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What spaces in the city do you consider sacred?
For my friend Kevin and me, it was Lo De Julio, a little hole-in-the-wall located at Virrey Loreto 3302, where the cobblestones of calle Superi intersect with an overgrown sidewalk garden, shaded by trees.
I had to look up the exact address just now because I had never before written it down or sent it to anyone. It was the kind of place that demanded its visitors vetted, then properly prepared and accompanied.
“Don’t look at the walls too long” I would joke, “Or you might see something move.”
It was a little test of mine. If they flinched at that, they weren’t ready. Not ready for the busted-up bodegon, with its old ovens and banged up refrigerators. The bathroom in the back with the water always running. The ceilings blackened with mildew and the smoke of constantly frying milanesas, that dripped water into big steel buckets when it rained.
They weren’t ready for the people. The old men playing truco in the corner. The ancient man with his eyes glued to the fútbol game on the television. The occasional musician fiddling with the guitar on the bench outside. The neighborhood police officer who was always high on coke, armed and in uniform with a portfolio of paintings (mostly horses) that he would try to hawk to the diners outside.
They weren’t ready for the magic. The curios and paintings (including an infamous pair of framed black granny panties) covering the smudged tile walls. The trinkets and baubles collecting dust on every surface. The cats that pranced between the jugs of wine and beer jars. The battered book by Maestro Rolland (another Uruguayan mystic) that we would ask a question, turning the pages with one hand and pointing with the other.
They weren’t ready for Julio.
Julio, with his eyes always twinkling. With his hands that cured – just ask his first cat who had cancer, or my therapist Eli who couldn’t stop coughing. With his gaze that read people within seconds — and I mean read them. With his mouth always cracking a joke or imparting wisdom or scolding some drunk hipster for stepping out of line.
We found the place because of the above music video, filmed in February 2010 (the month I first arrived in Buenos Aires to study) and published (coincidentally) on my birthday of that year. Kevin had recently moved there and was working for another small arts and culture magazine as an unpaid intern.
He was miserable, broke, and overworked, grieving his late grandfather and a close family friend. Maybe that’s what made the glow of the fluorescent lighting so alluring, the chorus of voices joining in Tomi Lebrero’s “la, la di lai, la di lai” so magnetic.
He started showing the clip to everyone he knew, and around the time I had moved to the city permanently, he had located it on a sleepy street in Colegiales. It soon became our weekly refuge, the one place where we could afford to come to drink and eat all night after a week of eating beans and rice, where we were greeted warmly by Julio every time we entered.
But Julio didn’t just welcome us, he drew us in. Peered deep into our souls and saw us in a deep, authentic way that I don’t think Kevin and I were used to being seen by locals — not as token foreigners, but as real people with our feet firmly planted in the city, dreams unspoken. But Julio knew them anyway. He told Kevin he should cook. He told me I should sing. He told us of our future fortunes, of the loves we would meet, which ones we should hold onto, and which ones we should leave behind.
On Monday, March 15th, 2021, Julio Cesar Chavez passed away from complications due to Covid-19. Originally from the small town of Fraile Muerto, Uruguay (current population: 3,168), he moved to Buenos Aires presumably in search of a bigger, brighter existence. He opened his bar just 14 years ago, but somehow the place was an immediate, impossibly timeless fixture of the neighborhood.
Decked out with the contents of a wild mind, those little bits of Julio scattered all over the bar were both talismans warding off bad energy and portals to another realm. Maybe in a way, they were his test. “This is me. These are the things I hold precious.” And anyone drawn in by their energy was his kind of people, no matter how young or old, how rich or poor, where they came from or where they were bound to.
They were all there this past Saturday, at his despedida. Musicians, artists, elderly neighbors, drunk teenagers, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Hugging each other, crying, playing music, drinking wine, lighting candles, offering flowers, writing messages of love and affection on the door. Kevin brought chocolate bonbons to leave at his altar.
It felt almost the same but also entirely different. We drank from the same glasses and jars. We asked the book a question before midnight, and another after. I was still greeted as Señorita Ohio, and pushed to sing. Tomi Lebrero even performed the very song that drew us all there to begin with. But nobody asked about my cat by name. Nobody presided over the oven all night, tutting at anyone who got in his way. It was a stage without its star performer, a temple without its oracle.
I’ve spent the last week and a half struggling with how to express how important this man and this place were to me, to all of us. In fact, I am slightly wine-drunk as I write this, a detail that Julio no doubt would have appreciated. Watching all the stories posted after news of his death spread on social media, I kept seeing the same words pop up over and over again: eternal friend, shaman, maestro, mystic, guru. There were so many touched by his magic, who heard his lessons.
Speaking to his grandchildren David and Emiliano at the despedida, they shared with me their plans for the place. They want to fix the leaky roof and clean the tile walls and reopen, keeping everything as intact as possible and running the place in a way that honors their grandfather. I hope they succeed. There will never be another Julio. But a spirit like his doesn’t die so easily. And I have the funny feeling that he’ll be dropping in from time to time.
If you’re interested in donating to help with the costs of Julio’s cremation and the rehabilitation of the space (the roof alone will cost around 40k) you may do so by making a bank transfer to his grandchildren:
Apellido y Nombre:
BARRERA COTELLA MARA CELESTE