Even when we’re visiting a country with rampant poverty, it’s easy to close our eyes, pretend it doesn’t exist; a sort of curtain protects us from truly seeing the destitution that surrounds us. It’s hard to believe over 6 years have passed since the harsh realities of Chaco, Argentina ripped that film from my eyes.
I was in my last year of high school, visiting the poorest region of Argentina where various indigenous communities had been pushed by the Argentine government. I remember cracked land from an 8 month drought, groups of people scattered around the town of Castelli. Our 25 students and 6 professors brought clothes, food, diapers, and other items locals may need, donated by the people in our school; we were ecstatic to be bringing objects that could help people achieve a better life in our young minds.
Every day for a week, we’d take a bus, clothes in boxes strewn on the dirty floor, pairs of sneakers on top of seats like fellow travel companions, to a different location. It rained the day we arrived, wiping the slate clean, turning flatlands into marshlands, puddles the size of ponds poppling with raindrop ripples. The first place we visited was a school with classes in the morning for elementary school children and instruction in the afternoon for all other age groups. Professors who had visited before pointed out children with tattered shirts donated the previous year, mud caking bare feet, wide smiles, and some guarded expressions.
The children were eager to choose clothes for their family, to receive toys, and a few of us had to break out a few verbal arguments over who would get what, in the end, turning us into the masters of donations.
“You receive the biggest toy because you behaved.”
Afterwards, we played tag and futbol, chasing giggling kids for an hour. Bonds were struck up so names stuck in our mind years later: little Darianna too young to join in the chaotic running, Sergio laughing between his buddies, Lorena taking my camera to snap pictures of her classmates.
At the end of the day, the children walked back home, trash bags filled with new pants, worn tops, toy cars and trinkets for their family, sons and daughters becoming the providers for the household. It was a world I couldn’t comprehend.
Every day was a new experience with common elements. Arrive, give donations, paint school classrooms, doors, connect with locals, head to another location. But they also had their differences.
One school worked with adults; another building was a meeting place for locals where the community came forward. In that location, there was a scarcity of shoes, an object children need in Argentina to attend school, so on that day, rather than shirts and socks, our boxes were filled to the brim with shoes. We still ran out of this essential object to education halfway through the day. I remember feeling tears in my eyes looking at the disappointed faces of nine-year-olds, a little boy sobbing when the person before him got the last pair of shoes.
Still, apart from a small incident, there was never a feeling of being unwanted, of being a complete outsider. Locals shared what they had with us, making us misinterpret the actions as a statement that maybe we were the necessity more than the object. Their smiles, the way the people shared with us, and the gratitude they showed us made us feel we made a tremendous difference.
But looking back, I wonder if that was true. I sometimes think we got more out of that trip than those who were supposed to benefit. We came back feeling simpler, humbled by the fact we had more than one shirt, that we could take a long bath after those 7 days of not having a shower or a working toilet, but in the end, we all resorted back to our lucky lives. We could talk about the terrible conditions we had seen, the realities of the world, but we could do it behind warm mugs of hot chocolate in air conditioned coffee shops, in carpeted classrooms with projectors, discussing our experiences with professors who could dedicate time to every student. We could confess about how impacted we felt, how we noticed the tension between our abundance of wealth and the lack of resources in Chaco, but not without consequence; an uncomfortableness had been sewn into our life.
It’s an uncomfortableness we need to not just experience and remember, but to grow from and to discuss critically. As I continue taking classes, learning about how outside groups can help or hinder growth in these regions, I wonder if we made a difference. Building schools and encouraging children to attend classes are investments in the long run, helping children obtain the skills they need, but do the schools themselves have resources that will help the communities grow? Does the region itself have the help and infrastructure it needs to help the communities suffering? I don’t think I have answers to these questions yet, but I hope to have a better idea someday, so Darianna, Sergio, and all the other wonderful people we met on this trip can have a brighter tomorrow than the yesterday that haunts my memory.
Ana-Sofia Alcaraz is a first year in the MALAS program and an editor of Transformaciones.