‘Porteño’ is a general Spanish word for a person from a port city. That said, it was adopted by the locals here a long time ago. Such is the universal acceptance of this that my Spanish-English dictionary reads, ‘Person from Buenos Aires’ under porteño, for example.
Around the late nineteenth century, places dotting the Río de la Plata region were very literally the first port of call for predominantly Italian and Spanish immigrants. Unlike more traditionally preserved inland Argentina (known here as ‘the interior’), in Buenos Aires there was a second invasion of European language and culture. On this occasion though the Spaniards left less of a mark than the influx of Italians. The porteño was born.
Tango is widely touted to be a consequence of this hybrid of cultures, with other legacies from the Italians including sartorial elegance and pizza. Borne of a fiery passion within, porteños are often referred to as Italians who speak Spanish. Something closely resembling Spanish anyway. Indeed I have despairingly realised that porteños use a lot of slang, indecipherable to an outsider trying to learn the lingo.
I was reminded of this when I confidently ordered a bag of strawberries from the greengrocer, to celebrate completing my Spanish course on Friday afternoon. Not fresas apparently, but frutillas (with an Italian ‘zhuh’ as always, rather than Spanish ‘yuh’ for the double L’s incidentally). The older gentleman – who had helpfully corrected my textbook Spanish with porteño slang – smiled sympathetically as he washed and bagged my frutillas in silence, having already reminded me that I still have a lot to learn.
Recovering quickly enough from that mild knockback, I went with the other students for lunch in Palermo hotspot Plaza Serrano before we all went our ways for a tactical siesta. A few hours later we regrouped for one of the course coordinators’ birthday night out at 11pm. I was told to head for La Calle, a pizzeria with a secret.
From the street it looked inconspicuous, with punters forming an orderly queue to either take the contents of the pizza boxes home or eat them at one of the two tables inside. There was an amazing collection of football shirts, scarves and photographs draping the walls, but such things are commonplace in these parts. Assuming I had gone to the wrong place, I then saw someone enter through a part of the white wall covered with football paraphernalia that I hadn’t even realised was a door. Like stepping into Wonderland, I followed suit to find an ambiently-lit hidden bar and dancefloor populated by dozens of porteños easing their way into a long night. Ah yes, this was definitely the place.
Grateful for the siesta from earlier, the group of us held strong as we filtered out alongside the energised porteños three hours later towards a nearby nightclub. Admission price included a fernet and coke for the patiently queueing gentlemen, whilst the Marias various were able to drift in freely and free. Yet another export from Italy that has withstood the test of time, fernet is Argentina’s favourite spirit. Bitter in taste and requiring real effort to despatch at first, many an expat has fallen at this hurdle for local acceptance.
A few hours of compulsive dancing passed, rhythmically, before 6am felt like a sensible time to call it a day/night/morning. Blinded by the breaking sunshine, I stumbled home from the two-thirds full club drunk on fernet and sleep deprivation. Luckily the walk was short, with the road to porteñoness now a little shorter too.
(*As a footnote, like many proper nouns which we would be scandalised not to capitalise in English, ‘porteño’ is completely lower case. Capital letters are used sparingly in Argentinian Spanish. This is akin perhaps to the period of time from early Friday evening to late Saturday morning, where the rest of the world will usually, at some point, SLEEP.)