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Winter 2004 | What's New, Buenos Aires?

Winter 2004 | What's New, Buenos Aires?

Don't cry for the "Paris of South America." She's rebounded after a peso plummet and is as sophisticated and stylish as ever

The first time I met Gabriel Miremont, the gay curator of the Museo Evita, he told me a mysterious story of a late night ironing one of Evita Peron's dresses for a display. "There was suddenly this sweet smell, but I thought I was imagining it," he said. Each time he worked with her clothes it surrounded him, as if the ghost of Evita herself were haunting him. He mentioned it to her surviving sister, thinking she would assume he was crazy. A few days later she returned with an old bottle of Evita's perfume. It's now in the museum's collection, the scent no longer a mystery, its secrets unlocked after lying dormant for half a century. But as it was with the scent of Evita's clothes, waiting for the right moment to be noticed, so it is with much of Argentina's history, from its secret gay past to the rhythms of the immigrants who lifted her to the brink of global economic supremacy at the beginning of the last century. In December 2002 gays and lesbians in Buenos Aires won some of the best civil union laws in all of South America, due to the work of Comunidad Homosexual Argentina and its president, C?sar Cigliutti. Gays and lesbians have helped spur a tourism revival, but gay men in particular have always been a part of Argentina's cultural icons. Gay hairdressers and designers gave Evita style that powerful straight men noticed, propelling her to fame. This secret gay history of the country extends into the tango--a dance born of the immigrant slums, where homosexuality seemed tolerated as one more expression of difference. It was always there, just below the surface, waiting like a ghost, casting its spell, unseen.

My father tells me that when he was very young, in the '20s and '30s, there was much talk of Argentina. It was a country of immigrants and the vast exports they created, a likely competitor to the United States, itself only becoming a world player. My grandfather had planned to immigrate here from Italy but took a boat to America instead. I often wonder whether I would have ever been born if my preexistence had gone through this completely different scenario. Yet, whether I was to be born in Argentina or not, my soul found its way here.

The immigrants my grandfather might have been a part of shaped Argentina. The wealth their blood and sweat created turned Buenos Aires into an industrial giant and a living work of art. For the oligarchs, the city grafted a skin of Parisian architecture over the bones and hearts of men and women who labored in this new city, now a metropolis of 12 million that was once nothing more than a lonely Spanish outpost on the fertile pampas. While tourists today must come to Buenos Aires to revel in the beauty created for the wealthy, it is the hard life of the underclass that became the foundation of Argentina's cultural gift to the world, the tangos that seduce foreigners to her shores. It was a sensual diversion of the downtrodden, much akin to how jazz gave African-Americans a moment's respite in the same period. To understand tango, the lifeblood of Buenos Aires, one must visit two neighborhoods, old underbellies of the city before she fought to compete with the best of Europe and North America.

The old port of La Boca lies along the baylike Rio de la Plata. La Boca is Spanish for mouth, and like the real orifice, it was how Argentina communicated with the world, swallowing millions of immigrants into itself, and then speaking back of her riches in product and soul. Buenos Aires residents call themselves Porte?os, forever associating themselves with this area.

Today, La Boca is an overrated tourist trap, but the colorful old houses once crammed with immigrants remain. One must think back to the turn of the last century, imagining the noise of carts and horses, the smell of Italian cooking drifting with the sounds of Caruso through the windows. In the midst of all this, representing the odd coexistence of saints and sinners as can only be in a Catholic nation, there were dozens of brothels. Men, sweaty and frustrated from the factories, paid in hot anticipation with pesos as dirty as the pleasures in the rooms above them. To while away their time, they held one another, pressed against each other's stubbly olive flesh, sensually, violently stroking each other. This was the tango, a dance so obscene that a woman, even in a brothel, could never dance it.

Any modern tango performance worth seeing will show this aspect of its roots, but it throws American audiences off. The first time I saw men dancing together was at the dinner show at Querand?, near San Telmo, another area associated with tango. The quaintly decayed district is the heart of tango's recent revival, a comforting nod to the past since the 2001 peso crisis. Numerous venues have sprung up, including gay ones. Just off Plaza Dorrego, the heart of San Telmo, is a building with a rainbow flag, El Lugar Gay (the Gay Place) a hotel with sporadic gay tango lessons.

That early mix of violence, sensuality, and a hidden gay sensibility was not solely associated with tango. Argentina's greatest literary figure, Jorge Luis Borges, alluded to it in his short stories of the city in the '20s and '30s. In "Hombre de la Esquina Rosada," or the "Man on the Pink Corner," Borges mentions dapper gangsters known as compadritos who kill at the slightest provocation but who adorn themselves with feminine touches like boutonnieres, high-heeled boots, and polished style. Under this anything-goes mentality, Marcelo Suntheim, Cigliutti's lover and the CHA secretary, told me that "in this context, it is possible" that a gay subculture existed in Buenos Aires. Federico Garc?a Lorca, the gay Spanish writer murdered during that country's civil war, sought temporary refuge in Buenos Aires during this artistic, chaotic period. He lived at Avenida de Mayo's Castelar Hotel where a plaque commemorates his immersion into Buenos Aires's literary scene.

This same era produced Argentina's greatest tango singer, Carlos Gardel. Possibly gay, he lived as a bachelor with his mother until his death in a plane crash in 1935. "To this day," Cigliutti told me, "there are men in Spain who claim to have been his lover."

You don't need to know Spanish to appreciate Gardel, but it helps to understand how his lyrics reflect the longing of the Argentine psyche. His signature "Mi Buenos Aires Querido" is a forlorn love letter to the city, in which he wonders when he will return to see her, like a lover who has become a part of his soul. Now the immortal Gardel will never leave his beloved city. His image smiles from street corners everywhere, an awkwardly handsome man in a fedora, the eternal voice of Argentina.

The tumultuous mid 1930s were also when the 15-year-old Eva Duarte came to Buenos Aires to seek her fortune. Miremont is certain she threw herself into a dark world where gay men, artists, tango singers, actors, and actresses drank and danced their troubles away in a city fighting against their star-struck dreams.

Miremont thinks Evita connected with gay men because of her social class: "Both have the same problem, they stay beside the society, marginal." However, the period when Evita was an actress and model and would have had the most gay friends is not well recorded. She herself destroyed information. "My past is for my own," Miremont told me, paraphrasing one of her quotes.

Evita's gay friends helped propel her to fame. Hairdresser Julio Alcaraz took her under his wing when she was an unknown. He created her famous bun hairstyle, and he stayed until the end, doing her 1952 deathbed coiffure. Her favorite designer was not Dior, as Broadway suggests, but instead Paco Llamandreu, openly gay and maligned for that and his sharp temper. They met in the late 1930s, and as Evita wasted away from cancer, he designed new outfits to brighten her spirits and postpone the inevitable.

Within a few years of Evita's death the Per?n regime crumbled, ushering in nearly three decades of military rule. This was detrimental to many aspects of Argentine culture, not just gays and lesbians. Still, homosexuals found ways to organize. Nuevo Mundo, South America's first known gay rights group, formed on November 1, 1967, a date marked by Argentina's gay pride parade year after year. This was followed in 1970 by Frente de Liberacion Homosexual. Manuel Puig, the gay author of Kiss of the Spider Woman, was its most famous member.

Homosexuals were persecuted to be sure, but Argentina's oldest gay club, Contramano, opened in 1984 in the waning days of the military regime after the ill-fated Falkland Islands War, known here as the Islas Malvinas. Machine gun-toting soldiers sometimes walked among the patrons, letting them know who was boss. Spider Woman detailed this oppressive era when the military kidnapped and murdered tens of thousands of people. To seek justice for their missing children, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo march every Thursday in front of the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace. Here, in the shadows of Evita's famous balcony, is also where today's gay rights events take place, continuing what Cigliutti calls "a political, cultural tradition," forever linking Argentina's past injustices with hope for a better future.

This is the Buenos Aires I have fallen in love with, full of inconsistencies, bedeviled by its tragic circumstances. At the end of one of my many trips I told a friend how pained I was to leave. He said that whenever foreigners live in Buenos Aires, once their work is done they suffer a sadness they cannot describe, one they have never felt before. I understood completely. After my first trip, heading to the airport with the city slipping into a blur behind me, I began to sob uncontrollably, the only time in my life I'd ever done that. I wondered if I'd ever see the city again, yet somehow I knew I would. My love for Buenos Aires only grows stronger each time I leave. It haunts me, lies under the surface of me, a scent I can never escape, one that burns deep within the fabric of my soul.

Luongo is the senior editor of Haworth Press's new Out in the World series of gay and lesbian travel literature.

ESSENTIALS

Accommodations

(Dial 011 before all phone numbers) Expensive: The modern high-rise Park Tower Hotel (Avenida Leandro N. Alem 1193; 54-11-4318-9100; $250-$600) overlooks Plaza San Martin, the heart of Buenos Aires, with some rooms offering views to the Rio de la Plata. The sumptuous facilities have marble baths and butler service. One of the most luxurious hotels in the city, the Four Seasons (Posadas 1086; 54-11-4321-1200; $300-$3,500) offers rooms in its tower or in its adjacent Louis XII-style mansion. Madonna freaks take note that the mansion's balcony is where she practiced her Evita scenes. Alvear Palace (Avenida Alvear 1891; 54-11-4808-2100; $200-$2,000) is a gold-leaf and marble confection only blocks from the Recoleta Cemetery, Evita's final resting place. Moderate: Intercontinental Hotel (Moreno 809; 54-11-4340-7100; $140-$250) is the only full-service hotel within walking distance of the San Telmo tango district, allowing you to kick up your heels all night and sleep in comfort after. Special club floors for added privacy. Inexpensive: It doesn't get any gayer than El Lugar Gay (Defensa 1120; 54-11-4300-4747; $25-$50), "the gay place." It's tucked away in an old building in San Telmo's historical district; its lobby is sometimes a de facto gay community center. Rooms are small, some with shared bath. If you want to experience living la vida loca like a local, rent a flat in the gay Recoleta area. Gay-owned Friendly Apartments features an assortment of lodging types for all budgets. Their 24-hour help desk is available to help with anything from restaurant recommendations and reservations to day trips.

Restaurants

Expensive: On the luxury end, try Caba?a las Lilas (Avenida Alicia Moreau de Justo 516; 54-11-4313-1336; dinner for two with wine $60), one of Buenos Aires's most famous restaurants. Lunchtime tends to be full of business people at this Puerto Madero-situated eatery. Moderate: Nearby and abounding in beef is the moderately priced all-you-can-eat buffet-style La Bisteca (Avenida Alicia Moreau de Justo 1890; 54-11-4514-4999; $20 for lunch for two with wine). Despite its casual atmosphere, the seating and lighting make for intimate places for friends or newfound loves. And they really do mean all you can eat--from meat to the overwhelming salad bar. Another moderate choice with a view to all of Argentina's history is Gran Victoria (Hipolito Yrigoyen 500; 54-11-4342-3725; lunch for two is $22), overlooking the Plaza de Mayo. The staff is megafriendly. The gayest dinner spot, though the food is nothing special, is Chueca (Soler 3283; 54-11-4963-3420; $20 for two with wine). You're really here to check out the table manners of the eye candy you plan on dancing with later. Grab a pastry and espresso at the historical and beautiful Caf? Tortoni (Avenida de Mayo 825; 54-11-4342-4328; $6-20). While now somewhat touristy, this was the hangout of the intellectual elite during Buenos Aires's heyday. Argentine cinema fans will recognize it immediately as the setting for numerous films.

Nightlife

The evening starts late in Buenos Aires, but a welcome relief is Titanic (Avenida Callao 1156; 54-11-4816-1333), which opens at 7 p.m., offering light meals and after-work drink specials. The huge three-story Palacio (Alsina 943) is one of the city's hottest clubs, full of a new kind of descamisados--the shirtless hunky gay wonders of Buenos Aires. Gay nights, though, are only Fridays and Sundays, so put it on your calendar. Amerika (Gascon 1040; 54-11-4865-4416) offers much of the same all weekend within an interesting multilevel space with hidden areas above. Contramano (Rodriguez Pena 1082) is the city's oldest gay club, opened in the last days of the military regime. It's a more relaxed alternative to the hyperclubs.

Attractions

No self-respecting gay person would go to Buenos Aires and miss the Museo Evita (Lafinur Street 2988; Tuesday through Sunday from 2 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.; 54-11-4807-9433). Love her or hate her, who can resist the dresses, the shoes, the hats, and other odds and ends that testify to her hold on Argentina and the world?

Getting There

Marnella Tours (866-993-0033) has been a South America expert since 1981, offering packages to Buenos Aires for every budget. Within Argentina a few companies specialize in the gay market: Pride Travel (54-11-5218-6556) caters to people interested in seeing unique aspects of Argentina as well as those who go for the intense nightlife. Adia Turismo (54-11-4393-0531) is heavily involved in an upcoming gay travel conference in Buenos Aires and can arrange for Buenos Aires and elsewhere. Bue Gay (54-11-4805-1401) can also tailor individual gay travel needs across Argentina.

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at update@outtraveler.com if you have any new information.


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