The shantytowns of the Argentine capital are the site of an intense conflict between the city’s government, presided over by businessman Mauricio Macri, and their inhabitants, the poorest and most marginalized who have been persecuted for decades.
"Now," shouts Orlando, and we hurtle across the eight lanes of the highway that are packed with trucks that arrive at the port full of soy and other commodities in order to feed the cattle in European and Asian countries. When we arrive at the lane opposite the Argentine Antarctica Avenue, we walk along a dirt path among precarious brick houses. We are entering Villa 31 or Retiro, a "very dangerous" place that is not easily left alive, according to the conservative media of Buenos Aires.
We walk past a small football pitch were some children run after a ball and reach the Father Mugica eatery where a huge mural shows the figure of the neighborhood’s emblematic priest. In this medium-sized shed with flaky walls and a sheet metal roof we are received by Jhony, a short and burly 60-year-old man with black, shiny hair. He has retired from the port, was born in the slum, and has taken it to his heart to the extent that he devotes all his time to organizing and serving one of the 20 community eateries of the slum.
Sitting on long wooden stools, a group of women/mothers talk in low voices. The eatery can accommodate almost 100 people around half a dozen long tables and a kitchen of the same size that produces daily 600 portions for the neighbors, the vast majority of them children. The government hands out only 300 portions that are being stretched to meet a demand that keeps increasing, even though the government affirms that the economy grows at 8-9% every year.
Jhony and a group of mothers who work as volunteers daily make the Christian miracle of the loaves a reality. The government provides the food, but they are in charge of cooking it, serving it, and keeping the place proper. In the morning they serve a cup of tea to the children who walk to school, and from eight o’clock the families wait for lunch. They work until three o’clock in the afternoon, and afterward the eatery turns into a social center. "The funeral wakes and birthdays of this part of the neighborhood are held here," one of the mothers says proudly.
A neighbor arrives with a flyer that condemns the city government’s media offensive against the 14 slums of Buenos Aires where already 235,000 people live. According to unofficial figures, since the 2001 crisis the population of the slums has doubled, and in one and a half years grew by 30%. Macri was elected city governor in 2007 by an absolute majority of the conservative Argentine capital. He was president of Boca Juniors, the country’s most popular soccer club; was an ally of the neoliberal President Carlos Menem; and more than a few affirm that he did not obtain his wealth in a transparent manner.
In the electoral campaign he promised to urbanize the slums and eradicate the Retiro area, moving its population to outlying zones or distant from the center. The 40,000 inhabitants of Villa 31 know that this area is highly sought-after by real estate agents—multimillion-dollar works have been constructed in the port zone adjacent to the slum. For them this would mean a repetition of the sad history they experienced under the military dictatorship.
Histories of Poverty and Dignity
Orlando offers to guide us around the slum. He tells us that he was born in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and that he came to live here when he was barely one year old. We cross wide dirt paths and large mud puddles, between half-built two-story and even three-story houses. There are many passageways, and all of the houses appear to be connected. On the lower floors there are dozens of family businesses that offer fruit and vegetables, school equipment and tidbits, clothes, and cleaning items.
Almost all of them have a room that is used as a workshop. In the slums people do not only sell; they produce all kinds of things, from clothes to car repair—an economy at the border between informality and illegality. Many families set up stalls at the markets of the area, others have secured more or less stable work in the formal city, and a part that is impossible to determine has illegal businesses. All these economies are fuelled by inexhaustible flows of solidarity that transform humiliation into dignity.
We arrive at a quite precarious building with a hand-painted sign: "Community Center El Campito." Under a faint light there are posters in favor of Evo Morales, and Osvaldo explains that the majority of inhabitants in the slum are Bolivians and Paraguayans, and the Argentineans tend to come from the North, from the provinces that border those countries. A huge photo of Father Mugica and another one of the disappeared journalist Rodolfo Walsh adorn the small library, and a youthful Che appears to greet us with an infectious smile. In the slum everything appears to be politics or, better yet, resistance.
A crowd of children and half a dozen mothers are celebrating the birthday of Julián who founded the community center four years ago. He affirms that Macri "represents the concentrated economic power that always wanted these lands," and that they now want to complete the eradication that the dictatorship could not finish.
It is time to speak of the past, of the history of the slum, and for that purpose Orlando suggests we listen to Jhony. Slowly his words give form to a history lived with pain. The slum was created by port workers who had been left unemployed by the 1929 crisis. There are 15 public hectares between the port and one of the big railway stations that connects with the north of the country. In the 1940s European immigrants and railway workers arrived. At the end of the 1950s there were already six neighborhoods and a coordinating body that grouped together the representatives.
In the early 1970s the slum had some 16,000 families and 50-60,000 inhabitants. One coordinating body of the slum grouped together all the slums of the city that fought for land ownership, housing, and residence in the urban neighborhood. During that period the settlements with different characteristics and genealogies did not yet exist: the slum arises based on the arrival of family after family in a constantly redefined space. The settlement is the result of a collective taking, previously organized with a planned design of the space.
During the military dictatorship (1976-1983) the mayor, Brigadier General Osvaldo Cacciatore, implemented a violent policy of eradication of the slums. The military arrived at night, forced entire families to board trucks with their few belongings, and left them at the outskirts of the city, lost in places they did not know. The foreigners were moved to the border. Later the bulldozers pulled down the houses to leave behind a scorched earth. "Buenos Aires is not for anyone, but for those who deserve it. We must have a better city for better people," said Cacciatore.
Barely three years later, in 1979, only 46 families had been left, between 180 and 200 inhabitants. The other 60,000 had been expelled, together with dozens of thousands of other slums in the city. The forced expulsion was curbed in 1979 through an appeal made by the "slum priests." With the return of democracy in 1984 the slum became quickly repopulated, at a speed of 200 families per night, including old and new slum dwellers. Even though in the neoliberal 1990s they attempted to evict them through a "cleansing of the poor" and 800 houses were pulled down in 1995, Villa 31 continues to grow, housing up to 40,000 inhabitants.
The Slum Priests
They were, and are, one of the most important social and political actors in Argentina and deserve a particular mentioning. As a result of the Second Vatican Council in October 1962 a fierce debate began in the Christian world which, in Latin America, focuses on the attitude toward the poor. On Aug. 15, 1967 the Manifesto of the 18 Bishops of the Third World was published. Nine of them were Brazilians, headed by Helder Camara, and a Colombian.
The text condemned "the international money imperialism" and that "the Church had practically always been linked to the political, social, and economic system." They criticized the Right that "had launched a subversive war … massacring entire peoples." The Manifesto ended with the verse 28, chapter 21 of the gospel of Lucas: "Get up and raise your head, because your liberation is nigh."
The idea of "liberation" spread like wildfire throughout Latin America. In Argentina in December that year, and in a climate of strong social agitation, under the military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Ongania, 270 priests signed the Manifesto. In May 1968 the first national gathering was held that formed the Movement of Priests for the Third World (MSTM) that managed to group together 524 priests, 15% of the diocesan clergy.
Some members of the movement preached in shantytowns, such as Carlos Mugica who was born in 1930 in the posh Barrio Norte. Not only did they celebrate mass in the slums, but some of them also began to live with the poorest. The precarious chapels were built by the community, through collective work, just like the houses had been built. Like many of his colleagues, Mugica was a Peronist, supported social struggles, defended the idea that the workers take power to build a new world, and displayed sympathy for the guerrilla. But in 1973 Mugica distanced himself from the guerrilla, declaring: "As the Bible says, the arms need to be given up in order to take up the ploughshares."
Some of the Bishops supported him, but the Argentine ecclesiastical hierarchy was always a loyal ally of the privileged and the militaries with whom they established a strong alliance during the dictatorship. Miguel Ramondetti, who was secretary general of the MSTM, maintained that the Argentine episcopacy "together with the Colombian, was always the most retrograde in Latin America."
The slum priests were the sector of the Church that was most committed to the poor and therefore perhaps the one that was most often attacked. On May 11, 1974 Mugica was murdered in Buenos Aires by a paramilitary group, the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (AAA). He was the first priest to be killed in the country. Mugica also participated in the Pastoral Team for the Slums that the Episcopacy had created in 1968. He was shot as he left the parish of San Francisco Solano where thousands of poor held a vigil for him, and later in the Chapel of Christ the Worker in Villa de Retiro.
His funeral was attended by an impressive crowd of the poor of the shantytowns who "accompanied him along more than 50 blocks to the Recoleta area, in an expression of faith of such profound religious and popular sentiment unlike any other in our city in living memory." Twenty-five years later his remains made their way back, returning from the most luxurious cemetery to the Chapel in Retiro: "Four blocks of slum dwellers walked with images of the Virgin of Copacabana and Caacupé, with the flags of Paraguay and Bolivia, and with the slogans that 25 years ago probably said, but the other way around: bread, roof, work," wrote the newspaper La Nación.
According to the book Church and Dictatorship by the human rights defender Emilio Mignone, the military regime persecuted more than 60 priests and bishops: 21 were murdered and disappeared, among them the Bishop of La Rioja, Enrique Angelelli; 10 endured many years of prison; 11 others were detained, tortured, and later expelled from the country; more than 20 had to go into exile. The MSTM was weakened due to internal differences and ceased to function in 1976 when the dictatorship began.
The priests who are committed to the poor continue to be a nightmare for the powerful, due to the influence they have in the neighborhoods and their straightforward view of the oppressor’s world. On July 13, 2008 Rodolfo Ricciardelli, founder of the MSTM, died. He had lived in slum 1-11-14 or Bajo Flores since 1973 and had resisted the bulldozers of the dictatorship from the parish María Madre del Pueblo where they also put up an eatery and a kindergarten, even though five catechists were disappeared.
At the vigil Ricciardelli was laid out in an open coffin in the church "between virgins and black Jesuses"; he had a "T-shirt and a flag of the Boca Juniors Club at his feet and was surrounded by photos of him and of another priest murdered by the AAA, Carlos Mugica." The neighbors cried and affirmed that when burglaries occurred in the neighborhood, the priest went to the houses of the thieves to get them to return what they had stolen.
On June 11, 2007, when Macri’s anti-slum campaign intensified, himself a self-declared admirer of Cacciatore, 15 priests of seven slums in Buenos Aires, including Ricciardelli, disseminated a text entitled "Reflections on Urbanization and Respect for the Slum Culture." The text is one of the most profound writings of analysis and understanding of the culture of the urban popular sectors.
It begins by saying that "life in the slum" has meant that the priests have a "particular perspective" that differs from the one that those living in other places might have. Contrary to the politicians and formal society, who believe that among the poor everything is "need" and negativity (drugs, violence, poverty), defend "a positive perspective on the culture that exists in the slum."
"The slum is not a place that needs only help; rather it is a sphere that teaches us a more humane and therefore more Christian life. We appreciate the culture in the slum that arises from the encounter between the most noble and true values of the interior of the country and neighboring countries, and urban reality. The slum culture is nothing but a rich popular culture of our Latin American peoples." It considers this culture part of "popular Christianity," a Christianity that is "not ecclesiastic," and that "the people have always lived as their own, with autonomy."
The slum priests affirm that the slum culture "celebrates life, because it is organized around it." They highlight the values of fraternity and solidarity: "giving life for the other," "preferring birth to death," and above all, "offering a place for the sick in their own house and sharing the bread with the hungry." While "liberal society is organized around, and celebrates, power and wealth, which are expressions of the ideologies of the right and the left," the slum culture teaches "values that are based on the idea that every human being is God, and not money."
In this way the priests reverse the discriminatory discourse of the authorities and a large part of society that aims to criminalize poverty. When it comes to confronting the proposal to urbanize the slums, they say: "The slum culture has its own way of perceiving and using public space. As such the street is the natural extension of one’s home, not simply a transit point, but a place where one creates ties with the neighbors, where one finds the possibility to express oneself, the place for popular celebrations."
They reject the word "urbanize," because "it is unilateral, comes from a position of power, and displays a devaluation of the slum culture." But they go further than that when they question the dominant values: "If urbanization means that the port culture invades with its vanity the slum culture, thinking that progress means giving the slum dwellers everything they need to be a ‘civilized society,’ then we disagree."
The letter represents one of the main checks on the ambitions of the city government and the real estate agencies to make profit with the well-located urban lands. Urban speculation in the area near the port has led big companies of Argentine, European, and U.S. capital to create the Madero Port (Puerto Madero area), a mega-undertaking along the style of gated communities with a private seafront for yachts, five-star hotels, multinational offices, and luxury restaurants.
Now they plan to expand it with Puerto Madero II, but for this they need to "free" the 15 hectares of Villa 31. This time they cannot use the bulldozers. But we know that greed knows no limits. The strong alliance between the inhabitants of the slums and their priests, and the support of Argentine social movements, appears to be able to resist the "bulldozers" of the speculative capital. But capital and political power are using new weapons that are much more subtle.
"They are trying to divide us via the leaders that arrive with a lot of money. One of them is called the commander, because in the 1970s he was on the left," says one of the mothers who accompany Jhony in the community eatery. She is a representative of her block and says that at night her house is being spraypainted by people who work for the leaders and that she receives almost constant provocations. One of the most aggressive campaigns concerns slum organizing.
Political power has chosen to promote within each neighborhood the election of a neighborhood committee in which the president has almost absolute power. But the men, and above all the women, prefer their block representatives whom they know and with whom they have face-to-face relations. Among themselves they form a body of representatives that is inspired in the traditional factory worker culture. In Villa 31 the body of representatives was created in 2001 with some 60 members.
"We hardly see the president. He appears when there are elections for the committee, he hands out money, and afterward they stop coming here. By contrast, when we elect the block representatives, one to five according to the number of families, we see them every day, because they are neighbors. And when they do the job badly, we replace them," says the same mother. The experience of Villa 31 provides some lessons: they have to control their "representatives" so that power does not buy them. They know that if they manage to do it, Macri and the speculative capital will have won.