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Cartoneros and the Tren Blanco

The Recyclers Come Out at Night ...

The Recyclers Come Out at Night …

There are always two sides to the coin. The other day, I wrote a post about Buenos Aires that perhaps gilded the lily overmuch. I have to keep reminding myself that one can easily love someone, something, or someplace that is far from perfect. Take Los Angeles, for example, from which my cousin Peggy from Cleveland fled because, as she said, she couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. (I don’t think she tried very hard.)  Many of my friends from other parts of the country do not hold Southern California in high regard, especially if they haven’t given the place a chance to work its way into their bones, the way it has with me.

So back to Buenos Aires. As with many huge cities, there is a lot of poverty lurking behind the picturesque façades. In Argentina, these usually take the form of what are sardonically called villas miserias (“misery villas”) due to the habit of calling the areas surrounding the urban core with names beginning with Villa, such as Villa Lugano, Villa Lynch, Villa Crespo, and the spectacularly awful Villa 31 (see below) adjoining the posh neighborhood of Retiro. This used to be the docks area for the Port of Buenos Aires, before they moved east.

Villa 31 with the Microcentro in the Background

Villa 31 with the Microcentro in the Background

After dark, the streets of Buenos Aires fill up with cartoneros, whole families with large carts who go through the garbage for cardboard and other recyclable items for which they can earn a few pesos. After the economic crisis of 2001, the government wisely has begun to recognize them and even facilitated their scavenging by creating the tren blanco, or “white train,” to bring them from the villas miserias, where they live, to the center of the city. These trains consist of old rolling stock with the seats removed (to allow for carts to loaded) and sometimes even without lighting.

Aboard the Tren Blanco

Aboard the Tren Blanco

I have seen the cartoneros at work the few times I wondered the streets of the city at night. For the most part, they are diligent and friendly as they go about their work; but there were stories at the Posada del Sol youth hostel about backpacks and wallets that were stolen. Fortunately, I escaped being mugged.

Again, there are parts of Los Angeles about which I would say the same thing. Except here, there is a higher chance of violence and rape accompanying the mugging.

2 thoughts on “Cartoneros and the Tren Blanco

  1. I love Southern California, and Central California, and I love Los Angeles. I have lived here all my life, and it’s beautiful. Lots of people people speak and write English excellently (as you do). My older daughter married a man whose family is from Argentina, and still have a home and relatives in Buenos Aires. She has visited there and loves the city, though I haven’t been there. Really, I also love Paris, and some people say they hate the “the French,” usually meaning Parisians.. It’s a bit much to hate an entire city or people. A great city is like a whole universe, and it’s possible to have a variety of experiences in the same city, as you have had.

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