Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Xeneize Connection

When you think of Italian immigrants, you typically think New York, Chicago, San Francisco, right? Well, as many of you know, my dad's side of the family is from Italy. More specifically, my dad was born in Genoa in 1952. A few years later, his family moved to the Pacific Northwest, where many cousins, uncles, etc... had already settled.

I don't know how many of those people were from Genoa precisely; I know my grandparents are from the smaller coastal towns like Varazze and Celle Ligure. But it's safe to say there's a decent-sized Ligurian population, consisting of at least my extended family, living in the Portland/Vancouver area.

Turns out the Genovese emigrated in sizeable numbers to other places too. And not just New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Back around the turn of the century, a good number of Genovese settled in the La Boca neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It makes sense: Genoa is a port city, perhaps one of the most important port cities in the history of the world. Buenos Aires is a port city, perhaps the most important port city in South America. Residents here are nicknamed porteños, literally "people who live at the port."

So it must have been natural for the Genovese shipbuilders, fishermen, sailors, etc... to settle in a similar location.

Here's the funny thing: We didn't know anything about this history when we were planning the trip. I wanted to come to Buenos Aires for the cheap steak and wine; Liz was more excited about Tango dancing and practicing her Spanish. Pretty much completely by accident, we chose a city and even a neighborhood (San Telmo borders La Boca) that has an interesting historical connection.

And the Xeneizes (genovese dialect for "genovese," or so I'm told) have remained insulated in their culture more than you'd think after over a hundred years. At one point the collective population drafted a letter to the king of Italy proclaiming that they had founded an "independent republic of La Boca," and that they were no longer citizens of Italy. To this day, fans of the Boca Juniors soccer team refer to themselves as the "xeneizes."

There's also a culinary connection. Other than the wine and pizza, that is. In northern Italy we tried a dish called "farinata," which is basically a pizza made with chickpea flour and served without sauce. We had it topped with arugula and brie, and it was amazing.

Here they have something similar, called "faina," only they serve it sort of as a complement to regular pizza. And they don't top it with anything. We'll come back to this in the next update. First, a trip report from our first visit to La Boca, to see a Boca Juniors game.

Quick background on the Boca Juniors: At the previous game, one person was stabbed, several cars and trucks were overturned and lit on fire, and over 170 spectators were arrested. This wasn't the championship or anything; it was like the third game into the season.

So the fans have a little bit of a reputation for hooliganism. And the La Boca neighborhood is still incredibly poor and known for crime. All the guide books warn against going off the beaten path, especially at night.

Still, they recommend going to a Boca Juniors game as part of a tour group. Most hotels and hostels offer a package that includes a ride to the game and a chaperone in the "less crazy" section of the stadium. But it costs a ton... something like $80 bucks a person!

We figured we could show up at the stadium and purchase our own tickets in the "less crazy" section for a lot less. Like, 20 bucks or so. But when we arrived, the only seats available were 170 pesos each (over $50 US). If we wanted to sit in the "ultra crazy" section, we could get tickets for 24 pesos each. Ship the crazy section seats, I guess.

Luckily we met another American couple that were in the same predicament. They had planned on getting less crazy seats but were priced out. We made a pact to stick together and purchased 4 crazy tickets.

Going into the stadium is both reassuring and terrifying. You have to pass at least 4 security checkpoints at which you are frisked. You have to surrender any liquids, like you're at the airport. And finally, you have to march up a long concrete walkway already thrumming with the noise of unseen Boca supporters singing and stomping in anticipation of the match.

In reality, the game turned out to be fairly calm. My theory is that because there was a major riot the previous week, security had been beefed up and the fans knew they had to be on better behavior. Also, it was Easter, and they take Catholic holidays pretty seriously here. Finally, the Boca Juniors were playing a very poor opponent. They won the game 2-1, but it was never really close. The opponents scored a garbage goal in the last few moments when nobody cared.

So, we had a great time and felt safe throughout the match. Liz went to a soccer game in Ecuador where people were throwing bottles, lighting things on fire and at one point, the crowd was tear-gassed. So this was a walk in the park for her.

The only weird thing is right at the end of the game the Boca fans are literally blocked from leaving their section by a phalanx of riot police. This is riot-prevention 101: Give the opposing team's fans time to get away before letting the Xeniezes loose. So it was a little odd to be trapped with thousands of sweaty Boca supporters, all staring down the Police as we waited to be allowed our freedom.

In other news, our friend Kara just arrived today, so we'll spend the next couple days showing her around town and enjoying the awesome food and wine the city has to offer. We have tons more pictures, of La Boca, San Telmo and beyond, but they'll have to wait for the next update.

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