I had arranged to meet at five in the afternoon with Maria Cafora, head of the cultural affairs at the Hotel Castelar, for a tour of the place which for several months was the roof of Federico García Lorca in Buenos Aires.
Located at number 1152 of Avenida de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Hotel Castelar is certainly one of the most traditional hotels in Argentina and one of the best examples of Art Decó preserved in the capital. The origin of its name is no more than a tribute that its founders, Spanish immigrants, used to honor the president of the first Spanish republic, Emilio Castelar and Ripoll (1873- 1874). And so they stated when in the inauguration, Saturday, 9th November, 1929, they hung a portrait of his admired politician on the first floor of the hotel.
In the early twentieth century, the Avenida de Mayo exuded life in every corner. The upper classes and the Buenos Aires bourgeoisie, culture and good manners got together day and night on the sidewalks, locals and peñas (explained the meaning below) like in the well known 33 Billares, La Confitería Iberia or the Signo peña inside the cafeteria of the Hotel Castelar (appointed Notable Bar in 2004 since countless historical and cultural facts occurred inside).
It hadn’t been long since the upper classes in the city had abandoned the streets of San Telmo neighborhood, as per a plague epidemic had considerably diminished its population and became considered an unhealthy area intended for the life of the lower classes. Thus, the ancient inhabitants of San Telmo decided to seek new lands and settle in what is now the neighborhood of Recoleta, thus extending the capital.
A new city had to be built from scratch, and there were no qualms about hiring some of the best architects in the world to recreate buildings, palaces and residences in the image and likeness of those in Europe, prevailing the net French court style, although not being the only one, and thus filling the streets of a unique mishmash of architectural styles that, while not following a harmonic structure in their facades, the truth is that it was very pleasing to the eye of the citizen.
The new extension of the city was so important, that not only the best architects were hired but also the materials used were the most exclusive in the world and brought at any price. To exemplify such sumptuousness, the living room on the ground floor of the Hotel Castelar, which was used for coating walls Carrara marble. It was not brought once from Italy but twice, since the ship carrying the stone sank in the first attempt and everything had to be bought despite of expenses.
Federico García Lorca arrived in Buenos Aires in October 1933 to present his play “Blood Weddings” and later directed the rehearsals of “The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife” and “Mariana Pineda”. He inmediately fell in love with this bustling city that smelled of culture on all four ends. So much so that he decided to stay until April 1934. Six months in which he stayed in room 704 of the Hotel Castelar.
Federico García Lorca enjoyed fervently of the cosmopolitan character of Buenos Aires. At that time was the epicenter of a cultural earthquake where influences of European (mainly Spanish and Italian) and American emigration crashed. In the early thirties, there was a singular phenomenon: the peñas. These were meetings in bars or cafes where talk, friends and coffee were favored. There, people went to make friends and meet talented people. It needed no entry fee, but the desire to relate to other. Therefore, the great personalities of culture were seduced by these almost magical places, and came together to in the different bars in the Avenida de Mayo. Federico García Lorca was a regular member of the meetings that were organized in the Signo peña, located at the Hotel Castelar but also could be seen in many other clubs and cafes where writers, legislators, artists, philosophers, bohemians and curious people talked about art, politics and many other subjects. Sometimes the debates ran in a pleasant atmosphere but many others ended in heated arguments and fights.
In this Signo peña of the Hotel Castelar, artistic and literary events of great value took place, according to the reports that witnesses keep transmitting to this day. Federico Garcia Lorca attended, as I said before, these meetings and spent countless hours with some of the most important characters in history like Nobel Prize winners, Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda and even sometimes the legend of Argentinian tango, Carlos Gardel.
But Federico Garcia Lorca didn’t only enjoy the Signo peña in the Hotel Castelar . On Thursday, 5th October, 1933, in the basement of the hotel, next to the Signo peña, Radio Stentor was born, where musicians, actors, poets, architects or journalists chatted with enormous professionalism about their specialties, becoming one of the best programming radio stations in the country. Federico García Lorca was formally invited to give four lectures on his literary work. But what few people know is that he enjoyed even further, hiding his shyness behind the microphones, while reciting his poems, at five p.m., introducing himself to the audience with the pseudonym “gypsy voice”. Federico García Lorca was well protected behind the anonymity from prying eyes and conventional criticism. It also gave him the opportunity to be himself, without any pressure when reading his poems.
Today, room 704 is a small museum that accurately reflects the stay of Federico García Lorca at that time. You can see the author’s original objects and replicas of his personal belongings as well as various memories of that time like newspapers, posters for his plays and even some clothes that the actors wore.
I must admit that there is one detail I found funny: If you are born in Granada and a credited writer, you can request to the Hotel Castelar that your stay elapses in the same room where Federico Garcia Lorca was during his time in Buenos Aires. Not possessing these two qualities, means settling in any of the other hundred fifty nine rooms.
I would like to finish quoting a phrase from Federico Garcia Lorca that is hanging framed on one of the walls of the corridor leading to room 704 and is premonitory of what was to come in his life: “If you did not worry about being born, you should not worry about death”.