La Boca and simulacra

Well, my dearest comrades, let me tell you of my wanderings. I took a tour this week of a little barrio in Buenos Aires known as La Boca, so-named because it is situated at the mouth of the highly polluted Riachuelo. The neighborhood is (and long has been) working class. In the late 19th and early 20th century immigrant families who labored at the docks here painted the barges which trafficked meat and leather goods along the river. The story goes that they used any remaining paint for the brick and corrugated-metal walls of their homes. While the industry which employed them has mostly vanished, the residents continue the tradition. Hence the broad range of color on any given street. It truly is beautiful.

The thing about La Boca (as any guidebook will tell you) is it’s dangerous. I’ve been advised not to stray from a few square blocks devoted to selling tango shows, souvenirs and Boca Juniors (the barrio’s well-known soccer team) apparel.

In this area in La Boca everything about the barrio is forced performance. For example, instead of allowing people to stand on the balconies of the buildings, they put grotesque statues of ‘old-timey’ porteños. Instead of hosting real milongas, or tango dances, they hire young men and women to dance for onlookers at every street cafe, all wearing somewhat ridiculous costumes that I think are meant to indicate an earlier, lovelier epoch of tango.

Despite the warnings from locals and the guidebook, my friend and I wandered (albeit a mere block) outside the designated tourist trap. It was fantastic, though the the colors on these houses are considerably faded. Stray dogs run everywhere as do children and real-live folks stand on balconies and mill about on doorsteps. There is a ‘there’ there, far superior to the bizarro simulacra that is “La Boca” as tourists see it. I do get the sense that the people that live in the barrio are perfectly happy to keep outsiders relegated to their specific square mile and relatively controlled, so perhaps there’s something to be said for the power of imitation. Certainly, given the radical politics of this particular neighborhood and the class status of its residents, throngs of camera-toting Europeans and Americans out to see what ‘real’ Argentines live like would be, in a word, repulsive.

Either way, it’s a fascinating thing about certain kinds of travel–so much of what you see is a reference to something you don’t, a representation of an original that never really existed.

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