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Buenos Aires is widely hailed as a city of ethnic diversity, and has been welcoming a unique cocktail of immigrants for well over a century now – indeed the large majority of its 40m inhabitants are of European descent.
While a strong sense of Argentine national identity undoubtedly exists, it is curiously juxtaposed with the desire of many of its inhabitants to maintain strong links with their foreign roots.
This is perhaps best demonstrated by the city’s healthy accumulation of international cultural centres – Japan, Armenia and Israel are just three of the many countries worldwide represented by such centres in the capital.
Yet it is not just countries with their own havens in Argentina: Catalonia is an autonomous community that is represented by its very own cultural centre. I went along to the Casal de Catalunya to discover what these home-from-homes are all about.
I asked the president of the Catalan centre, Jordi Font, to explain its purpose. “To give the people of Buenos Aires the chance to enjoy Catalan culture,” he informed me. “We have a restaurant where traditional Catalan food is served, a lounge in which to watch Catalan television, and a theatre group that performs plays in Catalan.”
The house itself is magnificent, boasting impressive Catalan-style décor, with images and statues of significant figures from Catalonia’s rich history suitably displayed around the splendid building – Jordi is particularly proud of one of the smallest rooms in the house: a shrine to Futból Club Barcelona. Team photos, signed shirts, and historical paraphernalia fill the room at the centre of the first floor.
Jordi showed me into the theatre where an African dance lesson was underway. “The classes are not just for members; they’re open classes,” he clarified. The fact that the centre is open for everyone’s enjoyment seems to be one of its primary philosophies, and one that Jordi emphasised on more than one occasion: “In the library we have books from all around the world, half of the plays we produce are in Spanish and the restaurant offers international cuisine – we’re totally accessible.”
Inevitably, however, the majority of the centre’s users are Catalan: 70% of its members were born in the autonomous community in the north-eastern corner of the Spanish peninsula, or born in Argentina to Catalan parents. The remaining 30% are usually affiliated with Catalonia, through marriage or friendship, for example.
So, is there actually a demand for a Catalan centre of culture in Buenos Aires? Jordi informs me that there are nearly 5,000 Catalonians in the capital, with a further 15,000 located around Argentina, the majority of whom, like Jordi, headed to Buenos Aires to escape the oppressive Franco regime that governed Spain between 1939 and 1975.
Jordi informed me that the centre was at its peak in the 1960s, but suffered a downturn in the 1970s that coincided with Juán Domingo Perón’s third term as president. Membership declined further still in the late 1990s in light of the crash of the country’s economy, and the future of the centre looked bleak.
Yet in 2008 demand for the centre is once again on the up and it seems to be returning to its former glory, with a vibrant yet understated busyness about the place – hardly surprising considering it is home to a youth club, a Catalonian language school, a chess club, a choir, a theatre group – the list goes on. Essentially, it is about activities, and about being social.
“Many people move here from Catalonia knowing absolutely nobody,” Jordi explained. He told me that the centre provides an outlet for those people to get to know other people, as well as practical resources and advice.
Laura Saus, 23, is from Barcelona but has been living in Buenos Aires for the past five months. She is what Jordi would consider one of the new waves of Catalonian immigrants to Buenos Aires – Laura is a marketing executive in the wine industry.
Unconvinced of the weight of my own question, I nevertheless wanted to play devil’s advocate somewhat, and I put it to Laura that her use of the Catalan centre demonstrates a lack of willingness to embrace the culture of Argentina – the country in which she has chosen to reside. “No, not at all,” she replied. “I love living in Argentina and participating as much as possible in the Argentine way of life. But I am Catalonian. I feel Catalonian, and am proud of it – I love speaking and reading in Catalonian and talking about our culture. The centre offers me the opportunity to do both: sure we meet with other Catalonians to watch Barca’s matches, but equally, Argentines come to watch their [Lionel] Messi. Together we share a Quilmes. In an increasingly globalised society, we should be conscious of our roots and share them with everyone who wants to learn.”
Jordi described the centre as ‘a little bit of Catalonia in Buenos Aires’ – and that’s precisely what it is. A little bit of Catalonia that is open for all to enjoy. On the roof terrace, two huge paella pans, each at least 1m in diameter, are mounted on the wall. Jordi pointed out the parrilla in the corner of the terrace, affirming: “Well, we are in Argentina.”
Casal de Catalunya is located in San Telmo, on Chacabuco 863, between Independencia and Estados Unidos. The reception is open from 2-8pm Monday to Friday. For more information, visit the website www.casal.org.ar, or call 4300 4141