The blistering heat of the southern hemisphere’s summer season bears down on the streets of Buenos Aires. But it’s more than just the subtropical climate that keeps Argentinians’ blood boiling: the country’s representative democracy lends itself to a robust activist community. After over a decade of left-leaning politics, conservative President Mauricio Macri won the presidency one year before Donald Trump claimed victory in the U.S. Since then, tens of thousands of teachers have protested a proposed 15 percent raise while national inflation surpasses 25 percent. Prostitutes campaign for legal rights protecting them against police harassment. Eight million women gathered for the second annual women’s strike. Young Jewish community leaders try to combat a loss of numbers in the continent’s largest Semitic population.

On a blissful March day, the bustling metropolis is crawling with commuters. We invite you to investigate what controversies simmer beneath the surface.

LISTEN: Reporter Roundtable: Activism in Argentina

INTERACTIVE: Explore the Activism in the streets of Buenos Aires

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Striking to Survive

Progress and Prostitution

Fabric of Feminism

Finding the Faith

 

Teachers carry torches at a teachers protest on March 14. Photo by Nate Doughty.
Teachers carry torches at a protest on March 14. Photo by Nate Doughty.

Striking to Survive: Teachers in Buenos Aires fight for higher pay

By Connor Perrett

Early on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-March on a relatively sleepy city street, a quiet chaos can be heard coming from the inside of a green building sandwiched between two tan apartment buildings.

Verano summer — is about to come to an end in Argentina’s capital city, which means it’s time for the boys and girls of Buenos Aires to begin another school year. But for millions of students and teachers, the start of school was delayed this year.

The noise is louder inside the building voices of children. They’re speaking Spanish, of course, but the clamor is familiar. The sound of kids talking and playing sounds the same in any language, at any school, in any country.

At midday: the lunch break. Not all schools in Buenos Aires have one, since many only run for half a day. But students at Dr. Antonio Bermejo Esc. No. 18 primary school meet from 8:15 in the morning to 4:20 in the afternoon. Just like in the U.S., some students rely on the school as one of their only mealtimes.

The second floor hallways are noisy with the sounds from the lunchroom downstairs, but the classrooms and hallways are empty. On the second floor is la biblioteca the library. It’s small, but is scattered with books and other supplies you’d expect to find in an elementary school. There are a few noticeably old computers in the corner of the room.

Sitting at one of the tables in the center of the library is fifth grade social sciences and language teacher Dámian Paladino. He has salt-and-pepper hair and is wearing a long white coat and a smile from ear to ear.

He didn’t always know he’d be a teacher, but he knew he was good with kids. After an economic crisis hit in Argentina in 2001, he got a degree in teaching and found his passion. But he’s not blind. He can see that the system isn’t perfect.

Dámian believes one of the largest issues plaguing schools in the state’s capital is the difference in quality between institutions. Schools in areas closer to the center of the city get more government funding, while schools in working and lower class neighborhoods further from the city center don’t receive the same treatment. Sometimes, he said, they receive nothing at all.

Schools throughout the city usually have homogeneous populations, meaning most children at a particular school typically come from a similar economic background, Dámian said.

The difference between schools in upper-class neighborhoods and working and lower-class neighborhoods can be stark, but some in the higher classes still choose to send their children to public schools as an act of political protest.

“It is part of the identity, the Argentine feels very identified with the public school,” Dámian said. “We have a history of public school that we’ve identified with for generations. There have been the changes through time that have brought other things, other resources to work in schools, but the governments haven’t always had the same outlook toward public education.”

Dámian said the government is cutting budgets to schools, eliminating programs and in some cases even closing schools entirely. The teachers are worried about their students, but they’re also worried about themselves.

Two days later a balmy Friday night teachers from the city begin to trickle into the street corner of Av. Corrientes & Av. Callao, an intersection downtown just on the border of the San Nicolas neighborhood.

Some teachers congregate outside a coffee shop; others stand and chat on the border where the sidewalk meets the street. Many hold signs by their hip, preparing to reveal them at a moment’s notice.

Police monitor teacher demonstrators during the teacher's protest in March.
Police monitor teacher demonstrators during the teacher’s protest in March. Photo by Nate Doughty.

But the teachers aren’t alone. Police also begin to trickle in. At first just a few plain clothed officers patrol the streets. A random passerby might not even notice them. But as the planned 7 p.m. marching time nears, officers pour in left and right. These officers are in riot gear.

They form a barricade between the teachers, who continue to multiply, and traffic. First dozens arrive, then hundreds. Many are coming straight from their workdays at school, which just ended a little over an hour ago. They will walk from the intersection to the famed Obelisk at the center of the city.

Under previous governments, teachers unions were able to meet with government officials to negotiate wages under “national collective wage bargaining,” but the current government ended that practice in January.

The government capped potential salary increases by 15 percent, but the teachers argued that wasn’t enough to keep the lights on. The city has had a remarkably high inflation rate, which is above 25 percent.

That’s what led to a 48-hour strike on March 5 and 6 and the late start to the school year for many students across the state. It led to the demonstration on Friday, and it could cause another strike in April.

“We are in a state of alert and mobilization,” Dámian said.

The teachers aren’t willing to give up. They want the best for their students, and they want to get paid.

 

Georgina Orellano doesn’t mind being called a whore. In fact, she embraces it. It’s even tattooed across her right forearm — puta.
Georgina Orellano is leading the conversation and the movement that demands sex workers in Argentina have the same rights as other laborers. Photo by Nate Doughty.

Progress and Prostitution: As societal attitudes shift, sex workers fight for equal treatment  

By Nate Doughty

She doesn’t mind being called a whore. In fact, she embraces it. It’s even tattooed across her right forearm — puta.

Her dark red lips are expressionless as she sits in a hard, plastic chair in a room plastered with progressive posters, feminist insignias and a giant fabric model of a vagina. Her poised mannerisms indicate the quiet confidence of a woman who has faced down one reporter after another.

Georgina Orellano is a 31-year-old sex worker in the city. Prostitution isn’t federally recognized in the South American nation, but Georgina is fighting for the same benefits as any other laborer in the country.

She serves as the secretary general of a sex workers union, la Asociación de Mujeres Meretrices de la Argentina (Association of Women Prostitutes of Argentina/AMMAR). Today, in her office, Georgina is optimistic that the negative stigma surrounding prostitution can be reversed. It is in the Argentinian feminist movement, Georgina said, that she has been most successful in challenging this perception.

“I think that in terms of progress, we made the problems we face and the demands of our organization visible,” Georgina said. “We are making the sex worker visible as a political subject.”

In the past, Georgina explained that sex workers have been excluded from the feminist movement.

She said prostitutes in Argentina have been fighting for working rights since the late 1980s. By meeting with other female workers, like teachers, sex workers wanted to try and change the stigma surrounding their occupation. Georgina said the work of prostitutes at the time was viewed of as immoral; that sex workers were victims of abuse and not actual employees of a job.

Georgina said that to help change this narrative, the AMMAR union was formed at the end of 1994. By 1995, the union partnered with the Center of Argentinian Workers, which according to Georgina, allowed for the members of the union to see themselves as workers just like anyone else.

In 1997, AMMAR joined the Network of Sex Workers of Latin America and the Caribbean, or RedTraSex. Spanning 15 countries in the western hemisphere, RedTraSex aims to promote the rights of sex workers on an international scale.

With attitudes shifting, Georgina believes the government could soon recognize their work. The union is currently drafting legislation to invite this discussion.

“There was a breakthrough in this sense that this year we will present in the second semester a bill that seeks recognition of sex work as work,” Georgina said. “Today, the sex worker is not as isolated from society, but is actually a part of a working class.”

Until their work is recognized legally by the government, prostitutes will continue to face hardships other workers do not. Retirement plans are nonexistent for sex workers, and they have trouble finding housing without official pay stubs that prove a source of income. Managing their healthcare is another challenge, with many sex workers being ineligible due to the risks the job carries.

For Georgina, these challenges have existed since she began working as a prostitute 12 years ago at the age of 19. A lack of opportunities elsewhere was the driving factor behind her decision to become a prostitute.

When Georgina first became a sex worker, she said that the feeling of guilt was overwhelming. The days when Georgina would make the most money, she said, made her feel the worst.

As the head of the union now, Georgina spends most of her time working in her grey-walled office with the concrete floors and colorful wall hangings. She makes her own schedule, and with a reliable clientele she contacts through WhatsApp and Facebook, Georgina no longer needs to work the long hours she once did a decade ago on a street corner to make ends meet.

Although societal attitudes toward her work are evolving, police persecution and labor exploitation are still just some of the other problems commonly faced by sex workers in the city.

There’s strength in numbers, though, and Georgina knows that.

By uniting with other sex workers, and aligning with the country’s growing feminist movement, Georgina believes these problems will be easier to tackle in the future.

“The union hears these types of complaints that come to our headquarters on issues of institutional violence,” Georgina said. “We build a bridge of dialogue for the state and ensure that the rights of our workers are not violated.”

 

Noelia Suarez rifles through her homemade T-Shirts. Photo by Nate Doughty.
Noelia Suarez rifles through her homemade T-Shirts. Photo by Nate Doughty.

Fabric of Feminism: One family finds strength in sewing

By Kat Tenbarge

If you touch Noelia Suarez, she’ll kill you.

At least, that’s what her shirt says.

On a crowded, cobblestone corner of San Telmo, the oldest neighborhood in the city, Noelia, a 20-year-old psychology student, is selling T-shirts this Sunday morning that bear feminist slogans.

Her T-shirts are short-sleeved and made with smooth, silken cotton. The rack to her right is replete with dazzling turquoise threads, bright pink seams and stitched-on, sometimes incendiary, slogans.

“Tócame y te mato” doesn’t make the cut anymore. The violent assurance made potential customers wary of the rest of Noelia’s stock, she says.

The ones that remain include “Tome conciencia,” which is written in the Coca-Cola font. Noelia says it’s a subtle jab at the way global, processed foods sneak chemicals into people’s bodies. The shirt means “Become aware.”

On the rack, another one displays a clenched fist surrounded by the female gender symbol. Written above and below it are the words “Las mujeres resistimos y luchamos,” a broader call to action: “Women: resist and fight!”

Noelia also sells hand-painted mugs. Some have square mosaic patterns; some have owls on them; still, others have Mafalda, the 6-year-old girl. She’s an iconic Argentinian comic book character who loves world peace and has serious attitude problems.

But the T-shirts are what catch people’s eyes and earn glances of most passers-by, porteños and tourists who stop at Noelia’s stand. The T-shirts reflect the graffiti and posters slung up and splattered around the busy intersections and tight alleyways of central Buenos Aires.

On March 8, thousands of women gathered downtown to rally outside the Congress building. “Paro internacional de mujeres” translates to International Women’s Strike, and feminist activists demanded legal abortion, labor equality, sexual freedom and LGBT rights, among other causes.

A week later, the spray-painted mantras still litter the city like skeletons. But Noelia didn’t protest that day. She supports the movement behind the strike, but she isn’t a part of a feminist group and she was working the day of the rally. Besides, for Noelia and her family, feminism hits closer to home.

The money from selling T-shirts supports  Noelia’s auntie, a survivor of domestic violence. Her aunt picks the designs. Noelia, her mother and her grandmother work together to sew the shirts, and over the past two years, their project has grown into an essential facet of the family.

“People used to stop and look at the T-shirts and say ‘Why’d you put that, why’d you write that,’” she said. “Now, they look and say ‘That’s great, what a great message.’” Photo by Nate Doughty.

Originally, Noelia’s grandmother, a retired seamstress, sewed the shirts by hand. As the shirts grew in popularity, the three Suarez women turned to sewing machines. But Noelia confesses that she doesn’t have time to market the business online. For now, the women rely on word of mouth and curious browsers at the Sunday market.

The sizing of the shirts is standardized, Noelia says. They hang loosely and the fabric has a degree of stretch to it. The scoop-neck opening is wide enough to fit most body types. The sleeves barely cover the shoulders, meaning they’re not too tight for heavier builds or too baggy for light frames.

Men can wear them. Mothers and their daughters can get matching ones. Noelia says fathers buy the T-shirts for their daughters and even for themselves.

“People used to stop and look at the T-shirts and say ‘Why’d you put that, why’d you write that,’” she said. “Now, they look and say ‘That’s great, what a great message.’”

Noelia wants every person who passes to be able to identify with the shirts. Business has steadily improved as feminist ideology becomes more entrenched in Argentinian culture. When she first started selling them, Noelia got both positive and negative reactions. Men and women alike asked why she felt it was necessary to broadcast a message some saw as divisive.

Now, she says people are more conscious. Even if you don’t want to be involved in the feminist scene, politics surround the people of Buenos Aires everywhere they go. In the media, in the streets and even standing right in front of you, Noelia says, gesturing at her own outfit.

When her auntie suffered the brunt of her domestic abuse, when Noelia was just 2 years old, the feminist movement didn’t look outward. Of her aunt’s husband, he was a man who was nice in public. No one suspected his personality could shift so drastically behind closed doors.

Nowadays, Noelia can openly discuss her own political views without fear of backlash. She agrees that abortion should be accessible, even though it has never been legal in Argentina. She supports broader rights for transgender people. There are some things she likes about the conservative national administration, but many things she hates.

On this March day, Noelia’s boyfriend is with her, selling the T-shirts. He counts out Argentinian pesos for change while his girlfriend circles the booth, engaging potential customers in conversation and snapping photos of young women wearing her T-shirts.

He supports every progressive movement Noelia, her mother and her grandmother do. On the flip side, Noelia’s father and grandfather are more conservative and less willing to advocate for women.

It’s the younger generation that’s really pushing for change in Argentina, Noelia asserts. Like one of her best-selling shirts, she and peers are rising up with a powerful message. “Si no es antipatriarcal, no me interesa tu revolucion.” That means, “If it’s not anti-patriarchal, I’m not interested in your revolution.”

“Everyone can be a part of it, and you don’t need to belong to one specific movement or party,” Noelia said.

“Sometimes, you just need something or someone close to you to open your eyes.”

 

26-year-old Eial Moldavsky talks with friends in the Hillel house in Buenos Aires. Photo by Connor Perrett.
Eial Moldavsky, 26, talks with friends in the Hillel house in Buenos Aires. Photo by Connor Perrett.

Finding the Faith: Argentina’s Jewish population adapts to a changing populace

By Marianne Dodson

When people walk inside the Buenos Aires Hillel house, they leave religion at the doorstep.

The city’s premier destination for young Jewish students features an open bar stocked with beer and wine. Young people are sprawled across bar stools and lounge chairs watching a fútbol game. It’s a match between archrivals: Boca Juniors and River Plate, the latter leading. The vibe feels more like a sports bar than a religious gathering place, but it also feels distinctly Argentinian.

The rest of the house matches this tone.

Sunlight saturates the main common area, which has a ping pong and billiards table. Its floor-length windows emphasize an open floor plan. Head out back, you’ll find swings and a pool. The house appears to have everything, but it’s noticeably quiet in the backyard. Without students, Hillel lacks a pulse.

This is the problem Eial Moldavsky has taken upon himself. In his third year working at the Hillel Foundation in Buenos Aires, 26-year-old Eial is trying to make the Hillel house a place where young Jewish people can gather in a non-Jewish way.

“We don’t have a religious point of view of Judaism,” Eial said. “We don’t try to have only religious options to bond with Judaism. The things we do kind of keep the religion point of view wide and open. The idea is to reach as much people as we can.”

With a community that boasts more than 160,000 Jews, Buenos Aires is home to Latin America’s largest Jewish population. But despite high numbers overall, Eial says few young people want to remain a part of the Jewish community in their twenties.

Hillel is marketed toward young people between the ages of 18 and 30. At this point in-between childhood and starting a family, the Buenos Aires Jewish community has seen a drop off in religious involvement.

“From 21 until 35 you build yourself,” Eial said. “But we kind of lose a lot of people.”

Eial works with Hillel’s engagement department and says his primary focus is to make the space both “interesting and attractive.” He knows Hillel is a Jewish institution, but he doesn’t want Judaism to be omnipresent within the Hillel house walls.

Finding Jewish students who want to be a part of Hillel has been difficult, Eial says. The house is located in the city, but it isn’t situated in either of Buenos Aires’ heavily populated Jewish neighborhoods. It’s shielded by lofty trees and sits on the same block as one of the city’s 89 Catholic churches.

Hillel chapters typically exist within college campuses. Due to the amount of educational institutions within Buenos Aires, there is only one Hillel base in the city, and it doesn’t cater to a specific school like in the U.S.

“They have the people there, the public there,” Eial said. “They are walking around so attracting them is way easier. For us, we have to go and look for the people we actually want to come.

Location isn’t the only issue. Eial says there’s a disconnect between the young Jews and the older institutions in the Jewish community that makes it difficult for the two to find common ground.

“The institutions aren’t capable of understanding the others’ way of life, the idea that Judaism can be in communication with a lot of other religions,” Eial said. “Maybe we are more closed than we actually should be.”

Eial Moldavsky and other Hillel members watch a fútbol match. Photo by Connor Perrett.
Eial Moldavsky and other Hillel members watch a fútbol match. Photo by Connor Perrett.

Eial is conscious of Argentina’s centuries-old Jewish history, and he doesn’t want to push aside the institutions that have existed for so long. But he does want to update them.

He says that he views Judaism in the context of present-day problems and politics. That’s why part of Hillel’s approach is making the institution a safe space for casual and devout Jews alike, as well as for non-religious Jews.

“Not everybody in Israel is religious,” former Hillel staffer Marina Wein said. “You can find people who live the values of their religion the same way we do.”

But non-religious Jews are part of another problem facing the Buenos Aires Jewish community — over the last 50 years, the Jewish population in Buenos Aires has been on a steady decline. An economic crisis in 2001 caused turmoil to the middle class, of which Jewish people make up a large part.

“At that time, a lot of Jewish people moved away from the country,” Marina said. “Some came back, but some didn’t.”

Marina attributes a lot of Jewish emigration from Buenos Aires to this crisis. Still, she thinks that without updated institutions and ideas, Argentina’s Jewish population will only continue to go down. She also believes that one of Hillel’s most important roles is keeping the Jewish community growing.

“The challenge is giving the tools and the places for these young people to keep close to the community,” Marina said. “Having a place like this is what makes a community a community.”

This is at the crux of Eial’s mission: fostering a community. He sees his Argentinian and Jewish identity as one and the same, and he wants other Argentinian Jews to feel that interconnectedness as well.

Eial wants the Hillel house to be a place where Jews can eat kosher barbecue and play fútbol on Shabbat. He wants to discuss the Torah while sipping an ice-cold Quilmes.

He longs for Tel Aviv’s beaches, but as for living there?

“Buenos Aires looks just fine for me.”

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