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from issue no. 08 - 2008

Villas miserias

Among bulldozers and referendum

by Gianni Valente

A mural dedicated to the popular hero Gaucho Gil, in Villa 3

A mural dedicated to the popular hero Gaucho Gil, in Villa 3

The villas miserias of Buenos Aires are a result of a pull of attraction that the metropolis has always exerted on those who choose to leave their place of origin to ensure a future for themselves and their children. According to some historians, the first villas appeared as early as the start of the twentieth century, with the massive influx of European immigrants, especially Spanish and Italian, who put up shanties around the Hotel des Immigrantes and then, from the early thirties, in the Puerto Nuevo area. But the real escalation started in the period after the second war. Successive waves of new immigrants from the poorest provinces in Argentina followed on one another from 1941 to early 1960. In 1968, in the vast area of the Buenos Aires urban cone there were more than 259 settlements, where more than 500,000 inhabitants lived. Even then, within the boundaries of the federal capital itself, there were thirty-three villas.
“You must earn the right to live in the city” was the motto of Osvaldo Cacciatore, superintendent of the city during the dictatorship, director of the plan de erradicación instituted by the regime to clear the city of villas. In reality, the only effect of the policy of demolition and deportation was the temporary displacement of two hundred thousand villeros from the central area to the province and suburban areas. But with the return of democracy the villas repopulated at a dizzying pace even within the urban perimeter.
According to the data in a confidential report of the port authority – and published last 17 July by the newspaper Crítica – 400,000 inhabitants of Buenos Aires currently live in a housing “deficit”. The villas and “irregular” settlements amount to fifty-nine only in the city area, concentrated in the south, with a constant increase of new arrivals coming from Bolivia, Paraguay and the poor provinces of Argentina – in the last five years.
After the “solution” attempted under the dictatorship, the administrations that have followed nationally and locally have managed an almost total lack of initiatives. It has been estimated that if the construction of housing continues at the pace set in the years following the crisis of 2001, it will take more than eighty years to solve the housing problem of the present inhabitants of the villas. The current municipal government, led by businessman Mauricio Macri, has announced a referendum to let the whole citizenry of Buenos Aires decide what to do with the villas. An idea immediately rejected by the equipo of curas villeros. “We have to pay attention to the heart of the villero so that solutions don’t come from offices where technicians are working who don’t know the situation, and who instead of improving the situation make it worse”, they wrote in their press releases. Demolishing the comfortable prejudices of those who brand the villeros as failed wasters spoilt by reliance on ecclesial charity. Father José “Pepe” di Paola, now head of the equipo explains: “Today the villas are working-class neighborhoods. Most people who live there work in the most exhausting sectors. Each villa means first of all thousands of men and women with their stories and their sacrifices who are struggling all day to ensure for their children and grandchildren the necessities of life, coming out of an objective condition of disadvantage and discrimination”.

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