A few weeks ago, I mentioned to my host family that the school was taking us to Paraguay. I might as well have told them I was being hauled off to bathe in a landfill: (gasp) "I wouldn't go there if you paid for my trip, and paid me to go...It's hideous...no hay nada."
I should preface this by first saying that Argentines do not consider themselves racist. They appreciate racial diversity, as long as the "diversity" describes the various European contingents who migrated south years ago and settled in this port city--Italian, German, Spanish. In the mind of the average Porteño, (a resident of Buenos Aires) (allow me to generalize), it's not racist if the discrimination is targeted towards: black people (though there are very few here), chinos (a group that encompasses all Asians, who own laundromats and supermarkets), and Bolivianos, a term that once simply described residents of the bordering country, but is now tossed around among the worst of insults.
If your skin is dark, you must be boliviano.
A Bolivian journalist living in Buenos Aires told me about a scene she witnessed on a city bus recently. It was packed, hot, around 5 pm, and towards the back of the vehicle she overheard a minor altercation between two passengers-- one blue eyed, light-skinned, the other deeply tanned with dark brown eyes. It soon escalated. The blue-eyed passenger shouted at the other, darker passenger to get out of his way:
“Why don't you get off the bus, boliviano de mierda.”
The other man yelled back that he was not Boliviano, but Salteño.... and therefore...Argentine.
The adjective apparently no longer denotes nationality. Paraguayo has taken on a similar connotation, and the contempt for Argentina's northern neighbor is nearly as strong.
Still, "Argentines are not racist."
People here look at our having a black president as a "great step" for a nation with such a tumultuous history with "race." "For such a "racist country" as the U.S.
People in glass houses....
So when my host parents responded with such toxicity to my travel plans I was put off, but not surprised. I live with an upper-middle class couple nearing the age of retirement, who see Paraguayans the way most Argentines see Bolivians: "The women are alright. Ugly though. They do all of the work. The men...they're lazy, they come to Argentina and take our jobs and then show up drunk for work. They're useless."
Much in the way the U.S. runs on the labor of underpaid Latin American immigrants, the backbone of Buenos Aires, from what I’ve seen, is made up of Bolivians and Paraguayans willing to work for cheap-- in restaurants, textile factories, construction, and house-cleaning.
As the world economy plummets and unemployment rises, blame the immigrants, right?
In 2001, a Bolivian mother and her 10 month old baby were pushed from a moving train during rush hour. For no other reason than the color of the mother's skin and the shape of her features. Both she and her baby died. The case is unresolved because no one will testify. The train company has paid off or threatened all of the witnesses.
So maybe my fascination with Paraguay stems from this ignored strain of racism. I jumped at the prospect of seeing Asunción, Paraguay's capital city-- the birthplace of the immigrants who receive such scorn in Argentine society.
I went. I saw. And I can tell you, there are reasons why Paraguayans move to Buenos Aires to work. Paraguay is very much "a third world country" and the poverty is striking.
A friend of mine who spent two years in the Peace Corps in Paraguay advised me to "keep my eyes open and observe how wonderfully f*cked up Asunción is." And its true, for all we know, YOU could be one of President Lugo's many illegitimate love children. Lugo, the same president who was a Bishop when his children were conceived. Our tour guide explained that Lugo, despite his questionable personal life, doesn't steal from the state, which is more than can be said about past presidents.
The people of Paraguay (those outside of the ruling class) were once told that education was a sin, so for many, many years, the majority of the population was illiterate.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the Triple Alliance War, (Paraguay versus Argentina-Brazil- Uruguay) resulted in the massacring of 90% of Paraguay’s male population.
Today, Paraguayans escape this floundering country, only to be persecuted in the euro-centric Argentina.
Asunción is ugly and underdeveloped and no place for a tourist.
But I still sort of loved it-- the little girl with the long brown hair, crouching in the back of the pick-up truck on the highway, the buses that drove past her with the doors open, redefining the word "packed," the man who balanced a basket of bread on his head as he wandered through the main square, the guaraní indian woman selling rainbow beads, the $200,000 bills, the fact that there are 6 million people and 7 million cows living in the country. I loved the man who took us out on his boat, on a tour around a lake, who explained that the little bugs that flew around us didn't carry dengue or yellow fever, they only wished to enjoy the breeze.
Buenos Aires is beautiful, but has begun to feel faker than the botox-infused, silicon inflated women who walk her streets.
Paraguay is just a little more real.