Two Unsettling Sides of Buenos Aires

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We have one simple rule in Buenos Aires: we avoid hotels with “gran” or any grandiloquent adjective reminiscent of the past. Trust me, they’re nothing like the name suggests, as we realized after staying at the “Gran Hotel Argentino” a few years ago. Think musty smell, dirty carpets and brownish furniture, think out-of-service elevators, think grim rooms without windows.

It’s hard to pick a hotel in Buenos Aires. This is an old city, many buildings are falling apart. I grew up in France, I don’t find antique plumbing, decrepit hallways, wonky showers and clogged sinks particularly charming—been there, down that.

“Let me see the pictures… okay, lobby, lobby, shiny floors in the lobby, close up of the table in the lobby, close up of… What the fuck, the phone in the lobby? When was the last time we used the landline in the lobby? And who the fuck cares about the hotel lobby? I wanna see the rooms!”

This is another trend I noticed in Buenos Aires. Most hotels like to show off a fancy lobby. But again from experience, I can tell you that a posh-looking lobby could be the antechamber to a maze of shitty rooms. Actually, the fancier the lobby, the worse the rooms are.

Buenos Aires likes to put on a façade. Appearances matter here. You’ll see many… ahem, older women with Botox lips and long blondish hair, dressed as if they’re going to a wedding. Generally speaking, Porteños dress up. None of that grungy, hippie-ish look you can see in São Paulo or Santiago and, of course, no beach bum look either—this ain’t Rio de Janeiro.

It’s important to look smart, cultivated and to enjoy a sophisticated Europe-inspired lifestyle—grab a coffee, have a nice meal, enjoy a few glasses of wine, go to the theatre, remind everyone that you have roots in the old continent, that you’re not one of these Latinos.

But when you pay attention and look beneath the surface, Buenos Aires isn’t just tango, carne, wine and political discussions.

For instance, if you look down, at the pavement. A couple of years ago, for the first time, I noticed colourful tiles around the city commemorating “los desaparecidos,” or the tens of thousands of people who disappeared during the dictatorship—“Here was assassinated…”, “here was arrested…”, “here disappeared…” Like in Brazil, Uruguay and Chile—and many countries around the world—there’s a very dark chapter in Argentina’s modern history. Argentina’s last military dictatorship created 500 clandestine detention centres throughout the country, which it used in the disappearance of some 30,000 people and the kidnapping of more than 500 children, according to the Instituto Espacio para la Memoria. The regime also detained 10,000 political prisoners in state jails, exiled more than 1 million residents, and terrorized a large part of the population.

Along with the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, this is one of the few concrete testimonies of Argentina’s disappeared I saw. I feel Chile tries to come to terms with Augusto Pinochet’s legacy more openly.

Another unsettling side of Buenos Aires is people rifling through the garbage on street corners to feed their family. And I’m not talking about first-world dumpster diving behind a Whole Food supermarket there, nor about a single instance of an old homeless guy checking out a garbage can for something useful. I’m talking entire families rummaging through trash in the microcentro every single night. Argentina’s economy collapsed at the end of 2001 and while it seems a bit better now, inflation, poverty and homelessness seem to remain a major issue.

Plaza de Mayo

Colorful tiles around Buenos Aires commemorating “los desaparecidos,” or the tens of thousands of people who disappeared during the dictatorship

Colorful tiles around Buenos Aires commemorating “los desaparecidos,” or the tens of thousands of people who disappeared during the dictatorship

Colorful tiles around Buenos Aires commemorating “los desaparecidos,” or the tens of thousands of people who disappeared during the dictatorship

Colorful tiles around Buenos Aires commemorating “los desaparecidos,” or the tens of thousands of people who disappeared during the dictatorship

One block from Avenida 9 de Julio

Calle Maipu and Lavalle

Avenida Corrientes

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

2 Comments

  1. Many of those families you reference going through the garbage are carteneros. That is how they make their money looking for items to recycle. The government assists, going as far as providing them transportation into/out of the city each night so they can perform this job. They are not starving to death as you imply. Other than that, it was a very well written post.

    • Thank you for your input! I learned about carteneros a few years ago. Maybe I’m mistaken (it’s hard to tell as a foreigner) but I feel I can see who is digging for recyclable items and who is looking for food. In Brazil too there are tons of people collecting cans for instance, it’s a job. But what I saw in microcentro really looked like families looking for food…

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