Kelsey Tsai is a junior premedical student in Georgetown College pursuing a Political Economy major. During fall 2011, she is studying Latin American history at the Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina with the hopes of perfecting her Spanish. In Buenos Aires, she is very excited to gain a different perspective on economic development and the influence of each Latin American country's history. She has become increasingly interested in the intersection between economics, business, and health. On campus she is involved with the Corp and Baker Scholars, and in her free time she enjoys camping, yoga, and meandering around bookstores. She likes to say she is from Boston but is actually from the suburbs.
October 31, 2011
I looked up from my cup of coffee in the café in time to see a group of five in the crosswalk of the street before me. They had the bulky bags, which marked them as students. I continued staring as they meandered across the street and then paused. I imagined them deep in conversation or looking out at something interesting in the distance…until the light turned green.
Cars laid on their horns and squealed around the group to express their rage. Through the window I could see a couple more people join in, but it was only when someone brought a chair did I realize they were not going anywhere anytime soon. By now the cars could not pass, but a stream of motorcycles sneaked around the sparse group of students.
More people, banners, and megaphones rapidly accumulated. Only ambulances were allowed through the blockade, and, to my surprise, the protest held strong even when a bus tried to run them over. It looked peaceful enough, but when the check came, I decided to not push my luck and walked to class in the opposite direction.
After a rich history of protestation, it should come as a no surprise that protests still remain commonplace in Buenos Aires. The series of dictatorships and their repressive regimes, coupled with a crippling economy laced with hyperinflation in the mid-twentieth century, produced a fertile ground for discontent.
Neoliberal reforms, and the political response to the oppressive regimes and their economic failures, seemed to only add to these problems. During the 1990s, under the presidency of Carlos Menem and his neoliberal economic policy, unemployment continued to rise at the same time welfare programs were reduced.
Widespread corruption in the government and within the political parties led to a general distrust in these traditional channels of social representation. Unions, another traditional manner of expression, were only as good as the number of people who held jobs in those sectors. The escalating levels of unemployment therefore weakened their effectiveness.
Together, these factors led to new, unconventional methods of social expression. Piquetes, roadblocks similar to the one I witnessed, grew in popularity, along with cacerolazos, pot-banging assemblies, and escarches, political expressions in graffiti, among others. While some avenues of social and political expression were closed, others were being opened.
Today, I find these new forms of expression engrained in the plazas, on the walls, and in the culture of Buenos Aires. Every space of my history classroom in the Universidad de Buenos Aires is lined with political posters. Occasionally, they are torn down to open the window for a breath of fresh air or to see the professor when they obscure the view.
Plaza de Mayo seems to be the hub of activity. It sits in front of the Casa Rosada, a symbol of the administration in power. Gatherings accumulate on a daily basis, surrounded by several vans of the national press, while signs permanently line the border of the plaza. As explained to me, Argentines often readily celebrate the protests as a symbol of their solidarity. The news channels cover not only the tragedies, like kidnappings and murders, but also the response of their neighbors accumulating in a mass gathering to show support and call for justice.
This is all new to me. My initial reaction to the piqueteros in front of the café elicited thoughts of violence, distrust, and radicalism. Where do these thoughts come from? Are they unique to my upbringing or to my citizenship? History books say that these new forms of social representation in Argentina are a reaction to their inability to express their concerns through other means, like through the government or the political parties.
As Occupy Wall Street gains momentum in the U.S., I am left to wonder if we will follow in the footsteps of Argentina. Is this a sign that Americans feel our means of representation in our government are closed off to the common citizen?
March 12, 2012
The novelty of the Buenos Aires subway quickly wore off when I realized I would rather take the trade-off of a longer commute to avoid the sardine-like conditions at rush hour. The colectivos, or city buses, became my choice method of transportation. Since I lived in Belgrano, a neighborhood packed with embassies and trees on the outskirts of the federal district, my commute to classes and friends usually took a solid hour and a half. However, my daily journey presented a fresh chance to simply observe the life around me and take in the sights as we crossed from one neighborhood to the next.
Argentina is usually noted for its roots in Roman Catholicism. Numerous ornate churches dot the city, a quick sign of the cross is not uncommon to see on public transportation, and public policy has often taken the side of the church, namely with the issue of abortion.
However, as I traversed through the streets, it became apparent that the city is home to many Jewish-Argentines. When the colectivo maneuvered through the neighborhood of Recoleta I came to expect Orthodox Jewish men blended among the cafes and street vendors. My host family, though not practicing, is of Jewish descent. In fact, Buenos Aires holds the second largest Jewish population in the Americas, after New York City.
The history of Jewish immigration to Argentina can be traced back to many events in Europe. The first Jewish immigrants fled the Spanish Inquisition and quietly assimilated into Argentina. The anti-Semitic prosecution in Russia and Romania led to a large influx of Jewish immigrants during the nineteenth century, while the Holocaust was a large driving force for many of the German Jews who escaped to Latin America during twentieth century.
Interestingly, Argentina later became a safe haven for many ex-Nazis seeking to avoid prosecution in Europe. Although in the latter half of the twentieth century a significant emigration of the Jewish population picked up momentum, there still remains a vibrant pocket of Jewish culture nestled in the heart of Buenos Aires.
Generalizations serve their part by allowing us to process information faster and make quick conclusions—certainly useful under specific conditions—but I was humbled to find that Buenos Aires goes beyond the Roman Catholic stereotype of Latin America. There is plenty basis for this generalization, but I found the truth lies closer to the rich interaction between different religions, cultures, and backgrounds.
Buenos Aires has a true cosmopolitan component. Hop into a cab, and you may debate American politics with an immigrant from Bolivia. Leave a seat next to you on the bus, and you may end up in an hour conversation with a German philosophy student. Talk to your classmate at the university, and she may be from Mexico. Try to watch a Georgetown basketball game, and you may meet the rest of the American ex-pats in Argentina. Even through a devastating history, Buenos Aires remains a fertile ground for sharing and learning ideas from cultures across the world.