September 2, 2014
On location at the Villa Lugano squat
For The Herald
A walk through the land grab in the Villa Lugano neighbourhood already reveals, nine days after the sit-in began, the genesis of an emergent shanty town that may be finally annexed to the neighbouring Villa 20, something the centre-right PRO party that rules in Buenos Aires City has long opposed.
Almost 1,000 families, twice the number of illegal residents who last week spearheaded the occupation of the field that was used as a dumpsite by the Federal Police, have already organized their precarious housing into blocks and corridors.
Imaginary passages have been drawn over the grassland, using cables and tapes through which women and men circulate.
There are still no walls but the people there choose not to step out of line, instead respecting the winding roads that are common in poor, illegal neighbourhoods where the rules of urban planning do not apply.
They call them “streets,” though there are neither the identifying signs nor the sufficient space for a vehicle to pass through. In fact, envisioning the brick structures that could rise in the not-so distant future — given the construction rate of these neighbourhoods — the term “street” still feels too big for this mere set of passageways.
Nevertheless, the visual indicators are an evident sign of self-organization among the locals, which has seen the tents and umbrellas from the initial days of the land grab replaced with wooden and tin huts running through seven defined blocks, each one with its own representative to coordinate the governing of the settlement.
While precarious, the makeshift houses serve to tackle adverse weather conditions. But, they were actually raised for an even more strategic — the occupiers know City Hall might end up paying a high political cost if it dismantles an already established settlement and forces people off the occupied land.
Occupiers assured they have a plan of their own to comply with the City law that forces the local government to urbanize the area. And they went to the Legislature’s Housing Committee with a proposal: residents will move to a neighbouring field while authorities clean the area of all contamination and then they will return to participate in the building process.
Eviction is an ever-present threat.
Judge Gabriela López Iñíguez issued a new eviction order yesterday, arguing the site was too contaminated for people to live on after years of law enforcement officials piling scrap metal at the site.
The court requested also that all relevant public players be present when the eviction occurs in order to guarantee that all rights and constitutional clauses are respected, particularly, in the case of pregnant women and children.
But the squatters see them as nothing but empty promises.
Just a week ago, a Metropolitan Police squad was deployed to enforce the eviction order handed down by the courts but Judge Gabriel Vega backtracked as opposition lawmakers blocked the entrance under the media’s watchful eye.
Living on the edge
“We are not here to steal or get anything for free. We are ready to pay for this piece of land. But we want a place of our own,” María Magdalena, 34 and a mother of two, told the Herald.
She came here eight years ago from Bolivia, in search of better opportunities, but María remains unemployed and can barely manage to scape up the money to pay the monthly rent of the small room where she and the kids were living in the Villa 1-11-14 shanty town in the Bajo Flores neighbourhood.
She was not part of the group that initially jumped the fences to settle in the Villa Lugano land, but arrived one day later. María has been resisting eviction since then, even under the fear of armoured Metropolitan Police squads returning.
“It’s impossible for us to get a loan,” she said. “Rents are going up and wages are not.”
Renting a room in shanty towns, a last resource for a growing number of Buenos Aires City residents who can’t meet the legal and financial requirements to rent anywhere else, means a payment of at least 600 pesos a month. But that figure can reach 1,500 pesos per month, despite the fact that not all basic living conditions are met.
Carlos is in a similar situation, though he does have odd jobs at construction sites. He remembers having to say no to job offer during the building boom of the last decade. But things have now changed, and the labor market remains partially frozen.
Carlos says he is trying to build a home of his own for his family. His 21-year-old wife is pregnant.
She was with Carlos when security forces surrounded the land last Friday. Carlos asked her, the day after, to move back to her mother’s house in Villa 20 to avoid taking unnecessary risks.
Into its second week, the strenuous sit-in is showing itself in the exhaustion on people’s face. Tired and run-down, some families have even involved themselves in arguments over particular pieces of land.
Some at the sit-in believe this is the making of groups who speculate with property in illegal settlements, often forcing their occupiers out.
“Nights have been especially difficult. We’ve had to make campfires to light things up and keep us warm,” Mónica, another unlawful tenant, told the Herald. “Fortunately, we managed to get power.”
Most of the huts are now illegally plugged into the electricity cables that run along the perimeter of the area. But the connections are as unsteady as they are unsafe.
What’s more, the place lacks drinking water and bathrooms; they have to sneak through the Metropolitan sentinels that guard the entrance and into neighbouring Villa 20. And that’s not the only assistance they’ve received from the other side of the border, with Villa 20 residents also assisting them with food.
“We’ve tried not to eat too much to not have to leave our spot here to go to the bathroom,” María Magdalena said. They fear the slightest moment or distraction might be used by police forces or intruders to break in.
As a consequence, they’ve hung a hand-written poster near the gates of the sit-in to reaffirm their committment to keep things peaceful, responding to the BA City Housing Secretariat Marina Klemensiewiecz’s accusations, which included the suggesttion that drug-traffickers and armed criminals were involved in the takeover.
“We’ll leave peacefully if you provide us with housing solutions,” the letter reads.
Curiously, there’s a second sign that was ripped from its original place and repositioned inside the area where people are squatting. A subliminal message almost, it’s a yellow poster with black writing on it, that reads: “Soon you’ll be enjoying the City a little more. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
It’s a City Hall sign with the traditional signature of the PRO administration on it.