I spent June-July of 2016 off the grid in northern Argentina, living with 3 Ursuline nuns in a small village called Las Hacheras in the province of Chaco. The region is called “el Impenetrable,” and is known to hold the country’s worst poverty. It takes a 20-hour bus north from Buenos Aires to reach it. I lived with the local community for those two months, playing with the children, visiting families, and teaching English.
The population consists of three distinct groups:
Criollos (mainstream Argentinians), indigenous peoples (primarily Wichi), and gringos (foreigners). A common image of family is that of a single mother with many children, often from different absentee fathers. The area suffers from mass unemployment, alcoholism, poor education and healthcare, and typical living conditions with no electricity and no running water. Cell phone and wifi connections are sporadic.
Notwithstanding these harsh realities of life, I met there people with a resilience that allows them to appreciate everyday moments of joy and togetherness. Knowing the circumstances in which the children live, their ready smiles and affection, coexisting with sadness in their eyes, was very touching.
I did not take photos until the last few days of my stay, after having gotten to know the community well, and never without their explicit permission, so as to respect their challenging realities. Through these photos I hope to share the struggle, courage and beauty lived out in each person I met.
The three Sisters who I lived with for two months: Grażyna, Adriana, and María.
Marcela, age ~12. She loves going to school and is a very hard-working student. She lives in a small brick hut made up of 2 bedrooms with her mother and six siblings. The home has no floors (only dirt), no electricity, and no running water.
Zulma, age ~5. Marcela’s younger sister. She is constantly laughing, and always craves hugs and affection. Her parents are divorced. I once asked her how her night was at home. She replied, “My mom’s boyfriend came over. He drinks a lot.”
Adam, age ~4. The baby brother of Marcela and Zulma.
Nieve, age ~4. Her name means “snow” in English. She is sweet shy little girl, who lives in a small home with her parents and many siblings. Nieve’s mother is a hardworking kind woman named Mabel (see below). Once when she came over to play, we offered her a piece of cake, but despite being obviously hungry, instead of eating it herself like most of the other kids, she asked for a napkin so that she could bring it home for her mother.
Mabel cuddling her two youngest children.
Durval and his puppy, Muchacho. Durval is blind, and lives alone with his dog. His blindness was preventable, but when he was a child, there was no healthcare in the region. He used to have another dog who was his companion for years. One night during the summer, a snake entered the house. Fighting to protect his owner, Durval’s dog was bitten and killed. The nuns brought him this puppy soon after.
Emanuel, age ~8. He loves learning and making puzzles. He’s travelled a bit outside of this village, to the capital of the province of Chaco, called Resistencia. When I asked if he would ever like to live there, he replied: “No. I love Las Hacheras. This is my home.”
Brothers Diago (left) and Denis (right), aged ~3 and ~5.
Juán, age 2. He is the son of Liliana, an 18-year-old Indigenous mother of two (see below).
Liliana, age 18, mother of two. She and her children moved here 6 months ago to live with Liliana’s sister, Julia. Julia and her husband, Alberto, have no children of their own.
Julia, an Indigenous Wichi woman. Though Spanish is neither of our first languages, she managed to share her story: She has lived near Las Hacheras her entire life, as did her parents. She has been married to Alberto for 25+ years, during which they have lived together in a makeshift home (see photos below). Their only daughter died soon after birth.
The home of Julia and Alberto. It has no floors, no electricity, and no water. Animals, including snakes, spiders, and toads, can easily enter. The snakes are extremely poisonous, and whenever they come, Julia and Alberto kill them with a shovel. (Just imagine waking up to the sound of a snake crawling beside your bed – or worse, in it – and having no light to see what is happening.) Alberto and Julia have only one bike, so if something were to happen – like a snake bite – they would need to bike 10km to Las Hacheras. Only then would they call for the one and only ambulance at service in the area. It would take at least 40 minutes for the ambulance to arrive – assuming cell service is working, and roads are passable.
A typical Wichi home.
Typical landscape of “el Impenetrable.”
Lili and her daughter, Meli. Lili is a hard-working, intelligent woman. She worked as a nurse for 1 year in the village Health Centre, an extremely ill-equipped small brick building in the centre of Las Hacheras. She was never paid, and had to drop out of her nursing studies as a result.
A true “gaucho” (cowboy) at a festival in Miraflores, a nearby town. This man has lived here his entire life. When he found out I was from Canada, he hugged me and, with a huge smile, said: “We are so glad that you’ve come. Now you can learn about reality here and bring all that you learn back home with you.”
Festivities in Miraflores.
The dirt roads of “el Impenetrable” are made impassable when it rains. This photo was taken after a nightfall of light rain. When the downpour is heavy, people are unable to leave their homes for days and school is cancelled.
A typical lagoon of the region. Those who do not have access to wells (which hold rain water) extract water from these lagoons for washing cloths, bathing, and even drinking. Though some lagoon waters are supposedly clean and drinkable, others are filthy, with animals bathing, and sometimes dying, in them. Many indigenous children have small dry patches all over their faces, and though the cause of this condition is not certain, some think that it might be caused by the contamination in their drinking water.
A typical – if not upper-end – school of the region, about 25km from Las Hacheras. Some children walk or bike 10km to come to school everyday. I met one mother who rides 8km on a bike everyday with 3 children to bring them to school. When it rains, school is cancelled because the dirt roads turn into rivers of mud. School is also cancelled when teachers go on strike, which happens often. It is common for children to drop out of school, and very rarely do they continue on to university.
A typical home of the region.
Rocio, age 16. A very kind girl who wants to become a kindergarten teacher after she graduates high school. She is at the age now when most of the girls in the village start having boyfriends, and because of lack of sexual education and access to contraception, the sad reality is that many of them get pregnant soon after, and find themselves stuck in the same inescapable cycle of poverty as their mothers.
Ujenia, age ~14. She would like to go to school, but classes for Indigenous Wichi students, like Ujenia, take place at night, and Ujenia’s mother, Julia, does not want her to walk outside of the community alone at night. Due to widespread alcoholism, walking alone at night anywhere in the region is very dangerous for women.
The classroom where Sister Grażyna teaches an Indigenous community how to read and write once a week.
Doña Teo, who treated me like a granddaughter from the moment we met. She is the village historian who has lived in Las Hacheras her entire life. When I first arrived, she was living in a tiny hut by herself, but recently, many robberies have been happening in the area. When her older brother was violently robbed one night, she got scared and moved in with her daughter and grandsons. These robberies have been becoming more common in the region, and are committed often by drunk young men. Because the large majority of the community is on welfare, which they collect in cash monthly, if they are robbed, they have nothing to live on for the rest of the month.