The #Multicultural State: Counter-narratives from migrant youth living in Buenos Aires

by María V. Barbero

Buenos Aires is multicultural. Buenos Aires is cosmopolitan. Buenos Aires is welcoming and inclusive. Buenos Aires is a city of migrants. These were the messages I heard from state officials while conducting research in Buenos Aires during 2016 and 2017.  Such narratives circulated through the city government’s monthly cultural programing—programing that attracts thousands to iconic parks and streets to eat ethnic food and to celebrate immigrant communities: Buenos Aires Celebra Colombia, Buenos Aires Celebra Italia, Buenos Aires Celebra Paraguay, and so on and so forth. This programing is complemented by commemorative events organized by the national immigration office at the city’s historic museum of immigration.

 Promotional material produced by City Government for “Buenos Aires Celebra India.”  Source

Promotional material produced by City Government for “Buenos Aires Celebra India.” Source

This robust programming resembles what Lugones (2014)  calls “ornamental multiculturalism,” or a multiculturalism that “reduces non-Western cultures to ornaments to be enjoyed touristically,” while ignoring and obscuring structures of power. These events each generate colorful flyers, professional photographs, short videoclips and hashtags through which the message of an inclusive, multicultural state are circulated via Facebook, Twitter, and government websites.  

Yet amid these messages is another, also incredibly robust scene of cultural production, one assembled by migrant youth living in Buenos Aires. This scene involves theater performances, books published with carton and fabric scraps, and radio programing. It is multicultural, multilingual and transnational, and it creates an alternative to the state’s ornamental multiculturalism. It does not shy away from analyzing power relations and deliberately enlists culture as a vehicle for resistance. 

 Promotional material produced by City Government for Buenos Aires for “Buenos Aires Celebra Bolivia.”  Source

Promotional material produced by City Government for Buenos Aires for “Buenos Aires Celebra Bolivia.” Source

This programing generates another set of images circulating in Buenos Aires. These images and narratives invite observers and participants to remember that their clothing did not emerge out of thin air and that the remains of their garments simultaneously represent hopes and dreams as well as sacrifices, labor exploitation, and even deaths of bordering country immigrants. This counternarrative lays bare the deep contradictions of immigrant reception in Argentina, and it defiantly highlights that the presence hundreds of migrants on the streets of Buenos Aires is not merely an opportunity for multicultural entertainment, but also an act of political power. 

 

Disrupting the Silence: A Typical Thursday

 Cover of No Olvidamos, written and published by Simbiosis Cultural, a Bolivian youth organization in Buenos Aires.

Cover of No Olvidamos, written and published by Simbiosis Cultural, a Bolivian youth organization in Buenos Aires.

The book tilted No Olvidamos [We Won’t Forget] begins with the phrase, “It was a typical Thursday…” and it chronicles a tragic fire in a Buenos Aires textile sweatshop in the barrio of Caballito on March 30th, 2006. The fire led to the death of five Bolivian children and one 25-year-old pregnant woman, who were resting upstairs in the crumbling facility where they lived and worked in conditions of “servitude.” Written and published by Simbiosis Cultural, a Bolivian youth collective based in Buenos Aires, No Olvidamos is but one in a series of books published through their Editorial Retazos," characterized by binding made out of cartons and fabric scraps thrown out by local sweatshops. Simbiosis Cultural also holds events every March 30th to “remember”, “denounce” and “make visible” the precarious conditions of so many Bolivian migrants in Buenos Aires. Their actions, which also included calling attention to the trial subsequent to the fire, are meant to counter what No Olvidamos describes as a push for silence and inaction from all those—including the Argentine and Bolivian states—that depend on avoiding “overexposing” a system structured around exploitation.

  

Disrupting the Narrative: Generous Country

 Forum Theater play titled “Generous Country.” June 13th, 2017. Photo Credit: Maria Barbero.

Forum Theater play titled “Generous Country.” June 13th, 2017. Photo Credit: Maria Barbero.

“Argentina: Generous Country” is the title of a special report produced by Jorge Lanata, one of Argentina’s most well-known and controversial journalists. Aired on October 16th, 2016 on Canal 13, the report blamed Argentina’s immigrant student population for issues of inequality and inefficacy plaguing the country’s public higher education system. Inspired by forum theater, a technique of Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, women active in AMUMRA, a Buenos Aires non-profit focused on the rights of migrant women and refugees, presented a theatrical production with the same name at the Peruvian Consulate in Buenos Aires in June of 2017.  The play tells the story of Maria, a Peruvian migrant woman who contends with lack of information, discriminatory treatment by Gendarmerie agents, labor discrimination, and ongoing xenophobia in Argentina. Turning the narrative of “Generous Country” on its head, performers include Latin American migrant women, most of whom are either students or domestic workers active in the disruption of dominant narratives circulating in mass media. The performance invited the audience of migrants, Argentine citizens and Peruvian, Chilean and Panamanian diplomats to intervene at certain moments throughout the play, calling on them to play an active role in challenging the practices and discourses that paradoxically claim Argentina is a “generous country.”

 

Disrupting the Streets: "We are the uncontrolled migration"

It is 4:00pm on Saturday November 26, 2016 and Mandioca Radioactiva airs in Buenos Aires through Radio Sur. This is a weekly radio program produced by Movimiento 138, a Paraguayan youth organization founded in 2012 after a land conflict resulted in the death of eleven peasants and six security officers in Curuguaty, Paraguay and President Fernando Lugo was ousted by a right-wing Paraguayan parliament. The group has since been active in the sociopolitical scene of both countries. 

 November 22, 2016. Migrants march toward congress in Buenos Aires in protest of anti-immigrant statements and proposals. Photo credit: Maria Barbero

November 22, 2016. Migrants march toward congress in Buenos Aires in protest of anti-immigrant statements and proposals. Photo credit: Maria Barbero

As Carmen, one of the group members, explained to me in an interview, the aim of Movimiento 138 has always been to "organize the anger, from a place that is honest, and creative above all" (1). For more than five years now, the group has held events to demand justice for Curuguaty and to promote the rights of migrants in Argentina. Toward the end of the two hour-long radio programing, the members of Movimiento 138 discuss a march that took place just days prior in Buenos Aires. Hundreds of migrants marched to congress to denounce the government’s expressed desire to change Argentina’s immigration policy and to open the country’s first immigrant detention center. One program invitee and member of Movimiento 138 explains, "We made noise, it was great to bother all the people there, to shut down the streets, it was really beautiful." In light of this, the hosts discuss also "making noise" at a recent event held by the immigration office on the Day of the Immigrant. The event felt staged, they explain. "It was a festival for blonde immigrants." It wasn't for "bordering country immigrants. We are the uncontrolled migration." Indeed, youth movements like Movimiento 138 become disruptive to the state's cultural programing when the idea of cultural celebration is detached from power relations and injustice.

 

Conclusion

A Buenos Aires government worker in charge of the monthly Buenos Aires Celebra activities explained to me that the aim of the cultural programing was to "establish the possibility for each collectivity that lives in the city of Buenos Aires, to have its own space on the street, in the public space once a year to celebrate their customs, traditions and culture." In May of 2017, I ran into members of Movimiento 138 at Buenos Aires Celebra Paraguay. The group was indeed selling traditional Paraguayan dishes. They were also however, walking the streets handing out flyers which read, "Migrant rights are in danger."  

One member of Simbiosis Cultural explained that some of the events held by the city government serve to essentialize migrants. 

"The migrant is this […] And come everyone and watch, right? This is the migrant: the one who dances, the one who eats something different and nothing else. And the migrant has to do with a lot of things, with rights that are being violated, with respect…"

Culture, for members of Simbiosis Cultural, Movimiento 138, and other youth-led migrant organizations in Buenos Aires cannot be disentangled from questions of power and inequality.  In fact, culture becomes not only a source of belonging and enjoyment but likewise a vehicle for promoting democracy, rights, and justice. It becomes a way to disrupt dominant silences, narratives, and geographies that circulate not only in Argentina, but also in their countries of origin. 

  (1): a pseudonym

Author

María V. Barbero is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies at Florida International University. Her research explores issues of youth migration, citizenship, and racialization and has been published in Citizenship Studies and Metropolitics.