When I meet him and his dance partner, María Laura Sosa, he laughs when I ask about his nickname. He grabs my notebook and scribbles details about a mix of native groups — including Incas — that form his heritage. “I have Andalusian in me too. Maybe that’s part of what makes me a good dancer,” he says, reminding me that part of Spain is also flamenco’s home.
Buenos Aires’ love affair with tango is on display at the inauguration of Cultura Tanguera, a mix of milonga (tango dance hall) and art gallery on Avenida Rivadavia in the city center. Cultura Tanguera was run by Jorge Arias, the father of a friend of mine, Luciana Arias, who tells me that “the crème de la crème of the tango world are here.” She looks around with delight at the crowd, which includes Beba Pugliese, a musician and daughter of tango composer Osvaldo Pugliese. She nods at old friends and says, “It’s good to see so many people together, listening to my father’s music.”
Luciana is a striking woman of fair complexion, high cheekbones and hazel-blue eyes. She could easily be mistaken for Bones star Emily Deschanel. A news anchor for America TV, Luciana has revealed some of Buenos Aires’ secrets to me over the years. One of special concern is the impact of tourists on tango culture. Even as visitors to Buenos Aires have helped revive the dance, its main musical instrument — the accordion-like bandoneón — is disappearing as foreigners pay thousands of dollars to buy them as souvenirs, then whisk them out of the country. “They want to say ‘I was in Buenos Aires’ to their friends, but a new generation of musicians won’t be able to learn,” Luciana laments. She was among the first to report on this cultural crisis, and now legislation has been proposed to make it illegal to export older bandoneóns.
The street that Cultura Tanguera is on was named for Argentina’s first president, Bernardino Rivadavia. Once the dividing line between northern and southern Buenos Aires, Avenida Rivadavia parallels Avenida de Mayo. As Buenos Aires’ Champs-Elysées, Avenida de Mayo is lined with art noveau and beaux arts buildings and begins at the Casa Rosada, or Pink House — the presidential palace. It culminates at the grand Palacio del Congreso, a pastiche testimony to the city’s ambitions of rivaling Europe. The bronze dome mimics St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a pediment recalls Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, and roofline elements resemble Opéra National de Paris’ Palais Garnier. The center brims with buildings from Argentina’s glory days as one of the world’s wealthiest countries, buildings like Teatro Colón, whose stage was graced by opera greats Enrico Caruso and Maria Callas. Nearby is Buenos Aires’ most allegorical building, the Palacio Barolo, designed by Mario Palanti, an Italian architect obsessed with Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy. The Palacio Barolo’s lobby is festooned with bronze flame medallions and ornamental dragons that represent hell, while its lighthouse dome evokes heaven and eternal salvation.
What tourists seek out in Buenos Aires has shifted northward over the years. Now the go-to neighborhood is Palermo Viejo, divided into Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood.
Palermo Hollywood owes its name to the concentration of broadcasting enterprises clustered there, explains Luciana, whose office is in the neighborhood. But, she says, these trendy streets have plenty of restaurants and bars. “It’s one of the city’s gastronomic centers, with porteña food, like steaks, and everything else — Peruvian, Japanese, French, even organic. If I’m not checking out a new restaurant, I like to browse the fashionable shops.”