In a "Villa" in Buenos Aires

In the "villas", where the community fights the virus

Fear in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, between poverty and the impossibility of self-isolation. There, a group of priests takes care of the people. Fr. Charly Olivero recounts their story.
Monica Poletto

Fr. Charly Olivero is a cura villero, a priest who lives in "Villa 21", southeast of Buenos Aires. The villas are very poor neighborhoods that surround the Capital, penetrate it and are also present in the rest of the country, and where hundreds of thousands of people live. In a way, they resemble the favelas of Brazil. But in these poor lands, the presence of the curas villeros and their many friends, who have shared life with the people in the villas for decades, is deeply rooted.

The method of these priests, which stems from the mandate received from Pope Francis, can be summed up as "receiving life as it comes", receiving it and accompanying it "body to body", because every life is different. Living together favors what Fr. Charly calls "the pedagogy of presence". It is a permanence that opens unto time, that reveals the person in an integral perspective, and which reveals the good design that the Mystery has for them.

Many hogares de Cristo were born from this method, of which there are now more than two hundred. These are places where "no one is alone, where they feel loved and can love”, and find the courage to find a way out from drug use, one of the curses of these villas.

In this period of pandemic, the fact that Coronavirus may even reach here is of great concern to the priests. In such overcrowded contexts, with no possibility of self-isolation, with a non-existent health service network, the virus could spread exponentially. Therefore, one must prepare oneself, starting from an understanding of what the villa is, with its concreteness which is so loved by the family of the hogares de Cristo. Because, says Fr. Charly, "abstraction generates fragmentation, incomplete answers, which do not embrace the person and reality for what they entirely are.”

We asked him to tell us how they are preparing, how they are trying to prevent and help their people. "In the villas, there are a lot of people living in small spaces. People normally live on what they earn every day, so they need to get out of the house, otherwise they do not eat. Moreover, they cannot leave their house, because the house that everyone occupies has no property rights. It belongs to the person who is in it, and if you leave it, someone else can occupy it. Therefore, any attempt to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus must start from these concrete situations, so as not to be totally inadequate and ineffective".

First of all, so that people do not have to go out, it is important that they can eat. That is why we have increased the number of community canteens, where we can distribute food that can be taken home. Many people make themselves available to pack, distribute and cook. The curas villeros do not want to implement welfare plans, dictated from above, which have an implicit negative judgement of the “assisted” person. Rather, their method is based on sharing, where one lives in a community.

Therefore, those who have to stay at home stay at home. Those who can help do so, trying to take all the necessary precautions that this global pandemic requires. Among these, there are handmade masks, which have begun to be produced and distributed with the help of Italian social works and tutorials prepared by Argentinean friends. "There is also a problem of overpopulation”, continues Fr. Charly: "This could put the most vulnerable, for example the elderly, at risk. For this reason, las capillas and hogares have become places where groups of elderly people move away from their families and live together, in the company of other people who isolate themselves with them and care for them. The community provides them with food and medicine". Elderly people who live alone, on the other hand, cannot leave their homes because they might risk never being able to return home. So they are provided with basic necessities at home.

Then there are many people who live on the street, with no shelter to protect themselves. There are places where they too can go to stay. People who fall ill with serious symptoms are taken to hospitals. "Places of isolation have been created for the many people with mild symptoms, which are not likely to be taken in by the health system, but who could infect many people”, says Fr. Charly: "They are also provided with food and home assistance”.

What might seem like a gigantic organizational machine is nothing more than a community that is set in motion, that takes care of its most vulnerable, that tries to respond to the problems of a few, or of many, in the villa: problems of hunger, drugs, or the pandemic. Charly knows that in the villa, however, the pandemic seems something remote. Limiting human contact is something alien to its cultural fabric, made up of warm and deep human relationships.

But years of living together has generated trust. Within this trust, it is easier to explain or try to approach an interlocutor with a problem perceived as small compared to the challenges they face daily in the villas. "In addition to accompanying people, which pertains to the pastoral nature of the Church, we also have to consider the prophetic dimension, which indicates and highlights problems and aspects of reality. It is a very heartfelt dimension in Latin American theology and one of its reference points is St. John the Baptist, who cries out in the desert. We realize that the actions that the government proposes, the language with which it is communicated, is not suitable for people in working-class neighborhoods and only accentuates the remoteness of the problem. And they would have generated enormous health problems in the villas. That is why we talk to institutions, describing the situation here, and giving our availability to collaborate. Work has begun, which seems to be leading to a change in these policies”.

Read also - "A day in the hospital ward"

It is impressive to think about all this hard work, which no institution alone could have achieved: "The institution is necessary, but the community comes first which generates bonds and builds its responses. The institution works together with the community, providing those specific answers that we are unable to give. But it cannot generate community, nor replace it. Because the gaze upon the totality of the person is precisely of that loving relationship that we live within the community".