In Argentina there are 4,416 popular neighborhoods, where approximately 4 million people live.
The Covid-19 pandemic, which began in 2020, exposed situations that already existed and complicated the lives of thousands of people who live in precarious housing. Many of them overcrowded, without basic resources for care and hygiene, as required in an extreme situation such as a pandemic.
Land adjacent to the Casa de la Mujer Moderno. Photo: Jorgelina Tomasin.
The figure that determines the number of popular neighborhoods throughout the country was obtained from the National Survey of Popular Neighborhoods (Re.Na.Ba.P), promoted and carried out by social organizations in Argentina from August 2016 to 2019.
Popular neighborhoods in Argentina
It should be clarified that popular neighborhoods are understood to be:
“Those neighborhoods are commonly called villas, settlements and informal organizations that were established through different land occupation strategies, which present different degrees of precariousness and overcrowding, a deficit in formal access to basic services and an irregular ownership situation in land tenure. Land, with a minimum of eight families grouped or contiguous, where more than half of its inhabitants do not have title to the land, nor regular access to at least two of the basic services (running water network, electricity network household meter and/or sewer network)”.
According to a report carried out in 2020, of the total of these neighborhoods, 88.7% do not have formal access to running water; 97.85% do not have formal access to the sewage network, 63.8% do not have formal access to the electricity network and 98.9% do not have access to the formal natural gas network.
Faced with this scenario, the Covid-19 pandemic came to exacerbate these situations and strengthened inequalities.
Barrio Moderno, one of the popular neighborhoods of Rosario
In Rosario, in the south of the province of Santa Fe, Argentina, there are 112 popular neighborhoods.
One of them is Barrio Moderno, located in the southwestern part of the city. Within this large neighborhood there are four extensive informal settlements, in one of them the Belgrano Railroad passes.
On a piece of land located on the sides of the tracks is the «House of Women and Diversity», a space inaugurated in the midst of a pandemic by workers of the popular economy to accompany women in situations of gender violence.
Exterior of the Casa de la Mujer y Diversidad, which is now undergoing an expansion project. Photo: Jorgelina Tomasin.
Graciela Zenas, known as «Greis», is one of the residents of the neighborhood, mother of five children and promoter of the «House of Women and Diversity» project.
She lives in front of «the little house», as the site is called. But prior to its construction, a dining room began operating in her home more than seven years ago, which was later transferred to the new space, and there they receive food from 400 families from the neighborhood and surroundings, since the start of the pandemic.
Graciela Zenas, worker of the popular economy, mother of 5 children and reference of the House of Women and diversity in Barrio Moderno, Rosario, Argentina. Photo: Jorgelina Tomasin.
Graciela tells that from this space inaugurated in March 2021, «we advise and accompany women victims of gender violence, we have legal advice, we work with the organization ‘Vientos de libertad’ of the Movement of Excluded Workers (MTE), helping and accompanying them in the processes of problematic consumption and we also have the socio-community space, as the sector that supports picnic areas and canteens is called and that has been going on for more than four years”.
See the report on Casa de la Mujer:
A dining room, like an oasis, in the midst of the pandemic
Graciela speaks with a soft voice, as if nothing bothers her, not the boys who run around, not the noise of the machines that work to improve the precarious streets that are always flooded, not the loud music that comes from houses made of sheet metal and bricks.
Graciela speaks calmly and firmly, knowing what she is saying and that her words carry weight.
Remember the origins of the dining room, which in the pandemic became a fundamental space:
“Since 2015, as soon as President Macri took office, I have had the dining room in my house. We gave food to the people of the neighborhood every Saturday; it was self-managing. My husband brought money from his «changuita» on Saturdays, he took care of cars, and many times the same neighbors put up merchandise, and that’s how we cook for the whole neighborhood.»
Graciela started the soup kitchen called «Nuevos Comienzos», which served on Saturdays and was carried out with its own resources.
“Now we have the possibility of obtaining merchandise and we were able not only to provide food on Saturdays, but three days a week, because the pandemic reflected that the need in the neighborhood was great,” he comments.
At present the dining room works in La Casa de La Mujer. Graciela’s father is the cook. Photo: Jorgelina Tomasin.
The Movement of Excluded Workers in popular neighborhoods
In 2016, Graciela’s husband lost his job and she began to join the Movement of Excluded Workers, working in a sweeping cooperative.
The MTE is a social organization that brings together thousands of people who do not belong to the formal labor market.
After the crisis in Argentina in 2001, many unemployed workers began to organize themselves in cooperatives in order to receive an income that would allow them to survive.
The MTE experience is one of the most successful in this sense, because in 20 years different cooperatives and productive units were created throughout the country.
Mural painting at the inauguration of the Casa de la Mujer y Diversidad in March 2021. MTE Archive.
This organization is divided into eight branches that are the axis of the different activities:
- Cardboard branch
- Public spaces
- Released, released and family
- Winds of Freedom
In addition, there are cross-cutting areas such as Women and Diversities, Health and Training.
As they say on their website along with other organizations, the Confederation of Workers of the Popular Economy (CTEP) was first created and then progress was made towards the formalization of the first union of workers of the popular economy, the Unión de Trabajadores de la Economía Popular (UTEP).
Graciela remarks on the picnic area that was promoted during the pandemic and that made it possible to feed 400 families:
“During the pandemic, not only people from the neighborhood came to eat, because we organized this with the Club and other organizations to give a meal all week and they came to get food. My dad is the cook, his name is Sinforiano Zenas, but we call him Chiru or Antonio Ríos because he is very similar to a cumbia singer with that name”.
Sinforiano “Chiru” Zenas, Graciela’s father and cook in the dining room. Photo: Jorgelina Tomasin.
Against gender violence
Neighborhood social references, together with organizations, have a very important role in the prevention of gender violence, since through their contact with neighbors they receive clear information about situations that occur in nearby homes and are created, many times, close bonds of trust with women in situations of violence.
Graciela is one of the most visible references in her neighborhood, like many people, especially women.
She speaks in inclusive language including sexual diversities, to name her sons and daughters; sometimes, she says «daughters».
Meeting of all the work areas of the Casa de la Mujer and diversity. Photo: Jorgelina Tomasin.
“Many women who have suffered gender violence passed through my house, they came and settled with their children, we had to put mattresses in the kitchen, that is why we wanted to get this space from the House of Women and Diversity and luckily, thanks to the efforts of many colleagues who helped us, we were able to buy this land”, he says.
A shelter in the middle of the storm
In this field, throughout the pandemic the House for Women and Diversity operated, and it was a place that contained women who suffered violence inside their homes and even in many cases were «locked up» in mandatory social isolation, along with their attackers.
Florencia Catelani, is a psychologist and currently one of the coordinators of the house, she says that it is «a project that we started at the beginning of 2020 and that had as a background training instances that we had done with the colleagues and promoters of the MTE at the request of the that Graciela saw in her neighborhood and the need to be able to address the problem of gender violence and above all also have proposals for the promotion and organization of women”.
And he also added: «The House of Women and Diversity is a space for the accompaniment of women and diversities in violence, but also in the face of other problems, be they health or different problems related to violence, as well as a place to generate spaces to promote training for the women of the organization”.
Murga workshop day and school support on the premises of the Casa de la Mujer y Diversidad. Photo: Florence Catelani archive.
An essential place during the pandemic
“The pandemic was a great challenge, above all because the popular neighborhoods are the sectors that were most affected, we were one of the few spaces that were operating in the face of the different demands that arose and also because in the pandemic the women who were going through a situation of violence had the problem of how to access public policies or protection measures, when what was ordered from the state was to stay at home and the house appeared as a dangerous place. So, it was quite a great challenge to be able to accompany and generate a tool that could reach these women”, recalls Catelani.
As for situations of violence during isolation, the psychologist says that Graciela was a point of reference for those who knew her in the Barrio Moderno.
Thanks to the Movement of Excluded Workers, many people knew her and La Casita, coming to her to seek help in situations of violence.
Graciela met with them to listen to them and thus put together a possible strategy.
«The house is a community device that allows access to the rights and policies that the State has to address these situations,» says Catelani.
Although the house is still a precarious construction, construction is being completed.
Interior of the House of Women and Diversity, still under construction. Photo: Jorgelina Tomasin.
“The idea is that it is a bridge so that rights can be accessed, which do not always have to do directly with violence, for example, sometimes they have to do with being able to carry out National Identity Document procedures or being able to bring proposals from the state to the neighborhood or carry out territorial operations for housing certificates”, says Catelani
The professional also affirms that the objective of the Casa de la Mujer is to bring rights closer to the community by articulating it with the state, making access to public policies possible for those who need it most, especially in popular neighborhoods.
Work in pandemic
Florencia Catelani recalls that «during the pandemic there were moments of greater confinement and less face-to-face, moments in which it was reactivated again and generated spaces for workshops and meeting and training spaces and then it returned to isolation, then it had great difficulty because planning was impossible.
Meanwhile, Jorgelina Bordone, a psychologist who also works in this space, said that during the pandemic there was a lot of uncertainty, since the state institutions that functioned daily closed their doors or changed their access protocols.
In popular neighborhoods, people were left without any type of device to accompany them, since communities did not have a guarantee of food or internet access to be able to continue with school days virtually.
And he added: “here we organized the same to continue supporting the accompaniments, we came with chin straps, everything was done outdoors and permission was even obtained for being essential personnel to circulate and be able to attend, for being part of an organization in which there were a dining room».
The pandemic and schooling
Graciela says that during the pandemic, the schooling model meant an overload for women with their sons and daughters, since for virtualization they needed to be literate and many of them were not.
“Many mothers send their children to study so that they do not reach a degree of illiteracy like them, because there are mothers who do not know how to read and write, in poor neighborhoods in general they send their children to school so that they have a better education And during the pandemic they sent them practical work or asked them to connect in virtual classes, and it was very difficult because in a popular neighborhood there are women who, sometimes, do not even have access to a telephone”, says Graciela.
Graciela Zenas, worker of the popular economy, mother of 5 children and reference of the House of Women and diversity in Barrio Moderno, Rosario, Argentina. Photo: Jorgelina Tomasin.
The neighborhood when someone was sick
During the isolation in the Barrio Moderno, the neighbors organized when they began to find out about the infections within the community.
«Some of us contributed merchandise, others put bleach or alcohol so that hygiene items and food could be brought to the people who were at the time of isolation,» says Graciela.
Mural painted by the women of the MTE in the neighborhood square in front of the 20 Amigos Club. Photo: Jorgelina Tomasin.
However, beyond the organization that was carried out from different areas of the neighborhood, Graciela also tells that there was a lot of uncertainty and even violent situations due to the misinformation that existed about the complexity of the disease.
Many people in the community were afraid when they found out they were infected, because the other people in the neighborhood could have attacked them in some way.
Graciela, upon learning that she was infected, isolated herself at home; however, «they seized her house with stones.»
“We were locked up and I was isolated because I was the only one who had symptoms, and since my children were outside they were the ones who suffered the stones and yelled ugly things at them. It was very hard at first because they didn’t know what it meant to have covid, and there was a lot of paranoia about who was sick and that sometimes led to conflicts,” recalls Graciela.
According to a CIPPEC study, “The IDB estimated that 1.2 million boys, girls and young people could drop out of school as a direct consequence of the pandemic during 2020 in Latin America and the Caribbean. 90% would be adolescents who attend secondary level. This scenario implies a setback of almost a decade of educational inclusion”.
The psychologist Florencia Catelani remembers the pandemic as a very complex moment, which brings its consequences even two years later.
“It was a very difficult moment because everything was reduced to the pandemic, to the covid, where there were not many institutions to turn to or the institutions were totally overwhelmed by this issue, so I think it left very serious consequences, which are still being tried to heal. in the community fabric, for example, many boys and girls who dropped out of school and did not return or when they tried to return there were no places and everything implies a greater burden on women heads of household”.
Overload during the pandemic
Graciela experienced this topic in the first person:
“What happened at school is that the first year of the pandemic they made them automatically pass the next year, and it also generated frustration for the boys because they did not understand many things the following year because they did not have any knowledge of that grade.”
Likewise, Graciela says that there was an overload for women within their homes, since apart from working, they had to take care of their home and support their children with their studies.
«I don’t know if I got sick from Covid or from stress, because we were at work and I had to take care of my children at home,» Graciela says with a laugh.
The lack of water and the Covid
In the houses of Barrio Moderno there is no drinking water suitable for human consumption; for this reason, there is a connection in the House of Women and Diversity that provides this basic input to local families.
“There is a drinking water tap that is here on this property; most of the houses do not have water, and if they do have water, it has no pressure and little comes out. Most of them use the community tap on the house’s property, since there are only two taps with drinking water in the entire neighborhood and this is one,” recalls Graciela.
In the same way, he added: “in the pandemic, the main thing was to have water, hygiene and here in the popular neighborhoods that is complicated, it was a saturation, it came to pass that the neighbors fought because they did not have water and we had to explain to them that the Paraná river It was in the midst of a pandemic and that this meant that there was not good pressure in the water and that it was not the fault of the neighbor or the neighbor who had taken extra water ”.
Listen to the podcast on access to drinking water during the pandemic in the neighborhood:
Vaccination and La Casa de la Mujer as an accompaniment
Florencia Catelani recounts that “at first people had to be accompanied so that they could be vaccinated in places further away from the neighborhood and then there was a time when there were vaccines at the neighborhood health center (read the note in the first installment about the system of health at the first level) and that facilitated the tasks”.
Catelani says that groups were organized to attend the health center and get vaccinated. Despite resistance from misinformation, fake news, and guesswork about the vaccine, most people got vaccinated.
The positive after the pandemic
After two years of apprenticeship, Florencia Catelani rescues that:
“We managed to put together a space, which we were able to sustain, we were able to build a group and also strengthen articulations, contacts and networks in the same neighborhood with the institutions and with the state, in the midst of that emergency that was the covid. Looking for solutions to the situations that arose allowed us to build that network and that experience, but also the feeling is that, that there is still a lot to be repaired”.