks and Tiffany lamps, its atmosphere preserved in aspic, is a theme park peddling nostalgia, not a place where Buenos Aires’ present-day writers and artists are likely to gather. And the food is terrible. A few blocks from the Tortoni is the Plaza de Mayo, the city’s main square full of government buildings, particularly the Casa Rosada, the pink palace that houses the president’s offices. The square, named after the month in which the revolution that led to independence from Spain began, is the locus of all political protest.
Even when we were there, among the signs celebrating the recent reelection of the president Cristina Fernández, widow of former president Nestor Kirchner, were reminders of the cataclysms of the last thirty-five years. Draped on the fence of the Casa Rosada was a banner that read ‘Siempre con las madres’, a reference to the ‘Dirty War’ of the late-1970s when the military dictatorship of Jorge Videla murdered and tortured tens of thousands of their political opponents. Among the imprisoned were pregnant women who gave birth in captivity before they were slain. Their babies were not given to their fathers (if alive) or grandparents but to families connected to the military. It is the subject of La historia official (The Official Story), which won an Oscar for best foreign-language film in 1985. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, with which the banner claimed solidarity, is an association of the mothers of disappeared activists, women who found each other while searching for their children and coalesced into a stirring and dignified movement for social justice around the world.
The Plaza de Mayo was also the scene of violent protests in 2001, when the Argentinian economy, aided and abetted by the IMF, collapsed under the weight of its debt. No trace is evident of economic strife in the shops and galleries of Recoleta or Palermo but at night, even in the ritzy parts, the city’s thousands of cartoneros pick among the garbage for recyclable material that can be exchanged for a little money. Out of the economic crisis and the shanty towns of Buenos Aires, the so called ‘villas miserias’, emerged a new, aggressive style of cumbia. The music, originally Colombian, had gained a following among the poor in Argentina in the early 1990s but in the wake of the economic crisis the lyrics drifted away from romantic love to describe the drugs and violent crime rife in the villas miserias. Like tango, cumbia was the music of the immigrants, Latin American this time rather than European, the music of the poor and disreputable, a means for them to tell the stories of their lives.
Tango, of course, is now Argentina’s calling card, its working class origins long shed. The Argentinian middle and upper classes woke to the tango only after it became trendy in Paris. Carlos Gardel, wildly popular in the 1920s, is the figure most associated with tango’s transition into respectability and Abasto, the area where Gardel lived, is the site now of one of the biggest tourist-friendly tango spectaculars. These pricey affairs, including dinner, resemble nothing so much as a show on Broadway or in Vegas — the intricacy of timing and footwork, the slow burn sexual intensity of tango turned slick, professional and grimly athletic. More enjoyable, if less impressive, is the amateur tango on display in the cobblestoned antiques district of San Telmo. It is instructive that it took Parisian approval to make tango popular among the Buenos Aires bourgeoisie, a group that still seems to take its cues from Europe. Tour guides enjoy describing Buenos Aires as the ‘Paris of South America’. It does the city a disservice. Buenos Aires is too complicated, too distinctive, too fascinating a city to be celebrated as anything other than itself.