Robin Swanhuyser : Argentina

I grew up in a small town on the Colombia River called White Salmon. After graduating in 2008, I decided to attend Seattle University to expose myself to a new environment and pursue opportunities unavailable to me in White Salmon. At Seattle University I discovered that my passion for the Spanish language and for traveling could become a focus for my studies.  Last year I studied abroad in Puebla, Mexico through the Latin America Study Abroad Program.  Since returning I have continued Spanish classes and begun my second degree in International Studies.  Beginning last Winter I have been working at El Centro de la Raza in the Development Office to organize cultural events, fundraisers and outreach to volunteers to support over 30 different programs and services offered to low-income families in Seattle.  After I graduate I would like to spend more time in Latin America to travel and pursue a career in development work. I will be graduating in 2012 with a Spanish and International studies degree.

Among my interests I am passionate about the outdoors.  I grew up in the Colombia River Gorge surrounded by outdoor recreation opportunities and incredibly outgoing parents.  I love being outdoors and participating in a variety of outdoor activities including, hiking, kayaking, swimming, snowboarding, biking, climbing and sailing.  Over the last three years I have participated in numerous trips hosted by the Outdoor and Recreation Club and organized outdoor trips with my friends.  Although I truly love the city, the transition from living in rural White Salmon to living in Seattle has been an easier transition as a result of my continued involvement in outdoor recreation. In addition to my outdoor interests, I am passionate about art—both as an observer and a creator.  I love making jewelry, visiting art museums and exploring new mediums of expression.  

During my studies at Seattle University I have grown both intellectually and personally as a result of new perspectives and experiences that were previously unknown to me. Through my participation in the International Development Internship program I hope to continue learning and growing by exposing myself to new places, people and situations.  

Reflection  #1 (Country- Argentina)

After about three weeks here in Buenos Aires I am starting to get into a routine with my work and daily life.  Adjusting to the busy city life has been a lot easier than I thought it would be and even though I’m living in a city of over 13 million, the facility of public transportation has helped to make the city feel approachable and welcoming. The city is amazing and full of a vibrant energy, especially at night.  Argentineans are accustomed to dining later in the evening, usually around 10 or 11 pm, and on weekends it is not uncommon for people to stay out until 4, 5 or even 6am before catching a public bus home. At first it was difficult to adjust to later dinners—by 6 or 7 pm I was starving—but it has come to feel quite normal now.  Sometimes I don’t get home from work until 8 or 9 pm, so eating dinner later has become a comfortable routine.  It has been so hot and humid though that I haven’t felt like cooking much and I try to stick to foods that do not require the use of the stove.  

Although I have experience living abroad in Spanish speaking countries from my study abroad in Mexico, the Argentinean way of speaking has taken some getting used to.  In Argentina, instead of using “tu” to informally address someone as “you,” they use the verb form “vos.”Because of the influence of European culture and heritage, the influence of Castilian Spanish is more evident in the pronunciation and formality of the language.  The accent is so fluid and beautiful that sometimes I have to be careful to pay attention clearly otherwise I get distracted by the accent and don’t catch what someone is saying.  I’ve even found myself started to pick up the porteño—someone from Buenos Aires—accent in the pronunciation of “y”and “ll” with a stronger “schu” sound.  The Argentine vocabulary is also a bit different than I’m used to and is mixed with a lot of regional slang, so I’ve been learning lots of new words.   

For my internship I am working for Fundación Ciudadanos del Mundo, an NGO based here in Buenos Aires, which works with immigrants and refugees to offer them support in the application process for legal residency and assistance with integration into Argentinean society.  Although Argentineans seem to take pride in their heritage as immigrants, the majority of the population is decedent of European ancestors, from places like Italy, France, Spain, Germany, England as well as others from Russia and Poland. Immigration law has historically been very open to the immigration of people from these regions but has rejected the integration of regional migrants from bordering Latin American countries and even less exceptive of Asian and African migrants.  Between the years 1976 to 1983 Argentina was ruled by a repressive military dictatorship, which instituted very xenophobic and restrictive policies towards regional migration.  Since then however, Argentinean immigration policy has improved.  In2010, Law 25,871 was passed that replaced previous immigration policy on deportations and immigration restrictions and allowed for 460 thousand immigrants already within the country to receive naturalization.  Although the law upholds immigrants’ rights to hospital care and education, immigrants without proper residency papers are vulnerable and often find it extremely difficult to find work. The application process for residency papers is difficult and confusing, especially for a migrants who do not speak Spanish.  At Fundación Ciudadanos del Mundo, they offer assistance to immigrants by accompanying them through the application process, by offering interpretation help at the Office of Immigration and assistance with the paperwork. Several times per week I have been going with my boss to the Office of Migration to meet with migrants who are pursuing their residency paperwork.  

After becoming more familiar with the policy on immigration since 2010 I was heartened to see that the law offers better protection of migrants than the United States, especially in terms of deportations. However, the abuse of the law is just as prevalent and many migrants are taken advantage of.  Though there are thousands of Bolivian, Paraguayan, Uruguayan and Dominican migrants in Argentina, this reality is not visible on the busy streets of most of the city. However if you walk deeper into the immigrant barrios of the city you begin to see the concentration of immigrant populations, especially in an area called Plaza Once.  The founder of Ciudadanos del Mundo explained to me that he was inspired to start the Fundación because of the depressing reality of undocumented immigrants in Argentinean society.  Walking though Plaza Once, you see the evidence of drugs, prostitution, homelessness, and vendors struggling to sell cheap trinkets.  These people are trapped by the insecurity of their status as undocumented immigrants. The goal of Ciudadanos del Mundo is to offer relief from the oppressive cycle of exploitation that immigrants face.   

Working at Ciudadanos del Mundo so far has been great and I feel so lucky to be surrounded by inspiring coworkers who are passionate about their work.  Because it is summer right now most of the other volunteers are on vacation. In February more people will return and things will be a bit busier.  I’m never quite sure what to expect when I go to work, as some days I accompany my boss Manuel on his visits to the Office of Immigration or visit Plaza Once to check up on the women who work the streets and other days I sit for hours in the sweltering office working on the translation of their newsletter or grant proposals for U.S. philanthropic agencies.  I have really enjoyed how I have been included all aspects of the work at Ciudadanos del Mundo. Whenever Manuel has work to do outside of the office he lets me accompany him to truly understand the situation of the people the organization represents and assists. I am learning so much and I hope that I will be able to leave this experience having felt like I have left a positive impact, however slight, to the ongoing work of Ciudadanos del Mundo.  

During my free time after work and on the weekends I have been exploring as much of the city as I can. Buenos Aires is truly amazing and I have enjoyed just walking around soaking it all in.  So far I have been Tango dancing, learned the ritual of mate drinking and eaten the best steak of my life.  The city offers no end of entertainment and activities and there is so much more I still want to see and do. I’m looking forward to more explorations and adventures over the course of my internship as I continue my stay here in Buenos Aires. Time is going so fast that I can hardly keep track of the days. During my forty-five minute commute to work each day I have had a lot of time to reflect on the progress in my internship and my accomplishments over the last six weeks. Some of the more frustrating moments of my internship have been related to the lack of structure and organization. I am accustomed to the value of punctuality and structure that I encounter in much of my life in the U.S.—with school, my job and the general social respect for being punctual. At my internship here however it is not uncommon for my boss to arrive 1-2 hours after he says he is going to arrive for our weekly trips to the Office of Migration. Or on several occasions he simply calls to say that he isn't going to make it in to the office that day. I would not generalize to say that this is evidence of a lack of respect for time in Argentinean culture as a whole, but in general I have found that the pace of life here is much more relaxed and less concerned with a structured work-schedule. Apart from this however, I am still really enjoying the work I have been working on and the opportunities to learn about immigration policy.

Reflection  #2

The more opportunities I have outside of the office talking with immigrants from countries all over the world makes me realize the importance of the more tedious work in the office working on grant proposals in order to fund the services the Fundación provides. Many immigrants, desperate for help with the residency paperwork, often pay ridiculous amounts of money to interpreters or to legal aids to assist them. All the services provided by the Fundación are completely free and offered to anyone regardless of their situation. I recently completed and emailed in two different grant inquiries for funding from U.S. philanthropic organizations and I have several more I’m working on. I hope that my work in appealing for funding will succeed and enable the Fundación to expand their programs and services. They are a very young organization—founded only four years ago—so they still have a lot of growth to do in terms of programs they would like to offer and the improvement of their current services.  

In comparison to some of the other IDIP students, my experience here in Buenos Aires has probably been way less dramatic in terms of culture shock or change in lifestyle. The things that I have had to adjust to are more related to the pace and structure of time and living is such a big city.  Buenos Aires is an enormous modern city full of a vibrant energy fueled by 14 million or so residents. My apartment is sandwiched between a bookstore and small clothing boutique and right across the street is an Italian restaurant, two banks and a Hyundai car dealership. There are several grocery stores very near my house and I have a kitchen in my apartment, so even my eating habits haven’t changed drastically and in the interests of saving on money for food I eat a lot of meals at home. I have become pretty close with my roommate—an Argentine girl who rents out a room in her apartment to international students—and we have been cooking a lot together. It has been fun sharing different recipes for things I assumed to be pretty simple such as French toast or scrambled eggs with vegetables. Sharing stories and cultural observations during meals together has been a comforting and fun way to learn about Argentinean culture and history.  

 From talking with my roommate, co-workers and other Argentineans that I’ve met, I am beginning to gather an understanding of the economic situation of Argentina over the past few decades. Argentina has experienced several periods of extreme economic crisis, most recently in 2001, when the Argentine economy crashed and the peso became practically worthless.  I recently watched a documentary about the economic history of Argentina and was surprised to learn about the economic restructuring that occurred during the presidency of Carlos Menem.  During his presidency, from 1989 to 1999, he privatized a large portion of Argentine industries and state enterprises.  Although these measures had some initial stabilizing affects to the economy, over time they caused a lot of damage and allowed for the concentration of wealth in private companies while the majority of citizens suffered. The day after I watched this documentary I mentioned to one of my co-workers how I had found it fascinating to look at the historical context leading up to the 2001 crisis in terms of Menem’s presidency. He quickly informed me that people do not use Menem’s name directly because of the terrible economic policy he inflicted upon the Argentine citizens, rather people refer to him as simply “Carlos” or some variation of “the president that shall not be named.” Later that day I asked my roommate about it and she said that there are a lot of people who still refuse to use his name, but it varies across society.  She explained how in younger generations his name is often used to describe frivolous or extravagant locations, for example a tacky bar or restaurant would be described as very “Menemista.” The legacy of his frivolous behavior and lavish lifestyle at the expense of the Argentine citizens is still evident.  

The reality of economic instability is subtle in daily life, but I am becoming more observant of its continued affect on society and the consciousness of the people. Although there is no official state-sponsored recycling collection, men with huge carts walk up and down the streets daily to rummage through the trash and pull out all the cardboard and bottles.  President Cristina Kirchner recently announced that citizens are no longer able convert their savings from pesos to dollars in an attempt to reduce capital flight and encourage more internal spending and investment.  Yet the inflation of the peso continues to rise and fluctuate. Today my roommate told me to start being more conservative with my use of electricity because electricity prices just went up 600% due to a cut in government subsidies.  The instability of prices and the fluctuating value of the peso hardly inspires much confidence in the citizens to trust their money to savings accounts and government banks.  

Overall I am having an amazing experience here in Buenos Aires and I am learning a lot. I am doing my best to put aside my frustrations regarding time and punctuality and try to create structure for myself in my daily work. Regardless of these difficulties, I am learning so much about the functions of immigration law, both regionally here in Argentina and globally. I have met some amazing people and had the opportunity to listen to their unique stories about how they ended up here in Argentina. I hope that the next five weeks of my internship will continue to be memorable and inspiring.


Reflection  #3

It’s hard to believe that my time here in Argentina is coming to a close. My last week at Fundación Ciudadanos del Mundo was mostly about tying up loose ends. On Monday I visited the US Embassy again to use their database of grant organizations to make sure I hadn't missed any the first time. After working on grant applications for the past 10 weeks I have come to realize how difficult it is for small NGOs to grow and expand their impact. Grant applications usually include questions about the success of previous or current programs in order to gauge the capacity of your organization to manage the funds responsibly. Similarly, they often ask about what other sources of other funding you receive. Its hard to sound convincing if your NGO is in the process of beginning programs and doesn't have a long history of previous funding.

On Wednesday I went on my final visit to the Office of Immigration. First however, we passed by the Bus terminal to represent a Senegalese man named Bamba who works in vending merchandise such as sunglasses, jewelry and watches along the coast of the Rio de la Plata. On his trip back to Buenos Aires all of his merchandise "went missing" from the cargo area of the bus he was traveling on. The bus company upheld that it was not their responsibility and had no way of recovering or compensating him for his suitcase of merchandise. The suitcase was everything this man had, and the only means of making money to support himself. The approximate value of all the merchandise in his suitcase was about $2400 pesos (~$550), without accounting for what he could get from selling it. After a year in Buenos Aires, the thought of starting over is devastating. We left the bus terminal without much consolation that the bus company really had any intention of following up with the case. While waiting at the Office of Immigration I spoke with Bamba about how he ended up in Argentina. He said he arrived with the intention to make enough money so he could go back to Senegal and make a better life for himself. He spoke Spanish very well and said he like it in Buenos Aires, but his intent was, and still is, to return to Senegal. Its cases like these that inspire me to work in the area of immigration rights, to challenge the system of discrimination that seems to keep immigrants from succeeding in their new society.   Although I feel like I have learned so much about Argentine society I have also come to realize that my understanding of Buenos Aires culture is not representative of Argentine culture as a whole. The urban development and economic activity of Buenos Aires certainly makes Argentina outwardly appear like a modern world power with relative social equality. Because of this outward appearance of strength, elegance and development many international NGOs often overlook Argentina as an urgent case for international development aid. On the few trips I took outside of the city it is evident that there is a much larger array of economic, social and developed situations across the country. Even within the city, there are slum neighborhoods and immigrant barrios that go unnoticed if you simply look at Buenos Aires from one angle. Much of our conversations in class revolve around community development and international development projects that focus on small rural communities. But in a city of 14 million people one’s approach to community development is very different. It has been a rewarding experience to approach international development while living immersed in such a vibrant modern city.

In retrospect I think this has been an amazing experience and I am grateful that I was able to work alongside people who are so passionate about giving immigrants an opportunity to succeed in Argentine society. Although I had a lot of frustrations with the structure of my work and the difficulty I experienced in gathering information for my grant applications, I think I have gained valuable experience in the field of international development and in relation to immigration policy both in Argentina and internationally. I know that this will be valuable in my future as I continue to discover my direction in the field of international development and follow my passion for immigration rights.