Thursday, July 15, 2010

Olivia R., The Real Villa, June 2010

It's hard to know that the children I taught come from some of the world's poorest neighborhoods, away from the eyes of visitors and the majority of people who live north of Avenida Rivadavia. As an American student studying abroad in Buenos Aires, I had no idea before I came to Argentina about the social injustices and poverty that many people who live there face. Our programs don’t tell us about these things; they put us up in rich neighborhoods and universities in the north of the city, away from the harsh reality of everyday life for so many people. Most visitors never know about that side of life in Buenos Aires, and for that matter most “Porteños.” The wall around la Ciudad Oculta is more than just a physical barrier; it separates the people within as an undesirable “Other.” When I told my host family I’d be volunteering down near Villa 15, they were horrified, assuring me I’d be robbed, probably raped, and definitely would get lice and illnesses from the “Negros.” This classist, elitist attitude shocked me; how could supposedly educated and “liberal” people have constructed these barriers of discrimination and prejudice and fear? And how could they live in such denial? And more importantly, why weren’t they doing anything to help relieve the suffering, or demanding basic human rights for those who have no voice? And at the same time I wondered what I would find, and how I could make a change. Who was I, to come to Argentina and think I knew better, that I was free of these same prejudices and fears? I thought I knew what it was like, and that I wasn't sheltered. I'd seen pictures and done lots of research and I spent my Wednesdays and Thursdays teaching just a few blocks away, but nothing could have prepared me for actually being inside the villas, an experience that almost tore me apart. To be completely honest, I too was afraid.

Despite everything that I knew, a sense of panic overcame me like a cold punch in the stomach that day when I'd realized I'd missed my bus stop and was passing through the villas: one side of the street the soulless gray monoliths of the Eva Perón Transitory Living Nucleus and the other familiar stacks of cheap materials that formed an endless shantytown. Nearly in tears, I had no choice but to get off and take the bus back. Terrified, I crossed the street and walked a few blocks and tried not to look conspicuous. And then I waited. Looking around at the ugly appearance of the buildings and the dirty streets and stray dogs, the pit in my stomach grew as I took in the sight of the poverty and apparent human misery. The second I saw another bus approaching the stop I jumped on, thinking this was my escape, until I realized the bus was headed the wrong way, deeper into the villas. Already late for class, I called Carmen at the Centro explaining that I was lost and scared to get off the bus and I was sorry I was late. She told me it was ok, but the kids were waiting for me. I burst into tears.

After hanging up everyone around me started asking where I was trying to go and patting my back and repeating "Tranquila.” On the bus back, the driver stopped at a corner and pointed down a street towards Eva Peron. I had no choice. I exited, and took a look at the shantytown around me. And then I started to run away from that place, and away from reality—that ugly monster of poverty and all the things I thought I had no power to change. I ran past stacked shacks and leering men and dingy shops and shoeless children and garbage and the whole miserable scene. I wanted out. I must have ran 10 blocks, I don't know, but when I realized that I was around the corner from the Centro relief flooded over me. Carmen was waiting for me outside, and I couldn't help but run into her arms and cry on her shoulder. She said nothing for a minute, because she knew where I’d been and what I’d seen. The kids were waiting inside for me, working on homework together but with anxious faces. When I walked in they crowded around, giving me hugs and kisses and yelling "Seño! Te perdiste? Sos loca!" and then hugged me some more and asked if it was tea time yet.

They also knew what I'd seen, and that I'd been afraid, that I couldn’t walk through those slums with my head held high, ignoring the ugly surroundings without fear. I was scared of their reality. I wasn’t brave enough to walk the same streets my students did, and they knew that too. But after that ordeal that invisible wall came down; we had an understanding and there was nothing more to be said about it. Life went on, and I continued, in my own small way, trying to give these kids something better. Was I loca? Maybe so, for believing that I could help them, and they could escape that misery like I had. Someone has to stand up against the prejudices and fear and injustices that the people in the villas face. And sometimes, reality has to slap you in the face to make you realize that there is hope; that the walls of oppression will come down. You have to believe this, or what hope is there at all?
-Olivia Reburn


Anonymous said...

Knowledge is power................................................

Nick said...

Shocking post, it's true, nobody talks about this kind of things, right now i'm looking for an apartment for rent buenos aires , i will be there for about 8 months doing charity work on the "villas" such as yourself, i have alredy been there but only for a 1 month program, this time i'm starting a bigger project and i'm really excited about it, wish me luck ! said...

I am from Buenos Aires, living in the US
Your story moved me. Couldn't be told better!
Pz said...

Moving story!