Friday, June 7, 2013

Subway to the Slums? Buenos Aires Considers the Underprivileged

Every large Latin American city has its squatter settlements, shantytowns where arrivals from the provinces can get their start in precarious dwellings built of sub-standard materials salvaged from dumpsters or construction sites. Occupying previously vacant lots, their residents lack land titles and many routine services, including electricity, which they often remedy by pirating power from the existing infrastructure, even though it can be dangerous to do so. They often lack running water and trash collection and, for that reason, conditions can also be insalubrious.
In Chile, such settlements are known as callampas (“mushrooms,” so called because they seemingly spring up overnight). In Argentina, they are villas miserias, a phrase clearly implying conditions that most Argentines would prefer to avoid. Nevertheless, over time, villas can stabilize to become communities but, more often than not, they’re still on the short end of municipal services. Argentine painter Antonio Berni depicted villa conditions in his series of oils centered on a young boy named Juanito Laguna, as depicted here in “Juanito Laguna goes to the city.”

One of Buenos Aires’s most (in)famous shantytowns is Villa 31, which many tourists see as they enter or leave the city’s Terminal Retiro, the main long-distance bus station. City residents invariably warn them to keep away from the villa because of perceived crime problems, and certainly it would be inadvisable to stroll its narrow streets flashing your Rolex.
Villa 31, though, may be entering the mainstream, at least in terms of transportation. Long ignored by governments from the local to the federal level, it may acquire its own Subte station, if Línea H of the Buenos Aires underground railroad (pictured above) extends north to eventually loop and link to the bus terminal, eventually connecting to the crosstown Línea C. The new Estación Padre Mugica – taking its name from a priest assassinated in 1974 for his work among the city’s poor – would serve Villa 31’s 25,000 residents.

It’s ironic, to a degree, that this proposal comes under a city government headed by the relatively conservative mayor Mauricio Macri. Argentine President Cristina Fernández’s administration, which detests Macri and is unpopular in the capital, fancies itself a champion of the poor, but pretty much limits its own assistance to improvised clientelism rather than durable concrete measures like improved public transportation. The government does, however, bus its clients to the central Plaza de Mayo, and elsewhere, for massive political rallies.

Moon Handbooks Chile, in Saratoga
In just ten days – Monday, June 17, at 7 p.m., to be precise – I will offer a digital slide presentation on travel in Chile at Santa Clara Country’s Saratoga Library (13650 Saratoga Avenue, Saratoga CA 95070, tel. 408-867-6126, ext. 3817). Coverage will also include the Chilean Pacific Islands of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and Juan Fernández (Robinson Crusoe), as well as southernmost Argentina (Tierra del Fuego and the vicinity of El Calafate) that appear in the book. I will also be available to answer questions about Argentina and Buenos Aires. The presentation is free of charge, but books will be available for purchase.

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