June 28, 2011
Rebuilding Civil Society in Buenos Aires: Two-Week Study Abroad Course Explores Argentina
By Mariah Sylvain ’12 (journalism)
Members of the study abroad trip celebrating at the closing banquet
at La Caballeriza in Buenos Aires, Argentina, following two-weeks of
intense study. Profs. Max Page and Eve Weinbaum, far left in white
and blue shirts. Mariah Sylvain, who wrote this article is in the
front row, red shirt.In the wake of Argentina’s brutal Dirty War (1976–83), dictatorship, and political oppression that resulted in the disappearance, torture, and death of some 30,000 citizens, the country has been rebuilding itself from the ground up. In May a group of 18 students, professors and community members affiliated with UMass Amherst, participating in the new course Rebuilding Civil Society in Buenos Aires: Historic Preservation, Labor, and Movements for Social Justice, had the uncommon opportunity to witness these efforts in Buenos Aires.
Prof. Eve Weinbaum, graduate program director of labor studies, and Prof. Max Page, graduate program director of historic preservation, introduced the group to the importance of societal renewal while packing in tours, food and cultural experience. Although geared towards architecture and labor studies, the two-week interdisciplinary program had something for everyone.
We investigated how citizens mobilized after such a tragedy, and how people preserve, memorialize, rebuild, and organize for social and economic justice. We met with architects, planners, and public historians involved in preserving and interpreting sites of “state terrorism.” We also examined consequences of the dictatorship’s economic policies. We met with social justice organizations dedicated to mobilizing for economic justice, including the famous “Madres” who still march weekly in the Plaza de Mayo. We also visited sites of resistance and met with labor union activists who have been at the forefront of the movement to create worker collectives, revitalize factories, design new ways of organizing manufacturing, and reverse the most destructive policies of neo-liberalism.
We toured well-known buildings, including the Italian-influenced Congreso. Architecture and historic preservation walking tours included a discussion with Teresa Anchorena, the legislator who created the city’s historic preservation law. Page led trips to the Puente de la Mujer Bridge and other architectural sites explaining them in ways that everyone could understand. Students on the trip for labor studies ended up fascinated by architecture and historic preservation and vice versa. Students interested in architecture also had the opportunity to meet several times with Sergio Kiernan, the architectural editor of Página 12, an investigative newspaper. The group gained a brief moment of international fame by being featured in a Página 12 article by Kiernan.
The course was conceived after Weinbaum and Page lived in Argentina for six months in 2009. After months and months of planning, re-planning and waiting for tour confirmations, Weinbaum says, “I was really pleased with the result. The group toured factories that rarely allow visitors and spoke with workers who had taken over factories after the economic crash.” Students gained a real sense of the magnitude of what these people are doing – something that many Argentines don’t even experience.
Labor studies graduate student Thuy Le comments, “It's one thing learning about a particular subject through textbooks and videos, but it’s a much more memorable experience to witness firsthand the people and places that make up the textbooks. Elements of our class were structured around the construction of memory and how we preserve and protect these memories in history. For me, being a part of that history meant that I had to be there in person.” For Le, the trip was unforgettable.
Another member of the group, Northampton resident Michele Spring-Moore, has been interested in the area for 17 years. Two years ago, her peace group, the Northampton Committee to Stop the Wars, offered a viewing of The Take, a film about workers forming cooperatives to keep their factories running. After that, she became more interested in what was currently happening in Argentina. When airfares from the U.S. to Argentina dropped drastically in 2009, she says, “I went there for about 10 days, thinking I’d never have another chance to go.” When she heard about the UMass trip, she jumped on the opportunity to return. “I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the most amazing trip I’ve ever taken.”
Although a majority of the course was geared towards educational tours and discussions, part of the education was experiencing the vibrant culture of street markets, tango dances, political protests, a futbol game and, of course, the food. Street markets, several blocks long, were filled with handmade crafts such as mate cups, scarves, and jewelry, many of it costing less than $5 (or $20 pesos). The tango milongas housed dancers of all ages and introduced the group to Argentina’s famous native dance.
As for the cuisine, it has strong Spanish, Italian and French influences, and Argentina is known for zealous beef consumption. For the carnivore travelers, this meant a variety of cuts of meat prepared in a variety of styles. Vegetarians opted for the common empanadas, a stuffed pastry, and many choices of pasta. Many of us agreed however, that the most popular Argentinean food was the sweets, like the alfajores, a mini-multi-layer pastry with dulche de leche, a sweet caramel-like cream filling in between.
After our two-week immersion into the culture, many from the group continued their travels while the others returned to the States to begin the final research paper. Three went on to experience Argentina’s enormous Iguazu waterfalls and other well-known tourist attractions, and two headed for Peru’s Machu Picchu. The trip has inspired all the travelers as some students are considering applying for Fulbright Fellowships to continue their studies in Argentina and others are considering completing their dissertations there.
The course was an incredible experience that would have been impossible to complete without the dedication of both Professors Weinbaum and Page. Their tremendous commitment to the success of the trip resulted in an experience, for all of us, which will last a lifetime.
Mariah Sylvain’12 of Chesterfield Massachusetts is a journalism major with a Latin American studies minor.