07/09/2012 03:36 EDT | Updated 09/08/2012 05:12 EDT

Argentina's Darkest Corner: Slum or New Beginning?


Photo credit: Carolina Bonfanti Mele

Argentinian's often speak of the "other Argentina." Depending on where they're from this either means rural Argentina or Buenos Aires, populated by the porteños of European descent. But there is a third Argentina. Villa 31 is one of the many villa miseria or shantytowns throughout Buenos Aires and Argentina. These communities are often formed from immigrant populations and are located along infrastructure such as railways of major highways. These urban islands are separated from the formal city by physical architecture and infrastructure barriers, not to mention social, cultural and economic barriers.

Villa 31 is not unlike any of the shantytowns found throughout the major cities of the world. From Istanbul to Shenzhen to Rio de Janeiro, governments are struggling to respond to these informal settlements. Villa 31 is not included on the map of Buenos Aires. It does not receive basic municipal services such as sanitation, water, public transportation or street lights.

Residents fend for themselves and that includes illegally diverting power from the grid to provide service to the villa. Some residents of Villa 31 work in the formal city in construction jobs or in domestic work, while others are employed in the internal economy of the villa's shops. The lowest rung of income is the collection of cardboard and other recyclable materials for meager sums. The quality of housing varies greatly from concrete, multistory buildings to tin shacks with dirt floors.

Many residents of Buenos Aires associate the residents of villas with illegal immigration and crime. Incidents such as the recent stabbing death of a French photographer near Villa 31 do not help this perception. The term inseguridad or insecurity is a constant in the media as fear of crime continues to grow and trust in the institutions of government decreases. Most residents of Buenos Aires believe crime is rising and see the government as powerless to stop it. But the ubiquitous use of inseguridad in the media is not unlike the use of War on Terror in the United States' media and the general sense of fear and unease that resulted. Regardless of the reality, it's through this lens of fear that the villa miseria are viewed.

Outsiders perceive the villas as a source of crime, drugs and inseguridad, where residents are locked into an endless cycle of poverty. But the history of Villa 31 tells a different story. Although the settlement has remained in the same location, its residents have not. In his book Arrival City, Doug Saunders examines shantytowns throughout the world.

He describes well functioning shantytowns as places that allow immigrant populations to gain a foothold in the city. From there residents send wages home and support their rural villages, while saving to purchase the small home they rent or eventually move out of the shantytown. From the early Italian residents in the 1930s to the rural Argentinians and now Bolivians and Paraguayans, Villa 31 has been the beginning of life in the city, not the end.

Intense urbanization began in South America well ahead of the urbanization of Africa and Asia. As early as the 1930s, Italian immigrants began to settle in the area now know as Villa 31. They were escaping the worsening political and economic situation at home and most worked in the nearby port of Buenos Aires. As the Italian and other European immigrants began to achieve more permanent homes in the other barrios of Buenos Aires, rural Argentianians began to flock to the city in the hopes of getting jobs in manufacturing. Settling in Villa 31 allowed these rural migrants to gain a foothold in the city. Most recently migrants from other South American countries such as Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay have made Villa 31 home.

As University of Buenos Aires sociology Ph.D candidate, Pablo Vitale explains, government reaction to the villas has been mixed. "State intervention in the villas is very chaotic, unplanned, and unfocused. There are no comprehensive, long term policies to respond to structural problems." When asked to describe the residents of Villa 31, Vitale continued, "The villas are places of enormous diversity. The residents come from different places with different customs and with different objectives. Differences between income levels are much more important than in social sectors with more income. In the villas the income gap can be the difference between eating every day or not. There is not a uniform identity, although there are common interests."

Although there have been no mass evictions for years, there has also been little progress in integrating Villa 31 into the formal city. The right of centre municipal government remains at odds with the left leaning federal government over the best course of action for the villas. Proposals by Buenos Aires social groups call for the introduction of basic city services as the first step in integrating Villa 31. They argue sanitation, street lights and public transportation would raise the standard of living for residents, while increasing the resident's mobility and opportunities for formal work.

Since 2007 one social group has been carrying out a series of sessions with the youth of the villa. Building on the success of earlier photography workshops, the group gave the youth the skills to map their own neighbourhoods, as no formal map of the villa existed. The workshops had the immediate effect of political discussion among the youth, as well as exposure to the concepts of architecture and mapping. And the resulting maps are seen as invaluable given the uncertainty around the government's course of action in Villa 31.

While others talk about policy, life in the villas continue. Those employed in the formal city make the daily commute, others work in the villa's internal economy and mothers do their best to raise their children. The question remains, are the villas of Buenos Aires home to inescapable cycles of poverty, or are they the means by which immigrants and migrants gain a foothold in the city to someday create a better life for themselves and their families?