Sunday, May 19, 2013

Stories from My Mission: Ethnic Tensions in Argentina

Normally when you think about ethnic tensions and strife Argentina is not a place that you would associate with that kind of thing, mostly because there is very little ethnic tension in Argentina. The fact that there is so little tension makes it that much more surprising when you run into it. One of the (mostly) unspoken points of pride among Argentines is that they are not racist ("Como los norteamericanos" [Like the Americans] as they would say). They like to view themselves as not partaking in the gross sin of racism (again, "Unlike those Americans, who are the worst racists in the world") unlike some or most of their neighbors. But even though they pride themselves in being non-racist I have found them to be no different from everyone else in the world.

One of the reasons why there is so little ethnic tension in Argentina is because the people there are so homogeneous. It is estimated that 93%-96% of the population is of European origin. That is, pure European origin, not mixed native and European (Mestizo), which only makes up 3%-6% of the population. This is very odd for a Latin American country because, for example, Mexico is about 60% Mestizo and 30% native, and Paraguay is about 95% Mestizo. Furthermore the most prominent country of origin for Argentines is Italy, which makes up approximately 60% of the population, followed by Spain (30%). This high amount of Italian heritage has greatly influenced everything from cuisine to language.

Thus the homogeneity among Argentines is the reason why there is so little ethnic tension in Argentina, despite what a few Argentines have told me, who insisted that Argentines are just naturally more resistant to racism (it's sort of like arguing that Eskimos are more naturally resistant to heat stroke). Despite this I found that many Argentines actually do deal with ethnic tensions, but it is not just as visible as it is in other places. I will give a couple of examples that I was able see in person.

In my second area of my mission, Sáenz Peña, there is a small barrio (neighborhood) on the edge of the city where several Toba live. The Toba are a tribe of natives that lived in the area of the Gran Chaco when the Spanish conquistadors showed up. The relationship between the Spanish and the Toba was about average, meaning the Spanish took their land, moved them to very poor plots of land, exploited their labor, and generally mistreated them.Since then the relationship between the Toba and the Europeans has not been about average (meaning not very good, which is average for the relationship between natives and Europeans). There have been some very serious problems but it is nothing that anyone talks about anymore.

So there was a barrio, called barrio Toba, where all the Toba lived in Sáenz Peña. The Toba there mostly kept to themselves, and everyone else kept away from them. When I say everyone kept away from the Toba, I mean there was a buffer zone of 50-100 meters surrounding barrio Toba where no one would build, as you can see in the image from Google Earth below. I have marked barrio Toba in the image with a red outline. You can see the (unofficial) buffer zone to the north and to the west, with the edge of the city to the east.
Barrio Toba in Sáenz Peña outlined in red.
To the south there are a few houses, but the people that lived there were the poorest of the poor. When I got to Sáenz Peña the barrio directly to the south of barrio Toba didn't even have a name, which is unusual in Argentina. A few months before I got there the city had some devastating floods and the people who had nothing left after the flood were given small plots of land in the poorest part of the city, right next to barrio Toba. The city did not provide power, water or sewers, or even a school for the people in the poor barrio. They just sent a road grader though to make the roads and told people to move in. In many cases the deal was 4000 for 150 pesos, that is 4000 bricks for 150 pesos. You buy the bricks and someone brings them on a horse drawn cart and dumps them on your plot. You then have to build the house yourself using nothing but mud (and straw!) for mortar. It was a very primitive life and disease was rampant. So the only people who would even live close to the Toba were the poorest of the poor who lived in the worst of conditions.

While I was in the area I worked with one missionary, who was Argentine, who tended to try to avoid the Toba at all cost. This avoidance was at times painfully obvious. I remember once we were visiting someone who lived in the poor barrio just south of barrio Toba and when we were done visiting we had to head north to find our next appointment. My companion, the Argentine, insisted on walking around barrio Toba rather than go through it. Below I have marked on the satellite image where we were and where we had to go. We were at point A and we had to get to point B.
The most direct route would have taken us through barrio Toba.
But he insisted on taking a route that almost doubled the distance, just so we wouldn't have to go through barrio Toba. Below is the route we took.
When I asked him why we couldn't just take the direct route his only reply was, "We just shouldn't go in there."

In that area there was one man who was a member of the Church who was also a Toba. He would come to church occasionally, and when I was with my American companions we would occasionally go visit him. At the time the branch (local Church congregation) was having a hard time getting things organized. They were trying to get home teaching started. At one point I suggested to the branch president that this Toba brother should have home teachers assigned to him. The branch president was a bit evasive in his answer and when I pressed him what it came down to was no one was willing to visit him. (I should note that the branch president was not unwilling to do it, he was just stating a reality. He had many problems he had to deal with in the branch and adding the ethnic tension between the Toba and everyone else to the mix was just a little much for him.)

I mentioned this to a member of the branch who was also a counselor in the district presidency (kind of like a stake presidency). He sort of blew it off by saying, "Of course, he's a Toba. We don't talk to them." (As a note, he said this rather sarcastically implying that he did not approve of the way everyone else treated the Toba. This member was one of the few people who was willing to go into barrio Toba and talk to them. There were a few others, but not many.)

The few times that I did go into barrio Toba we were always met with children peeking out from doors and windows and all the adults hiding from us. Some times I wish I spent more time there and worked on getting the Toba to trust me.

There were other minor things that I came across that reminded me about the ethnic tensions just below the surface. The Argentines didn't really get along with Chileans, or the Bolivians (and they just sort of ignored the Uruguayans), but it was never as pronounced as it was with the Toba. Overall the ethnic tensions were practically nonexistent but that probably had to do more with the extreme homogeneity of the country and not so much something special about the Argentines.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Stories from My Mission: Sandra Gets Baptized

This story comes from the second area of my mission in the city of Sáenz Peña. Whenever a missionary arrives in an area the standard procedure is for the missionary who already knows the area to give a "data dump" on the incoming missionary. This includes things like the names of people that are currently meeting with the missionaries, members we are working with, important information about the area etc. Thus on my first day in the area I sat down with my companion Elder Keyes and went through the standard procedure. There were a few people they had been teaching and I wrote their names down on my weekly agenda that I carried around with me.

Then I asked if there was any one who was ready to be baptized. Elder Keyes looked at me and said, "Yes...well sort of. There is one woman named Sandra who is going to get baptized."

"Oh?" I asked, "When is she getting baptized?"

"She doesn't have a date yet."

(me) "... how many charlas [discussions] has she had?"

"Just one...well sort of...but she is going to get baptized."

"Did you ask her if she wanted to get baptized?"

"No, but I just know that she is going to get baptized."

"Has she come to church yet?"


"When was the last time you talked to her?"

"We saw her about three weeks ago."

"And that was the last time you gave her a charla?"

"No. That was four weeks ago."

(me) "..."

"How many times have you talked to her?"

"Once or twice. But she is going to get baptized."

"How do you know that?"

"She's a great person and I just know that she is going to get baptized."

There was something sincere about the way that Elder Keyes said it that made me know it too. Even though I had never met her I knew that Sandra would get baptized. Under any normal circumstances Sandra would have been considered to be a dead investigator (i.e. not progressing in the discussions, not showing willingness to meet with us, not reading, coming to church etc.). But there was just something about Elder Keyes and the way he said it that made me believe it too (for anyone who knows Elder Keyes they know that he is a very sincere, kind person, and he really does know what he is talking about). So I put her name down on the back of my agenda as a future possibility.

Over the next few weeks when I was working with Elder Keyes occasionally we would walk past Sandra's house, but we never seemed to have time to stop and talk to her. But eventually we did have an opportunity to stop, and she wasn't home. So we tried again. And again. And again. Eventually we found her two kids at home (aged 11 and 13). We talked to them briefly. We asked if their mother was around and they told us that she was working, she had just gotten a new job on the other side of the city and it took a lot of time to travel and to work. They seemed nice and asked when we could come back and talk about the church again. We said we would come back when we could.

Eventually we finally caught Sandra at home and were able to talk to her a little bit, but she didn't have a lot of time. She was getting ready to go to some school thing with her kids. We set a time to come back and meet with her but when we came she wasn't there.

After six weeks with Elder Keyes, it was time for him to go home. I saw him off and promised him that I would take care of the people that he cared about so much.

My new companion came into the area and like normal we sat down and I told him about all the people we were teaching. My new companion, Elder Pereyda, was Argentine and very opinionated. I gave him all the standard information, but when I came to Sandra things got a little interesting. The conversation was roughly like the one I had with Elder Keyes, except with Elder Pereyda interjecting comments about how this was stupid, a waste of time, he wasn't going to write her name down because it was obvious that she wasn't an investigator (remember it had been 10 weeks since her first and only charla, and about 4 weeks since our last contact with her). My new companion was "efficient" and wasn't going to waste his time with someone who had no prospects of progressing.

I sincerely told him that Sandra was going to get baptized, because Elder Keyes had told me so, and I believed him. Elder Pereyda just thought I was daft.

Over the next few weeks the issue of Sandra was a minor bit of contention between the two of us. It was never spoken but it was there every time we talked about our list of investigators. I even pointed out Sandra's house to him as we were walking by and told him that if we were unable to teach her before I left the area then he could go there and have a guaranteed baptism. He wasn't much amused with that. I could tell that he was just waiting to "cut her off" so that he didn't have to deal with the thought hanging over our companionship. Because of this I always steered him away from meeting with Sandra because I knew that if he went to meet her with his attitude then a disaster would happen.

This went on for about 3 weeks until one day I got a call saying that I needed to go into Resistencia, where the mission office was located, so that I could get my official Argentine ID (Documento Nacional de Identidad, or DNI). The trip would take a full day so I would have to spend the night in Resistencia. I was to be traveling with the companion of the zone leader who also had to go get his DNI, which meant that our zone leader would be staying with Elder Pereyda.

As I was getting ready to leave (as in I had by bag and was walking out the door with the zone leader's companion) Elder Pereyda looked at me and asked if there was anything that he and the zone leader could do while we were gone (I knew the area better and I knew who all the people were that we had been talking to, he was still learning the area). I looked at him and the zone leader, Elder Cook, and in a moment of inspiration said, "You could visit Sandra." Elder Pereyda got a gleam in his eye that said, "Now's my chance. This is going to be a charla franca [frank discussion, usually when we tell the person that we will never visit them again]." He wanted to get Sandra off the list, even if he had never written her name down on his own list, he knew that she was still on my list.

Elder Cook saw the exchanges of "looks" and knew that something was up. He asked if Sandra was some kind of problem. I told him no, she was going to get baptized, which started the whole discussion again of, "How many charlas has she had?" and all that. But in the middle of it I just walked out the door to go catch the bus to Resistencia and left Elder Pereyda to explain to Elder Cook (I'm sure the explanation was full of sarcasm) all about Sandra, the mystery "investigator" who had only one discussion, had never come to church, and had talked to the missionaries a grand total of 5 minutes in the past 10 weeks. I'm sure Elder Cook was primed and skeptical when they left to go find Sandra that evening.

The next evening, after my trip to Resistencia, I finally returned to the house where we were staying. Elder Pereyda and Cook were there and were ready with a story of their own that they couldn't wait to tell. After I left them the day before they planned a few things and went to take care of some things that the zone leader, Elder Cook, needed to take care of. When they were done with that it was getting pretty late and dark so they had time for one final visit before they went home. That is when they decided to visit Sandra.

She happened to be home, available and with time to talk. They decided to skip most of the formalities and after a brief chat they dived right into a discussion of the basic message of the gospel (i.e. Book of Mormon, the restoration, prophets). At this point Elder Pereyda asked the blunt question, "Do you want us to keep coming by and visiting you?" To which she said, "Yes." That took Elder Pereyda back a little. Then Elder Cook asked her if she was willing to commit to baptism and to becoming a member of the church. Her response about killed Elder Pereyda. She answered with a simple, "Sí."

The almost didn't know how to respond to that. But they collected themselves and then set about setting a date for her to get baptized. They spent about two hours talking with her and making sure that she really was ready and willing to get baptized (she was). Over the next two weeks we met with her some more and taught her the rest of the charlas. She came to church and finally three weeks after that night she got baptized. I wished Elder Keyes could have been there.

Shortly after that Elder Pereyda got transferred out of the area (which is unusual but there were things that I had to do in the area that only God knew about). My new companion was Elder Palazuelos. We visited with Sandra some more to have was were known as "new member discussions". Even though her children were there for a few of our visits they didn't seem to be too interested (they had a cousin and an aunt and uncle who were very active members of another church who were trying to get them to join that church).

After six weeks with Elder Palazuelos I finally got transferred to a new area. A few weeks after the transfer I had the opportunity to talk to Elder Palazuelos. I asked about Sandra. He said that she had gotten sick and needed surgery and had a hard time coming to church. The transition to coming to church is always a difficult thing for recent converts and missionaries are always hoping that the people who they baptized keep coming and remain active in the church. But Elder Palazuelos said that one Sunday Sandra's two children, with out prompting, showed up at church and asked the missionaries to be baptized. They had see a change in their mother and wanted to be part of that. So on their own (aged 11 and 13) they just came and wanted to be baptized.

Some day I hope to be able to find out what happened to Sandra and her children, and find out if they are still going to church, because God was looking out for them and was making sure that we, the missionaries, were ready for when they were.