La Boca is a colourful place that comes with a fascinating social history, but visit today and you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d wandered into a weird working-class theme park. The ‘La Boca’ that most people would recognise, and most tourists visit, is made up of the Boca Juniors football stadium, La Bombonera, and the colourful streets of brightly painted ramshackle houses, tango dancers and tourist trap restaurants, El Caminito. The rest of La Boca is a rough and ready working-class district, one of the poorest in the capital.
Bus loads of tourists visit daily to glimpse this historic working-class barrio that has become a cultural reference point for the nation. As a consequence, the area has been transformed into a tourist ghetto. In neighbouring streets the reality of modern-day poverty goes unseen, because it’s just too dangerous for tourists to walk around the area outside El Caminito. A tourist might, on occasion, be unfortunate enough to be liberated of their wallet, but I doubt the local community sees much tourism money.
La Boca has always been an immigrant area, it was Buenos Aires’ original port and the first place most new arrivals would see when they reached Argentina from Europe. In the 1830s a huge number of migrants arrived from Italy, the majority from the Genoa region. They washed ashore in La Boca, changing the barrio and Argentinian society for ever. Later in the 19th century, they were joined by waves of migration from Ireland, Spain, Germany and other European countries. European’s have now been supplanted by economic migrants from Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru and further afield.
The majority of new arrivals were (and are) poor, and they built their homes from whatever scrap materials they could find, including the corrugated metal sheets that can still be seen in the area. They painted their houses with leftover paint, bequeathing La Boca the vibrant colours and bohemian flavour it’s famed for today. Amidst these crowded streets, and the melting pot of cultures and languages, tango is said to have been born (although there are rivals for that crown).
The port of La Boca provided employment and the area was one of the most populous in the city. Disaster arrived in the shape of Puerto Madero, a new port further to the north that opened at the turn of the 20th century. People migrated to other areas in the city and La Boca entered a period of decline. A revival of sorts began in the 1950s driven by local artist, Benito Quinquela Martín. He convinced people to start painting their houses in the bright colours of the first immigrants, and promoted dance, music and theatre.
After lobbying by Martín and others, the city declared the streets of El Caminito an open air museum in 1959. It’s been drawing tourists ever since, although I imagine its evolution to modern-day tourist trap wasn’t the original plan. That’s not to say that La Boca isn’t worth visiting. It’s still an interesting place, with a couple of outstanding museums and galleries in the vicinity. The Proa gallery overlooks the river close to El Caminito, it had an Ai Weiwei exhibit when we were there, including Forever Bicycles outside the entrance.
We wandered the area for a while, stopped for a snack and watched tango dancers entertaining the crowds, before jumping in a taxi to La Usina del Arte. The taxi driver somehow managed to massively overcharge us for the short journey. The Usina was opened a few years ago in the old Italo Argentina de Electricidad building, which was an operational electricity plant until 1997. Today, the 7,500m2 space houses theatres, exhibitions and even a 1,200 seat symphony hall. It’s worth visiting if you’re in the area, especially if afterwards you can snag a table at the legendary restaurant, El Obrero, just around the corner.