polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Bottom-Up Development in Greater Buenos Aires

by Melissa García Lamarca

La Matanza, located in the western part of the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Region (see map at right), was one of the hardest-hit areas in Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis. Historically a bastion of the working class and popular politics (Peronismo) in the 1950s, La Matanza's once-empty fields have been filled in with shacks, some more consolidated over time than others. Over half of La Matanza’s 1.7 million residents live below the poverty line and have poor access to urban services, including potable water, sewage systems, schooling, and medical attention. Since it is the second-most-populated district in Argentina and thus an important area to secure votes, political representatives are known to actively seek out and co-opt residents through clientelist practices. Yet, neighborhood dwellers that began to organize in 1995 in response to the exclusion and poverty they experienced during Argentina’s hardcore neoliberal period are providing another solution: a bottom-up approach to addressing labor and social problems in their district through the Unemployed Worker’s Movement La Matanza (MTDLM).

The MTDLM defines itself as a popular organization of men and women, both working and unemployed, who have formed a movement to resolve collective problems through collective solutions. It openly rejects the welfare plans provided by the state, as pushed by political representatives, and has instead constructed its own productive, social and educational projects through the Cooperative ‘Barrio La Juanita.’ Productive projects have manifested primarily through the Critical Mass community bakery and multiple workshop spaces that include textiles, silk screening, and computer recycling. Core educational projects are a daycare and a newly-opened primary school that use an innovative and critical pedagogy based on the philosophy of Paolo Freire. Social projects include a microcredit program, a community fair, and learning support on a wide variety of subjects.

Main building of Cooperative La Juanita, La Matanza.
Computer recycling workshop space.
Construction site for La Matanza’s “Growing Up in Freedom Oscar Alvarado” primary school, which opened on May 1, 2011.
Maru Botana with Critical Mass bakery workers.
Aside from the incredible effort and engagement of the MTDLM’s members in making these initiatives a reality, what stands out is their ability to work in networks and catalyze relationships to enhance the cooperative’s projects. For the past several years, the Critical Mass bakery has teamed up each holiday season with a well-known chef and television personality named Maru Botana to make sweet bread; the 11,000 kilograms sold last season enabled the cooperative to purchase its current building. A project called "Let’s always make Work fashionable," coordinated by social organizations in collaboration with various businesses, facilitated world-renowned designer Martín Churba’s involvement with the textile workshop to design aprons then exported to Japan. The microfinancing project works with Alternativa 3, a community development organization, to secure financing, while the computer recycling workshop collaborates with Equidad Foundation to provide training. These are just a few examples of the multiple networks and partnerships that the MTDLM has built and that have arguably enhanced their success and vibrancy.

Recognizing that education is the base for a better society, the MTDLM aspires to have a secondary school and even a university one day: an educational system that will create a future president of Argentina. One member expressed the hope that, one day, the MTDLM will cease to exist because its initiatives have become so successful that they were integrated into the current system. While laudatory, the way our political and economic systems are moving at various scales makes this unlikely; instead, my hope is that the MTDLM’s bottom-up approach and struggle to build social, productive, and especially educational projects can be inspirational and replicated (with context sensitivity) in other places across Argentina and beyond.

Thanks to Daniel Cerezo for introducing us to the MTDLM and Fundación Crear Vale la Pena, and to Silvia Flores and all the other inspirational members of the MTDLM for sharing their stories and experiences with IHP Cities.

Credits: Map of the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Region from sinantifaz.com.ar. Logo of La Juanita Cooperative from lajuanita.org.ar. Photos of the cooperative, computer recycling workshop space, and primary school by Melissa García Lamarca. Photo of Maru Botana working with the Critical Mass bakery from lajuanita.org.ar/pandulce.html.