Posts Tagged ‘Buenos Aires’

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Meredith: Volunteering can be problematic

June 8, 2010

Humans like to be altruistic, or at least I think so. Being altruistic, truly altruistic, is another story.

We like to think we are making a difference, doing some good, impacting the lives of others. Yet we don’t want to put in the time or effort to actually achieve this, we just want to feel like we’ve achieved something good without straining ourselves or going too much out of our way.

I know that this trip isn’t about volunteering, but there is a “volunteer” component included. There has been some controversy over it in the past because apparently students complained that there was not enough of a volunteer component but then when students went to volunteer at places where they would play with street-children, that wasn’t exactly what they were looking for so they stopped doing that. Some even gave the excuse that their fingernails were getting too dirty.

Our group is only here for three weeks, so there’s a limited amount we can do to “volunteer”—and organizations know this. We don’t do poverty tours, we aren’t going to go in the shanty towns and make a spectacle of their lives, take pictures, and go back to our comfortable lives and forget. Yet we can’t go to other places either, because it would be much more of struggle and a waste of time to show us the ropes of the place. We would only be there for a short time and wouldn’t be able to do that much anyway. Sometimes it’s better to give money.

Today a couple of us got in a tiny heated debate about our volunteer experience yesterday. One of the organizations that let us come in and help out for the day was one that runs an after school program for street children, helping them with their homework, offering them snacks, and most of all company and affection. We went in, helped them with their homework, played with them, and learned about their conditions.

I was helping out this boy Mauricio with his homework. He totally gave me the cold shoulder and told me to talk to the hand. He called over other professors and was saying “ella no sabe nada, quiero otro profesor” (she doesn’t know anything, I want another professor). This was just one experience there, but it was what I remembered most the next morning when, on my walk to school, I told my friend Sara that my career as a teacher started and ended yesterday.

If you know me at all, that’s how I speak a lot of the times. Hyperbolic. Dramatic. I wasn’t serious, and now that I look deeper at yesterday, I can understand more. It was amazing to go to the place and see how they were helping these children, but even doing that made it feel like we were making them a spectacle, peering through a looking glass at a far away scene that we could easily be removed from. And we were. Night rolls around, eight o’ clock comes, and the day is over. We leave, and I will probably never see those kids again.

One girl said it was worth it, that she was glad we went even if it was one day because she knows the extent of their need and will leave stuff for them, extra clothes, shoes she won’t wear, maybe a towel. I agree, maybe. I’m not sure though. I was glad to see that there were volunteers there. That these kids had somewhere to go. But that’s it. I think what disturbed me most about Mauricio not wanting me to help him was the fact that it hit too close to home to my uneasiness. We did exactly what we should not do: go in for a day and leave. These kids don’t need that, they need constant companionship, someone steady. Sometimes no volunteering is better than volunteering if it will be like that, only because if I do good, I want to mean it. I don’t want to do more harm than good.

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Meredith: So many faces

June 6, 2010

I visited CELS (center for legal and social studies) recently, one of the foremost human rights NGOs in not only Latin America, but also the world. One thing that sticks out in my mind is the controversy over numbers. I think that only about 9,000 to 15,000 disappeared have actually been documented, but when people talk about the dirty war in Argentina, you talk about the 30,000 disappeared. What I realized at CELS today was that regardless of the number, it’s still a huge amount of people to be stripped of the right to life, denied the right to live, breath, dream, hope, act, love.

30,000 is a symbolic number. It’s massive, gaping, obtuse, just like pain that never ceases. It’s easy to imagine, too, that 30,000 is not just an exaggeration. I often feel this way when I look at pictures of the faces of all those who have been disappeared.


I should set the record straight that these photos are not from the Memory Park. These are images of the tent of the Madres de la plaza de mayo at the bicentennial celebration. For further reading, please see “The Art and Politics of Memory

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Meredith: The lettered city, alive and well

June 3, 2010

“El que no está en el gobierno no existe y el que no existe no habla.”
“He who is not in the government doesn’t exist, and he who doesn’t exist does not speak”

–From “La virgen de los sicarios,” by Fernando Vallejo

Since the time of Spanish imperialism, the “written word” has been intricately tied to power and freedom in Latin America. In his ground-breaking novel, The Lettered City, Ángel Rama identifies this relationship and discusses how it produced endless conflict between the “letrados” (educated elite) and the illiterate masses. According to Rama, “The principle explanation for the ascendancy of the letrados lay in their ability to manipulate writing in largely illiterate societies.” The educated urban elite imposed written laws on the masses, creating an almost mystical relationship in which the written word had the power to shape reality. Peoples’ actions were allowed or disallowed according to law, and actions outside the law were ignored, punished, or eliminated. Thus, the letrados oppressed the masses: “Within each visible city stood another, figurative one, that controlled and directed it.” This “less tangible lettered city” utilized “the order of signs, and the high priority of its function lent it a sacred aspect, freeing it from subordination to ordinary circumstances …This was the cultural dimension of the colonial power structure.”

As Rama has noted,

“Because [graffiti] is written on the wall, because it is frequently anonymous, because its spelling is habitually faulty, and because the kind of message it transmits, graffiti attests to an authorship outside the lettered city.”

This idea is thoroughly explained in The Lettered City, using examples from colonial times. Reading about this in a class, in a book, without a physical context and landscape to connect with, can make this seem something far away, irrelevant. Yet everyday, when I walk around the city of Buenos Aires, I see the struggle over the lettered city come alive. I see those who have no voice, or rather, no medium through which to make their voices heard, re-appropriating the spaces of the city.


the streets are ours

insecurity is the police

get out, Bush

we said, never again

ideas cannot disappear

without condemning punk rock!

so that everyone can speak

MORE: HERE

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Meredith: It could have been me

May 31, 2010

One thing I’ve noticed with studying human rights and looking at other societies where these human rights violations, civil wars, state terrorism, etc. occur, is the mentality that this would not, could not, happen to me. Maybe it’s a form of coping, or a way to be able to analyze these issues without being overwhelmed by emotion, but people seem to put up a psychological wall, a form of distance, a safe abstraction from the sadness and terror.

Something I can’t ignore anymore is this: it could have been me. It would have been me. I can’t say this for sure, but if I had been alive in Argentina in the 70s, I would have, probably could have, been disappeared.

I am a leftist. I am liberal. I would have been young, idealistic. I can imagine that I would have been involved in politics, or at least in social justice initiatives like working in camps for children from the slums, las ciudades ocultas. Or, I could have been like those five or six students killed that weren’t even involved in politics, only protesting against raised bus fares. I’m Jewish. My name could have been in the address book of a friend, an acquaintance, or someone I knew that had been disappeared. I could have said the wrong thing, worn the wrong shirt. I might have looked suspicious. I might have asked too many questions.

Or, I could have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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Meredith: ESMA and “disappearances”

May 29, 2010

How to begin this post? I have no idea. How do you start to describe a visit to what has been called the Auschwitz of Argentina? A place where 5,000 people were tortured and out of that 5,000, only 200 survived. Do the math.

ESMA, La Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, is the Navy Mechanics School. During the military dictatorship, it was one of the largest clandestine torture centers. When you read about ESMA on the internet, the main picture you see is this but it’s important to know that this was not where prisoners, the so-called subversives, were kept. Rather, they were kept in a more sinister location—the officers house. If you leave the main building, and continue on, you will reach a former control tower that restricted access to the Officers’ House. A chain was connected to the control tower, a tangible barrier representing the cruelty behind what felt like a point of no return. Many of the survivor testimonies attest to going over a bump shortly before being dragged out of a car and into ESMA.

This does not mean that what was happening in the officers’ house was secret. As the guide explained, 40-60% of all naval cadets dealt with and/or oversaw the prisoners there. By restricting access and creating the need for “special clearance” to reach the officers’ house, a pact of silence centered around connivance and complicity was created. Everyone was involved, everyone dirtied their hands. To speak out would be to implicate everyone and this alone has created the incentive to never divulge what happened at ESMA. You can see this pact is strong and still in place today: all of the information known about ESMA comes from survivor testimonies.

This is about ESMA, and it is about so much more, as all productions are. In some ways, the dirty war was a performance, a mixture of visibility and invisibility, appearance and disappearance. The system of “disapperances” devised by the military junta was used to spread terror, to paralyze, to silence, to cause the atomization of society. The Argentine military was innovative in their methods. Some disappearances happened in the dead of night. Some happened on a desolate street. Below is an excerpt from the testimony of Alicia Partnoy, a desaparecida and author of La Escuelita (The Little School),

“On January 12, 1977, I was in my house with my daughter Ruth (who was about a year and a half at the time) when I heard the insistent ring of the door bell. It was the middle of the day. I walked the thirty metrs down the hallway that separated my room from the front door. When I arrived, someone was banging forcefully on the door. I asked, who is it? And they responded: The Military; meanwhile, they continued to knock. In that moment, I remembered the thousands of murders, disappearances, and tortures that the military had been doing for at least over a year. Only then I tried to run and escape from the hallway, jumping over the back wall. Then they stopped me near one of the neighbors walls. My daughter, who had followed me through the hallway to the door, began to cry. I could not see her nor did I know what they had down with her until five months after. I didn’t even know if a bullet had killed her. Five soldiers forcefully put me in the truck. Besides my daughter’s claims, I only remember the hateful look from the operation leader. There were at least three military vehicles in the block, forcing the neighbors to remain inside. The delegation continued to the place where my husband worked, about fifteen blocks from our home. There, they detained him, taking us both…”

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Meredith: Passion, right from the beginning

May 22, 2010

I’m so glad I came to Argentina when I did—the atmosphere is so lively and passionate. But then again, from what I’ve learned from my first couple of days here, it could always be like that. Maybe now it’s just heightened.

Yesterday marked the beginning of the bicentennial celebration of the fight for independence from Spain, the main colonial power in Latin America. There are flags all over, up and down every street, shoved in every corner. The signs, like the one in the picture below, strewn across buildings throughout the city, communicate messages of pride, nationalism—the good kind, if there is such a thing.

On my first day here (Thursday, 5/20), we went to near La plaza de mayo, the main square across from la casa rosada (The pink house, the Argentine equivalent to la casa blanca, the white house). La plaza de mayo is so important to Argentina, home to thousands of political protests and a turbulent history.

On the streets leading up to the plaza were thousands of “indigenous” people from the northern region of Jujuy, who had walked more than eight days to come to Buenos Aires. They met with the president, Cristina Kirchner to discuss their rights and make sure that se cumplen las promesas del estado. These “indigenous” people represent thousands of diverse communities that have come together to demand more social responsibility of the government, especially that the government acknowledges their land rights. These groups were met with other social and student organizations, especially the Tupac Amaru movement, lead by Milagro Sala.

As you can see from the website, the community organization “Tupac Amaru” wants work, education, and health for all. (Hilariously enough, or maybe not, I confused their name originally with this radical leftist movement from Uruguay in the sixties Their central points are below. There are more, but these are the main ones listed in this article on la nación, one of the main newspapers in Buenos Aires.

• The creation of a plural cultural and national state that recognizes the diverse cultures of these groups
• Land reparation
• Monetary assistance, or economic help
• Protection for the glaciers
• Environmental protection (i.e. banning open mines that will pollute the atmosphere)
• Control against pesticides
• Recognition of the aboriginal culture and languages in the schools
• The recognition of their sacred holidays

Among the groups based in Buenos Aires that marched with the la gente de la norte were “Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, las Madres de Plaza de Mayo Línea Fundadora; Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo; H.I.J.O.S Capital y Mar del Plata Familiares de Detenidos y Desaparecidos por Razones Políticas; Hugo Yasky, CTA, Pablo Michelli, Pedro Wasesko, Juan Gelman y Eduardo Galeano, entre otros.” Even regular people, like my host-mom, Ana, joined in the march, clapping, contributing to the solidarity that the groups hope to achieve and inspire. It is estimated that more than fifteen thousand people came out.


Truly, with all things in Argentina, people get “fired up.” There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. People are either really passionate, or not so passionate. They are either rightist or leftist. Against the Kirchners or for the Kirchners. For remembering human rights or for forgetting. I think this is the most interesting juxtaposition of all that I’ve seen so far. Right and left you can see people getting involved in politically oriented activism. Yet at the same time, there are people so indifferent to what is going on, hoping to just pass through the crowd without stopping to notice the inequality in their own country. I can’t really say that America is better though, because it seems most people are willing to do that back home—look away at what is staring them in the face.

Sources and further reading:

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Meredith: Nombrarte

May 21, 2010

No el poema de tu ausencia,
sólo un dibujo, una grieta en un muro,
algo en el viento, un sabor amargo.

I remember reading this poem last semester (written by Alejandra Pizarnik, an Argentine poet); it really made an impression on me. It’s a bit more melancholy than what I am going for on this blog, a place to chronicle my travels, but I think the first line really hits home for me. This blog isn’t a poem of my “absence,” but rather where I’m present, what I’m doing. So in some way, when you read this, I’ll be a bit more presente than ausente, more than a drawing, something in the wind, or a bitter taste.

Right now I’m in Buenos Aires, Argentina, living in la recoleta, studying memory and human rights until June 13th. I’m on sensory overload here right now, but it’s been great so far.

Here is a link to my photo album, where I will post most of the pictures from this trip.

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