We get off the bus (colectivo or bondi here in Argentina, micro in other parts of South America, autobus still elsewhere, and guagua in many island nations and my own cyborg dialect that gets me understood in Buenos Aires about 90% of the time) and walk past a large printing plant for Clarín, the most widely circulated newspaper in the country. Outside, someone has parked a Ford Falcon that looks as if it hasn’t been painted since the last military dictatorship. Neil, the volunteer coordinator accompanying me and Helene on our first day at the project, tells us that in those years, it was the infamous vehicle of the military police. In fact, the US car manufacturer was so closely entwined with the dictatorship that officials would bring kidnapped citizens back to the Ford assembly plant in General Pacheco, Argentina, outside the confines of the Ciudad Autonoma, to coordinate the interrogation, repression, and “disappearances” of anyone suspected of political dissidence.
We pass a pharmaceutical lab housed in what appears to be a clean white colonial villa. The sidewalk out front is even, with no potholes or loose stones. Through the front gate, we see that the entryway is decorated with well-tended plants, reminiscent of the curb appeal of the wealthier residential districts of the city’s northern half. Another few paces and a plywood shack at the end of the street comes into view.
The lean-to is built adjacent to a dumpster, the source of its materials. The neighborhood is not recognized by the local government as official residences, and so the trash is rarely, if ever, collected. Waste is generated by the neighborhood’s factories, while residents are left unable to foot the bill of its removal. Thus, trash overflows from the dumpsters onto the streets, and from the streets into local waterways and Rio Matanza.
El Alfarero is situated here, where the garbage isn’t all the city has been guilty of ignoring. Half early childhood center, half community soup kitchen, it was founded by the mothers of children who were either not given a place at an official school or were unable to make the daily commute. While El Alfarero has since gained recognition and modest government funding, many of the teachers are still parents of the children who, along with hundreds of other neighborhood residents, depend on the center for their daily meals.
We meet with the director of the school, Lucia, and through a mixture of Spanish, English, and French, come to the decision that Helene will help out with the 2-3 year olds, while I’ll spend the next 2 weeks in the Sala Naranja, the orange room, with the infants of less than a year and a half.
The babies first greet me with suspicion. Some cry; some stare; some hide in the corner of the classroom to assess the situation and new visitor. Luckily I have nearly a year of experience as a full-time nanny, and am patient to let them decide when I’m finally trustworthy. After an hour or two, we warm up to each other, and they let me wipe their noses or hold and rock them after a fit of coughing leads to tears.
More than half of the babies appear to be sick with some kind of cold. The teachers explain that lead in the local water has had an effect on their immune systems, and the situation in the older classrooms is only marginally better. I find at lunch time that agua, water, is one of the few things the children ask for by name. Over the 2 weeks I hear only three distinguishable words from them: mama, pa, and agua.
The water in the orange room is clean. The food is plentiful. The shelves are stocked with building blocks and toys that squeak and rattle. A speaker hangs from the wall and when it plays I find that those who can stand and walk have already begun to bounce to the rhythm of cumbia. By the second week, those who crawl have begun to cling to my shirt and pants to prop themselves up and join in the dancing. When they’re tired, the babies let me put them in their portable bassinets and rock them to sleep. I hear more laughter than tears, and on the last day, I’m the only one who cries.
I was so nervous at the beginning. What if they don’t trust me? What if I’m a distraction and ruin nap time? What if I misinterpret their cries and can’t give them what they want? In the end, I remember a catchphrase Lucia used multiple times when we first met.
“Igual, nos vamos a entender.” Regardless, we’ll understand each other.
I forgot just how far compassion can get us in terms of making ourselves understood