A Country of Contrasts

So far my work in Buenos Aires and surroundings has proven to be fruitful, exciting, and rich with dialogue. The incomparable Sol Rubio, the US Embassy’s Cultural Affairs Specialist, joined me on all my trips, driven by another embassy employee, Oscar, who explained to me much about the Buenos Aires cultural, climate, and attitude. The morning of May 10, Sol and Oscar came to my hotel to bring me to another juvenile detention center called “Manuel Rocca.” I did a talk and writing workshop with young men aged 16 to 17. They also had questions they had prepared after seeing information on my work. Later that day, I visited another detention center, “Manuel Belgrano,” where older youth, ages 18-21, asked questions and took part in writing exercises. Sol also took me to the Café La Biela in the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires (people such as Juan Borges used to hang out there). Apparently in the 1970s, the café was bombed during resistance to the military dictators of the time. Neal Murata, the embassy’s program officer, also joined us for some of the talks and exercises. An evening before, he took me to a “parillada,” where Argentine meats (famous the world over) were served in large quantities. I don’t eat red meat so I only had a few slices with chimichirri sauce and a salad. I made an exception for this and a little bit of desert, but this was definitely on the “no-no” side of my diet (when I told my sons Ruben and Luis about my dinner with Neal during a Skype call, they promptly scolded me). But Neal is a good friend (we met when I did similar talks, workshops, and readings in Chihuahua, Mexico in early 2010). Neal understood and I will now have to stay on a regimen of no red meat, no sugar, no salt (with plenty of vegetables, whole grains, fruit, water, sleep, and exercise) or I won’t hear the end of this from my boys. In the evening, Sol and I (accompanied by an embassy videographer/photographer named Jorge as well as the embassy’s information officer Shannon Farrell) took a plane from Buenos Aires to the northern Argentine city of Resistencia in the northeast province of Chaco. It was a nice hour-and-a-half plane ride since, for once, I was seated in first class. The city of 275,000 people proved to be most interesting—it’s apparently the sculpture capital of the country: Various wood and metal sculptures by local artists could be seen in parks and roadways. We stayed in a hotel with its own casino (something I also don’t do). The next day, I talked to several classes of elementary school children. I read from my Spanish-language illustrated children’s book, “La llaman America,” about an undocumented indigenous girl from Oaxaca, Mexico in a poor Chicago barrio. This went over very well. Later that day, I spoke to older children (ages 16-17) at another public school about the important role art can play in their communities. The poor areas of Resistencia included many indigenous families. Addressing the work I do with indigenous people from Mexico and Central America in Los Angeles (as well as my own spiritual practices with Native American and Native Mexican traditions) helped me bridge more than a few gaps. The children and teens were enthused, full of intelligent questions. I had to sign many papers (and arms and hands). Sol also donated copies of my books, including children’s books, to the schools. In the evening, at another public school, I met with teachers, administration, parents, social workers, and librarians to address working with troubled youth and the important role of art and literature in community development. Again, the level of engagement, with key questions and comments, made this talk memorable. The following morning, Sol, Jorge, and I took a taxi on what was supposed to be a two-hour drive from Resistencia to the city of Formosa (around 200,000 residents), capital of the province with the same name. This province is on the border with Paraguay and also had many indigenous communities. This was when the unforeseen adventures began. A rain fell all the way along the route. Not even an hour out of Resistencia, the windshield wiper on the driver’s side broke. Although the taxi driver said he was okay to keep going, he really couldn’t see and Sol rightfully suggested we stop and call for another taxi. We got a call in just before we lost cell phone service. At one point, the taxi driver got out to try and fix the windshield wiper, but as soon as he came back inside about a dozen wasp-sized mosquitoes (at least they looked that big to me) entered. I had a time killing them against the glass and between my palms. They were huge, “the size of horses,” as the taxi driver exclaimed. The mosquitoes were also smart—hiding and then coming out to see about sucking our blood. Finally, after about forty minutes, another driver came by in another cab. But after we moved our bags and camera equipment to the new car, the cab got stuck in some thick mud (by then the other driver had taken off). The new driver pulled back and forth with the engine. We offered to help push the car, but he insisted he could handle this (although we were facing oncoming traffic; Jorge and I both worried we’d slam into various big rigs that were streaming down the wet road). It took a while, but we were on the road again. Only in a short time we got stuck in terrible traffic—no cars or trucks were moving. The taxi driver thought it was an accident, but after finally getting to the source of the problem in a snail’s pace, it turned out to be a picket of indigenous people protesting unkept promises by the provincial government. The governor apparently promised the indigenous communities 1,200 new housing units, but in three years allegedly not one had been created. In the flyer we received from the picketers, the indigenous people (who had put tree branches and other debris on the road to stop traffic) also said the local hospitals had no medicines and many indigenous people were without food. They also accused the governor of trying to sell indigenous lands to foreigners. This reminded me of the many indigenous uprisings and protests in Mexico over the past several decades, including in the early 1980s that I covered as an independent journalist in places like Oaxaca and Baja California. We finally got going again, only to end up in another traffic jam (not as slow as the one before). This was due to about three or four big rigs getting stuck in mud in access roads and on the shoulder of the road we were on. Needless to say we were late to our meeting in Formosa with community leaders, teachers, and organizers at the Center for Youth Activities, situated a couple of blocks from the Paraguay border. Yet, the participants patiently waited for us (including a local TV crew) and again I stayed energized for a vibrant discussion with community activists. I must say, no matter what, we had amazing audiences and strong participation in all the talks. I doubt any of these people had ever heard from a Chicano organizer, writer, and speaker (born and raised in the U.S., son of Mexican migrants, who speaks both Spanish and English). But these groups were open to hear my experiences and for them to share theirs—we had similar issues and responses to the community-based work. The flight back that afternoon was from Formosa to Buenos Aires—I again had a first class seat and enjoyed the ride. The next day, I had lunch with U.S. Ambassador to Argentina, Vilma Martinez—a longtime Chicana leader and lawyer (former head of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund). We talked and ate at that famous ambassador’s residence that looked like a museum. Vilma was gracious, open, and we had a great time discussing Chicano politics, the changing U.S. role in the world to share and not to mandate (which I’ve seen more and more with the cultural attaché office), and the generosity and diversity of the Argentine people. My last presentation was that afternoon at the U.S. Embassy’s auditorium; I spoke to U.S. Foreign Service officers and Foreign Service employees from Argentina. The topic was “Literature as a Tool for Community Development.” This was the only event I did in English, and again we explored new ways of organizing, of moving ideas and imagination, and how to bring adequate resources into the hands of the poor, youth, and indigenous communities wherever possible. The key was empowering communities to run themselves, to own their solutions, and to come out more educated and trained without losing their dignity, cultures or values. I have to thank the great role of the cultural attaché office and people like Neal and Sol for making my talks possible—working directly with the most abandoned communities and helping us share the various collaborations and efforts to regenerate new economies, rebuild new communities, and to strengthen individuals, families, communities, schools, youth projects, and more. I leave today, May 15, after two days of having free time, walking around, eating well, exercising, and catching up on tons of work. I leave with a big heart and much love for the Argentine people. c/s

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