Backstory: I've been volunteering at a community center near Villa 15 (in Villa Lugano) for several months now. Twice a week I make the hour and a half commute to teach kids (ages 6-16) English, and despite the distance and the potential danger of going down there, it's been such a positive, fulfilling experience. I really love those kids-they're so loving and sweet, unspoiled and so eager to learn. American children in comparison are such brats, and it kills me that these children have nothing, not even a decent teacher. I'm sure you can imagine how awkward and unorganized I am, especially trying to explain complex English grammar in Spanish!
Anyway, you can read more about what Centro Conviven, Villa 15 (la Ciudad Oculta) and about the kids here:
It's hard to know that these children come from some of the world's worst slums, away from the eyes of visitors and most people who live in Buenos Aires. I thought I knew what it was like, and I thought I wasn't sheltered. I've seen pictures and I've done lots of research and I spend my Wednesdays and Thursdays teaching just a few blocks away, but nothing could have prepared me for actually being inside the villas, an experience that shook me deeply, and almost tore me apart. To be completely honest, I was afraid. Despite everything that I knew, the sense of panic overcame me like a cold punch in the stomach when I'd realized last Wednesday that I'd missed my bus stop and the 141 was passing through the villas: one side the soul-less gray monoliths of bombed-out government projects and the other the familiar stacks of cheap materials that formed an endless shantytown. Nearly in tears, I told the bus driver I was supposed to get off on Eva Peron and how did I get back? He sighed, stopped the bus and told me to get off, cross the street, and walk a few blocks and take the 141 back. Here? I asked, eying the villas. Is it...safe? Get off, he snapped. So I did. And I crossed the street and walked the two blocks and tried not to look conspicuous. And then I waited. Looking around, despite the ugly appearance of the buildings and the dirty streets and stray dogs and shady characters, I realized no one was staring, or even remotely seemed to be aware that I was "out of place." Still, the pit in my stomach grew as I took in the sight of such much poverty and human misery. The second I saw the 80 bus approaching the stop I was overcome with such relief, remembering vaguely that it stopped near the Center and being so desperate to get out of there. I jumped on and threw my money in the slot and relaxed, until I realized a few blocks later the bus was turning left on Eva Peron, the opposite direction of the Center and deeper into the villas. The bus driver motioned for me to get off but I shook my head, and 20 minutes later (already late for class) I called Carmen (she's a director of the Center) explaining that I was lost and going the wrong way and was scared to get off and that I was so sorry I was late. She said it was ok but that the kids were waiting for me. I burst into tears. After hanging up everyone around me started asking where I was trying to go and patting my back and repeating "tranquila" (calm down). After some debate about how to get back and which bus to take, an old lady took my hand, got off with me, walked me across the road, wrote down directions, waited with me for the bus, and even tried to explain to the driver where I was going. She also asked if I needed coins (she was a saint). I got on the bus feeling better and thinking I was heading the right direction, but the driver shook his head and said I need to take the bus the other way. I couldn't believe it. I told him I'd just got off that one, etc, and with my mounting frustration and tears coming again I couldn't really explain myself. He said he'd tell me when to get off and to get out of people's way. After a bit he stopped at a corner, told me to get off and walk that way, waving in the direction of a street that passed through a shantytown. I had no choice. And I got off, took a look around, and started to run, running away from reality-- the ugly monster of poverty and all the things I have no power to change. I ran past stacked shacks and leering men and dingy shops and cows and graffiti and the whole miserable scene. I'd seen enough, and I wanted out.
I must have ran 10 blocks, I don't know, when I saw a YPF station and realized that I was around the corner from the Centro. Carmen was waiting for me outside, and I couldn't help but run into her arms and cry on her shoulder. She said nothing for a minute, because she knew what I'd seen. Then she asked if I was ok and if I'd been robbed, and the other volunteers asked the same. The kids were there, already working on homework together, and when I walked in they gave me hugs and kisses and yelled "Seño! We love you! You got lost? You're crazy!" and then hugged me some more and asked if it was tea time yet.
And they knew what I'd seen, and that I'd been afraid. I'm no martyr, I can't walk through the slums like Mother Theresa with my head held high, ignoring the ugly surroundings and embracing the poor and unwashed without fear and only love in my heart. I was scared of their reality--this is where they come from--and it slapped me in the face. And I never want to go back, I can't. I'm not brave enough to walk the same streets my students do, and they know that too. But maybe it's not the elephant in the room anymore, and maybe now we have an understanding and there's nothing more to be said about it. Life will go on, and I'll continue trying to give these kids something better. Crazy? Yes. For believing that I can help these children in some small way, and they can escape that hell like I had, and that there is hope for them. You have to believe this, or what hope is there at all? And who knows? Maybe I can. I am, after all, a lucky girl.