Los Pibes: La Boca beyond Instagram and Gangster films

Written by Kasia Pendlebury
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‘Los pibes’ in Rioplatense Spanish means the kids, and that, unsurprisingly, is what this movement is dedicated to. To the children of now, but also those of the future, a future that will hopefully look different for those in the famous and infamous neighbourhood of La Boca. Whilst the ‘El caminito’ area is a hotspot for tourists who come to admire the brightly painted buildings and the street performers, according to several guidebooks and foreign travel advice pages, leaving this part of town leaves a traveller vulnerable to violent muggings.
The ‘pibes’ part of La Boca isn’t this sanitised Instagram spot, but it isn’t the gangster film either. I go with Neil by bus from our residences in Palermo and Recoleta respectively, and we meet the people the Argentinian government and Buenos Aires have left behind.

We walk through several brilliant spaces: a hand-crafted boxing ring made by the volunteers out of the materials they found in this former warehouse; a community kitchen which proved vital in the harsh lockdown restrictions Argentina faced, and an IT suite built from the ground up by amateurs turned experts, and lastly, a radio station cum events space run for the community, by the community.

I hear about how the boxing sessions aren’t just an after school sport or a way to get rid of exam stress, but a conscious and concerted effort to prevent and stop drug addiction. The sessions are for 13-17-year-olds. But this activity doesn’t exist in isolation; I meet the leader of the anti-addiction programme who explains that the problem is not the drugs or the addiction in themselves, but rather the circumstances that surround the drug use in question. At the time of publication, Argentina has an inflation rate of over 50% and an ever-growing wealth gap that privileges the few who earn in dollars. The politics here are hard to understand from the outside, but let’s just say they’re complicated. That’s why these programmes need to focus not only on immediate rehabilitation but also on building lives for these youngsters where relapse won’t be just around the corner.

As I climb the stairs I’m greeted by a beautiful space with paintings of the community and puente transbordador, the bridge emblematic of this area and its historic port. I briefly see a radio programme being broadcast live and get a tour of the space. When I ask about the roles of the different people working and volunteering there, I’m told that there aren’t any as such and that members of the movement rotate on a regular basis so as not to become too bureaucratic. I imagine this regular switching also creates a more empathetic and flexible environment; members of the movement are not only capable of doing multiple tasks but appreciate the work that goes into each one.

The most interesting part of my visit came as I sat with Neil, a volunteer who, like me, is English and Sandra and Sofia, both from Argentina, as we talked about our two countries. The problems were surprisingly similar, and the responses were so, so different. This movement mobilises, they talk within their community and they try to create strong links with those around them so that they can operate outside of a system that has left them behind.

In the UK, whilst the pandemic saw a temporary lapse in this, we seem to move further and further away from the community as we bemoan and berate a system yet sit passively whilst corruption, privatisation and increased cost of living hit a country that is already in crisis. This isn’t to say that there are no movements of this kind in the UK, but the astute political awareness and the drive to create a ‘state,’ as Sofia called it, outside of a system that doesn’t work for its people, are both concepts that, in my experience, are undeveloped back home.

Instead of falling prey to the politics of fear and despair that dominate, or simply palliating ever-growing inequality, at Los Pibes, they reach out to their neighbours and to their friends.
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