Wednesday, April 4, 2012


"There is a necklace of poverty that chokes Buenos Aires tighter every day...."
Nathan Englander, from his novel The Ministry of Special Cases
(excellent book I'm reading right now about a family whose son disappears during the Dirty War era)

It's the elephant in the room, of course, or maybe the penguin or guanaco. Animals aside, the poverty here is disturbing, especially in Buenos Aires where wealth sidles right up next to it. For example, Villa 31, next to the train station, literally blocks from some of the most expensive apartment buildings and hotels in Buenos Aires (with door men and security of course). There is a lot of begging and petty crime on the streets which you have to stay aware of. Though there is gun control here, the dictatorship created a huge black market for guns, so they are around, though not like in the states as far as I can tell. Violence is basic and old world here as awful as that sounds. It's about robbery and gender relations. I say this because I'm asked to explain the bizarreness of American violence in the wake of the Oakland shooting. Ezequiel says all the weird stuff happens in the US: tornadoes, enormous wealth, pyschos, religious nuts and armageddon. This takes the edge off missing home.

 Every afternoon here in Buenos Aires the kids and young men, and often women as well--since whole families work together--come into the city from the province to collect recyclables. These are the cartoneros, who for the most part, are respected and law-abiding. They basically want to be left alone and many say they prefer this work because they dont have to deal with some dishonest boss or company who won't pay them a decent wage (just witnessed a protest last week where a large grocery chain shut down and just stopped paying wages). My Scottish friend who's lived here 15 years has hired and gotten to know some of these cartoneros. A lot of them have sad accidents, health problems, too many kids...all of it conspiring to drop them through the safety net which is a threadbare one at best. There are teenagers with babies, and prostitution comes into play as well. There was the story of a rich straight couple who like to go out and find young men in the street to have sex with. The boys ask if they can take a shower first, but the answer is...'no, the whole fantasy is ruined then...sorry.' One of the weird things about Argentina is that even the poorest street people are often shockingly beautiful. Which makes it harder to see them as 'other' and/or to ignore/dismiss them. It engages you, which can be a good thing.

The above photos are courtesy of an Icelandic guy  as I don't like taking pictures generally and am not comfortable photographing poor people. 
 It feels weird with a camera that could pay a month's wages. If I was a better person, I'd give them the camera.

It's interesting to learn that many of these people prefer to live in a hovel and pick through trash, because..there's more dignity to it and it's better than being abused and mistreated like a low-wage slave. People like to be in charge of their own life no matter how hard it is (I saw the same thing when I volunteered in the mental health unit at SF General). The solution is of course to create a system that people don't want to opt out of, or that isn't so brutal that it drives people into 'preferable' poverty. Anyway, it's hard to witness and maybe that's because it's where America may be headed, and in some places, has already arrived there.  
The one thing you can do, which not enough people here do (the waste collection system is a mess-people just put bags in the streets as they say trashcans will all be stolen), is separate your trash so it's easier for cartoneros to get to the bottles, plastic, etc without digging through gross stuff.

There are the street kids of course. They are kids and many have that weird ability to enjoy themselves no matter what the circumstances. One little boy, about 6 or 7, in the central pedestrian mall was begging and also fascinated with this woman who stood on a box and acted like a marionette when you put coins in her cup. The kid kept begging and then giving all his money to watch the girl move. He was full of glee. I wondered if they were working together, but it didn't appear so. The kid just loved watching her, loved the power to make her move.
You see other kids come into restaurants with handfuls of coins which they change out for bills. Some restaurant staff seem to have relationships with these kids and sit them down and give them some bread while making change. More often, the kids are chased out. But customers are generally kind and give them a piece of pizza or a hug or something. A little conversation. 
Others you'll see on the subway, sniffing glue or sleeping on sidewalks. Usually the kids are with their mothers which saves them from drugs if nothing else. I saw one little boy next to him mom in the subway playing with a discarded plastic Starbucks cup which was just a picture of neoliberalism.
A popular thing among some rich folks is to open a food kitchen for kids, so you see these around. But, of course, charity isn't enough..there need to be big structural changes in this economy, which is too resource driven, and resource economies create poverty. 

An excellent book which describes this process is Eduardo Galeano's The Open Veins of Latin America. He posits that the entire capitalist system was more or less created from the resources taken from South America (along with African slaves, when there weren't enough Indians left, to do the work). This is a hard book to read, and often it gets attacked from the right for being a leftist screed. But it's well-researched and when you read that 8 million Bolivian Indians died pulling silver out of the mines in Potosi to feed Europe's hunger for capital, you can say whatever you want. The right wing capitalist rebuttal always seems too defensive, too much about denial and dependent on the distance of history to dodge the guilt. Fear of the mirror. If you have eyes to see....
This is necessary stuff to read for all people's of the Americas, and I recommend it.

Whether you read or not, it's apparent that people need better jobs and opportunties here. Yet how can that happen when wealth is about owning resources and selling them to other countries? There's no incentive to create a middle class market here and resource exploitation pays lousy wages. Argentina is no different than the most of Latin America, almost wholly dependent on selling its resources (soy, beef, wheat here), which only serves the owners of those resources, who more often than not aren't even Argentine: They're Spanish, American, French, etc. Corruption doesn't help the situation either, but how could it be otherwise in a classist, resource-exploitive system that doesn't really have an incentive to be fair or law-abiding? Take a look at this list:

Argentina is down among the African nations, even as Buenos Aires sees itself as European (and yes, corruption can easily be seen as a legacy of resource-driven colonialism, which explains some of the list, and I think very much explains Argentina). As you can see, Argentina is improving ever so slowly, though the word on the street is always painful. People just don't have faith in the government here, and a big part of it is the weirdness and fantasy of Buenos Aires. It's like a European city and Portenos like it that way, no matter the cost (it is a lot like a colonial capital run by foreigners (the rich), separate from but still exploiting the country it's attached to it). The power is here, but it's schizoid as it's surrounded by an arguably third world country. So you have gay marriage, and now a movement to legalize pot--all very 'la capital issues' regardless of their merits--but there are street kids and people living in the 19th century in the province. The difference is gay marriage and pot don't cost anything; they're easy. You look cool while doing nothing. Not to discount either, but I think getting kids off the street and improving living conditions generally should probably be the most important concern. Amid all this, they just raised the pay of all public officials....gotta keep up with that 20% inflation (but why are the people who could actually do something about it responding to it in the most counterproductive way? For answer, please see US Republican Party response to US economic meldown)

There's also a fair amount of immigration here...lots of Peruvians, Bolivians, Paraguayans. Which puts the lie to this being a white country. It looks very latin in most parts because Argentina is still the best paying economy in South America, despite its flaws. Of course, there's also the debate about whether Sicilians are white people, which of course begs the question: what is a white person and why does the world think so racially? Sicilians are basically a mixture of the entire Mediterranean, including African slaves, and are often much darker than their Indian counterparts here...but they're considered white. Culturally, yes, I suppose, so perhaps we should be speaking about culture and not color. There is a western culture, those from it are favored and have an advantage. Bolivians, an Argentine doctor remarked to me, have no culture. Really? There is an embarassing lack of development of multiculturalism here. Ezequiel for instance is half Syrian and is often treated as 'morocho,' which is slang or softer for Indian, dark-skinned or 'negro,' which is more prejorative. So lets see, Arab people are white or brown or black or what? I'm never sure, which shows how stupid the whole race/color thing is. Only those who experience the color line, or the rasta stoner crowd, or artists seem to have a clue. But they get little support or voice. Yes, the lack of support for the arts here continually pisses me off. Peronism supports the workers, but not the arts....let me paraphrase Miguel again (from an earlier post), the Cuban:  you can't call it socialism if it isn't comprehensive in its vision of a healthy society. But god bless the artists anyway, they always find a way. This carboard creature recently appeared in Cordoba where I lived last year for a month and hope to visit again in May (see March 2011 blogs at right):

Artist is Pablo Curutchet

Last weekend, they shut down the center of the city for a formula race. Sports are king here, which is odd for a non sports fan. 

After last week's Dia de la Memoria, in honor of the 30,000 disappeared of the dirty war (1973-86)... and/or see my more extensive posts from last year at right under April 2011.... this week was the 30th anniversary of the Malvinas War (Falklands to those of you who aren't politically correct Argentine style). I've referred to this drama in earlier posts from a year ago as well ..., I won't belabor you with more seems to be yet another easy issue politically to claim the territory off the coast as rightfully Argentina's. It's weird that everyone, left and right, has this knee-jerk strong patriotic feeling about it when the whole sad affair was basically a conflict between Argentina's fading cold-blooded dictatorship and the UK's fading empire in the hands of the cold-blooded Maggie Thatcher. The more I look into it, the more it seems the whole thing could have been avoided. But considering the players on both sides, who seemed more than comfortable with bloodshed, a peaceful solution was not aggressively pursued. And if ever there was a war that didn't need to happen and could have been avoided, this was it. Now it's just a point of pride, and patriotism and pride are ugly things. But they won't go away--too many young men were killed to let it go, and the sinking of the Belgrano was particularly egregious and destroys all British credibility. Of course the people in the islands don't want to be part of Argentina. So there you have it. Reminds me of the west bank...easiest to send the settlers back home and make peace. Why are victors so graceless?

Sometimes the obelisk looks gray instead of white, no matter how hard Evita screams

On a happier note, this article made me feel a little better as I struggle forward with my Castellano:

the salient excerpts:  a heightened ability to monitor the environment. “Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.” In a study ...on monitoring tasks, ...the bilingual subjects not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.

Below: Trebor Healey attempts bilingualism

The bilingual experience appears to influence the brain from infancy to old age (and there is reason to believe that it may also apply to those who learn a second language later in life).
Bilingualism’s effects also extend into the twilight years. In a recent study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals, scientists led by the neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego, found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism — measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language — were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset.

Now it's semana santa (4 days)...there are a lot of holidays here

1 comment:

  1. Helping people is one of the things I love to do. I actually also travelled to help some fellows that are in great need in South America. I went to Argentina to help in the "villas miseria". I got furnished apartments in buenos aires and every day I would go bring them some food. The grateful faces are something I will never forget!