On Bolivian Communities in Buenos Aires

Every Día de los Muertos, her family decorates a table in her memory. According to Bolivian tradition, Marcelina Meneses’s family drapes colored ribbons: purple to signify her journey after death, black to symbolize their grief. Among the fresh apples and baked goods (her favorite foods) lies a black and white photograph of the late Meneses with her baby Joshua. “This is how we remember them,” explains Reina Torres, Menses’s sister-in-law, cradling her own infant son Santiago against her chest, “With care and affection over the years”.

In January 2001, the bodies of Menses and her 9-month old Joshua were discovered along the route of a commuter train, not far from the Avellaneda station in Buenos Aires. Ten years later, the Meneses family still does not know whether their deaths were intentional or accidental. To most it seems that Menses and her son were shoved out of the moving train merely for being Bolivian. Even an eyewitness attributes the crime to xenophobia in the newspaper Clarín. However for lack of evidence the trials have been closed, says Torres. Nevertheless, the family perseveres. “I want justice for my nephew who still doesn’t know what happened to his mother,” Torres insists. While truth and justice remain out of reach, their deaths and their family’s struggle has mobilized the Bolivian immigrant community in Buenos Aires. According to Torres, since then things have changed for the better.

Her colleague and fellow activist Lilia Camacho echoes these sentiments. Camacho doesn’t speak with an Argentine accent. More than twenty years ago, she emigrated from La Paz. Now in Buenos Aires, she works as a freelance journalist for a Bolivian newspaper, La Prensa and runs a weekly broadcast for Radio Constelación, a community-run radio station based in Argentina’s capital.

Before, Camacho describes, Bolivians suffered silently in Buenos Aires. These immigrants, like the protagonist in the film Bolivia, journey to the Capital Federal from Latin America’s poorest country despite warnings of danger and discrimination. They come to earn money to send home in order to support their families, often acquiring work in illegal textile factories, writes Reuters. Upon arrival in the Capital Federal, they encounter rampant discrimination and xenophobia. Due to their ethnic, social and economic differences, details Camacho, Argentines distinguish Bolivians as vulnerable targets. According to polls conducted by the NACLA Report on the Americas, 91% of Argentines claim that foreigners are detrimental to their labor conditions and 63% consider racism a characteristic of Argentine society. Police and politicians also openly discriminate against Bolivian immigrants. By the 1990s the general population became convinced that “crime had been foreignized” and immigrants were targeted and detained without justification in huge numbers, reports NACLA. As many immigrants lack legal status and since Bolivians are naturally shy, Camacho explains, they do not assert themselves, insist on their rights or protest when they are maltreated.

However, the tragic deaths of Meneses and her baby have ignited the Bolivian immigrant movement against xenophobia, discrimination and human rights’ abuses. The community stood up for themselves because no one else did. In the wake of his wife and son’s deaths, Froilán and other supporters began marching in Constitución every tenth of the month, touting posters that read “Justice for Marcelina and her son”.

Elsewhere, Bolivians have banded together to build a community in the hostile city. As foreigners, Camacho says, Bolivian find solidarity through their common motherland. In 2005, Camacho joined with other colleagues to create Radio Constelación. They envisioned an international rock station, transcending borders with the universally appreciated music of Queen, the Rolling Stones and such.

“Our listeners changed this,” tells Camacho, and evolved the station into a communal axis for Bolivians. It was the death of another Bolivian immigrant marked the radio’s turning point. A twenty year old boy, without friends or family in Buenos Aires, was killed in a traffic accident. Callers rallied and raised money, peso by peso, to send his body back home. With additional funds, the station purchased a plot of land for his family in Bolivia. Radio Constelación now oversees many such campaigns and continues to offer airtime to worthy causes. Recently, one Bolivian had lost all hope for finding a blood transfusion donor. After broadcasting his story on-air, Camacho says, nearly seventy of his compatriots appeared at the station to volunteer. They overwhelmed the hospital staff.

“We are united, we are family,” Camacho passionately emphasizes. Bolivians who may feel alone and unfamiliar in a foreign city now have the chance to belong to a community. “Although we are strangers,” she states, “we feel for one another.”

The station has advanced the plight of immigrant Bolivians. It indulges nostalgia and melancholy for the mother-country by broadcasting traditional folkloric songs and advertising Bolivian events in Buenos Aires.

Furthermore, the station is committed to informing immigrants about issues. Daily, Radio Constelación airs shows to guide immigrants through the legal status application system, to educate them about their rights, and to keep listeners supplied with all kinds of pertinent and useful information, adds Camacho.

Today the walls of the humble studio are plastered with postings for work, rent, sales and miscellaneous other offers. Brightly colored letters announce in Spanish: “It is time to decide, chose and change”. Over the past decade, Bolivians in Buenos Aires have taken their struggles into their own hands. They are responding to the challenges and are changing their reality for the better in Buenos Aires.