There are no prisons for autonomy. There are no situations that make it impossible. The experience of the Corriente Villera Independiente in Buenos Aires’ Villa 31 demonstrates that even in the most difficult of material conditions, even going against the current, autonomy can be placed at the center of collective community building.

“This is something that is clean,” says Dora. When she says the word “clean,” a smile lights up her face, and she exudes a powerful inner peace.  “We don’t owe the government anything. The doctor, the health promoters–we do it all without expecting any money. This is clean, it’s genuine. It’s not contaminated.”

Dora meets us at the Casa de la Mujeres, Women’s House, created by the Corriente Villera Independiente for women suffering domestic violence. She is accompanied by Graciela, who leads the Community Health Center, her daughter Mónica, Celina and Lupe–two Bolivian women who are learning to read in the Community School, as well as a half dozen women working to inaugurate the house.

Villa 31, or Retiro, has a long history. In the 1930s, Polish immigrants escaping hunger built a group of precarious shacks near the port. It grew into a favela-type neighborhood. With industrial development, immigrants from the northern part of Argentina began to arrive. By 1976, the year of the military coup, 213,000 people lived in the shantytowns of the city of Buenos Aires, or almost 10% of the city’s population.

The dictatorship violently displaced more than 150,000 residents, but since 1983 the villas have begun to be repopulated. By 2001, they had more than 100,000 inhabitants, and according to the 2010 census, 163,000.

“The villas are the only part of the city where a significant demographic increase has been registered,” researcher Pablo Vitale says. Today, they are inhabited almost entirely by Argentines from the north, Paraguayans, Bolivians, and Peruvians.

The villas are self-constructed neighborhoods with improvised housing and few services. Access to electricity and potable water has been possible only due to pressure on the municipal government. Other services like garbage collection and sanitation are insufficient.

There are 21 villas In Buenos Aires. This number is increasing, though, because of the permanent expulsion of people in rural areas under soy monoculture. A map of the city shows that most of the villas are located in the southern zone. But Villa 31 is located smack in the middle of the city, in the principal area of real estate speculation (Puerto Madero), and right next to the bus and train stations.

The villas exemplify the concept of “urban fringe.” Though they may be in the center of large cities like the Argentine capital, they are on the periphery with respect to access to services, jobs, and infrastructure. But they are symbolically peripheral. Their residents are people marginalized by the extractive model of capitalism—the poorest, the ones with skin the color of the earth.

However, the villas have proven to be spaces that continuously resist that model. Living in extreme poverty surrounded by wealth has led the residents to be acutely aware of inequality. They also learn from the prolonged commitment of a sector of mainstream society—priests who went to live in the villas, and university students who dedicate a large part of their time to teaching and learning with them.

Community health

To get to the Community Health Center, you have to walk through streets that turn into muddy quagmires when it rains. It’s worth walking slowly—to observe the cobwebs of electric cables; to stop in the dwellings with external staircases winding like snails around multiple floors; to enjoy the lively colors, the stores from which women and children watch strangers like us pass.

With Hernán, we greet the women who were huddled in front of the community kitchen, growing crowded as noon approached. While we wait for the doctor, Hernán explains how it works. “We get the food by picketing the government . There are some 70 families, volunteering once a week in groups of six to eight. It guarantees food for the family” he says.

The doctor is a tall, skinny man. He arrives on a bicycle and introduces himself as Guido. The health center is a room, 5×5 meters, with a ceramic tiled floors and walls. It looks clean, bright, and tidy. The stretcher, scales, and shelves stocked with medicine greet us, along with a sign that reads “El Che Community Health Center.”

Guido opens the padlock, settles into a chair, and drops words in spurts. “We opened the center on September 21, 2012, but started with meetings in May and June in order to get to know the health problems in the barrio, to see how we could intervene. It’s about the people taking their health in their own hands, and us helping out in what we know,” he says.

The villa has two sectors separated by a highway. The older one has a population of 15,000. The other one, Villa 31 bis, has 20,000. This is where the Corriente Villera works, managing twenty outdoor eating areas,  six community kitchens, three work crews, the health center, and the elementary school, and the women’s center. Twelve health promoters (almost all of these women between 25 and 40 years old) work in the center. They go from house to house, monitoring the children’s weight, taking surveys of major health problems, and tending to the office.

Like the large part of those who work in the villas, Guido’s activism started in the university. He works as a doctor, and in his free time tends to the health center.  He also chairs a community health program, through which students work in the villas. “On one hand, we train the health promoters in the barrio and practice pediatric and general health. But we also do health campaigns, going from house to house,” he explains.

There is only one government health center for the 35,000 inhabitants, and it is located at an extreme end of the villa. “Those on the other side often can’t make it to the clinic, because you can’t cross the whole barrio at three in the morning. So we announced that we would be in someone’s house, or in one of the community kitchens, checking up on children’s weigh. We work in the center on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.”

It is respiratory problems that most affect the children in the villas. This is due to moisture and the amount of environmental contaminants in the soil and air. Lead, other heavy metals, and other toxins—products of the burning of garbage—cause asthma and bronchitis. The houses have ventilation problems and are overcrowded. The whole villa suffers because the water isn’t potable. Those who can afford it end up buying bottled water.

In the center, three licensed doctors, four advanced students, and the twelve health promoters take turns. Between working in the center and doing house visits, they see some 200 people weekly.  “We throw parties and do raffles to pay rent. Some medicines are provided by the visiting doctors and other friends who are doctors, but we get most of them by picketing Disprofarma (a pharmaceutical product distributing center). The State doesn’t give us anything,” Guido assures.

Those in the state health center tend not to go into the barrio but ask for help in tending to the population. “They are quite tied to the hegemonic medical model, against which we are trying to fight.  They wear white coats, we dress like any other person because we don’t want to put that distance between us and the people.”

Guido says that the doctors from the state clinic often make fun of the beliefs of people in the villa, above all of the Peruvians, Paraguayans, Bolivians, and migrants from Northern Argentina. “There are ways to approach health issues in a different culture. If a mother tells me she doesn’t breastfeed her child because she is afraid, I can’t ignore that, because for her, it exists. You have to see how to work with it. People think that the doctor is the one who knows, and that hegemonic logic is legitimated in society.  So we ask the people not call us ‘Doctor,’ and instead by our names.” With the objective of affirming the self-esteem of the residents, the health center incorporates traditional knowledge into its practice, like the use of medicinal herbs. The doctors are also in charge of things like sweeping the center.

The center is managed by the residents of the villas themselves. At the end of 2012, they held an assembly to collectively discuss any problems in the health center. After a party and games for the children, it was time for reflection. “One of the critiques was that we didn’t open the day that the barrio had flooded.  They said that even if it is raining or flooding, we should open the health center.”

A refuge for women

“For women, health and violence are closely related,” says Graciela, a young health promoter who walks us two blocks up to the Women’s Center. “If you have gender violence, you don’t have health, because violence takes it away, it sickens. We women are the key to the barrio, even though in the Corriente Villera there are as many men as women.”

On the way, she explains that in the villa, 120 delegates and ten councilors are elected by secret vote. The Corriente obtained almost half of the delegates, and four of the five councilors of the Villa 31 bis. She regards all of the work they do as part of the project of creating ‘people’s power.’ “On March 8, we marched against violence against women for the first time. We want to hit the ground running with the party delegates, create situations that allow health and education for the people to get better. And we bought a truck to bring around gas cylinders and sell them at the real price, because they are often charged double.”

In the road to the women’s house, you can see little handmade signs hanging from the light posts. They read: “Where the people lead, the government takes orders.” We come to a large, unpainted room with plaster in sight. Constructions materials and tools reveal that the work has yet to be finished. A group of middle-aged women greet us, and Dora tells us to sit down.

“We started this campaign a long time ago because we didn’t even have water, just one communal tap where every day we fought amongst ourselves to get some.  It was there where it began.” Dora tells the story of how they learned that all of their needs were the same—that all of them went weeks with electricity when the knots of wires were short-circuited, and that ambulances never entered the barrio because of the poor road conditions.

Then she explains what led them to create the Women’s House: “It was determined by the needs of our fellow women. We would go to a march, and a woman would be beaten because she arrived home late. We do weekly workshops that are attended by up to 30 women, so that each and every one of them knows she is not alone. It’s really hard to recognize that he who loves you most is also he who beats you up. It’s painful for those who tell the stories; it’s painful for those who listen to them.”

They defend legal, safe, and free abortion, debate sexuality with the health promoters, and discuss their rights with activist lawyers. The center will be open three days per week, with games for children and workshops for women.  Men and women within the movement built it, and they will decide what it will be called.

But more interesting is how the center protects battered women. “We are forming a security group to protect the women that might seek refuge here, a group of women trained in a two month long self-defense course,” Dora says. Graciela adds that they are also “putting together groups to go around the barrio, explaining the work we do, wearing shirts that say Fighting Women.”

From one corner, Celina and Lupe—both Bolivian, 54 and 42 years old—explain that they are learning to read in the people’s elementary school, because up until the last year they couldn’t sign off on the hours of work they had done with the cooperative that is building the sewage system. They went from campesinas in Sucre, Bolivia, to villeras in Buenos Aires, fleeing poverty and marginalization—something you can only do collectively.

Graciela considers how people come to be part of the organization. “People first come to the dining hall, for the plate of food. From there they get to know the movement, and general ideas start coming out. Then they come to feel connected to the health center, the women’s center, and the work crews. After that they come to the meetings with people from other barrios that make up the Corriente Villera.”

People who come from outside the barrio, like doctors and lawyers, “have another way of looking at things, and acquire experience in the barrios. But we also learn a lot from them. It is a mutual bond between the outside and inside. We even work together in the parties and raffles to raise rent money.”

The movement on the move

When Dora says, “We don’t owe the government anything–everything is done voluntarily without expecting any compensation. And that’s what makes the movement clean,” she is talking about another way of doing politics. We can speak of an ethical relationship that doesn’t mirror the style of politicians, those characters who profit from people’s needs and come forth as mediators with the State. A culture of patronage, flawed and corrupt.

There is something else, however, and it transcends ethics. Since the revolts of December 19 and 20, 2001, which was the picketing movement’s moment of greatest power and visibility, most organizations have disbanded or been incorporated into the official Kirchnerist project. Those that opted for this road have it easier, and their leaders have access to positions in the government.

Fighting with and for the people is a big challenge. Achieving access to food and medicine, education, and all of the services that people living in poverty urgently need—and doing it through direct action instead of governmental patronage—involves a lot of effort, a creative and permanent form of activism, and often the risk of working outside legal channels. With respect to autonomy and social change, the experience of Villa 31 bis (which isn’t exceptions in Argentina or Latin America) exemplifies many issues over which we should give pause.

The first is that autonomy must be comprehensive. Any other way, it runs the risk of falling apart. There are autonomous cultural and educational spaces, just as there are autonomous work and health experiences. The interesting thing about the Corriente Villera in Retiro is that it is a calling to address all aspects of life, from nutrition and leisure to work and health.

Autonomy is spoken about a lot, but we are quite unfamiliar with autonomous practices.  We can learn a lot from a large group of people making more of their lives in spaces that are controlled neither by the State nor the market, but by themselves. There are residents that eat lunch in the community kitchens, their children gather in the picnic area during the day and study in the schools at night, they go to the health center, and they socialize in the women’s center.

Of course these are precarious spaces, in some way linked to the market or the State. But those links are minimal. What is important is that they are sustained by mutual help, self-management, cooperation, and fraternity. Links between people are the foundation over which new political relationships are being built, in spaces that don’t belong to anyone except the collective. This new world is not based on the speeches of politicians, but the non-capitalist practices (in the sense that they don’t seek the accumulation of capital) in these collective spaces.

Second, spaces of autonomy can be built even in the hearts of the largest cities. We know about the autonomous spaces of indigenous and campesino peoples in rural areas, like the Juntas de Buen Gobierno in Chiapas, the settlements of the Movimento Sem Terra in Brazil, to mention a few examples. In cities like Buenos Aires, these kinds of spaces are less common and more difficult to maintain. It’s therefore important to both take note of and learn from them.

Third, autonomous spaces need to have the power to make decisions and follow through with them. In this case of the Corriente Villera, we see the assemblies formed by community members.

The fourth issue is related to the confluence of student activists and grassroots activists. This mutual bond, as Graciela said, is only possible through a horizontal logic. This is absolutely fundamental. There should not be any hierarchies between professionals and people of the community, for both have different knowledge systems and both are needed to change the world.

Therefore, it is about pairing up and uniting. The university students provide scientific and political-ideological forms of knowledge, and learn about the systems of knowledge in the villa that are written off in their realms from non-Western cosmologies to non-hierarchical ways for organizing. These different ways of knowing aren’t passed along in any definitive way, but instead through coexistence and experience in shared space-times.

These four things are also related to autonomy, which is not an end in and of itself. Instead, it is a way to defend difference—social and cultural, but also political—that nests in the popular sectors. This includes autonomy from the market and the State, and the autonomy to move toward a new world this is, above all, different than the one in which we live now.

Writer: Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for the weekly Brecha of Montevideo, professor and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and advisor the various grassroots organizations. For nearly a decade he has been writing the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the Americas Program www.cipamericas.org

Translated by: Paige Patchin

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