Social Issues

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South America in the Early 21st Century

Grown weary of those cliché articles about traveling to South American cities, the stylized descriptions of snazzy hotels and restaurants imitating trends elsewhere? A highly regarded publication out of Virginia, though much under read compared to its glitzy New York counterparts, offers another perspective on the texture of life in South America through an issue devoted entirely to South America in the 21st Century.

The Virginia Quarterly Review consistently publishes some of the best writings around. True to its subheading of being a journal of literature and discussion, this special issue presents both fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry. Note that this special issue is available entirely on the Web and includes six additional online articles not included in the print edition.

This issue, however, does not seek to explicate the first half millennium of the continent’s modern existence, but rather to assess its place now and look toward the future. The essays cover a broad spectrum of topics”“from the scrap cardboard collectors of Buenos Aires to the drug wars and political corruption of Colombia, from the soy farms of the Brazilian Amazon to the riot-seized streets of Caracas, from the boys of Suriname who dream of becoming European soccer stars to the transsexuals of Lima who dream of life on the streets of Paris. In selecting work for this issue, we chose the pieces that compelled our interest and rewarded our repeated readings; in the process, we’ve tried to gather the multiplicity of experiences and voices and histories that comprise this part of the world. Not a complete picture, of course”“such a thing couldn’t be assembled, not in three hundred, or three thousand pages”“but the beginnings of one. We wanted to challenge anachronistic, outdated notions about the continent, offer some insight into the complexity of its nations and peoples who live there.

Co-edited by the Peruvian-born writer Daniel Alarcón, the issue includes some articles originally appearing in etiqueta negra, a wonderfully designed publication out of Peru; those who read Spanish should certainly explore the writings in etiqueta negra, too.

Albinos and the White Train

Readers of this blog may be particularly interested in two articles involving Argentina: Aicuña Is Not an Albino Town and The White Train.

Toño Angulo Daneri, along with photographer Paola de Grenet, traveled to a remote village of three hundred people in La Rioja known for its high rate of albinism. But what they find is something much more revealing, a factor that characterizes many small communities throughout the continent:

Trade, communication, globalization, and other facets of the modern world pose frightening hazards to a village that wants only to be left alone. Aicuña, as I have found it, with boys riding donkeys through the dust, with its lone taxi and its communal telephone, will not survive this century unscathed.

Everyone residing in Buenos Aires or have visited the Argentine capital should be familiar with the struggles of another group of people, the cartoneros. J. Malcolm Garcia takes a ride on The White Train and, along the way, takes a few timely jabs at Macri: “Macri, whose family has a city sanitation contract, has vowed to find “a definitive solution to the problem of the cartoneros.”

Does Macri want to create a more efficient and humane system for the cartoneros or is he instead protecting the interests of companies with sanitation contracts”“companies such as his own? So far, no cartonero”“or anyone else for that matter”“has demanded answers to this and a much larger question: Is it Macri’s hope to eliminate the cartoneros all together?…

There is one factual error to the article when it refers to Macri’s campaign posters: “He smiles beside his smiling wife and promises va a estar bueno buenos aires.” The unmarried Macri was next to his vice-mayoral candidate Gabriela Michetti. Update: See comment below from the VQR editor explaining how this error came about and that it will be corrected in the online edition.

Included with the article is an excellent documentary The Ghost Train by Gabrielle Weiss that I encourage everyone to view. Even if you live here in Buenos Aires and see the cartoneros out on the streets every night, this little film provides a glimpse into their lives.

Read on

There is much more to this issue of VQR, including a segment on cartoonist Liniers as well as a selection from the late Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas. Those interested in Bolaño or literary translation might want to read this interview with Chris Andrews, who also has translated Argentine writer César Aira.

Eviction protest in San Telmo/Barracas

I write this post to the sounds of drums just outside my apartment building on Av Caseros. (It’s not the first time that I’ve been awaken to the sound of drums in the morning). The residents and friends of the building right next door are protesting the high rents and eviction from their homes.


The protest was organized by the Asamblea de San Telmo (part of the larger Asambleas del Pueblo), an organization that often puts up signs around San Telmo describing the living conditions of the neighborhood’s working class residents and the harsh treatment by some landlords.

According to a piece of paper posted to the front of this building, residents were paying $900 pesos a month rent for a 12 square meter apartment. That’s a lot of money for such a small space. Also, the landlords of the various hotels in San Telmo and Barracas that cater to immigrants are referred to as a mafia, even threatening violence against some residents.


These types of practices are really deplorable. For the past couple of years I’ve seen the people who live in this building. They’re obviously not the typical residents of Av Caseros, (journalist Luis Majul lives on this block) and apartments in neighboring buildings are selling for a lot of money. But I’ve never experienced any problems from the people who live in this building.

Are they treated fairly? Their rent ($900 pesos) is the same as what one would pay for a nice apartment in the neighborhood but, I assume, that residents of these hotels do not have the garantías needed to rent a real apartment. Where is affordable rental housing for the working class residents of Buenos Aires? Where is the current housing for the masses? Those are not rhetorical questions. I really don’t know but seemingly there must be housing problems for this class of city residents or otherwise they would not be living in these hotels. And who is behind this mafia controlling the immigrant hotels and taken buildings?

Mixed Feelings

Despite my concerns for the plight of the working class, I certainly understand why the owner of this building wants the residents to leave. It could be a really nice building and is sandwiched between two very nice apartment buildings. With renovation the owner stands to make a lot of money from the apartments. While I’ve not been on the interior, the building actually seems to be in better shape than a lot of similar buildings.

And I assume that the building is historically protected and cannot be demolished for a modern tower. (But, I’m not sure since this side of Av Caseros is actually Barracas and not San Telmo). I don’t want to enter this building in my city that fades away series.

So, I hope that these people can find a decent place to live and that this historic building will be saved, renovated, and find a new set of tenants.

Cutting the street

The protesters decided to move from the front of the building and block the intersection of Bolivar and Caseros, a fairly busy corner. The buses had to turn around but otherwise no one really seemed to have noticed this morning’s demonstration on Caseros. The police arrived, stood by quietly, and redirected traffic….just another Thursday morning in Buenos Aires.

Update, January 2008: Nothing has changed. The tenants are still living in this house. No more protesting but the banners still hang wearily from the windows.

“We are all López”

…against the side of the Cabildo before a march to mark the disappearance of Jorge Julio López one year ago.

We are all López

Citizen journalism & future of newspapers in Argentia

Shel of the quite interesting Global Neighborhoods blog has a post about Ignacio Escribano & the Argentine citizen journalism/social media site Igooh (a subsidiary of La Nación). (I must admit that I’ve not seen Igooh before now, somehow I’ve missed it but I’m going to take a closer look at it).

Shel has this to say:

“In fact, my conversations with Ignacio have demonstrated that revolutions move at different paces in different places. No US journalist laughs at or disdains the impact of social media. There are no traditional media companies dismissing what’s happening on line as a passing adolescent fad anymore. When I met Ignacio and Eduardo Lomanto, a business executive for La Nacion, back in July, they were both shocked, when I said that I doubted there would be many metropolitan dailies printing papers five years from today and many would simply be out of business. Their mouths opened in harmony when I said many people doubted that either the Boston Globe or San Francisco Chronicle could survive through 2007…..My free-for-what-it’s-worth advice to Latin American and for that matter European media companies is to pay very close attention to what is happening to traditional US media companies.”

Having just returned from the U.S. I agree that U.S. newspapers are no longer relevant. I found the Nashville Tennessean to be worth nothing. And as a former resident of Miami I also can say that the Miami Herald always was disappointing.

But in Buenos Aires I feel very different about the newspapers, which I look forward to reading everyday. When I moved here I started out reading Clarín but eventually changed to buying La Nación on most days, though I still read Clarín whenever I go to a café and a copy is lying around. Oddly, online, I always go to, which I check daily, rather than And on Sunday’s I buy Perfil as well as the BA Herald (mostly for the reprinted articles from the NY Times).

My choice of newspapers is rather odd since my political slant is probably closer to Clarín’s but I particularly like La Nación’s interviews with intellectuals of the world (e.g., Tzvetan Todorov). Then there are the weekly supplements, like Ñ, which I adore. (I’ve not yet checked out La Nación’s competing supplement, ADN).

As a reader, I find the Buenos Aires newspapers to be a lot more relevant than U.S. newspapers. While I’m quite an advocate of the changes brought about digital media, I’m not sure that the trajectory being experienced by U.S. newspapers can be applied to newspaper in Buenos Aires, where the papers are relevant because they still provide good content. Is the decline of newspapers in the U.S. attributable primarily to the rise of digital media or the increasing absence of quality content in the newspapers? Buenos Aires is an intellectually vibrant city and I just don’t see the major newspapers here fading away anytime soon.

Having said all that, I do think that there is a very bright digital media future in Buenos Aires. Most porteños I know are as adept at Internet technologies as their counterparts in the U.S.

Those Feminine Anarchists…

When I think of late 19th century anarchists I tend to imagine some slovenly dressed, ratty haired, vaguely Russian looking dude. But there were some women among those hell raisers and they even had a newspaper, La Voz de la Mujer.

So I learned from reading “No God, No Boss, No Husband: Anarchist Feminism in Nineteenth-Century Argentina” by Maxine Molyneux. (Latin American Perspectives, Vol 13, No. 1 (Winter 1986) 119 – 145).

The anarchist movement in the Buenos Aires of the 1890s stemmed from sectors of the city’s European immigrant communities. Molyneux describes La Voz de la Mujer as being “one of the first expressions of what was to be Argentina’s Anarchist heyday“. Indeed, the fact that there was such a large anarchist movement indicates that Buenos Aires was never really just the city of elegance that my blog’s title so wistfully evokes.

First appearing on January 8, 1896 La Voz de la Mujer was published 9 times over the course of 1896 with more than 1,000 copies printed for each issue. Each issue was four pages printed on 26cm x 36cm paper. The newspaper was short-lived, ceasing publication just after one year.

A few years ago a facsimile edition of the paper was published by the Universidad Nacional de Quilmes. Molyneux says very little about the publishers of La Voz de la Mujer, alluding that since the focus was anarchism then the originators were rather publicity shy. A beautiful actress was rumored to be one of the editors.

Many of the articles were signed though most likely all were pseudonyms. And what were some of the values promoted through La Voz de la Mujer?

  • Abolition of marriage
  • An end to unequal and restricted opportunities for women
  • Ending discrimination against women in the workplace
  • Eradicating domestic slavery
  • Equal access to education

Vice & Free Love in Buenos Aires

At the time Buenos Aires was already on its way to becoming the vice capital of Latin America (a list on which it probably still ranks fairly high). As a feminist voice it’s not surprising that La Voz de la Mujer was sympathetic towards the plight of prostitutes: “The editors held that prostitution was forced on women through poverty, men’s rapacity, and the lack of realistic alternatives for earning their living.”

Free love was one concept promoted by La Voz de la Mujer, though that didn’t equate to sexual abandon. And not all anarchists were of the same mind. There’s the story of one male anarchist who shot his lover five times as she attempted to leave him. Fortunately for her, he was a bad shot (perhaps not having read his anarchist training manual too closely) and she survived.

Molyneaux tells us that the editors of La Voz de la Mujer felt that “‘Degenerate’ sex, including masturbation, was associated with the enemy, especially priests and the bourgeoisie, who were berated as homosexuals and pederasts.” Obviously there were limits to the open-mindedness of even feminist anarchists in 1896, but they did like attacking the Church.

Here’s a rather interesting story appearing in La Voz de la Mujer that a “Luisa Violeta” claimed to be autobiographical. The setting is a confessional, a priest, and Luisa:

The priest rebukes her for not attending mass. She explains that her mother has been
ill and she has had to care for her, but the priest will have none of it: “Disgraceful
girl, don’t you know that it is the soul first and then the body . . . ?” In the course of the confession Luisa asks forgiveness for masturbating, a subject that provokes a keen interest on the other side of the grille. The priest wants to know exactly what parts of her body she touches and whether she performs these acts alone; then he asks her whether she was taught to do this by someone else. She retorts that it was none other than the priest himself. At this point, he invites her into his cubicle and tries to rape her.

Voices Replaced

While it’s a colorful bit of the city’s history La Voz de la Mujer had little impact on the Buenos Aires of its day. Over the years more women would come along but they would be socialists rather than anarchists. And more than a hundred years later women are still found in the social militancy of Buenos Aires.

women social militants

Minimum salary of 2,400 pesos

[Note the date on this post is from 2007.]

Everybody is grumbling about inflation in Buenos Aires these days…..painted on the corner of Brasil and Piedras is this demand for minimum salaries of 2,400 pesos. Somehow I think that there’s more to this statement. (I missed the posters that also were on the street a few days earlier attempting to rationalize this statement). But I know very few people in Buenos Aires who are making 2,400 pesos a month.


Galeano on the Tenements of Buenos Aires (1890)

In another post I have to describe my long, almost futile, search among Buenos Aires bookstores for Eduardo Galeano’s remarkable, three volume Memoria del Fuego (the Spanish version). But since I’m short on time now, I want to pass on what Galeano wrote about housing for the poor in Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century.

First, the English translation by Cedric Belfrage:

In the south are huddled the beaten-down of the earth. In abandoned three-patioed colonial mansions, or in specially built tenements, the workers newly arrived from Naples or Vigo or Bessarabia sleep by turns. Never cold are the scarce beds in the nonspace invaded by braziers and washbasins and chests which serve as cradles. Fights are frequent in the long queues at the door to the only latrine, and silence is an impossible luxury. But sometimes, on party nights, the accordion or mandolin or bagpipes bring back lost voices to these washerwomen and dressmakers, servants of rich bosses and husbands, and ease the loneliness of these men who from sun to sun tan hides, pack meat, saw wood, sweep streets, tote loads, raise and paint walls, roll cigaretttes, grind wheat, and bake bread while their children shine shoes and call out the crime of the day.

Now, the actual Spanish words of Galeano:

Al sur, se apretujan los golpeados de la tierra. En las abandonadas casonas coloniales de tres patios, o en conventillos especialmente contruidos, duermen, por turnos, los trabajadores venidos de Nápoles o Vigo o la Besarabia. Jamás se enfrían las camas, escasas en el ningún espacio invalidido de braseros y palanganas y cajones que hacen de cunas. No faltan peleas en las largas colas a la puerta de la única letrina, y el silencio es un lujo imposible. Pero a veces, en las noches de fiesta, el acordeón o la mandolina o la gaita traen perdidas voces a estas mujeres lavanderas y costureras, sirvientas de patrones y maridos, y alivian la soledad de estos hombres que de sol a sol curten cueros, envasan carne, serruchan madera, barren calles, cargan bultos, alzan y pintan paredes, arman cigarrillos, muelen trigo y hornean pan mientras sus hijos lustran botines y vocean el crimen del día.

Lives of Immigrants

In our everyday wanderings around Buenos Aires, it’s easy to forget how the city (as every city) is always evolving. Things to ponder: are the lives of immigrants in present-day Buenos Aires all that different from those of a hundred years ago? The Italian, Spanish, and Russian immigrants of 1890 all have successfully immigrated into Buenos Aires society and added their own contributions to the city’s identity; over the next decades, how successfully will today’s Bolivian and Peruvian immigrants assimilate into Buenos Aires society and re-mix the city’s identity? In 2090, who will be the dominant immigrant groups in Buenos Aires?

Jazz and Misery in Monserrat

You spend an early, warm summer evening relaxing to live music before a stage positioned in the center of Plaza de Mayo. A woman waits near the fountain for her boyfriend while youths, all ready for a concert, emerge from the subway.


Three policemen, one a sergeant, stop a young man selling the “Hecho de Buenos Aires” magazine. The boy is instructed to open his shoulder bag, drop the contents on the ground, then to empty his pockets. Next he has to lift up his shirt, turn around completely, demonstrating that there is nothing in his waistband. His demeanor is unconcerned, oddly calm, as if he does this routine everyday for the cops that line the edge of the plaza.

The police are satisfied. The young man picks up his bag, his magazines, and wades into the crowd to continue selling “Hecho de Buenos Aires”.

Another young man – perhaps a university student – taller, light brown hair, and bearded pulls out his wallet to buy a copy. Their conversation is jovial, laughing. The young seller of Hecho leans over to kiss the cheek of the bearded man, pats him on the back, and smiles.

The drummer flicks his wrists to rap out the notes, more than mere rhythm, that shows he is a better musician than the guitarist in the spotlight. Are not jazz players always the best drummers?

Beyond the crowd, the music drifts down the side streets. A couple stands on the balcony of their apartment below a majestic cupola. The man shirtless, the woman holding a cat. Their home is a grand building at the corner of Bolívar and Moreno, across from the Colegio Nacional. But the couple are poor, the building almost destroyed by decades of neglect.


It’s the end of the month and almost two hundred families are being turned out of the place where some had lived for twenty years, where some were born. Their rent ranges between $330 and $500 pesos a month, the price of living in squalor in Buenos Aires.


Still searching for Julio Lopez
Jorge Julio Lopez

Thursday marked four months from the disappearance of Jorge Julio Lopez, an elderly witness who has been missing since testifying in the trial against a police official from the last dictatorship. Displayed sporadically throughout the city are posters and graffiti serving as reminders that he is still missing. Despite these efforts, there seems to be little progress in actually finding the man. A commonly accepted belief, after this much time, is that Julio Lopez is dead and his body will never be found though the government has strongly rejected any such statements by the media.

The 18th of each month brings a march down Av de Mayo from the Congreso demanding he re-appears alive.

Different causes, same faces

Thursday was another hot summer day in Buenos Aires. By late afternoon storm clouds gathered overhead. While the rain didn’t come in the downtown area, except for a few sprinkles, strong winds blew along the streets.

Jorge Julio Lopez MST

As with other marches down Av de Mayo, the participants are mostly the same despite the reason for the march. The front lines may change depending upon the cause but the majority of protesters are leftist political groups and piqueteros.

There are always the familiar faces. Go to just about any street march in Buenos Aires and you’ll see this old guy banging on the metal street posts with his little metallic stick. He makes quite a racket.

protest march in buenos aires

And as with other marches, the TV cameras, reporters, and photographers are gathered at the front of the march and waiting at Plaza de Mayo. Yet, other than the disruption in traffic – which can be very problematic for those driving or taking the bus through downtown around 6 pm – I get the sense that no one pays any attention to all these marches.

Cromagnon, 2 years

Last night marked the second anniversary of the fire at a concert in the República Cromagnon nightclub that killed 194 people.


Taped to the barricade in front of Casa Rosada were reminders of the lives that were lost that night. The depth of the tragedy is apparent in the ages of the victims shown just in this photo: 28, 24, 20, 19, 14, 13.

Politics aside, I still have a lot of compassion for the families and friends of those who perished. The anniversary of a person’s death is always difficult. The end of December will always be hard for these families. Unfortunately, they will never again have a truly happy new year.

When I arrived at the remembrance late yesterday in Plaza de Mayo the families were in the Cathedral for a memorial mass. Stretched across the road in front of the Cathedral was a banner with more photos of those who died.


After the mass a few speeches were given in the center of the Plaza. A lot of anger stemming from their grief has been directed at the city government for failing to enforce the code violations at the club. Yesterday, before the speeches in the Plaza started, a dozen police in riot geared lined up in front of the Palacio Municipal. But, during the speech, the police officials made a change and quickly replaced the riot squad with half-a-dozen regularly uniformed policemen. It was an appropriate decision. While there were a couple of left-wing political groups in the plaza, there were none of the hardlined piquetero groups. Nobody had their faces covered or carried large sticks as in so many marches.

People simply carried signs or banners with images of their loved ones as they marched down Av de Mayo on their way towards the location of the fire in the neighborhood of Once.


During the speeches I noticed a few girls take a seat on the curb in front of the Cabildo. Two of them carried signs with the photo and a name of a friend that died in Cromagnon. One girl said something to another and then both girls carefully turned their signs so that their friend’s photo faced inward. I didn’t understand at first, but then I realized….you’re 20 years old, how hard it must be to sit there and look at the photo of your dead friend.


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