Thoughts on Argentina's Conjunctures :: Recuperating Work, Recovering Life (2005-2007)

Monday, July 11, 2005

Asado de bienvenida: Welcoming us to the AAP summer program at Chilavert

Today at 4:30 p.m., Marcelo (Kelo) & Yuli introduced us to the program. Kelo is the Argentinean coordinator of Gracial Monteagudo’s AAP summer program that I’m involved with this month in Buenos Aires. Kelo is also a PhD candidate and sessional in the Facultad de Filosofia y Letras (Faculty of Philosophy and Letters) at UBA. Yuli, an anthropology graduate student at the UBA, will be Kelo’s assistant throughout our first week, which will be an intense cultural immersion into the complex and contradictory facets of Buenos Aires’s cultural, political, and social milieu. All 19 of us participants (two of us are from Canada and the rest American) met today on the mezzanine floor of Chilavert Artes Gráficos, the worker recovered enterprise where I’ll be interning starting next week (see "Where I`ll be interning next month").

Chilavert facilitates numerous community events here on the mezzanine level. It’s a fantastic space where a number of activities such as art classes, poetry readings, and seminars are often held. Saturday night, as I understand it, is a particularly popular night for community gatherings and cultural events. Of course, it’s also a great place to kick-start an intensive program looking into Argentina’s recovered workspaces and newest social movements.

Today being Sunday, the print shop’s off-set devices, its printing machines, its binding machines, and the stacks of soon-to-be processed stacks of glossy paper and half-finished posters sit quite and still on the shop’s main floor. This miscellany of machinery and stationary below as I look over the veranda from the mezzanine level resembles a mini skyline, a seemingly haphazard metropolis of contraptions, stacks of papers, and unfinished posters put into place by the pragmatic needs of the shop’s daily workflows. The first floor of Chilavert on a Sunday night gives witness to a highly productive workspace that has paused to give its citizen attendants time to engage in life’s other activities, such as participating in family events and, tonight, hosting the gringo students they’ve so warmly welcomed into their lives.

Upon entering Chilavert from the street I find myself in the interior receiving area at the front of the building. I’m one of the first AAP program students to arrive. Maria Rosa Gonzalez, Candido Gonzalez’s wife (Candido is one of the original eight that courageously occupied the factory three years ago) warmly welcomes me in. One of the first things I notice is the elaborately designed “Chilavert Artes Graficos” sign above the second main doors that lead into the shop. The sign is styled after the aesthetics of the tango bars and bordellos of early 20th century Buenos Aires. I’ve seen similarly designed signage in old Baires bars and I’ll soon see the style greeting us at other recovered factories such as Graficos Patricios and IMPA.

After entering the shop floor Maria Rosa turns sharply to the right and leads me up the stairs above the print shop’s main offices. We soon come to the cultural centre on the mezzanine floor. The second floor rings the shop about 15-20 feet above the main floor. From this perspective the shop reminds me of an old colonial villa with the shop floor resemblig the inner courtyard that was common in most Spanish colonial villas throughout Latin America. In these old villas, wealthy colonial families lived with their servants, ate, shared family experiences, and held court when hosting visitors. To the colonial Europeans that ruled Latin America for most of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the villas were mini fortresses that shielded them from the hurly burly of colonial business, the mestizo vagos (lazy ones) who chose to live in the surrounding countryside, and indigenous life outside the villa’s walls. This evocation to colonial times is appropriate, I think to myself. Chilavert’s recovery by its workers can be compared to the desire that early Argentineans had for emancipation from Spain’s colonial clutch. Chilavert’s previous owner could be compared to the Spanish viceroys. The graphic shop’s building and its internal layout resembles the panoptic shape of the traditional Spanish villa. And the workers, a band of mutinous ex-servants who have found freedom from the oppression and repression of the former colonial tyrant they once lived under.

The allusion that the building has to the dwellings of Argentina’s old colonial rulers symbolizes not only the continued struggles of living within a system of social organization still inflected by oligarchical power structures and caudillo politics, Chilavert´s physical presence also symbolizes how the oppressed can overcome a politics of domination and repression. In the case of the eight original Chilavert workers that took the factory on April 4, 2002 and occupied it for more than seven months after years of being underpaid (in the last year and a half, not paid at all), and in light of the corrupt alliance with judges, accountants, union bosses, and lawyers embarked on by the previous owner, Chilavert’s workers’ collective struggle for survival can be seen as a contemporary version of the following continuing tensions: Argentina’s centre (Buenos Aires) and its peripheries (the interior provinces); the vagabond gaucho and indigenous cultures vs. the 19th century desire by the elite classes for all Argentineans to become a civilized nation; civilisación vs. barbarie; the hierarchies of the state vs. the desires of individual and communal autonomy; the rights of the propertied classes (landed classes) vs. the aspiring dreams of the working classes; and Argentina’s first world pretensions vs. the global north/south realities of the 1990s.


The mezzanine level of Chilavert is a phenomenal space surrounded by art works by local artists and some of Chilavert’s glossy art books from the old days when they were still under el patronal (the boss, or literally, the patriarchal chief). While Kelo and Yuli did a fantastic job of introducing us to the program and helped us to navigate our way through the Guia “T”, Buenos Aires’s notoriously complex bus schedule booklet, I was distracted by my enthusiasm at actually being here. While I sat with my new peers around four rustic wooden tables, I couldn’t help but think about what an appealing space this place is for not only work but also for cultural and community events, as well. Chilavert is pregnant with myriad possibilities for joy and life; after being at Chilavert for only a few minutes one senses that this place is about so much more than work. Indeed, it’s immediately evident that Chilavert is a space where work intermingles with play, where culture is infused in work and work is part of a greater culture, and where community and connection abound. One quickly notices that patronizing and heavy-handed supervision of life has been banished here. At Chilavert, the neighbourhood that surrounds it and its cultural riches intersects with the daily labour of producing books, posters, and pamphlets for Argentina’s newest social movements.

The paintings on the walls of the mezzanine floor; the quite machines resting from the previous week’s production; and the chatter and din of excited and expectant conversations between the northern visitors and the locals from Chilavert, the recovered factories movement, the UBA, and the AAP merge with the smells of the asado that is being barbequed this Sunday night by some of Chilavert’s workers on the street of this recovering community (no Sunday night anxieties with these workers!) From old oil drums cut in half the excellent chorizos and cuts of costillas and lomo are prepared and served up to the hungry guests. In typical Argentinean style, we all sit at the table together and share the fine food in the midst of much conversation and laughter (and there’s enough spinach pies and veggie dishes for the non meat eaters, as well).

Tonight, on this chilly Buenos Aires July night, and barely one night into the five week program, we are all witnesses that another world, however tenuous and provisional, is indeed possible...

- 1136 Chilavert, Neueva Pompeya, Buenos Aires