First Impressions: Street Art, Subtes, and Politics

The first thing I noticed about Buenos Aires was the graffiti. Unlike the swear words and unintelligible phrases that oftentimes mar the walls of city buildings and highway underpasses in the States, the porteños have turned graffiti into an art form, and with it they have transformed their city into a living, breathing work of art. Image Street art in action in the San Telmo barrio of Bueos AiresImage

From the upscale barrios of San Telmo and Puerto Madero, to the more middle class neighborhood where I’m living named Caballito, the city is covered in murals, smaller paintings, stencils and posters. The urban art gives Buenos Aires a character all its own. One moment you’re walking along a nice but rather unremarkable street, and the next you’re staring at a piece of art plastered on a random wall that looks more like it belongs in a modern art gallery than a street corner. Needless to say it’s made me want to constantly reach for my camera.

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I love this gigantic mural of Eva Perón, located in La Plaza de la República, a central square of BA (photo taken from Wikipedia)

On one of my first days here I pointed out my observations to my host-mom, Silvia. She told me that street art is actually a relatively recent phenomenon in BA that has only cropped up in the past thirty or so years since Argentina became a democracy. She explained that when she was growing up as a child in Buenos Aires, no one would dare paint street art or graffiti, since under the military dictatorships of that time all forms of protest were banned and civilians’ freedom of expression was severely oppressed. During this time, the streets of Buenos Aires were spotless, and the people were filled with uncertainty and fear. The reemergence of graffiti and street art in BA is in many ways a beautiful symbol of a people reasserting their ability to express themselves.

ImageMaybe that’s why as I walk around the streets of Buenos Aires today, the city and its people seem to scream at me with life. Not just due to the graffiti that adorns every open wall of the city, but also because of the young activists positioned on every street corner, urging you to vote for their political candidate of choice, and because of the daily protests that give a voice to groups from all across the political spectrum. Argentina has had a politically turbulent past, and I can’t help but think that Argentines are a people who don’t take their freedom of expression for granted. A recent confrontation I witnessed in the subte station, which is the nickname for the BA metro system, really emphasized this idea for me.

It was morning rush hour in Buenos Aires, which in subte terms essentially means you’ll be extremely lucky if you catch the first, or even second, subway car that comes your way. To say overcrowding is an issue is a gigantic understatement. (More on this later). As more and more people began showing up at the Rio de Janeiro station, it became obvious to each passenger that the likelihood of anyone making the next train, let alone the next three trains, was slim to none.  Although I had already resigned myself to waiting approximately forever until I actually got onto a car, it soon became apparent that not everyone was okay with the situation. All of the sudden, amongst the quietly waiting passengers, a man began shouting passionately at one of the station workers about the injustice of paying for a ticket and then being unable to get on a train. He raged that situations like this were evidence that the government needed to work more for the interests of the people. He also said some other things that I did not fully understand, but which I’m pretty sure could be summed up with two words: La injusticia!

My first reaction to this man was: ignore him, he’s acting out unnecessarily. Not so with my fellow Argentine passengers. One by one, everyone began to join in, complaining about the system and the overcrowding until the whole station was in quite an uproar. I couldn’t help but smile to myself as I witnessed what was clearly a cultural divide between Argentine and American society. The great thing was, the station managers didn’t lose their cool. They didn’t have the man escorted away or tell him to be quiet, as I’m sure would have happened in the States. Instead, a worker calmly brought out an official complaint form and had the man fill it out. I was again surprised when this proved to satisfy the screaming man, who then proceeded to calmly fill out the form. Once done, he walked over to the subte platform and shoved his way into the next car that came by, clearly sufficiently appeased. In my mind, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself and think: ‘Ah, the beauty of true freedom of expression in action.’

Although this man most likely came no closer to solving the very real issue of the overcrowding of public transport in BA, at least he voiced his opinions; at least he made himself heard. And, I’m not going to lie, after I got over my initial surprise and skepticism, it did give me a certain amount of personal satisfaction to finally hear someone voice complaints about the system out loud. It was a great lesson on how each culture has its own distinct norms when it comes to standing up for something you believe in. I’m sure I’ll have many more moments like these during my stay here, and I welcome the surprise I’m sure they will bring. I’ve only just scratched the surface of what it means to live in Buenos Aires, and I can’t wait and see what the next five months will bring!

Besitos y ciao!

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Already making a name for myself in the city!

Okay, just kidding. This is actually one of thousands of political ads currently blanketing the city. This one is in support of the current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and says, “In life you have to choose: Movement for Victory.”

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