Picturesque, romantic and built on broken dreams, La Boca is one of Buenos Aires most fascinating and most visited barrio (areas).
The name La Boca, which means “the mouth”, derives from its location at the mouth the Riachuela River.
The area was settled first, between 1830 and 1852, by Italian migrants from Genoa who had come to work on the newly established docks. They built their houses with leftover materials from the port, raising sheets of corrugated iron on piles and painting them with remnants of paint from ships and warehouses.
During the boom of the late 18th century, thousand more immigrants from Spain and Italy poured into Argentina. Unable to afford the land they had chased across the world, most of them remained at La Boca where they had disembarked, doomed to a life on the docks, building their houses, like the generation before them, from corrugated iron, and painting them with gaudy odds and ends. Thus the colourful architectural tradition of La Boca began.
Also at about this time in La Boca, the tango was born. Poor, disappointed, lonely, often alone, and far from home, the Boquenses sang nostalgic songs of longing for the lands and the loves they had left behind. They danced to them in the local Bordellos – a close and sensual dance they called the tango. And in the Bordellos of Buenos Aires, the tango stayed, shunned by polite Argentine society, for a quarter of a century.
La Boca itself remained a place apart, largely unappreciated and even distrusted by the rest of the city until well into the 20th century. Its unique character and style was first celebrated in the paintings of Benito Quinquella Martin in the 1930s. In 1933, Martin donated a piece of land to build a primary school and an Argentine art museum. He decorated the walls of the school with his own murals and his own works formed the foundation of the museum’s collection. Martin was also one of the prime-movers behind El Caminito, La Boca’s “museum” street. Named after a famous tango, it is lined with old, brightly-painted conventillos or family houses, where giant puppets lean from windows and lines of washing hang between balconies. Today, many artists live, work and exhibit in La Boca and it is the most painted and photographed barrio in Buenos Aires.
However, La Boca really became part of Buenos Aires in 1940 with the opening of the Bombonera. This stadium, which seats 60,000 people is the Boca Juniors, the most popular football team in Argentina (and incidentally, the team which spawned Diegoi Maradona) Underneath the stadium is a state of the art museum with a great deal of fascinating local history and of course wonderful displays of team kit, triumphs and characters.
Undoutedly, and perhaps unfortunately, La Boca is now a tourist hot-spot and its main streets and buildings have been pimped and primped to that end, with souvenir shops, tango shows and tango lessons galore. However, it still remembers its roots, it still has its own special culture traditions and style. Those first Genoese immigrants are remembered in Vuelta de Rocha, the small-ship-shaped square they used to call “whispers’ square” where they used to gather to recall their home country. The Italian influence is still strong here; so much so that just a few years ago, there were moves afoot in La Boca to secede from Argentina and annex to Italy!