IHP Health and Community: Globalization, Culture, and Care (Spring 1)

Argentina 2013 Letter Home

Dear Family and Friends,

After our amazing cultural experience in India, our four weeks in Argentina presented us with many new opportunities and challenges. The similarity of the lifestyle and food of Buenos Aires to that in the United States made us feel comfortable and helped us acclimate quickly. Simultaneously, Argentina made us question our understanding of health and in particular, health as a human right. Through a host of amazing academic activities such as site visits, guest lectures, and classes as well as personal experiences, we had the opportunity to interact with Argentineans and learn about the complexity of the history, healthcare system, values, food, and culture in Argentina.

During our first week, we visited the Escuela de Strategia Mecanica Argentina (ESMA), a detention center built during the military dictatorship where over 4,000 “political prisoners” were transferred, tortured, and murdered on death flights over the Rio del Plata. As Americans, it was even more disturbing given the fact that the United States government tacitly supported the actions of the military junta during Operation Condor and the Cold War. Walking through the cold, dark hallways and empty basements of ESMA was harrowing. Yet even though these human rights abuses occurred decades ago, we witnessed the open veins of Latin America in the continuing marches of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the military trials playing out weekly in newspapers, and the stories of our host parents, many of whom had a loved one or family member who were ‘disappeared.’ It was one of the most moving experiences for us in Argentina. A few weeks later, we witnessed a memorial march to mark the anniversary of the Golpe de Estado, the fall of the military dictatorship, and denounce the human rights abuses that occurred at that time. Thousands marched with photographs of loved ones while many more came with their political groups to show solidarity. Through this experience, we became aware of the strength of Argentina’s pride and the importance of political activism within the country.

In addition to our guest lectures on the Argentinean healthcare system, we had the opportunity to split up into smaller groups for site visits to explore four different primary healthcare centers both within and outside of Buenos Aires. Two of the groups traveled to Moron where we visited two health facilities for smaller communities. We were able to tour the clinics themselves as well as personally interview doctors, administrators, and community members working to improve the health of others in the community. Community outreach played a critical role within each clinic. Each healthcare center highlighted its mission to provide preventative care and work toward a holistic representation of individual and collective well being. The doctors often work within the schools to teach about healthy lifestyles and raise awareness of certain diseases and illnesses often seen at the health facilities. Much of their work is done within the social sector, and this inspired us to contemplate the expansion of our understanding of medical care. The warmth of the people we interviewed in the primary healthcare centers was astounding. We were so thankful for their willingness to share with us the successes they have experienced and challenges they face working to maintain the mental and physical health of their communities. This site visit stood out as a particularly fascinating opportunity to interact with healthcare providers in a smaller setting and learn about the healthcare system on the local level.

The impact of environmental factors on health in Argentina became increasingly apparent as we explored contentious environmental issues including soy monoculture, air quality, and water pollution, instigating the question, “Where is the justice?” Leather tanneries, meat packing plants, and pharmaceutical companies that are supplying products to a global marketplace are contaminating people’s backyards with little to no accountability.  Nike, Pfizer, and Coca Cola were a few of the factories we spotted along the Ríachuelo, a polluted river along which thousands have informally settled in the city of Buenos Aires. Similarly, Monsanto’s tight control over soy has been spreading monoculture across Argentina’s fertile countryside while simultaneously poisoning school children with pesticides and threatening the livelihoods of subsistence farmers. We learned about these issues from multiple sources: a passionate former Green Peace environmentalist, a doctor who was the former chief of health in a rural municipality, and a Mapucha community chief who was forced off his land.  With the help of lecturers, site visits, and informal conversations, we observed that progress is slow, as the people most affected have the least political power. However, the Argentinean passion for advocating for environmental justice is promising for improving these conditions in the future. 

Argentina also provided us an array of wonderful case study experiences. Our case studies gave us first-hand insight into various aspects of the Argentinean health system, including nutrition, mental health, non-communicable diseases, environmental health, infectious diseases, maternal health, and traditional medicine. From exploring the polluted Riachuelo to polling local residents about their eating habits, the Argentina country coordinators made sure that we had an extensive and fulfilling experience. In particular, one of the groups had the great opportunity to examine the Argentina’s mental health system. Argentineans have a unique approach to mental health -- they are firm believers in Freud’s psychoanalytic approach. In fact, Buenos Aires actually has the highest concentration of psychoanalysts in the world, with 789 psychoanalysts for every 100,000 people. A significant number of our host moms were even psychoanalysts!

In addition to our insightful academic activities, we deepened our understanding of Argentinean culture through our experiences outside of the classroom. Our homestays in Argentina differed extremely from our Indian homestays as the porteños are accustomed to hosting study abroad students and expected us to enjoy the independence granted to us by the accessibility and navigability of Buenos Aires. While we spent less time with our homestay families than in India, we developed strong bonds with them, despite the sometimes challenging language barrier. Occasionally, this resulted in awkward mistranslations for some of us, as we stumbled through broken Spanish in order to communicate with our family. For some of us already proficient in Spanish, time spent with mainly Spanish-speaking homestay families provided a wonderful opportunity to practice and become more comfortable with the language. The homestay experience was incredibly enriching and significantly contributed to everyone’s Spanish skills by the end of our stay.

It has been said that Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America, and in our free time, we definitely experienced the incredible variety of interesting sites and activities in the city. Highlights for some of the us included dinner at The Argentine Experience, an interactive restaurant where we got the chance to play with our food before we ate it, and the San Telmo and Recoleta markets, where artisans from all around the area sell their unique and beautiful crafts. It was easy to get lost wandering in the city, spending hours just looking in windows and enjoying the dulce de leche, coffee, and fresh fruit that the city had to offer. With the help of the many collectivo buses and subways, the whole city was within reach. The freedom was both welcomed and exhilarating, a definite plus in this city of entertainment!

During our first night in Buenos Aires, La Viruta, a tango club, exposed us to the culture of tango. Since the 19th century, tango has transformed with Argentina’s history and has been a staple of Argentinean culture as a form of expression. The night began with salsa lessons for about an hour where we were able to shake our hips and swirl into the night. Following the salsa lesson, a group of three couples performed a tango show, embracing each other and demonstrating the emotions and particularity of the dance. Afterward, we all had the opportunity to partner up and learn paso por paso (step by step)….how to TANGO. With concentration and commitment to the step, we began to develop an understanding of the beauty of this dance. At La Viruta, we also experienced our first Argentinean dinner where we were able to choose from an array of options including tortas, parillada, and our first taste of dulce de leche.

Starting our first night, our taste buds were in complete heaven; so much in fact that none of you many recognize us when we get off the plane in May because of the amount of food and dessert we consumed in Argentina. All the food was incredible, but nothing compares to the empanadas and desserts made with dulce de leche. Food vendors selling carne, pollo, and queso filled empanadas lined the streets. Each day some of us would quickly rush to buy the irresistible empanadas for lunch or even a midday snack. Argentineans also pride themselves on their alfajores, or cookie sandwiches filled with dulce de leche, and they tempted us wherever we went. While we all got our fill of Argentinean meals and desserts, some of us made special efforts to seek out the delicious sweets with their own personal bakery a block from school that they would visit daily… or occasionally three times a day. Let’s just say that most of us used the “we’re only going to be here for a month!” excuse as we ate our fill of Argentinean food and made the most of our limited time in the country.

Aside from the food, many of us had the very amazing opportunity to watch one of the World Cup 2014 qualifier games. Argentina, ranked number 3, played against Venezuela, ranked 43 at the River Plate Stadium on the 22nd of March. We all purchased our tickets through an agency and were greeted before the game with a hot dog and a huge group of international students. In our Argentinean jerseys, we gathered and marched into the stadium rooting for Argentina. During the game, we learned the local cheers and jumped up and down with the roaring crowd as Messi shot the winning goal. The game ended with Argentina winning 3 to 0. We felt proud to be part of this moment alongside the citizens of Argentina!

Finally, we had the unique opportunity of being in Argentina during a critical point in the nation’s history. Many of us were fortunate enough to witness the assumption of the first Latin-American Pope alongside Argentineans. In a predominantly Catholic country, it was amazing to see the people gather in Plaza de Mayo at 5:00am to witness the ceremony broadcast from the Vatican Square. While we are a diverse group of students with many religious backgrounds, many of us joined the Argentineans and cheered to welcome the new Argentinean Pope as the sun broke over the Casa Rosada.

Our time in Argentina was filled with incredible experiences that taught us about public healthcare and human rights in the context of Argentinean history. Our rich cultural experiences deepened our learning and will stay with us as we enter the next phase of our journey. We can’t wait to see what South Africa has in store for us!

IHP Health and Community Track 1, Spring 2013  

Written by IHP students: Tatum Fitzgerald, Fabian Fernandez, Anna Blazejowskyj, Mariel Rodriguez, Sheena Brevig, Kate Collins, Olivia Davis, Lauren Mellor-Crummey, and Megan Slavish

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