Argentina, Political

Thrown Out

Wednesday, September 15, 2010  

Homes under the freewayHomes under the freewayClearing out everythingClearing out everythingMoments before the bottle-tossing beganThe suits move onThe view from while I'm safe at homeA few hours laterA few hours later

This morning I took my dog Clyde to a plaza nearby for his morning walk. While there, there was an operation in progress to “clean up” encampments of cartoneros living under the freeway adjacent to the plaza.

The cartoneros have a big presence in Buenos Aires. The name comes from the word “carton,” or cardboard. They handle the great majority of cardboard and paper recycling for the city, and recycling in general. They work by sorting through garbage on the streets to extract materials of value. Cartoneros are conspicuous in wheeling their heavily loaded carts throughout the streets in their search for material to collect and later sell to recycling companies. Contrary to how they appear at first glance, the majority of cartoneros are not homeless but live in neighborhoods in the suburbs of the city of Buenos Aires. Many are well-organized, collectively owning trucks to haul materials. The government used to provide them with their own train, of old rusted out cars all painted white, which ran at off hours as a means for them to haul their materials to their homes in outlying neighborhoods. But by shutting down the train a couple years ago, the government essentially has created a significant homeless population within the city.

We live near a major train station where cartoneros pass every day. There has been an encampment of them nearby, gradually growing over the past year with provisional structures and piles of materials collected for recycling. And plenty of garbage. They sleep on found mattresses, cook on fires of collected wood, and some of them drink quite a bit. Families are raised. Like any population there are good and bad people amongst them, some rob and others are involved with the community, and many just do their best to support their own lives.

I have mixed feelings about the cartoneros who have been living near me. I have had no direct contact with the cartoneros living in this encampment, just my dog playing with theirs. This group has not been so outgoing with the neighborhood, and their encampment has been growing and becoming dirtier and dirtier. It may be prejudice on my part, but I have not felt so safe walking past them, in contrast to other such groups with whom I have had positive experiences. But I also empathize that they are in a difficult situation, and respect them putting up with living outdoors through the cold and rain of winter.

Today I watched the operation by the government and noticed how there were nearly a hundred people in the operation to displace about 30-40 people and their stuff. One group dressed in suits who would make initial contact with each cluster of people. Then many social workers dressed more plainly that would talk amongst the cartoneros. After that two distinct groups in uniforms collect stuff to dispose of and sweep. I am unsure how these two groups cleaning up differ in their function, maybe some are government employees and others private contractors. Just in case about a dozen police were hanging out at the periphery.

The whole process worked with no drama or violence. Everyone calm, and not police-like, and the workers giving the cartoneros a chance to retrieve whatever they wished. I was describing this process to a friend via texting on my phone and he suggested I grab my camera, as he was curious to see what was going on. A good idea (or so it seemed), so I brought my dog home, hurriedly ate a bowl of cereal, and returned with camera to try to document the situation. I snapped these pictures here, and felt safe with it being a public event with many passersby watching. Also, today everyone has a camera, and we are all growing accustomed to the possibility of being photographed in any place at any time.

When I pointed my camera to capture the workers collecting and disposing, one cartonero took offense. He yelled at me, cursing a few typical expressions about my mother that just weren’t true. I walked wide around to the other side on my way back home, and photographed the big shots in suits coming out of the encampment. There I noticed the white dog that had just been playing with my dog. As I was holding the camera in my hands, the angry cartonero had become a small angry group who picked up bricks and bottles and began throwing them at me. Keep in mind that beer bottles here are liter-size and pretty hefty. All the workers around looked curiously but did nothing. The angry group was not into dialog as I shouted my pleas to say how sympathetic I was to them.  I was both impressed and terrified by their good aim from 25 meters away, as I began to retreat. Barely dodging a wine bottle and then made haste to get the hell out. I easily returned to the safety of my home meanwhile those guys are now out there looking for their next home.

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