From the Hidden Slums of Buenos Aires

“We were supposed to have lunch with the kids at 11,” Mirna explains. “We’re a little late.”

So I expected something of an empty room. What we walk into is a madhouse hot and heavy, the thickness of humidity crawling up everyone’s skin as the hundred or so children wait patiently for their ration of potatoes, bread, salad and milanesa–beef cutlets. Children who have already eaten hopping out of their seats so that those who are standing could squeeze onto the cafeteria-style benches and wait to be served. Stressed out aproned women running in and out of the kitchen with food and calculating whether there will be enough to give seconds to the kids who looked up at them with eyes that say they are still hungry. A scene of chaos and yelling and sharing. Two women quickly gather and stack empty plastic plates red yellow and white before another grabs them and rushes off down a little hallway outside, where behind the scenes another three women are washing the plates as fast as they can to be ready for the next batch of seemingly unending children.

“Small ones first,” I am told my first day as one of those aproned women. “Los chicitos–Make sure they all get fed first, and after, los grandes.” A woman over in the corner with a stained scarf over her hair and sweat dripping from her forehead leaning over a baby carriage to fan her child with a tee shirt. This degree of heat is unusual for Buenos Aires, which I realize only because every single person I have met over the past week has had a comment to make about it.

It is a city like none other in Latin America, so much like a first world industrial European city placed on the wrong continent. Rich in appearance and sparkling clean, with beautiful antique edifices, corporate stores with giant glass doors glowing yellow-white lighting. Sidewalk cafes and fancy Italian restaurants line every block, where since the crisis you can get an entrée, appetizer and a bottle of wine for the equivalent of three dollars or less–that is, if you came here with US dollars in your pocket instead of the drastically reduced value of the peso.

The White City, we called it, overlooking the view from a terrace one year ago.  The sidewalks are white, the buildings are white, the people are white, and they walk with their noses in the air. Air that is clean and water that’s drinkable. (“What do you think this is, Bolivia?” an insulted friend had asked when we tried to boil our tap water.)

Little do most travelers know you have only to hop on a 15 minute bus ride from the center to reach the villas–the many slums of Buenos Aires.

Just past the glorious yellow and white castle-like Alcine bridge, for example, you turn a bend and enter a different country. Suddenly all the restaurants and kiosks double as homes. Dirt roads, bike carts, wheelbarrows, people working with their hands. Half naked children. Families on front porches if a porch is to be had. And the people are immigrants, having fled Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia. Tiny buildings, tiny houses with brick lain second stories sloppily added to one story homes that would make any architect’s stomach turn. Surely the whole thing will cave in within a few years, but in the meantime it accommodates a few more families.

The White City has suddenly turned a shade of dull brown.

When the women are finished serving, they sit down to introduce themselves. Lili works in the kitchen and the school, and Isabel in the house where her mother has started her own comedor, one of 11 community kitchens like this one, to serve merienda and dinner on Saturdays when the other comedors are off. Gladys is part of Associacion Civil Vida and started her own comedor last year. Now she often wants her house back.

Emiliana is an older woman who left a life of poverty in Paraguay to lead one in Buenos Aires. She is still able to speak her indigenous language of Guarani because there are so many Paraguayans in the villa. It is comprised almost entirely of immigrants.

She has these incredible piercing blue eyes that always seem to be reading something more than what you’re saying, eyes that listen. Every time I see her she is wearing an apron, and her greying auburn hair is pulled back in a loose bun.

Mirna has lived here for 15 years and functions as a key organizer between the community and organizations from the outside who may be able to aid in some way. She has dark olive skin and a pleasant, attractive face, with a large mouth and thick black hair that reaches her thighs when she undoes it from the neat bun she holds with a ball point pen. I notice immediately how different she walks from middle or upper class people of the city. She has the distinct air of someone completely unconscious of other people or their impressions; her stride is short and comfortable like that of a little kid. She is eight months pregnant with her first child and runs around working so much you’d forget about her condition if not for her giant bulging belly.

“It’s about time, too,” she laughs. “At 30 years old.”

Mirna takes us into her “office” and explains the origins of comedors in the villa. Since 1989, there existed exactly two. As of three years ago, many people of the villa, mostly women, got together to try to figure out a way to accommodate all the people and especially the children, some of whom suffered from malnutrition and whose population seemed to be growing exponentially. The government was providing them absolutely nothing. There are now 25,000 people living in Villa 21 of Barracas alone-a number that is double what it was just over a year ago, before the crisis.

“It was sad,” Emiliana tells me one day, with clenched fists perched on a table. She grew emotional at the thought. “The children would come to pick the chicken bones from the garbage and be sucking on the bones like dogs for a bit of meat. There was nothing.

“Life was just sad,” she repeats.

“It was ugly,” Mirna continues. “There was never enough to eat. Finally we all came together and said, this is ridiculous. We have to feed our children. We’ll do whatever it takes to get our share of the food supply. And we started contacting organizations for donations, protesting outside all the government buildings. We were part of a struggle.”

Women with any extra space began turning huge sections of their homes into community kitchens called comedors, each with different hours, to serve upwards of a hundred children at a time. Three years later and they are a huge success, many with modest libraries and weekend teaching programs. Each library I saw contained only a few books each.

“Books, books, books,” Mirna responds when I ask what sort of donations they still need. “All the organizations want to donate only food, but we aren’t lacking food anymore. We want to be able to teach the kids who are having a hard time learning.”

She shows us striking photos she has taken of the villa, blown up in black and white, some staged with captions under them. In her spare time she is a photographer. I fall in love with one photo in particular, a group of children sitting around a table with only utensils in front of them, politely passing each other empty pans. In the center of the table sits a silver pot containing two computer keyboards and cables. “Globalization: A PROMISE,” it reads across the top. “Lies have been spreading that with globalization, we are all going to be connected and with equal access;  in Villa 21 of Barracas, the kids hardly know there exists an apparatus called the computer.”

And this angel of a woman with a gap between her front teeth and a bed in her office, she gave me that photo as a gift.

Presidential elections are approaching, and I ask the women how they feel about the current government. They all sort of look at each other in uncomfortable silence and finally break into laughter. “What government?” one asks bitterly. “Argentina has no more government. No one in the country treats it as something legitimate, because it is representative of nobody.”

In the kitchen the food is piled to the ceiling, boxes of crackers and pasta, sweet bread, tiny cartons of dulce de leche, fruit, oil, shiny blue plastic packages of grated cheese. Under the wooden counters beside the outdoor fireplace are cartons upon cartons of potatoes, carrots and squash. In a tiny closet in Mirna’s room are still more potatoes, carrots and squash.

This comedor is called Daniel de la Sierra, after the liberation theologist who fought for the poor against the military government of general Juan Carlos Ongania in 1966.

“A revolutionary,” she explains. “He told the people, ‘If the military comes we will say that we have to defend ourselves.’”

No one in the villa speaks english but the children are learning, and to prove it they throw random english words at us when we come by. Animals, colors, the classic “what is your name” and then they ask me how to say hello. And about a million questions about the U$A.

“Is there a lot of cardboard in the United States?” one child asks my partner.

Yeah, lots. And it’s free. Nobody even fights for it.

Trash pickers are so rampant throughout Buenos Aires you have to be careful not to step on people when you’re walking down the street, people still dressed in their work clothes, children, old folks. In Villa 21 of Barracas, families are literally living on top of the dump, beside huge garbage piles overlooking the most toxically polluted river in the country. They have built houses on squatted land and pirated electricity. The hardest thing for most families to come by now is wood, cement, building materials.

Of course it’s illegal, they tell me. But do we have another choice? We can’t pay. We can’t find jobs. There are no jobs.

So instead of succumbing to a work ethic designated by a State the population no longer trusts, i.e. wage slavery, these people are spending their “free” time tending to the needs of their community, and already operating non-hierarchically. Each individual fulfills a role. This particular setup is something of a women’s club, with nearly zero dependence on men (if they have spouses, the men are unemployed) in a space where each individual is treated as an equal and the children are spoken to as people, with more responsibility than most in the US will ever know.

“This,” Emiliana said, “is autogestion.”

Autogestion. It is the key word around here. Everybody’s saying it, and everybody’s doing it. One giant decentralized autonomous people’s movement working for the good of their respective communities, so many groups and so many people and so much resistance and it’s not under some party banner, it’s like the most beautiful instinctive reaction to an economic crisis there could be. Instead of turning on one another, people formed asambleas and turned on the government, and each individual one is autonomous yet still intrinsically connected. Everyone knows it’s happening and nearly everybody plays a role. One giant fuck you to any government that thinks they can control this.

Last year I saw the writing on the wall in the form of stenciled graffiti, and sat in on some asambleas. I thought I was inspired then.

Now I have seen dozens of groups all over the country practicing it. It is real, it is palpable, functional and impossible to simulate, because it is the general population that has become infected with this little autonomous bug.

Every month a new factory is occupied by its workers and becomes collectively run. Since December of 2001 there have been many dozens, and an equal number of barter markets that refuse to use money. Other areas have adopted alternative currencies, or entirely new economic systems. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays several groups of middle class people gather in front of various central banks to demonstrate, smashing up windows and ATM machines before going about their day. There has not been a single day this month without some sort of march, protest or occupation. Presently several piquetero organizations and people of various movements of the unemployed are camped out under the most fundamental bridge in Buenos Aires. Their blockades are daily and difficult to ignore.

I spent several days following a murga (politically radical Carnaval-like performance groups found in hundreds of barrios throughout Argentina) that I particularly admired for their rejection of hierarchy. They choreographed each performance without the assistance of a director, and the result was a sparkplug of enthusiastic creativity, with costumes, dance moves, lyrics and theater pieces infused with the varying ideas of each individual involved-sound familiar? I was explaining anarchist principles to these people who did not use such names to define themselves.

“Wait-you think it’s possible for everyone to live in society without any government at all?” one murgera asked me. “How?”

I was perplexed. “Exactly as you already are.”

Maybe it was just a nearby streetlamp, but a light seemed to flash across her eyes. “You mean with asambleas?” she asked eagerly. “Yeah, I guess we are all doing that.” She seemed pleased and surprised that I would call this decentralized autonomous people’s movement wherein nobody recognized the government of their country “anarchy.”

I have returned over a dozen times this month to the only villa not involved with some sort of political party. As a result their financial support is more limited than those of other villas that have succumbed to party representation for more aid, contingent upon the amount of votes its residents can throw their way. I have since used the money I raised throwing benefit parties in the US to buy notebooks, reading books and textbook manuals in every subject for the libraries of the villa. Most recently we went shoe shopping for the children of the villa.

“For the ones in school,” Isabel tells me as we carry away a box containing 30 pairs of new sneakers. “It’s only one per family, but it’s something. You can’t go to the public school without shoes.”

Every time we go, they are quick to prepare any sort of vegetarian meal they can think of, in spite of my protests, even after the kitchen has been out of operation for several hours until the next mealtime. The kitchens of the villa are never closed.

We share photos of our travels and Emiliana becomes wistful. “How happy you are that you can take pictures of the world!” she exclaims. “I don’t even have pictures of my own country– We don’t have the money!” At the images of the squatted farms of the Movimiento Sin Tierra (MST) in Brasil, she is astonished. “It looks just like the villa, but how can it be? The people of Brasil are rich!”

A similar misconception is held by most people of poor communities here or anywhere on this continent, that any person of North American descent is rich, or that in the Empire, slums like these do not exist.

We are invited inside another woman’s house where her children are giving their baby sister a bath in a tub in the hallway. She brings us into her kitchen, which is cement all around, and her husband is working on a countertop at one end of the room. At the edge of that countertop sits a small brown cardboard box. She is eager to display its contents: one bottle of vegetable oil, one bag of rice, one bag of Yerba Mate, one package of crackers, salt, sugar, a can of peas.

“This is what my family is supposed to live off of for a month,” she laughs. “If it weren’t for the comedors, we wouldn’t eat.”

She is proud of the way they are fixing up the house, because after 16 plus years there, they can afford to put ceramic tile over one fourth of their cement countertops. It is a strange sight and a feeling sweeps through me that makes me want to cry. That small section of the kitchen looks near-modern, that countertop at the right end of the tiny room, with the singular addition of those creamy greyish-lavendar squares.

In almost every house I visit hangs one or more photos of Che Guevara.

One day a woman I have not seen before enters the comedor Daniel de la Sierra, gives us all kisses, grabs a package of crackers from the kitchen and waves us ciao.

“She lost her son three days ago,” Lili whispers, eyeing her sadly. “Six years old. Heart problem.”

This is the tragedy. In the past few weeks alone I have met several women who have lost children due to poor health and zero access to health care besides the long journey to the public hospital. Lili, for one, has lost three in childbirth.  

Emiliana with the piercing blue eyes wears glasses that don’t work because she can’t afford to buy a pair with her own personal prescription. Every other day a new pregnancy, more mouths to feed. A girl that looks too young to have her period asks me to feel her belly. She is 14 years old and has never learned about sex education. Abortion is illegal and dangerous, but most of all costly. If it is a boy she will call it Braya, and a girl will be Julieta. No wonder Mirna feels old to be having her first child at 30.

I ask her what she would say to the activists of the US and Europe, people of the imperialist empires she knows is as responsible as her own farce of a government for the crisis in her country.

“Struggle,” she answers. “Never stop fighting, however you know how. Do whatever is in your power, because we all do just what we can. Just never stop fighting.”

We are walking and I stop to catch one of those fluffy white dandelion seeds slowly navigating the air in front of me. I clasp it, close my eyes for three seconds, let it go.

Lili laughs. “The children call these panadores, like pan,” she tells me, “because they used to wish on them for bread.”

Often at the end of each day they give us a care package of perishable foods–one of the only things the comedors carry in excess. Today Isabel adds a gift of fake soy meat because she knows we are vegetarians.

“Ayuda mutua,” she says, handing me a small bag. Mutual aid.

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