Argentina calls to me

When I landed in Buenos Aires in the morning of Cinco de Mayo (I had flown ten hours all night from Dallas/Fort Worth), the weather was inviting, warm, clear skies. The city opened up as I drove with my friend Neal Murata, who works for the US Embassy here, and my new friend Sol Rubio, the embassy’s cultural affairs specialist, who helped organize my many talks, workshops, juvenile detention center presentations, and media interviews for the next two weeks. The city of three million (in a greater area that holds some 12 million people) is massive and architecturally striking. The hotel is in one of the best neighborhoods known as Recoleta, next to a famous Cemetery, built by early 18th century monks and that now houses the final resting places of Eva Peron, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and many other well-known Argentine politicians, writers, land owners. I came to take part in the Buenos Aires Book Fair. The United States had a nicely designed section that emphasized electronic books such as Kindle. My published books were displayed along with other classical and contemporary US writers. I did a presentation called “Words That Transform: Literature as a Vehicle of Community Development” that was well attended. This presentation also included a 22-year-old revolutionary Argentine poet who served four years in jail, where he found his destiny in words, and who later created a community-based writing program for slum youth. His name was Cesar Gonzalez, but he went by the pseudonym of Camilo Blajaquis. He provided a strong statement—a young person who thinks is more dangerous than one who robs. Although Cesar and I had not talked prior to our presentation, we seemed to be in sync about the vitality of youth voices and how to work with young people, often in gangs, and although troubled and at-risk, have immense capacities to be leaders, writers, artists, musicians, painters, and more. A raffle later of a number of my books involved several participants at the US booth—it was fun. I met many new fans of my work. I also had interviews by El Clarin, the Voice of America, Radio Cultura, and the Buenos Aires Herald (English-language publication). I attended a reception at the US Ambassador’s residence for the Jewish Federations of North America—the residence was like a museum with several rooms, baroque décor, and large staircase. In the back was a manicured garden, pool, and tennis court. In the next day or so I met other US embassy staff, including Charge d’Affaires Jefferson Brown, Public Affairs Officer Diana Page, and Information Officer Shannon Farrell. The Buenos Aires Book Fair brings 1.2 million people a year, the majority students. I got a chance to walk around and see the large array of books and booths, including from countries like Mexico and Brazil. The next couple of days, I spent in various slum and poor communities in and around Buenos Aires. The slum areas are called “Villas,” which are similar to “Favelas” in Brazil or “Ranchitos” in Caracas (which I also visited when I was in Venezuela a few years back). Some 165,000 people are believed to be living in these slums, often built overnight by migrants from the provinces as well as nearby countries. I spoke to children, ages six to twelve, who also created their own writing projects and books in the housing projects of Mataderos. I also visited the Villa Lugano, where I held a writing workshop with teenagers at a high school youth club. We then drove to the city’s outskirts to visit a slum of many Bolivian, Paraguayan, and other, including indigenous, migrants. A youth center in the middle of scrap homes and roughshod structures also had a small radio station. Three adolescent girls interviewed me, although they only had two weeks of experience at the station. They sounded professional and thorough. The next day, I visited two youth detention centers, “San Martin” and “Luis Agote.” One place held adjudicated juveniles ages 14 to 16; the other consisted of jailed youth ages 17 to 18. The workshops were great, mostly because of the talks we had. I brought copies in Spanish of my book “Always Running” (La Vida Loca), “No Tiene Que Ser Asi” (my bilingual and illustrated children’s book),” and “La Republica de East LA” (my short story collection.” I also had a copy of the photography book by Joseph Rodriguez of East L.A. gang youth called “Eastside Stories” (this turned out to be very popular among the participants). In addition, the US embassy donated copies of my books for whatever libraries existed in the detention centers, schools, and slum areas we visited. The similarities of my experiences more than forty years ago in gangs, on drugs, and going in and out of jails in the barrios of Los Angeles allowed for great dialogue. But I also left the young people with the message of following their own passions, art, imaginations, and to become whole, healthy, and safe, even in an unhealthy and unsafe environment. I also emphasized the preparation these youths needed through education and organization to help change those environments through fundamental and long-range developments. My stories and a poem or two proved very useful. The next day, May 9, I visited one of the most infamous public housing projects in the province of Buenos Aires. It was called Ejercito de los Andes, but was renamed “Fuerte Apache” (Fort Apache) after the violent New York Bronx precinct, memorialized in books in movies.  The district was created in the months prior to the 1978 World Soccer Cup (hosted by Argentina that year) by the military dictators of the time to house thousands of poor residents displaced from the Buenos Aires villas. The aim was to improve the city’s image to foreign visitors. The area now consists of 26 blocks housing around 100,000 people. It is considered one of the most dangerous communities in South America—the night before we showed up bullets were fired into a group from one of the high-rise slum apartments. Green-uniformed Border Patrol officers guard Fuerte Apache. I did a talk and workshop with elementary school-aged children as well as parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders. The writings these youth and adults created were wonderful. The director of Public School Number 3, Javier Canepa, with his staff, created a great learning environment. We also did a media walk around the slums with TV and newspaper cameras. I got to go in and out of some rough spaces, although everybody in the projects proved to be amiable and open, even with many curious faces surrounding us. I went to a sacred spot, an altar to a famous robber (who apparently robbed from the rich and gave to the poor) that the local residents consider a saint. There was also massive murals on two blocks of housing for the internationally renowned Argentine soccer player Carlos Alberto Tevez. Tevez grew up in these violent housing developments and these murals were a way to honor Fuerte Apache’s most famous son. All the people we talked to were inquisitive and interested in what I had to say. Later that evening, we ended up in one of the most violent Buenos Aires neighborhoods called El Palomar, where Cesar Gonzalez (the poet Camilo Blajaquis) held ongoing writing workshops with local youth, ages 15 to 25. We discussed the value of writing, art, music, and social change, and then everyone wrote several of their thoughts, including about a youth festival held the week before—the first one ever held in Palomar with youth from more than one Villa, although no violence or fights were reported. More than one of the teenage girls in the workshops or hanging around held small babies, something I’ve seen often in the ghettos and barrios of the United States. (Tomorrow I’ll report on my other workshops and trips in Argentina). c/s

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