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Poverty in Argentina

Tucked under a highway in the lower to middle class Buenos Aires neighborhood of Barracas is a library and children’s center that was a vacant lot about two months ago. During weekday afternoons, you can find groups of children playing there and doing their homework and adults taking free English classes.

Two programs for the children are run there. One is funded by the government and aimed at children from the local neighborhood. Paid Argentine staff members have access to a wide variety of equipment and a set of classrooms. The other group is aimed at children from the nearby neighborhood of La Boca.

La Boca is most famous for its street El Caminito. El Caminito is a pedestrian walkway lined with whimsically painted houses, street performers dancing the tango and lines of amateur painters. An idyllic slice of antiquated Argentina, it is one of the most recognizable city blocks in South America.

However, it’s just a city block.

A block over from El Caminito, La Boca goes from Disney World Buenos Aires to one of the worse slums in South America. Towards the end of the tourist area, the desperate conditions that people are kept blind from start to seep in by the growing desperation of people pawning souvenirs or overpriced lunches.

At a certain point, locals just flat out tell tourists not to walk further. At this point, there are only vacant houses, cheap hotels and a shanty town house, and the occasional group of children walking across two neighborhoods to participate in activities at the library.

The non-government funded group is called Club Union de los Pibes. It was formally associated with ACORN (yeah, that ACORN), and founded as a group to help bring structure and a sense of community to La Boca. Since cutting ties with ACORN, the group had to move its location from where the children live to its new place, and has seen its funding bottom out; the coordinator has no definite salary.

The children, well, they’re a lot different than the ones I had volunteered with the previous week in the campos. The children of the campos were shy but quick to warm up to us. The children of La Boca were boisterous and willing to shout off many Spanish swears, and slow to give out their trust. The older boys of the campos wrote love letters to the girls I came with. The older boys of La Boca, they broke up any conversation that I started with a female volunteer, insisting that the girl was “theirs”.

The program for the children of La Boca has no set structure. There wouldn’t be any point. Soccer games can start and end in an instant. The only thing that is attempted is to cater to the kids. To do what they want to do so they stay at the library. There’s no structure, but there are limits, and even that is a new concept to some of these kids.

We switch off using the facility’s park with the government run program, but we’re never allowed to mix. They’re groups of kids from different levels of life, different privileges and different levels of need. Ironically, it’s the ones most in need that have less access.

The program also offers English lessons to the older kids along with adults from the neighborhood. About three people show up every week with their books in tow, willing to learn and struggle through English, taught by amateur instructors such as myself.

My Argentine friends are shocked that I travel down to this neighborhood. They insist that I take a cab directly there even though I tell them that a bus drops me directly there and picks me up from there. At first I thought they insisted on the dangers of the area because I was a foreigner, someone who simply didn’t know any better. However, I’ve realized that their warnings pour out from genuine concern.

From all my talk, it must seem at times that Argentina is some kind of third world war zone. Well, it isn’t. It’s simply a place where the just isn’t always handled correctly by the government, leading many into want. A situation, at times created by outside powers, of economic necessity gets driven down even further by government greed and a habit of taking advantage of individuals. Thus, regions of disparity are clearly evident and recognizable.

However, in a little corner of Buenos Aires, a group of Argentines and foreigners, many blessed to be born more comfortable than those of the area, sacrifice some time to correct this disturbed equilibrium of society.

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

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