Sometimes the only way to really understand what we are accomplishing in our community organizing with ACORN International is to get squarely on the ground with the organizers and members and get to the heart of what is on their minds, their fights, and sometimes their victories. After a two hour ride from the Capitol out to the province and the La Matanza mega-slum, we were in the Gonzalez district where ACORN Argentina has been organizing over the last six months or more, sitting in one of the leaders houses and listening.
In the course of the conversation about what concerned her, we found ourselves stumbling into huge issues we had not addressed, and I was delighted to learn about victories that I had not heard about. Many areas of La Matanza, such as this one, are “no man lands” without clear property rights and therefore existing in a gray area in their constant dealings with the municipality and its officials. Water is a huge problem for example. The municipality has installed pipes and most families have separately dug wells for water, but much is not potable in the ongoing stalemate. Picking up household garbage was a similarly huge issue. Families would recycle or burn what could not be saved. Seeing plastic bags piling up in their aerie atop metal contraptions out of the reach of dogs and small children, I was curious. It developed that the community members had tried to get regular pickup of trash and the municipality had refused, because this area was unrecognized, unincorporated, and legally nonexistent. The organization had stepped in and organized a mass petition drive from throughout the area, forcing the municipality to respond, and voila now there was suddenly trash pickup. Talking to another member as we walked around, it turned out that the municipality is picking up twice a week an sometimes more, putting my own neighborhood in New Orleans and many other cities to shame.
In our earlier visit we had stumbled onto the issue around electricity in much the same way. While our leader proudly showed off the home improvements she and her companero had made in their home, she complained about the problems with electricity surges that would burn out appliances like the refrigerator, sometimes only delivering 110 watts on a 220 watt line for example. She said the problem was common, but there seemed no solution. When we pressed her further to understand the issue better, it turned out that once again we were caught in a purgatory between families and government. The lights had been metered some years ago, but then the families were clientes of the electricity department, paying for service. The state had taken out the meters and consolidated lots of families on one meter and in fact from what we heard, 500 families were now coming through one metering system, which obviously was the problem in the uneven currency flow since the circuits were overloaded in the patchwork of the system. Now though many felt they could not complain, because they were getting electricity off the grid, so to speak, and not having to pay. When I asked the obvious question about the dangers imposed by overloading from electric burnouts and fires in an area where many structures are still largely wood, the leader calmly replied that 5 or 6 homes burned up every year from electricity mishaps.
Why the change? No one knew. Maybe to get votes? Maybe because too many families were not paying? Or, maybe like the garbage pickup situation, because of the ambiguous status of these informal communities planted on state land without any clear authorities. Had anyone been to the government to make demands about the electricity before someone died in one of these freak fires? No, not that she knew.
Seems like ACORN Argentina has another big campaign in front of it in the Gonzales district of La Matanza!