Villa 21, Argentina (9/06/05)

Walk past the elegant art galleries lining Avenida Defensa in San Telmo, Buenos Aires then skip the Parisian style cafes surrounding cobble stoned Plaza Dorrego, shut down your senses to prevent detouring to one of the many bakeries stuffed with fresh sweets, hop onto the guzzling bus 70 headed towards Barracas, jump off when you hit the bustling Calle Luna and you will find yourself somewhere between an old Western flick and a "developing" country.

People sit outside repairing and making shoes by hand, kids play soccer in a dirt lot with a ball that has both feet in the grave, while now unemployed workers snack on asado (Argentine barbeque) as kids draped in white gowns like school uniforms, which resemble something of a doctor’s sanitized jacket, race by trying to reach their classes on time.

The city government of Buenos Aires officially calls it Villa 21, but to the citizens, who make their home there, it is not a Villa Miseria or shanty town, it is just their neighborhood.

"The government only wants people to see the rich barrios," said Claudia Zerda as she sat in her small cement home, sipping down mate, a popular herbal tea. "Recoleta, Palermo Hollywood, and Las Cañitas. The people only visit those areas, they don’t even know that these areas exist" she added referring to the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods.

Like most of the Villa 21 residents without normal work, Claudia makes ends meet by saving cardboard and other recyclables as a Cartonero, or cardboard collector. Usually coming out to work after the sun and the more wealthy population has already gone to sleep, the Cartoneros traverse through the seemingly endless streets of the Argentine capital, picking through trash bags to gather cardboard and plastic bottles which they then sell to designated locations. The more fortunate Cartoneros may have a horse drawn cart to store their findings throughout the long nights, but the vast majority work collecting and lugging their carts by hand.

"I am the Cartonero and the horse at the same time," joked Claudia’s 14 year old son Miguel. "To rent a horse costs $7 pesos per day, which is a lot when you only sell about $15-20 pesos of carton per day. So to rent the horse is just not worth it."

Claudia, a mother of five whose children’s ages range from 14 years to just 8 months, lives on a total of only $200 pesos a month (about $65 dollars). This income comes from both her and her children’s work as Cartoneros and through the Plan Trabajar, a government sponsored assistance program.

Yet, many in the more middle and upper class residents have insulated themselves from this world, especially in recent months as the economy has taken a small turn for the better. In the worst days following the 2001 economic collapse, countless formerly solid middle class families took to the streets, protesting with workers, the poor, and an orchestra of drums, pots, and pans. Many now seem content to express their disappointment over the situation during their coffee break at a steady and reliable 9-5.

Still, for the less fortunate, a more proactive solution remains necessary to combat the raw poverty that for Claudia, her family, and tens thousands more, gnaws at their dignity and stomachs daily.

Bernadina Gerrero, a short round woman with a mop of springy brown peppery grey hair, is one of the few who has begun operating a comedora, or soup kitchen, for children under the age of six in the hope of finding some alternative solutions.

"A thief killed my son in 2001," she said as her eyes became flushed with tears of grief. "The police never found the murderer. They never even tried and they never gave me justice. So I feel that I must seek justice, so now I try to feed all the children," she explained.

"We never eat more than one meal a day," explained Claudia, as her 4 year old daughter Aika gobbled up a small lunch prepared by Señora Gerrero’s small volunteer kitchen staff. "And if it weren’t for the different comedoras (soup kitchens), we would eat even less."

However, Claudia too has become more active in trying to redirect the river of exclusion that runs through Villa 21. She volunteers her time acting as a contact for various foreign researchers, mainly students from the US and Western Europe, who come to Argentina to start social projects in the impoverished neighborhoods or in the recuperated factories.

Sarah Janko, an art student from New York, rents an apartment in nearby San Telmo, but goes to visit Claudia and her children 4-5 times a week, bringing with her snacks, broken Spanish, and proof that not all "Yankees" or North Americans as they are called in Argentina, are not self centered and closed people.

"Claudia put me in contact with a recuperated factory where I am helping the kids from the area paint a mural," said Sarah. "At the same factory, there are some graduates from Yale who staged interactive plays about different social issues ranging from sexual education to violence for the kids. They too discovered these places through Claudia."

For Claudia, introducing often wealthy middle class Americans and Europeans to their reality nearly always produces a positive outcome. "For me, it’s unimportant whether a person is rich or poor," Claudia explained. "To me, what’s important is your ideas, projects, and your politics. I want people to come here and see what the truth is. Then to return home and tell people about the terrible situation here."

Sammy Loren is a film maker and writer currently living in Buenos Aires, Argentina.