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March 22, 2017

The affluent and the desperate in Argentina

Like most foreign exchange students, I’ve walked down foreign streets after a long night in a state of mind often described as less aware. One night, as I worked my way through the winding cobblestone streets, I slowed my pace and noticed a disturbing trend.

People were huddled in doorways with cardboard for walls and blankets for heating. They were huddled in parks, against newsstands, anywhere that promised some support for their cardboard hovels. Suddenly, reflecting on the amount of money I had spent on drinks that night, looking down at the value of my clothes, and combining it all with my sketchy transfer from dollars to pesos, I felt something hollow inside of me.

I remembered a conversation over dinner I had with my host-mother’s 35-year-old son. I kept holding back from labeling Argentina as Third World, developing or anything that seemed “inferior” to the North, but he stopped me. Comparing the amount of people living on the streets to the amount in sprawling villas and high-rise condos, he told me this country was far from First World.

The city is divided in two. The north’s wide boulevards are reminiscent of old Europe but hinted with a touch of New World excitement. The south is another story.

It is a collection of slums ranging from sprawling government tenements to shanty towns stacked high on each other, supported by the ingenuity of those who construct with nothing. This harsh life has mirror images throughout the world and here it’s half the city.

At a tango bar I spoke to an Argentine law student with stereotypical “socially aware” eagerness of my desire to volunteer and make an “impact” in these neighborhoods. She informed me that it was brutally dangerous there, but if I truly had a desire to see what life was like in the south, I should ride a streetcar that connects from a subway stop and runs through some of the city’s worse parts.

Riding the train the next day was eye-opening. Most striking was the demographic shift. The Argentine middle and upper classes are mostly comprised of people of recent European descent: Italian, Spanish, British, German and a stew of others. In the south, the population was largely Bolivian, Colombian and other South Americans.

Trash was strewn on the streets. The houses to my right were three to four stories of brick, plywood, metal and, in some cases, more permanent materials all put together. Narrow streets that looked unpaved twisted between them.

To my left, massive government-financed housing projects, built in almost abstract designs, as if to give them a whimsical air despite the desperation of the people.

The train did pass a lot of people enjoying time in the parks, playing soccer and soaking in the weather. It also passed an amusement park which seemed to feature characters knocked off from Monsters Inc.

The train ended in a valley dwarfed by two massive tenements, cities unto themselves, with their own convenience stores and pizza places lining their bases. Not once during the trip did I feel threatened by the people around me. They were just living their lives like everyone, making them with what they could.

I’ve heard of worse slums then the places I was taken through. Here, I saw people able to form a basic life, but squeezed into the margins of the city where daily life is more than a struggle. But yet, I was able to witness something far away from the overpriced clubs where my pesos seem to just fly away.

At the end of the day, around 9 p.m., my friend and I were walking down a busy thoroughfare near my neighborhood. Several people, maybe in their teens, approached us asking for money. We refused and they started to grab us. When this happens, one should keep walking. I broke out of the hold that someone tried to put me in and started to continue walking, until I saw my friend pushed up against the wall.

I got ready to start throwing punches, but an old man near us started shouting at the kids. He reached into his jacket as if to draw a weapon, and the kids scattered.

Walking away, my friend told me they were holding a knife to her throat. She confessed it was dull, but we both walked a little more wary.

I knew they would never do anything on a crowded street, but there was desperation in the fact that they would even hint at using one where we were.

Michael Fox is a Collegian columnist. He can reached at mgfox@student.umass.edu.

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