The barrio of San Telmo is today one of the more popular neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires due to its picturesque charm. Old beautiful buildings line the cobblestone streets, small charming cafés and restaurants keeps the nightlife busy. It is the barrio where modern culture co exists with old porteño traditions and every house has a history.
With its original buildings and settlers dating back to the 1700s, it is the oldest barrio in the city. Through the eyes and memories of four residents of San Telmo we go back in time to when chivalry still existed and it was possible to swim in the Riachuelo to hear about life how in the good old days.
Serenading girls from the streets
An interview with Americo de Piñera
After over 50 years of experience running his real-estate agency on calle Defensa, Americo de Piñera knows every nook and cranny of the neighbourhood. Although he doesn’t want to reveal whether any of his properties are haunted, he does explain the extreme transformation the barrio has gone through over the decades.
“Bar Dorrego used to be a cosy little almacen and a small bar, I remember. And Plaza Dorrego was just an open space where once a week the local government arranged free cinema viewings. Once they showed ‘The Kid’ with Charlie Chaplin, I was six or seven years old at that time.”
Americo was born on calle Defensa in 1933 and has never moved from the barrio. “I enjoyed my childhood here, this is where I went to school, where me and my friends grew up, where we had our innocent asaltos, social gatherings, with the girls of the neighbourhood, drinking coca cola and dancing and met our first girlfriends. When in our teenage years my older brother, Pilo, was the best singer in the neighbourhood and he would help us other guys get a girls attention by serenading them. He even sang for President Farrel once, you know,” Americo remembers.
As one of five siblings, Americo looked up to his older brothers and sisters, but didn’t see eye to eye with Pilo on politics. “My brother was not just a great singer, but also secretary of the Argentine Communist Party who due to his great knowledge of Latin American politics befriended Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and travelled around with them.” Politics has played a great part of the Argentine history, but it is not something Americo wants to remember. It is a too sensitive subject.
“But I do remember well the English marines that docked here during WWII in the 1940s. Even though I was a young boy I was let in to watch the boxing fights and cinema viewings arranged for them as entertainment. There were boxing fights on Mondays and Fridays and some of the greatest boxers of that time were created there. My favourite bar in the neighbourhood was Anchory Bar in calle San Juan. It was a bar for the sailors that came into town. I had a lot of fun there.
“The barrio was a beautiful place to live before the military era. Where people were out in the streets, singing. Walk around now and see who sings, no one. It you see someone singing it is either for money or you think they are crazy. It was a family neighbourhood before, but with the building of the motorway in the late 70s everything changed. Many houses were destroyed and families forced to move. It divided the barrio in two and destroyed the happiness here I think. The neighbourhood turned grey and dull. After that the arrival of the antique stores turned the area into a commercial centre accommodating tourists.”
Americo takes out a stack of old photos, a life in pictures. Of him as a young boy dressed from head to toe in a pirate costume, of his father in typical old school elegance in hat and coat, pictures from vacations in Mar del Plata. “I have so many memories of beautiful times, and although much has changed and all not for the better, I still love this barrio.”
Tales of Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid.
An interview with Nancy Myriam Humphreys.
Nancy Humphrey’s house is a little museum, with original maps of Argentina from the 1800s when half of the country was still unrecorded, and old photos of none other than the legendary Butch Cassidy. She takes out a small red box containing ancient original arrow tips that archaeologists would kill to hold; a gift from the indigenous to her great-grandparents, the first Gaelic settlers of Chubut, Patagonia in 1865.
“I feel like my life is like a film”, says Nancy. “My family name is associated with Patagonia as my great-grandmother, Elizabeth H. Adams de Humphreys, was the first Gaelic woman to set foot on Patagonian soil, my grandmother was the first child to be born, my great-grandfather Eduardo Humphreys was the first police commissioner, and organised the building of the first road in Patagonia. He is also the one who in 1905 received orders from Wisconsin, US, to arrest two wanted criminals, Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid.”
The story of the cheeky bank robbers who after having robbed the bank sent a picture of themselves dressed up to the nines flaunting their new wealth is now famous, but at that point none of the Chubut residents knew who they were. “My great-grandparents socialised with them, and at one party Sundance Kid entertained by playing the piano. That piano is still in the family and has become a piece if history,” Nancy smiles.
When Nancy was 13 her family moved from Chubut to San Telmo. “We moved into a house – calle Defensa 784 – and my grandfather father put up an emblem stating ‘Casa del Chubut’ over the door. He made it an open house for Gaelic immigrants in Buenos Aires and I remember we had many visitors. It was also the house from where he dealt with daily running with the Chubut province.”
“Thinking about our house in Defensa one thing comes to my mind, the sound of cars and trams on the cobblestone street. It was quite the noise. But the noise that I recall the best was the arrival of the tanks rolling through the streets in the 70’s, feeling it was the start of a big revolution.
Now 79, Nancy looks out over the roofs of San Telmo from her apartment on calle Balcarce and tells tales of every house, every store, and every tree.
“We moved in to the neighbourhood while Independencia still was a cobblestoned street and not even an avenida. Growing up was very safe, everyone knew everyone and with the milkman coming by every morning with fresh milk with a horse and cart. I remember also especially that one was not allowed to spit on the street, there were specific areas where on could spit, imagine that!”
Rock and roll in the streets
An interview with Gustavo Kabbache.
Born in 1943 on calle Balcarce, Gustavo Kabbache took over the daily running of his father’s haberdashery when he died some 11 years ago. The charming, slightly chaotic store on Defensa and Av. Independencia has been around for about 80 years making it one of the oldest stores in the barrio. Through the dusty windows of the stores he has seen the streets change over the decades, from a working class family neighbourhood to the city’s newest hot spot.
San Telmo was an immigrant’s and worker’s class neighbourhood when his family emigrated from Lebanon. The wealthier porteños had at that time fled the barrio to avoid plagues and families huddled together in so called conventillos, shared houses. “I remember one house – Defensa 735 – actually had 102 rooms.
“Defensa was already the main street of San Telmo when my father opened this store,” Gustavo tells me. In front of him on the desk sits a beautiful old dark wooden box containing the handwritten cards with the customers’ accounts. “There was a trust between people and we would keep the customers’ shopping history in this box and they would pay when they could.” Gustavo holds up one of the cards written by his father. “It was a family and more established neighbourhood where everyone knew one other, with local stores like almacenes instead of antique stores.”
Gustavo spent his childhood running around in the streets of San Telmo. A boy of the rock and roll generation, he and his friends would cut off calle Balcarce to dance in the streets during their teenage years. “We would play music from Bill Haley, for example, and dance around in the streets. The neighbours wouldn’t really mind as long as we kept the music down. People had more patience.
“San Telmo also had its local gangs of boys,” he remembers. “Areas were ruled by different groups, and every now and then they would fight over territory or who was the coolest kid on the block. But I guess it was more for show as after a fight we would all head off and play football together and in the summer we would sunbathe and hang out down at Puerto Madero. That was before it became what it is today. We would head down and spend the day by the riverside, even swimming in the river. That was possible before, whereas now it is too contaminated.”
Gustavo tells me how 20 years ago the barrio started changing with the arrival of the antique stores. Rent and real-estate prices skyrocketed and many smaller businesses were forced out of the area. “I hear tour guides stopping on the corner telling the tourists of the old almacen that used to be on the corner. Yes, there were smaller stores before, but most of the guides are portraying an image that never existed. It just makes me laugh.
“My favourite bar and place growing up, I remember, was the Bar Británico near the Parque Lezama, which is still running. So not everything is gone,” smiles Gustavo.
The sound of the trams
An interview with Hector Davor Margetic.
“Growing up, cooking was done on wood or coal or not at all,” Hector remembers from his early childhood in Doc Sur, close to San Tempo. “We lived in humble conditions, but I had a happy childhood. My parents were firm believers in education, and attending school in Chacabuco we were taught how to be descent future men and husbands.”
Today 80 years old, Hector Davor Margetic lives in calle Chile in a beautiful house he inherited from his grandfather. “It was a different world here before,” he remembers. Hector meets me in iconic Bar Seddon, in the heart of San Telmo, to tell me of his memories of the historical barrio and how his life in San Telmo began when he ‘won’ his first flat some 45 years ago after a raffle lottery staged by the local government to sell off cheap flats.
“My father earned some $80 a month in his job to feed us, so when I was a young teenager I decided to work on the side of my studies to help out. In the early morning before going to school I worked as a delivery boy. Every morning I went around the neighbourhood on my bike, earning ten centavos a block. I remember well the trams going through the barrio. The 48 that went here in Chile to the flea market and as a boy I used to take the 11 that came from La Boca to Bolivar every morning going to school. San Telmo was a very calm neighbourhood then,” he says.
Upon finishing school, while working on the docks unloading cargo, he saw his chance to see the world. Offered a job on a ship sailing off to South Africa, 16-year-old Hector boarded the boat and embarked on an adventure around the world. “The boat went to South Africa first, then for the next year and a half I sailed around the world on different ships, working. We continued to Calcutta and Sri Lanka and I remember we arrived in Japan in 1946, just after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then we went to Korea, Vancouver and Seattle.”
How many broken hearts that have been left behind by the handsome sailor remains unknown, but Hector does tell me about one girl from Canada he remembers well. “But I know nothing off her,” he tells me. “I met her just as I was going back to Buenos Aires. Now I am happily married with my second wife and live for my ten children.”
Nowadays Hector runs his kiosk and spends his days reading and doing translations. “Because of my heritage and love for languages [his mother is of Croatian heritage and my father of French and Belgian heritage], I speak Italian, English and Croatian. I like the foreign feel we have in the neighbourhood today. But I really dislike the places and people here that are just out to exploit the tourists. I like it when they stop by the kiosk and I can have a chat and practise my English.”