03 October 2007

Two villas miseria

This is a followup on yesterday's post about the Toba tribe and how they came from Chaco to Rosario.

I live 10 blocks from a railway track around which a large Toba settlement grew in the 1990s. If you're wondering why they put it there, it's because the areas on the side of the rails have been jurisdictional "no man's land" for a long time, since the railway system started to decline. When the stations were shut down, the state-owned companies that ran them stopped caring about keeping people away from the tracks. The municipal and provincial government couldn't take care of them either.

Nowadays, with many trains transporting cereal and other types of cargo from the interior to the ports, the situation is a bit different. Private companies keep their land from being occupied. However, the rest of the former railway property is managed by the national state through an office called ONABE, which is powerless to stop people from taking residence beside the tracks.

So these Toba came, I don't remember when exactly — surely in the 1990s, but also before. Then a government housing programme built homes for them in a different part of the city and they moved there. But the settlement, though much reduced, is still there. A couple of years ago, after many requests, the provincial government built a police post near it, because people were scared of walking or driving along the street and being stuck right beside the villa miseria, on the level crossing, when a train had to pass.

I myself have never had a problem with the people of the villa. They've been there for ages and they're mostly decent fellows who happen to be very poor. But I still know better than to walk past the villa when it's dark, because if I'm robbed there, the thief can easily run into the villa and nobody there's going to tell on him.

There's another settlement, about 8 blocks in a different direction, where a Catholic nun started a "mission". It was built too near the Ludueña Stream, in a floodable area, without proper streets or sanitation. Nevertheless, word-of-mouth (especially along extended families) reached Chaco and the "mission" attracted more settlers. The lands around the Ludueña are another preferred place for villas, because until recently nobody has wanted them. The public works needed to make them safe are only being done now.

The "mission" was a bad idea, the grandiose scheme of an attention-hungry woman to become the benefactor and spiritual leader of the poor. María Jordán had charisma; she talked to politicians and the media and got donations, which her collaborators in good faith distributed following her will. She organized a couple of fund-raising events, got benefactors to pay trips for her, and even (I was told) a car and an apartment (to better conduct her charity work, of course).

She did do some missionary work in the villa: she enshrined a Virgin Mary whom she called "Mary the Mother of Hope", and even had stamps printed — the Mother of Hope looking suspiciously like her inventor. I don't know what became of that; the poorer segments of the population are nowadays overwhelmingly attracted to other sects, usually very active evangelical ones that get funds from the United States, and local upstarts.

She had no idea how to run the place. I don't know how many poor people came from Chaco to live in her ridiculous mission, but they were a major problem — they were quite literally refugees, and the city wasn't prepared to receive them. In my experience, religious initiatives tend to rely on good intentions alone (cf Mother Teresa's "Come Here To Die As We Pray For You" shelter franchise), and this was no exception.

Jordán was soon eclipsed by the exotic miracle healer Father Ignacio Peries, but she still appears now and then in the news, invariably referred to as "Sister María Jordán", and wearing a habit... even though she was forced to leave her order years ago, when she refused to obey her superiors and stop her lone "missionary" adventure.

I know all of this because I worked for this self-centered woman for six months (don't ask), and I saw other people being trapped by her deceivingly charming manners. The last time I heard of her was on the occasion of an art exhibition by the controversial León Ferrari, when she said publicly that, if she had the money, she'd buy up Ferrari's works and burn them all. Yeah, that'll help the poor and sick.

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