Dispatch

The Permanent Slum

The residents of Buenos Aires's Villa 31 have been shunted to the side for as long as they can remember. Now, they're looking to assert their identity in an unfriendly city.

As long as there has been mass rural immigration to the cities, urban elites have viewed their new neighbors as eyesores. Today, with half the world's population living in cities, Shanghai is sweeping away poor neighborhoods to make way for daring contemporary architecture. Barcelona passed "coexistence" legislation a few years ago outlawing begging on the streets -- a move that, in effect, criminalized the urban poor. In Mumbai, thousands of shantytown residents have watched bulldozers tear down their tin constructions, leaving them homeless.

Buenos Aires's Villa 31, however, has faced all these challenges and more -- and has still managed to remain a thriving community, a lesson in urban development that could suggest paths forward for other cities worldwide. The slum, right in the Argentine capital’s center, was terrorized during the country’s right-wing dictatorship, which ruled from 1976 to 1983. Only 800 of the original 23,400 residents remained at the regime’s end, due to an eradication policy that forcibly moved residents. While 30,000 people “disappeared” in the country as a whole, tortured and killed in clandestine prisons, in Villa 31, community leaders’ bodies were left on the street in plain sight and the entire population threatened -- a message to left-wing political movements targeted by the dictatorship, but also a statement of the villa residents’ second-class status.

More recently, Villa 31 has come under attack from its more high-class neighbors. It occupies prime real estate in Buenos Aires, and the sparkling glass high-rises visible from the slum's ramshackle houses are in some of the most expensive areas of the city. The neighborhood of Recoleta, where ladies lunch in expensive shopping malls and the old landowning aristocracy hunkers down in the elite Jockey Club, is just a dozen blocks away from the center of Villa 31.

As long as there has been mass rural immigration to the cities, urban elites have viewed their new neighbors as eyesores. Today, with half the world’s population living in cities, Shanghai is sweeping away poor neighborhoods to make way for daring contemporary architecture. Barcelona passed "coexistence" legislation a few years ago outlawing begging on the streets — a move that, in effect, criminalized the urban poor. In Mumbai, thousands of shantytown residents have watched bulldozers tear down their tin constructions, leaving them homeless.

Buenos Aires’s Villa 31, however, has faced all these challenges and more — and has still managed to remain a thriving community, a lesson in urban development that could suggest paths forward for other cities worldwide. The slum, right in the Argentine capital’s center, was terrorized during the country’s right-wing dictatorship, which ruled from 1976 to 1983. Only 800 of the original 23,400 residents remained at the regime’s end, due to an eradication policy that forcibly moved residents. While 30,000 people “disappeared” in the country as a whole, tortured and killed in clandestine prisons, in Villa 31, community leaders’ bodies were left on the street in plain sight and the entire population threatened — a message to left-wing political movements targeted by the dictatorship, but also a statement of the villa residents’ second-class status.

More recently, Villa 31 has come under attack from its more high-class neighbors. It occupies prime real estate in Buenos Aires, and the sparkling glass high-rises visible from the slum’s ramshackle houses are in some of the most expensive areas of the city. The neighborhood of Recoleta, where ladies lunch in expensive shopping malls and the old landowning aristocracy hunkers down in the elite Jockey Club, is just a dozen blocks away from the center of Villa 31.

The neighborhood, which takes its name from an eradication plan carried out by a military dictatorship in the late 1960s, also upsets the longstanding myth of Buenos Aires as the white and cosmopolitan "Paris of South America." This idea took hold precisely when it became untrue, during the industrialization era of the 1930s, when darker-skinned migrants from northern Argentina and neighboring countries came to the city in search of jobs. Their integration into the city crystallized during the following decade, when President Juan Perón’s populism incorporated the working class into democratic politics.

But increasingly, residents are making their demands heard. The city legislature passed an urbanization law last year that established the framework for incorporating the neighborhood into the formal city. However, many details, such as how land titles will be distributed, remain unclear. After generations of legalized discrimination, residents are extremely mistrustful of politicians’ promises.

The law has also reopened the question of who really belongs in Villa 31. Javier Fernández Castro, an expert on urbanization at the University of Buenos Aires, noted that the villa will have to define its borders and population in order to achieve legal recognition. Given the complexity of this project, experts estimate that the process will take about a decade — leaving plenty of time for the plan to be derailed.

No matter how Villa 31’s official boundaries are drawn, residents share a strong pride in their collective roots. Napoleon Villalpando, a short, round man who arrived in Villa 31 in the 1970s, left the slum during the dictatorship and only came back in 1983, with the return of a democratic government. "You weren’t anybody here," he said, recalling that time. Twenty-five years later, having raised five children here, he is determined that he will never let history repeat itself. "I dig my heels in, and nobody will ever move me again," he said.

Villa is short for villa miseria — village of misery — the Argentine term for a slum. Near the neighborhood’s entrance, three-story houses painted in a haphazard selection of colors sit atop a bewildering array of storefronts, ranging from a butcher’s shop to ubiquitous telephone-Internet stores that advertise cheap rates to Bolivia and Paraguay. Inside a brightly lit hair salon, Elisabeht Gauto trimmed a pale brunette’s shoulder-length hair. Gauto, a slight 32-year-old, brought her two children from Paraguay six months ago. She lives in a small one-room apartment with her cousin and three other people. Rent is 300 pesos, or about $75, and better housing is inevitably farther away from work.

"It’s not good, but what can we do?" she said. "It’s not an adequate place to live; kids take drugs, and people discriminate against you," she said. Villa residents say that outsiders, who imagine that the neighborhood is exclusively inhabited by lawless criminals, treat them with constant suspicion. Many people said they lie about their residence in order to secure jobs. One urbanization activist told how, when she shares her provenance at meetings with city authorities, "the first thing they do is put away their purses."

Despite this discrimination, however, the neighborhood continues to expand, now a 26,400-strong settlement of ramshackle houses crowned with tin roofs. The slum was constructed haphazardly, without recourse to safety codes — a fact that worries safety-conscious urban officials. However, residents, many of whom earn their living in the city’s construction industry, retort that they built the rest of the city as well.

Residents have been attracted to the neighborhood because of its proximity to work — mainly construction, cleaning, and maintenance jobs — and to good public hospitals and schools in the city center. María Angélica Banzer, a 40-year-old immigrant from Bolivia, recalled the difficulty of getting health care when she lived on the city’s outskirts. She frowned at the memory of taking grueling two-hour trips while pregnant, starting at 3 a.m., just to get an appointment at a maternity ward at a public hospital. "Here it’s easier, there are ways to get around, and I can get work" she said, stirring an enormous pot of "tiger’s milk," a system-cleansing mix of milk, dry coconut shavings, sugar, and liberal splashes of rubbing alcohol.

The slum is alienated from the rest of Buenos Aires not only culturally, but economically. Only 65 percent of the homes have running water, which is usually provided by jerry-rigged connections of doubtful hygienic quality, according to Fernández Castro. Informal sewers feed into the rainwater runoff system, flooding areas with contaminated water after heavy rain. Population density reaches 33,000 people per square mile, or more than five times that of the formal city.

But despite government attempts to sweep them out of the city, endemic discrimination, and crippling poverty, Villa 31 has managed to carve out its own identity within Buenos Aires. Cynthia Cohen, a local artist, recently tapped into the tension between the formal and informal city for inspiration — and to make a political point.

Cohen has embarked on a plan to construct a monument inside the villa: a massive, steel "31" towering 100 feet above the ground. The sculpture would rest on a column from an abandoned road project, putting it at eye level with commuters coming into the city on the highway that sweeps above Villa 31. Her goal is to design a polished and industrial monument — an attempt to bring an element of the formal city to the informal city, a gesture of defiant integration. The monument would be clearly visible from the city’s wealthy neighborhoods, serving as a statement of belonging for the long-ignored area.

Cohen opened the p
roject’s design to local collaboration, beginning a series of open meetings in the villa that stretched out over a year. Residents were initially skeptical, but welcomed the idea as a way to proclaim their identity. Working with Cohen, they incorporated the name of a local hero, Father Carlos Mugica, assassinated by a paramilitary squad in the 1970s, into the monument. Old-time residents of Villa 31 in particular see this as a way to remind the neighborhood’s youths of their turbulent history.

The participatory process caught the attention of Secretary of Culture Jorge Coscia, who is lending the national government’s support to the plan. The monument, he said, serves to "repair and recompose [residents’] self-esteem, strengthen, identity and … celebrate differences."

In other words, it will be a shout out from the invisible city to Buenos Aires: "We are here to stay." And from Shanghai to Mumbai, the world’s other rapidly urbanizing cities should be on notice as well.

Jordana Timerman is a researcher at Foreign Policy.

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