Buenos Aires slums have shaped a papacy

A youth group from the Virgin of Caacupé Parish in Buenos Aires, Argentina, gathers before Fr. Lorenzo "Toto" de Vedia Sept. 5. (Horacio "Tati" di Renzi)
This article appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

Buenos Aires, Argentina — Peeking above the highways of Buenos Aires, flimsy stacks of tiny homes — mostly made of decayed brick and rusted metal — form a jagged skyline against the Parisian-inspired capital.

It's a sight known to all Buenos Aires locals, but, for most, known only from a distance, as common knowledge bodes against entering these villas, or slums, without an insider at your side. Media portrayals of violence and poverty then become the public's only window into these closed-off barrios. Oftentimes, the only person from the slums most middle-class families know is their maid, whom they rarely see outside their own homes.


Part Two: Francis' participation with families an example for other priests

Part Three: Change in Argentinean church comes from bottom up


In 2013, more than one in four Argentines were living in poverty, and these shantytowns exploded upward as home after rickety home joined the pile. Immigrants from Paraguay and Bolivia who sought a promising life in the "Paris of the Americas" were instead ushered to these neighborhoods, where more than half a million reside.

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But it wasn't until Jorge Mario Bergoglio's name was announced in 2013 as the newly elected Pope Francis that these slums started to shed their one-dimensional depictions. Life in the slums is a far cry from its picturesque backdrop, but it's that family life that Francis knows best, those people who touched him most, and those experiences that have shaped his papacy.

Family dynamics

In Villa 21, Buenos Aires' largest slum, located in the Barracas neighborhood with a population nearing 50,000, roughly four in five residents are Paraguayan immigrants.

"Paraguayans tend to have a stronger spiritual formation than Argentines, and that affects the way they work," said Fr. José María di Paola, known throughout the slums as "Padre Pepe." He was the head pastor in Villa 21 for 14 years until 2012, when Bergoglio relocated him following death threats.

A typical family from this villa might have a father in construction and a mother working as a maid, he said. But while the man may be the breadwinner, households tend to be matriarchal in most shantytowns in Buenos Aires. The woman, Padre Pepe said, is the "constant" in the home, the one who organizes family life.

"Unfortunately, life decisions are made very early," he said. "Many of them already have kids by age 15, and it's then harder for them to stabilize their lives because they've burned through important life stages. Their maturity only comes after they've already had kids."

Starting families at a young age also ropes in the older generations as caretakers. Grandparents watch the kids while the parents are at work, and because siblings often raise their children together, cousins living under the same roof share their grandparents as parental figures.

Despite growing up with close ties to their grandparents, Padre Pepe said, a "spiritual disconnect" still exists between generations. While older family members tend to preserve their faith and maintain traditions, there's a notable "rupture" in those practices among the younger generations, he said.

Juan Cruz Hermida coordinates the Social Commitment and Extension group at the Catholic University of Argentina in Buenos Aires. The volunteer effort, which Bergoglio initiated in 2010, leads students into the shantytowns to help those living on the peripheries. Having worked with a number of families in several villas across several cities, Hermida said that despite living in the heart of the city, these families have more in common with Argentina's rural life.

"Families in the slums collaborate far more and know each other well," Hermida said. "When there's an emergency, they knock on their neighbor's door, whereas in Buenos Aires, we tend to live anonymously in our apartments without knowing about our neighbor's life. The slums are much more of a community."

Hermida, who spent much of his life living in the country's interior, said it used to be common for kids to get together, no matter their social class, and play soccer in their neighborhood. Those customs are lost throughout most of the country, he said, except in las villas, where neighborly relationships still thrive.

"I think it's valuable for family life; it unites families," he said. "It seems to me that families who live in Buenos Aires are more consumed by their own problems, and we allow our families to take a backseat. By focusing on our daily worries, we end up creating a distance."

A typical mother from the slums, Hermida said, is essentially the family's lioness, protective and worrying about her cubs getting involved in the barrio's frequent dangers.

"They don't abandon them even when they're in jail, because they're hoping to successfully reintegrate their kid afterward. She's like the lioness in that she's always there — like most mothers, sure, but it's particularly special in the slums, when you think of all their shortcomings. They don't have access to a lawyer, or they might not have a job. And that makes it far more difficult to help their kids."

The drug scene

In 2001, Argentina experienced an economic crisis that led to a 50 percent population increase throughout the capital's shantytowns the following 10 years. Trailing that boom was the budding drug scene, eventually consuming life in these fringe communities.

It seemed that drugs would be an obvious response when asked about the biggest risks facing slum families, but Fr. Lorenzo "Toto" de Vedia was apprehensive about emphasizing the dangers of las villas.

"For me to start off by talking about my worries doesn't totally coincide with my actual perception of this place," said de Vedia, who replaced Padre Pepe as chief pastor of the Virgin of Caacupé Parish in 2012. "For me, la villa is a place radiating with life, and a place with a lot of values that aren't often recognized by people on the outside."

"With that said, I do have a lot of worries, the principal one being the sense of exclusion and marginalization, which manifests itself in a variety of ways," he said.

"And drugs, particularly paco, is one of those manifestations."

Paco — a toxic combination of crack cocaine residue, baking soda, and sometimes glass and rat poison — stormed the streets in 2001 amid the financial crisis. It is cheap and highly addictive, making it a favorite street drug among the country's poorest, with reports showing children as young as 9 getting hooked. Though drug popularity depends on the slum — in others it might be cocaine, or mixing pills with alcohol — the drugs with the lowest quality end up in the poorest neighborhoods, Padre Pepe said.

The priest has taken a highly public stance against the drug trade. In 2009, he invited media into the shantytowns to explore the paco epidemic. Putting such a spotlight on the narcotic scene eventually sparked serious death threats against Padre Pepe, and Bergoglio, then archbishop, relocated Padre Pepe to his current slum, La Cárcova in León Suárez outside Buenos Aires.

"Pepe saw that drugs were a free-for-all and that too many kids were getting involved," said Juan Ramón Congo, a resident in Villa 21 who had a close relationship with both Padre Pepe and Bergoglio. "The parishes were always the only ones organized enough to address the issue, and with him being head of the priests and garnering such support, he became their target."

When Padre Pepe notified Bergoglio of the threats, he responded, "I would rather them kill me than any of you" — a testament to the paternal relationship between the archbishop and his slum priests. The community, joined by Bergoglio, reacted with an organized march, demonstrating their unwavering support for Padre Pepe's cause.

"One is in constant contact with families whose kids are addicts," Padre Pepe said. "And it's a problem that affects not just the one who's addicted, but also the mother and the father, who constantly ask themselves, 'Where did I mess up?' or 'What did I do wrong?' or 'Why did I let him hang out with so-and-so?' "

A common misconception, he said, is that drugs only affect floundering families; in reality, he knows many solid families where, "through just a tiny crack, drugs seeped in." A sense of exclusion, de Vedia said, is typically that tiny crack that makes it easier for drugs to find the vulnerable.

"And those who profit from the drugs aren't the residents, but those who build their empires from the outside and take advantage of the conditions here that make this a favorable market for them," de Vedia said.

Padre Pepe added that drug traffickers use drugs for currency, increasing its consumption: Policemen and dealers alike are paid in drugs, which allows drugs to "branch out further with every trade, and unravel the social fabric of the neighborhood."

The lack of government intervention only furthers the problem, Hermida said, as political leaders rarely get involved with issues that directly affect villas.

In Rosario, a city in the central province of Santa Fe where Hermida's university group also volunteers, one walks through the neighborhoods and "literally sees the bunkers, where the illegal activity going on is well-known, and yet they are fully enabled to operate."

"In reality, they should be bulldozed and wiped out," Hermida said. "But the government doesn't do that, because one way or another, it serves them to have them there. There's major corruption with our Argentine political leaders — and our country in general, because you can't just blame the politicians. Citizens should be demanding more from their leaders. We voted for them. We are responsible. We are all parents. We need to work with each other to create new horizons and reexamine where our priorities lie."

Sheltering children from the neighborhood's brutal realities is a challenge, said Juana Cabral, a resident of Villa 21 who has two young daughters, both always asking about their surroundings: "What's that smell? What are they smoking? Why are they acting like that?"

"This is our day-to-day life, so you try to move forward and not focus on the ugly, instead thinking about the positive, especially when you have kids," said Cabral, who also had a close relationship with Bergoglio and Padre Pepe. "You see a lot of things you hope they don't notice, but they're curious."

The neighborhood has volunteers who try to keep the kids occupied, so as to prevent too much free time, when their questions could lead to answers gained by experience. School on weekdays, catechesis on Saturdays, and activities — such as sports or arts and crafts — all day Sunday make up their regular week. (The parish's cricket team, Cabral and Congo proudly mention, won the South American championship).

Another Villa 21 priest, Fr. Charly Olivero — who Congo said is "the best in this field" — hosts recovery groups, and hired social workers and cooks to tend to more than 100 addicts a day.

Virgin of Caacupé Parish sponsors rehabilitation farms where addicts go and do manual labor, recovering far from temptation. Bergoglio, Congo said, heavily supported all campaigns geared toward addicts, and would come to their church meetings and sometimes wash their feet.

But Congo said that, in terms of direct confrontation regarding addiction, Bergoglio would more often approach the priests, offering both financial and spiritual support. Congo said nearly 150 kids in the neighborhood have been involved in those recovery groups. During the many retreats the parish sponsored for recovering addicts, Bergoglio would go, sitting and chatting with the kids, Congo said. As archbishop, Bergoglio also opened trade schools so that adolescents could discover hobbies and passions to fill any void.

"He would accept them how they were, but he would always remind them that there was a path to change," Congo said. "Addiction is a tricky subject, because they need to be the ones who help themselves, without force. But he always offered spiritual support; he wouldn't challenge them and then just let them be."

[Soli Salgado is an NCR Bertelsen editorial intern. Her email address is ssalgado@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter @soli_salgado.] 

Editor's Note: This is Part One of a three-part series on the Buenos Aires, Argentina, slums and the families who live there. 

A version of this story appeared in the Sept 25-Oct 8, 2015 print issue under the headline: Radiating with life .

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