Last week we visited one of the oldest villas miserias (slums) in Buenos Aires, Villa 31. Home to an estimated 26,400 people, the number of people living in Villa 31 has doubled since 2001. The visit was, for lack of a better word, intense. To minimize safety concerns we were accompanied by a man who works in slum development for the government and who was well known in this particular slum. However, even then we couldn’t take photos unless we were inside a building for fear of getting mugged.
Taxis don’t drive to Villa 31, so we had to ask our driver to drop us off at a grocery store nearby and then walk. I can’t imagine what the inhabitants must of been thinking as they watched our group of tall blond foreigners walk blindly into one of the most dangerous parts of Buenos Aires. Silly North Americans.
The first place we visited in the villa was a Roperia, a non-profit that collects donated clothes and gives them to mothers. Before visiting, I had this conception that the people living in the villas were always in need of and looking for a hand out, always taking clothes from the Roperia instead of donating them. Not true. Instead of collecting clothes from wealthy people in other parts of the city, the Roperia only gathers and redistributes clothes donated by the residents of the slum. After a earthquake hit Salta (a region in northern Argentina), the Roperia in Villa 31 received so much clothes from the residents that they filled a coach bus. Lesson learned: generosity comes from the most destitute of places.
After finishing our visit at the Roperia, we darted through the rain to a daycare center down the “street” to talk with the teachers about the lives of kids in the slum. We also got to visit a library, where students visit in shifts to get help studying after their secondary school ends for the day. The library wasn’t really a library, just a room with some tables and a very, very dedicated tutor.
All in all, our afternoon in Villa 31 was eye-opening and breath-taking. A few things stuck with me. First, I found the governments response to Villa 31 very interesting. The slum is located on prime real estate, so past governments have pursued many methods to eliminate it, including using bulldozers to destroy the residents’ shacks. While the current government has begun to recognize the residents’ right to their property, it still is hesitant to take any action to increase the slums permanence. For example, instead of installing a permanent water system in the slum, the government sends a truck to fill up water buckets outside the houses every day. The cost of this truck for one year equals the cost of installing the permanent water system, but the government would rather pay the extra money than formalize the residents right to their property.
Another thing I found fascinating was that even though the residents live without a water system (not to mention infrastructural security, paved roads, etc. etc.), everyone has Direct T.V. Everyone. My host mom explained how this phenomenon makes it difficult for her and other people in the middle/upper class to support government assistance programs that target people in the villas. For me, the site of satellite dishes installed on the sides of scrap metal shacks was somewhat incomprehensible. All I saw was globalization irony at its best.