Barrio Guide: Barracas

Barracas, even for many Porteños, is an unknown barrio of Buenos Aires.  Geographically situated at the Southern city limit, surrounded by the banks of the Riachuelo river and the historic neighborhoods of Nueva Pompeya, Parque Patricios, San Telmo and La Boca. Barracas for many is completely off the map. However this mysterious neighborhood has a rich past as an important aristocratic stomping grounds, especially by many well-to-do English immigrants.  After a drastic demographic change the neighborhood went on to become a proletarian zone and a bastion for important worker’s movements.  Today the neighborhood is as varied as ever, however has become the focal point of an urban renaissance based around design and arts.

photo: latidobuenosaires.com

photo: latidobuenosaires.com

Barracas is one of the most historic neighborhoods originally began as one of the wealthiest areas, home to great “estancias” (ranch homes)  owned by the elite, especially those of English origin.  In the early 1800’s the barrio constituted the Southern limits of the city on what is today the avenue Montes de Oca.  In those days, Barracas was almost completely devoid of construction, instead a wide open pasture land and few storehouses used for stockpiling leather goods. This is where Barracas received its name, the literal translation for warehouses or barracks.  At that time the area across the Riachuelo (now Avellaneda) was called “Barracas del Sur.”

In the middle of the 19th century Barracas began to receive its first settlers and it began to be incorporated into the urban space. Many of the first settlers to Barracas were British businessmen who looked to establish their quintas and estancias (large country houses or ranches) in the area.  Some of the British residents were responsible for the introduction of the short horn bull, which had a profound impact on the national livestock industry. Many English also contributed to the major sports practiced in Argentina: football (soccer), rugby, tennis, field hockey, and others were all introduced by the British.  In Barracas, they began the practice of horse racing on what today is the Avenue Montes de Oca.  To this day horse racing, polo, and equine sports are popular elements of high society in Argentina.

Quinta of Martín Alzaga and Felicitas Guerrero Cueto

Quinta of Martín de Álzaga and Felicitas Guerrero Cueto. Photo: la-tragedia-de-patrimonio.blogspot.com

However between 1865 and 1871 Buenos Aires was suffered no less than 4 yellow fever epidemics, which struck heavily in the Southern barrios of the city.  The wealthy residents left these areas and relocated in the areas North of the city.  This mass exodus created a reverse gentrification which would forever alter the demographics and social composition of Barracas and other parts of Southern Buenos Aires.

photo: pilaradiario.com

Depiction of death from Yellow Fever in 1871 by Juan Manuel Blanes. Photo: pilaradiario.com

Following the exodus of the elite and the disappearance of the yellow fever plague, many workers began to move away from the city center, moving South to Barracas, a zone with affordable housing. They began to build modest tenements called conventillos, autochthonous dwellings developed by immigrants. This time period also coincides with the immigration boom and beginnings of industrialization in Argentina.  Barracas quickly became a proletarian zone that was both working class neighborhood, as well as manufacturing zone; complete with sawmills, construction yards, as well as textile and food factories.

As the neighborhood began to transform into an industrial zone, the presence of workers organizations began to rise. The Socialist Party was created to help the previously unrepresented workers gain the right to vote. The socialists began to promote “free cooperation”, cooperatives of production and housing.  Socialists even began community libraries and schools for their children, due to the shortage of those created by the federal government.  

Another political movement that found a home in Barracas during this time was Anarchism. Anarchism was even more popular than Socialism due to the fact that the majority of the immigrants who arrive to Argentina were from countries with a strong anarchist presence, mainly Spain and Italy.  Anarchists created the newspaper “La Protesta”, which was used to successfully gain bargaining power from the working classes through organizing workers strikes, including the first ever general strike in 1902. 

Anarchist newspaper La Protesta. Photo: anarquismoenlaargentina.blogspot.com

Anarchist newspaper La Protesta. Photo: anarquismoenlaargentina.blogspot.com

Another important group in the formation of Barracas, Buenos Aires, and much of the Americas is the Fraternal Order of the Freemasons. The Freemasons were a secret society that was originally based around the trade of stone masonry in Medieval Europe.  The society also claims to be philanthropic and philosophical organization however in Latin America, the purpose of the Freemasons became to promote a shared political order.

Many of the Independence leaders were Freemasons, including such liberatores and founding father Jose de San Martín, Simón Bolivar, Bernardo O’Higgins, Manuel Belgrano, Mariano Moreno amongst many others. Generally, the Freemasons were an elite group, however in Barracas there was a strong workers presence, influenced by Freemasons in Italy, where it was an extremely democratic organization.  The Freemasons installed a lodge in Barracas in 1890 on the street San Antonio, which is still used today.  The Freemasons are known for their affinity in symbols and geometric shapes, especially the triangle. On the Masonic Lodge in Barracas, there are prominent Egyptian figures featured on the façade as well as symbols for the Pyramid of Providence (as seen on the one US dollar note), and a compass with the letter ‘G’ representing the creator. 

Freemasons Lodge in Barracas

In 2001, Argentina suffered from the greatest peacetime economic crisis in modern history and more than 50% of the population was pushed into poverty.  The groups most effected by the crisis were the working classes, as many factories shut their doors leading to massive unemployment.  Barracas, still to this day a heavy industrial zone, was one of the barrios with greatest consequences of the crash.  However it was also a source of perseverance and ingenious resistance which allowed many workers to open the factories once again under their own will using democratic organization.

Factory workers began to organize and appropriate the factories that were left abandoned, thereby beginning operations under the form of workers collectives.  This phenomenon known as Fasinpat, short for fabricas sin patrons (factories without bosses), became common in many places throughout the country. In the greater Buenos Aires area the workers rallied to the slogan “occupy, resist, produce”. The state and the factory owners, often Multinational companies, opposed the cooperatives with armed confrontations and threats of eviction. However the workers banned together and sought justice in the legal system, finally winning the right to operate from the under the scheme of a cooperative.  In Barracas, the IMPA metalworking plant, Cooperativa Vieytes (the ex-factory Ghelco) and Gráfica Patricios are some of the more than 300 recuperated factories functioning within the country.  The latter of which, since it began operating as fasinpat, has more than doubled its number of employees.

Workers Coop and former Ghelco ice cream factory being painted by graffiti artists. Photo: buenosairesstreetart.com

Workers Coop and former Ghelco ice cream factory being painted by graffiti artists. Photo: buenosairesstreetart.com

The repurposing hasn’t been limited just to industry, in recent years Barracas has been undergoing a rebirth as the up-and-coming district of arts and design within the city. In 2001 the city converted an abandoned fish market into one of the most important cultural space created in recent times.  The market became the Centro Metropolitano de Diseño (Metropolitan center of design) or CMD, a public space used to promote innovation in the design industry as well as an impulse for education, formation and job creation. In 2012, the look of the barrio surrounding the CMD was also radically transformed by many graffiti artists that held an international street art convention in the neighborhood.  Many of Argentina’s best artists came together with artists from around the world to intervene the common spaces, adding a new sense of identity and making Barracas one of the top neighborhoods for urban art. In 2005 came the conversion of the former Bagley foodstuffs factory into a modern complex that is home to several smart condominiums as well as a cultural center devoted to design, fashion, cinema, and performance arts. Today Barracas continues to evolve and due to recent transformations, the once mysterious neighborhood is becoming more well-known by all, city residents and tourists alike.

The obelisk inside the Metropolitan Design Center

The obelisk inside the Metropolitan Design Center

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