Buenos Aires Letter Home
It’s hard to believe that it has been weeks since we left Buenos Aires, and we are now approaching the end of our time in Hanoi. Though Hanoi and Buenos Aires have proven to be cities that are drastically different in their culture and urban form, nevertheless there are similarities in the history and patterns of development of the two spaces. As we have been travelling in Hanoi, we have been using what we learned in Buenos Aires as a reference point. This comparison of similar patterns, particularly relating to the impact of market forces and the emergence of massive, Western-style developments, has been useful, but it has also flipped our assumptions upside down, as the trends we identified in New York and Buenos Aires do not always map on to Hanoi in the same way. Before we get too much further in piecing together the different strands that connect the cities we have studied, we want to give you an overview of what our time in Buenos Aires looked like.
While our days in Buenos Aires were far from uniform, a standard day tended to follow a similar format. Most of us woke up around 7 am at our homestays and ate a small breakfast before leaving, which usually consisted of some combination of toast (sometimes topped with dulce de leche), fruit, and coffee or tea. Needless to say, breakfast was a bit light compared to what we were accustomed to in our respective homes. We would then make our way to our classroom in downtown Buenos Aires, located about 10 blocks from the Casa Rosada, the president’s office in the heart of the city. Commutes differed by homestay with some taking the subway or bus and others walking. Class time was marked by an array of events, fluctuating between guest lectures, class discussion, and site visits throughout the city. At the end of the day, we would head back home to our host families for a home cooked meal, starting around 8:30pm.
Thus, a sample day might start with a guest lecture on migrant communities in BA, followed by a Politics and Development class, in which we would discuss dependency theory and its relevance to Buenos Aires. Next, we might break for lunch and head to a nearby Parilla for a lomo sandwich. And finally, perhaps we would head to Retiro bus station to get a first hand look at the transportation hub of Buenos Aires.
While our days were certainly busy, that didn’t stop us from exploring the city in our free time. In such a massive city, four weeks is hardly enough time to see the whole city. Nevertheless, we tried to capitalize on our brief time as much as possible. Some students attended shows at the world-renowned Teatro Colon. Others explored the old, vivid streets in La Boca. It was also hard not to partake in the hundreds of beautiful plazas and parks throughout the city. Several of us also took a trip on the weekend to Tigre, a province of Buenos Aires on the water with shops, a museum of mate, an art museum, and even an amusement park.
Our curriculum built on the themes introduced to us in New York City. In particular, we focused on the state of housing in the city and the agents involved in managing it. By the end of our trip, it became clear that the policies and attitudes surrounding housing differed significantly from those encountered in the United States. We also pushed forward with the theme of urban transportation, which functioned in a far less centralized manner than it did in New York. Finally, we were surprised to learn about the ever-changing and painful history of Buenos Aires. Uncovering this information and its contemporary ramifications was often unsettling, especially in the context of historic global politics.
One of the biggest themes we focused on in Buenos Aires was the role of cooperatives. Cooperatives are legally organized entities under Argentinian law, and often consist of workers or community residents with a common purpose. The hotel we stayed at during our first few days in Argentina was a workers’ cooperative, meaning that it was managed and operated by its workers. We visited another cooperative of workers in the outskirts of the city called La Juanita, which uses the profits from various businesses including a bakery, stationary store, and software company in order to fund a school. Currently only a kindergarten and primary school, the cooperative operates under a unique classroom model that empowers students and includes heavy parental involvement. They hope to one day be able to operate schools at all levels, up to the university, in a community where educational services are severely lacking. Finally, our group spoke with various organizations that have organized as cooperatives in order to secure housing for those who could not access it otherwise. These groups operated at different levels of formality, with some groups cooperating with governing structures and others choosing to operate without traditional legal recognition. This particularly manifested itself in that some of the cooperatives operated in spaces that were retomadas, or retaken following abandonment by the original owners. Though many of our group admired the way these groups were creating solutions for their livelihoods where they did not have access to the formal system, the complications of understanding the place of cooperatives within Buenos Aires raised a number of questions and stimulated debate among our group.
Our program in Buenos Aires concluded with four in depth case studies over the course of three days. As we divided and conquered in smaller groups of six or seven, we journeyed around the city with coordinators who were experts in their fields. The first group studied pollution’s impact on the Riachuelo River Basin and its inhabitants. Most notably, they studied the wide array of actors accountable for cleaning up the area and the power to which they had in accomplishing this task. The next group looked at gentrification and its impact on the city. Using tourist spaces as a lens, they explored the different actors who contribute differing narratives of the same spaces and how this leads to neighborhood change. The third group studied the power of memory in a city that has been ravaged by so much tragedy. Their work helped the class comprehend the weight that this memory carried for those who have suffered so dearly. And the final group took a more in depth look at the state of transportation in Buenos Aires. Ultimately, they were able to walk away with an appreciation for the organized chaos that surprisingly made the system functional.
By the end of our time in Buenos Aires, many of us were sad to leave behind our generous host families, Argentinian snacks such as empanadas and medialunas, and nightlife in a city that considers 2am early! While some shared cultural markers helped us feel comfortable and situate ourselves in Argentina from the start, by the time we left many of the assumptions we entered with had been complicated. We left for Hanoi with a new set of knowledge from our courses and plenty of questions to continue to explore from our discoveries in Argentina. Hanoi once again has complicated what we once thought were conclusions, and we’re excited to keep learning about urban issues in Vietnam for a little while longer!