Villa 31

Preface: Going into this experience, we had no idea exactly where we were going or what we would face. As a matter of fact, we were stoked about the idea of meeting new people in their element and were excited about this exploration. We knew nothing about reputation, rumors, or dangers of going where we went.

In light of having just three weeks left in Argentina, Matthew Hibbs and I have been steadily piecing together a project that will portray the lives and sights of Buenos Aires through video. We are working on going back to every familiar place and exploring new territories to capture shots of Buenos Aires that will clearly represent the poor, the rich, the good, the bad, and the diversity of the city.

Today, we went to the bad. Though we live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in BA, an easy 7-minute train ride will take you to see the poorest slums Argentina has, or la villa. We’re talking tin houses that are 4 feet tall in the middle of sewage and packed away behind bus stations and commercial centers. Smack dab in the middle of the city is a mini-city that houses the poorest and most desperate people in BA. So we went there to get some footage of “the other side of Buenos Aires”.

Going into the hidden entrance of la villa (right next to the entrance to the largest bus terminal in BA), dozens of police vehicles lined the dirt road…prefacing mattresses and small tables under sticks with bed sheet roofs. People were building new houses with bricks while others hung out on the side with some beer. Bringing just ourselves and a camera, we immediately felt out-of-place and vulnerable. We knew it could be dangerous, but we were simply two foreigners interested in learning about the lives of poor Argentines. Ha…right.

After walking about 30 meters past the police vehicles, two girls of about 25-years old turned around from in front of us. “What are you doing entering this place?” they whispered urgently in Spanish. “We heard you speaking English and we’re telling you to leave. You need to get out of here right now. These people will rob you. Get out. Go!” They were graciously begging us to leave their territory, and anxiously repeated those points over and over again. We exchanged some awkward dialogue before Hibbs and I got the full sense of urgency to leave la villa before something terrible happened.

Disturbed and confused, we became more interested in what laid behind the tin houses and dirt roads. We spent the next two hours trying to find a good shot of la villa without actually entering it, and we came across the outskirts of the neighborhood where there was a small market and fútbol courts. Following an innocent group of kids, we began taking some shots in the market. After about 20 seconds of being there, two shop owners motioned frantically at us to get out and stop filming. From there, we got further and further from la villa while still trying to get quality shots. From the other side of the street, an older woman with her baby in her hands yelled at us to leave the area before someone hurt us, and as we filmed from the other side of a large fence, a police officer told us to get out of there before our camera was stolen through the fence. Of course we knew what we were doing was dangerous, but with each encounter we felt more and more out-of-place and uncomfortable with the people and culture we have been learning so much about. It was the most uncomfortable I have felt in any situation in South America, and I became paranoid about every person I walked by.

Thinking back to those warnings, I’m not sure if I can fully capture the fear I felt through words alone. When we finally returned to our safe neighborhood, we were informed by Pepperdine staff that the area we stumbled into is called Villa 31, the most dangerous slum in all of Argentina. We were scolded for being so ignorant and stupid to enter a place where we could have easily been robbed, stripped, raped, and killed. Villa 31 is home to the most dangerous people in Buenos Aires and is the subject of much governmental enforcement (hence the cop cars). Any outsiders who enter without knowing someone who lives in la villa are more likely to get robbed or hurt than to have a simple conversation. Luckily, those two girls stopped us before getting deeper into la villa, or we could be telling a completely different story right now.

There are times in life that completely rock you and you’re in a state of shock before you actually figure things out. Yes, we were stupid. We should have informed ourselves before letting our artistic dreams lead us into an ugly situation. I’m really not sure what to gather from this experience just yet. These people we encountered live in constant fear of their neighbors. They know the bad things that go on in there but they have no choice but to live through it. They may even be forced to participate in it all. Who knows. We understand that our ignorance could have gotten us severely hurt, and I’m incredibly thankful for the series of events that took place. I just figured I would share this experience with you all because it was one of those things that completely rocked me, and I can’t figure out what to think of it all quite yet. Maybe I should just know and accept that there’s a completely different side to Argentina. So we’ll just leave it at that.

*Update: Here’s an in-depth look at Villa 31 from an independent filmmaker who made friends with the people in there and is making a film about misconceptions of Villa 31. I encourage you to check it out here.

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About David Chang

8 months in South America.
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2 Responses to Villa 31

  1. Sheri Duyao says:

    David – Thank God you are okay…I mean really, Thank God for sending his angels to rescue you again. He obviously has a special plan for you and loves you very much. Thank God!

  2. Tim says:

    As an unsuspecting tourist, arriving into Retiro on the San Martin railway line I could see the Villa as the train pulled into the terminus. Over the years I’ve been through some pretty deprived areas in India and North Africa with no problem. I expected to do the same here and walked right into the middle of the Villa via the Retiro Bus Station entrance.

    That was a mistake.

    Once deep inside, a youth started pestering me. Not knowing much Spanish I chose not to respond and kept walking purposefully ahead, while trying to figure out a way to exit the place, but without doing a U-turn in the street. Eventually I found a junction and turned right and right again. Trouble is by then a bunch of youths had gathered. The ring leader on a bicycle blocked the way in front of me. I knew this meant trouble…

    I then found myself in the middle of a gang of 4 or 5 youths. They were tugging at my coat, my pockets and my bag. Within seconds they had stripped me of almost everything I had. I put up some resistance but knew I was outnumbered, and started to wonder if they were intent on making me suffer (capture, torture etc.. who knows?)

    The final struggle was my packpack. They were not afraid of being forceful and persisted in yanking away my backpack. I could tell by their determination that things would escalate if I did not let go – so I decided to release my grip and thankfully they ran off. I lost my phone which was zipped up inside my coat, my wallet that was well inside my trouser pocket and my backpack that was once very well attached to me.

    I was relieved that they left me alone. I now realise that things could have got a whole lot worse, especially after reading about another tourist who was stabbed to death because he didn’t release his camera. One of the chilling things I remember was that there were a number of onlookers. They didn’t want to help me. It is a closed community. The villa operate its own law system.

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