Trials and Tangos

•June 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The last two weeks have been insane for me.  I have been seriously busy in the last couple of months in particular, but the last two weeks have just been ridiculous—I’m so glad they’re over!  I had two HUMONGOUS oral presentations this week—one in each class at la UBA—one on Monday and one on Thursday.  Neither one went particularly as I had expected it to.  On Monday, I had an individual 30 minute oral presentation on a analytical text for my literature class in which I am the only foreign student and I find myself working to give 300 percent to every class and assignment to prove to my professor and classmates alike that I deserve to be there and am not a dense, human-shaped waste of space.  Despite all of my best efforts, I had to sprint to class because the subway line I use to get to class was not functioning properly and the train came nearly 20 minutes late.  When I arrived in front of the building, I saw what looked like hundreds of people in the street in front of the university.  My first thought was, of course, “Great.  Another strike/demonstration/who-knows-what that I’m going to have to weave my way through to get to class.”  Then I saw the police cars and an officer pulling two very large dogs out of the back of an emergency vehicle.  I managed to find my professor and a few other students in my class, who told me that there had been a bomb threat at the building.  As a result, we walked to a café a couple of blocks away, collecting classmates who we came across along the way.  Consequently, I gave my big oral presentation in a dark, freezing cold, tiny café with loud music that they cranky wait staff refused to turn down while my entire class was squished into the tiny corner that was all the café owners would let us occupy.  Not quite how I had envisioned my oral exposition.

My oral presentation on Thursday was one of the most—if not the most—stressful experiences I have had in Argentina so far.  It was a group presentation, with 5 people to a group, and, in short, I ended up doing all of the organizing and nearly the entire project and accompanying essay myself, which is really silly seeing I’m still learning Spanish and I was in a group with Argentines.  The whole experience was needlessly stressful and infuriatingly frustrating, and I am phenomenally glad that it is over.  Tomorrow I start all of my final papers.  The semester is really beginning to draw to a close…

I did do some fun things though, too. Two Fridays ago, I attended my first tango class, where I discovered that all of my classical ballet training was much more of a hindrance than a help.  The center of gravity and manner of moving in tango is completely different, and it was really, REALLY difficult to forget all of the training that I had drilled into my body so hard for so long.  Besides, I’m not accustomed to having another person dancing so close to me and having to worry about where their feet are.  It was an invasion of space!  Especially when one of my dance partners, a guy from Peru (with very bad breath, I might add), kept stepping on my feet.  Ouch.

This past Tuesday I went to the Evita museum on a class field trip with my class on Eva Perón, which was really interesting.  In general, as it has been getting colder (the southern hemisphere is moving into winter right now), I’ve also been regularly entertained by the seasonal clothes of all of the porteños, whose sartorial splendor extends to winter clothing as well in the form of fancy boots and big, designer-looking overcoats, despite the fact that it is generally not particularly cold.  I guess my perception of “cold” is a little skewed though, having grown up in New England…

Last night I met up with two friends from my study abroad program who I haven’t seem in nearly a month because I’ve been so busy with everything else.  We went to a tango music concert and then went out to a well-prepared but still rather tasteless meal at a very nice restaurant with a great atmosphere and fun decor.  I can’t wait to get back to tasty American food that actually uses herbs and spices!  I’ve already sent my parents a list of all the foods I want to eat when I get home…

A startling reality – Volunteering in the slums of Buenos Aires

•June 15, 2009 • 1 Comment

After three unbelievingly frustrating months of searching for volunteer work, I finally was able find work with a project known as “Goles y metas para las chicas” (English title:  “Goals for Girls”) under the auspices of Democracía Representativa, an Argentine NGO (Non Governmental Organization).  Despite the lengthy and frustrating process that it took to reach this point, I am absolutely loving my work with them.

In many ways, Goals for Girls has a function and methodology very similar to the work I did with La Asociación Pro Arte y Cultura in Bolivia last summer, except using sports –specifically soccer—instead of music.  Goals for Girls is a soccer program for adolescent girls in Villa 31, one of Buenos Aires’s appalling slums.  I have noticed during my time here that Buenos Aires is in many ways a juxtaposition of elements of First World and Third World countries and societies, and the city’s sprawling slums are a painful example of this stark contrast.  Buenos Aires is a first world city with third world slums, and Villa 31 very much resembles the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  The homes are single rooms made of cheap cinder blocks constructed precariously on top of one another for as many as 4 stories—collapses are a very serious problem—“plumbing” from what I have seen frequently boils down to a bucket, and electricity is stolen from electrical cables running over the highway.  The Villa is famous for its high levels of violence and drug trafficking/use.  It is Buenos Aires’s dirty secret.

A few hundred yards outside Villa 31 lies several skyscrapers, the Sheraton hotel and an impeccably manicured park.   It is a startling juxtaposition that I still find unfathomable.

The adolescent girls of Villa 31 have incredibly few opportunities, often have to deal with domestic violence at home, are particularly at risk for prostitution, and have to contend with an extreme and pervasive form of machismo that permeates every aspect of life in the slums.  These omnipresent machismo attitudes dictate that a girl’s only place is in the home, and traps them in domestic chores while boys are permitted free time to play soccer and hang out with friends.

Through soccer—something that in Argentina is considered an activity exclusively in the male domain—Goals for Girls seeks to incorporate these girls into civil society, build self-esteem, teach life skills like interpersonal cooperation and communication and provide an alternative to the serious risks of drugs, early pregnancy and prostitution that these girls face every day.  Every Tuesday and Thursday the girls have soccer practice with the coach, Monica, and after the shorter practice on Thursdays they all meet together as a group with a social psychologist named Liliana.  Despite all of the challenges that the organization has to deal with, such as the lack of resources and support and the obstacles such as the boys who harass the girls and invade the field when they are trying to play during practice, I think that the project does incredibly important work.  After only a few weeks, I can already see how much the program means to the girls, and how much they love it and everything that it offers them.

My work specifically is just get to know the organization—how it works, what is does, what it aims to do—and the people who are involved—the coach, the director, the social psychologist, and the girls themselves—through interviews and informal conversations alike.  I spend every Thursday and some Tuesdays and Saturdays with the girls at Villa 31, although because practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays are at night I have to make sure I walk anywhere within the slum with someone else because of the level of risk that exists at all times, but especially at night.  After I return to the US, I will take all of the information, observations and insight I gathered during my time with the organization and write two articles, one in English and one in Spanish, to help raise awareness about—and hopefully support for—Goals for Girls.

Everyone has been incredibly helpful and welcoming, and even the girls themselves have been great and far more receptive than I was expecting.  Even better, all of the adults really seem to appreciate what I am doing for the organization and truly believe—even more than I do, I think—that I am doing something valuable and worthwhile that will help them.  These attitudes only inspire me even more, and I hope that what I do really does aid them in their admirable and innovative work.  I have been so impressed by Goals for Girls’s work that I recently contacted the Head of Public Diplomacy at the US Embassy, who sometimes supports smaller, worthy local NGOs, giving them a stamp of approval and legitimacy that frequently helps such organizations procure grants.  I don’t know if that will go anywhere, but I am really hoping it will.  I am also hoping to find some newsletters or publications in the United States who would be willing to print my article, or some version of it, to distribute knowledge of the Goals for Girls project even more widely.  They deserve all of the recognition and support that they can get.   In an environment where politicians don’t want anything to do with the serious but complex and sensitive issue of the ever-growing slums like Villa 31, Goals for Girls is actually doing something the truly makes a difference in one the most oppressed, hopeless and at risk populations, one girl at a time.

“Since there is nothing so well worth having as friends, never lose a chance to make them.” ~Francesco Guicciardini

•June 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Thanks to a highly fortuitous chance meeting, I have become very close friends in the last month or so with an Argentine student named Viviana who is in my Música y Comunicación class at la UBA Facultad de Ciencias Sociales.  We first met each other when she asked me a question about the work due for class simply because I happened to be the person closest to the door when she entered.  After that initial exchange, we sat together and started talking about a variety of topics, only to discover that she was just as interested in and curious about me as I was about her.  She had never really known anyone from another country before, and I always want to learn more about the experiences she has had growing up in a culture and society that is still foreign to me and completely different from the experiences that I have had in my own life.  Besides, I’m always looking for opportunities to practice my Spanish!  We began sitting together every class, talking about everything from the differences in our academic experiences—particularly the astounding differences between the American and Argentine university systems, and even just the startling contrast in the conceptions of what a university is between the two countries—to sports and dance (she’s studied Argentine folkloric dance since she was a little girl).

Viviana lives in the province of Buenos Aires, about an hour and a half outside the city of Buenos Aires, and I have spent two of the last three weekends with her in her town, which is called Villa Adelina.  The circumstances of the first visit were rather unfortunate—my computer completely broke the weekend before my first midterm paper was due, which also happened to be a holiday weekend, and the only open Mac Store in all of Argentina was located in a big mall called Unicenter in the province of Buenos Aires, about an hour outside the city.  As a result, I spent most of the weekend there and they did finally fix my laptop—without losing any of my data! Luckily, my computer is still under warranty, because the new part I needed (something called a Logic Board, whatever that is) would have cost me $1,200 USD.  Crazy!  I could almost buy a new laptop for that kind of money…

However, as much time as I wasted at the Mac Store because it was so far away, I was able to visit Viviana in Villa Adelina on Sunday because she only lives about 20 minutes from Unicenter.  I had a terrific time with her.  We went first to her house, where she showed me her room and her collection of favorite movies, which included A Beautiful Mind.  She couldn’t believe that that was my university, and was even more astounded when I told her that the dining hall they show in the film is my dining hall where I always eat, and the door that they show when the actors are standing in the corridor outside the dining hall was my door to my dorm room this past semester (I know this because I saw the film myself for the first time this past December).  Afterward, she brought me to a folkloric dance show by her dance studio in honor of Argentina’s Día de la Patria (Patriot’s Day) that was the next day (hence the holiday weekend).  The performance included traditional folkloric music as well, and was located in what seemed to me to be the Argentine equivalent of a village cantina.  Afterwards, Viviana, her boyfriend Germán and I all went to a small café for tea, coffee and the opportunity to chat in a quiet, relaxed atmosphere.  The whole visit was so much fun and a much-needed enjoyable experience in the midst of my trying—but thankfully ultimately resolved—computer crisis.

Last weekend (two weekends after my first visit to Viviana’s town), I went back to Villa Adelina to have a lunch of home-cooked Italian pasta with Viviana and her boyfriend’s family at Germán’s home (Germán’s parents emigrated from Italy in the 1950s).  Wanting to bring something to show my gratitude for the invitation, I brought two beautiful bouquets of flowers, one for Viviana and one for Germán’s family.  It seemed to me to be the perfect gift and it felt like the right thing to do.  However, when I met Viviana at the bus stop at Villa Adelina and presented her with the flowers, she looked surprised and momentarily confused.  I was even more confused—after all, bringing flowers to your hosts is a perfectly acceptable and common custom in the US…

Apparently, in Argentina visitors generally only bring flowers to people they are visiting when someone has died.  Oops.  Really, how on earth was I supposed to know THAT?  Oh well.  Both Viviana and Germán’s family seemed to appreciate the gesture.

Aside from that initial cultural misstep, lunch was delicious and a lot of fun, although Vivi, Germán, and Germán’s brother and parents kept me talking so much that by the time I got to eat my food it was cold (something that they felt very bad about once they realized it!).  It was really very funny for me—I am not at all accustomed to being the exotic attraction in any setting, but for them, who never have foreign visitors to their town, I was a highly fascinating guest.  I didn’t mind however—I was just as interested in them as they were in me!

I am really going to miss Viviana when I return to the United States, and I really wish there was a way that she could come visit me so I could share my life and reality with her the way that she has opened up and shared hers with me.  I don’t know if that will ever happen though—it’s really financially difficult for most Argentines to travel to the US, and Vivi has never even been outside Argentina before.  Still, my study abroad experience has been so, so much better for knowing her, I can’t thank her enough for that.

Back in Santiago – Finally, museums!

•June 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment

After Valparaiso, I was able to get back to Santiago with enough time to go through the city’s famous Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art).  It was a terrific museum with an extensive and fascinating collection of artifacts and artwork, and was definitely the best Pre-Colombian museum I have ever seen (it is reputed to be one of the best in the world, and I would believe it).  They had everything from Nahautl sculptures and figurines to Andean kipus to Southern Cone mummies that predate Egyptian mummies by 3,000 years. It was very cool, particularly after having spent a whole semester at Princeton (spring of my freshman year) studying Pre-Colombian art.

The next morning, I explored Cerro Lucia—a hill in the center of the city that over the course of history has been used as place of worship, the site of the declaration of conquest by Santiago’s conquistador founder Pedro de Valdivia in 1541, a picnic place for families, and a garden haven—with Juliana, a young woman from Sao Paolo, Brazil, who I had met in my hostel the night before and who was in Chile for her two-week vacation from her work at a Brazilian bank.  It was fun having someone to talk with as we walked up, down, and all the way around the scenic little hill with its small church, castle-like structure at the summit, and terraced vantage points that look out over the entire city of Santiago.

We then walked to the central plaza together and visited the Museo Histórico Nacional (National History Museum) together, which gave a great overview of the nation’s early history but left the years of the dictatorship and everything afterwards oddly blank.  The museum did have, however, and fantastic collection of antique furniture and decorative objects.

Afterwards, we said our goodbyes as Juliana went to see the central church that I had visited the Friday before and I returned to the hostel to retrieve my bags and head to the airport to return to Argentina.

The Bohemian World of Valparaíso, Chile

•June 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The next morning I departed early for Valparaíso, a famously bohemian city on the coast.  Unfortunately, the weather was horrible—rainy, cold, and gray—which made all of the views definitely a bit less spectacular.  Nevertheless, I started at the port along the coast, looking at the naval ships and monuments and the city’s main administrative buildings.  Then I tackled the part of the city that has made it famous.

The city itself is built on a really large hill, or collection of hills.  As a result, anything less than a 3-dimensional map is largely useless, since the streets exist at many different levels connected by far more stairs than should be allowed in a single societal center.  Consequently, I spent hours walking through the maze of streets, alleys, and staircases looking for the sites and buildings I wanted to see and more lost than I have been in a very long time.  It took me two hours to find the art museum, only to get there and discover that it was closed for repairs and renovations for several months due to a serious termite problem that had compromised the structural integrity of the building.  Bummer.  I was able to have lunch though in a really neat little café run by a mother and her son.  The café itself was like walking into a colorful kaleidoscope of artwork scraps, magazine and newspaper clippings, pieces of pop art and random pages of sheet music that looked as though they had all been collected and assembled over the last 30 years or so.

Valparaíso is a really interesting and definitely unique city, full of colors and with highly skillful, artistic graffiti covering every wall, building, and other available surface outside the city center.  However, while I’m glad I went I would not have wanted to stay there overnight—as aesthetically interesting as it is, it is also rather poor, dirty and decrepit-looking in many places.  Nonetheless, it was definitely worth the trip.

In remembrance of the victims…

•June 15, 2009 • 1 Comment

The afternoon of my first day in Chile, I went to the city’s main cemetery, where the remains of Salvador Allende and several other famous Chileans are buried.  On one side of the cemetery is an absolutely enormous wall of light-colored granite.  In the center is square reading “Salvador Allende Gossens, Presidente de la República.”  On either side are hundreds upon hundreds of names.  Those on the left are the names of the “Detenidos Desaparecidos”, or Disappeared Detainees, and those on the right are the “Ejecutados Políticos”, or political executions under the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, which lasted from 1973 until 1990.  The entire wall is a memorial to the victims of the country’s brutal authoritarian regime and painful recent past.   On the rocks below the wall are a collection of photos, testimonials, signs and letters from the families and friends of the victims.  It was an incredibly powerful and sobering sight.

To the right of this wall is a long wall of granite tombs, each containing the remains of a victim of the dictatorship.  I stared at the wall, reading name after name and looking at the birth and death dates of each victim.  It was astounding how young each person was when they were killed—22, 24, 25, 27 years old, plaque after plaque, tomb after tomb.  These students, these youths—these were the so-called “subversives” that Pinochet’s government found so threatening.  An entire generation of state-sponsored murder victims.

There was a small family with me at the wall—a girl who looked to be about four years old, a man and woman who looked to be in their 30s and an older, grandmotherly woman in her 70s.  The grandmother saw me looking at the graves in the wall and came over to me, asking if I had a relative there.  I told her that I didn’t and explained that I was just a student studying abroad in Buenos Aires and visiting Santiago.  We started talking—I had to concentrate really hard, because Chilean Spanish is arguably even weirder than Argentine Spanish—and somehow, for some reason that I couldn’t even being to try to explain, she opened up to me and started telling me about her family, her past, and her reason for being there, at the wall, on that day.

Her name was Rebeca Martinez, and she was there honoring her son Pedro Andres Martinez, a victim of the dictatorship, because that day, May 1st, was the anniversary of his death.  He was 18 years old when he was murdered by the government.  Two years younger than me.  I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around it.

Before killing him, the government wanted to make an example of him.  Saying that he had a “communist hairstyle”, government officials took knives and cut off his hair so viciously that they cut of bits of his scalp and ears along with his hair.  Then they killed him.  Rebeca pointed out another tomb, several boxes over and a few higher than that of her son.  That girl was a neighbor and a friend.  She was blown up.  All that is in the box are the pieces that they could find.  Rebeca’s father, a left-leaning political journalist, was one of the regime’s first victims.  After her son’s death, she and her remaining family went into exile in Argentina, which had only recently emerged from military rule itself.

I couldn’t even begin to wrap my mind around the horror of what she was telling me, what she had lived through.  I had studied the military dictatorship in Chile in my Latin American Politics course at Princeton last semester, but it is one thing to read about something like that.  It is another thing entirely to meet and talk with someone who lived it not so long ago.

Rebeca called her son over—the woman was her daughter and the child her granddaughter (her daughter’s daughter)—and the three of us continued to talk together.  We were interrupted shortly after he joined us by the little girl, who had put her hand on the tomb next to that of the uncle she had never met, which was in the bottom row and the only one she could really reach, and asked “Is this one dead?”

“Yes,” her grandmother replied.

The little girl moved down along the line, touching the stone at the front of each tomb and asking “Y esto?  And this one? And this one?  And this one?”

Sí,” her grandmother replied patiently.  “Yes, yes, yes.  They’re all dead.  Todos muertos.

The child went to sit with her mother, and Rebeca turned back to me and her son.   Upon returning to Chile after the end of authoritarian rule, Rebeca herself was part of the human rights commission, and she is currently working on assembling a centralized archive of documents from the period in Santiago.  Her surviving son is studying politics and is really active in demonstrations and marches.  I was fascinated by the differences in the ways in which both mother and son spoke about what they had gone through:  Rebeca spoke about what had happened with a great deal of resignation–she talked about her father’s death almost as if it were inevitable.  Her son, however, was still really angry and his focus seemed to be on his determination to keep the past in the present, in a way, so that no one ever forgets what happened in Chile.  He told me that he used to cry for his brother, but now he talks to people instead and participates in every demonstration that he can.  He also told me that some people don’t approve of what he does, but he kept repeating “Es mi opción. It’s my choice, it’s my choice” again and again.

We talked for nearly an hour, standing next to the wall.  Both he and his mother gave me their contact information and told me to contact them if I ever had any questions or needed to do research for school on the authoritarian regime in Chile, its consequences and its aftermath. The entire experience, talking with Rebeca and her son next to that monolithic memorial, was incredible but also slightly surreal.  After all, I had studied and read and discussed in class what happened in Chile, which was a sobering experience in and of itself, but meeting someone by chance who lived though it and who really experienced it as their reality—and who was willing to share that incredibly personal and traumatic experience with me, a stranger, a young person, a foreigner—was unbelievable.  It humanized everything that I had studied in an objective, academic, intellectual context and made me realize how neither I nor anyone who didn’t have that experience can ever even begin to comprehend the suffering that people like Rebeca and her family went through not so long ago.

Welcome to Santiago

•June 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Thanks to a long holiday weekend in the first weekend of May, I was able to spend several days exploring two major cities in Chile, Santiago and Valparaiso.  Because my plane left shortly after 6 in the morning, I left the apartment in Buenos Aires around 3:30 am, in order to make it to the bus that would then take me to the international airport of Buenos Aires, which is located about an hour outside the city center.  On the bus, I sat next to a really interesting woman who was originally from Madagascar and retired a few years ago from her job as a translator for the United Nations, where she specialized in Baltic languages.  She speaks so many languages fluently that quickly I lost count, and now spends her times traveling from country to country and continent to continent.  She was a fascinating person to talk with, even despite the obscenely early hour (I had never really gone to sleep, so I was actually fairly awake).

Getting through the airport was unnerving, because due to fears about swine flue all of the airport staff and about half of the travelers were all wearing masks.  It was very disconcerting.

After arriving in Santiago and checking in at my hostel, I was shocked at how deserted it was.  EVERYTHING was closed—shops, restaurants, museums…everything.  Apparently, the May 1st Labor Day holiday is one of the few days a year on which the whole city shuts down.  As a result, I was rather disappointed that I couldn’t see any of the museums that I wanted to see, although I got a very extensive walking tour of the city as I went from museum to museum hoping that something would be open.  Nothing was, unfortunately, but I did get to go into one small, out-of-the way church that I accidentally stumbled upon while wandering around, which had some interesting artwork inside.  I also went into the city’s main church in its central plaza and watched some of the service they were having in honor of the holiday.  It was fascinating to listen to, because the priests framed the rights of the worker and the problem of unemployment as a result of the current economic downturn within a Christian paradigm, in which unemployment was portrayed as something that prevented good Christians from reaching their full potential as human beings.  It really was fascinating, and I wish that I had had an audio recorder.  Afterwards, I wandered around some more, which enabled me to see the outside of several important buildings, and used the Santiago subway—which is absolutely fantastic, super modern, and puts Argentina’s pathetic, outdated public transportation system to shame—to go the city’s main bus terminal to purchase my ticket to Valparaiso, a costal city located about 2.5 hours outside Santiago, for the next day.

However, what Santiago gains over Buenos Aires in public transportation, it loses in pollution.  The smog is so thick that the city is constantly smothered by a dense cloud of pollution and the city’s air has a perpetual gray, smoky quality.  By 2 pm, my eyes, throat and nasal passages were burning painfully and streaming in a way I have never experienced before.  Apparently, Santiago is one of the 5 most polluted cities in the world and is the city with worst air pollution in the Western Hemisphere.  Needless to say, it was very uncomfortable.

Bracing myself for it to be closed, I went anyway to a restaurant that I had read about in my guide book that I really wanted to go to (by that point, I was absolutely starving, as I hadn’t seen much point in eating breakfast at 4 in the morning before leaving).  To my utter astonishment and tremendous pleasure, the restaurant was open!  In fact, it the was the only open establishment on the entire avenue, which was one of the city’s primary streets.  I had a delicious pizza with ham, fresh tomato and arugula—despite having boatloads of Italian immigrants, Argentines just don’t know how to make a proper pizza.   I said as much to my Chilean waiter, who both agreed with me and got a good chuckle out of my comment.  Good pizza is something that I have really missed in the last five months.


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