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Story Publication logo March 12, 2024

Inside Buenos Aires’ Villas



A toxic river runs right through Argentina's bustling capital city, but government initiatives to...


New apartment complexes are built next to existing the villas to house people relocated for environmental and health concerns. Image by Jacob Boyko. Argentina, 2023.

I had traveled to Buenos Aires to report on one of the world's most polluted rivers and I had just one lead. She was a journalist and multimedia producer living in one of the city’s most forewarned villa miserias, or “misery villages.” Her name was Dallma Villalba and, though she didn’t live in the area of the city I needed to go to, she was the best shot I had at going to the river and meeting folks there. With the help of my interpreter, Pablo Linietsky, I reached out and asked her if she could help me. She agreed.

Yerba mate, a popular tea in Argentina, is usually consumed from a hollowed-out gourd with a metal straw. Image by Jacob Boyko. Argentina, 2023.

Pablo and I met Dallma in downtown Buenos Aires early on my second morning in the southern hemisphere. She stepped into the back seat of Pablo’s Volkswagen Golf, a model which seems to outnumber actual people in the city. Dallma balanced her hollowed-out gourd for drinking yerba mate in one hand and her metal thermos of hot water in the other as she crouched into the back seat.

She greeted us and exchanged a kiss on the cheek with Pablo, as is customary. She then did the same with me, as I did my best to show I was (not accurately) unfazed by the norm. She didn't speak English, so Pablo was our go-between. The three of us outlined the day, passing the gourd around and sipping from the metal straw. We would drive up to a coal-fired power plant near the mouth of the river for pictures of new public housing, then make our way to Villas 21-24.

Shells of buildings from a better economy remain in Buenos Aires’ industrial areas. Image by Jacob Boyko. Argentina, 2023.

We weaved through the downtown traffic; Pablo’s motions with his manual transmission were so fluid I’d have assumed it was an automatic if I was in the back seat. Traffic in the capital city is dense, but it’s rarely bumper-to-bumper like you’ll see in the U.S.

Here, drivers take their destiny into their own hands, breaking “rules” to make their journey a little faster. If you are slow, you will be passed. If there is a pedestrian, they will have to run. Lanes are a suggestion. And while it may look like pure chaos to an American from the U.S., it’s actually coordinated and graceful. (No, you can’t just say American here; Argentines will be offended because an American is anybody from North America or South America.)

On the way to the power plant and shipyard, we saw many different socioeconomic classes. The journey took us from the towering skyscrapers of downtown and the urban streets, to more rural housing and tent cities with few facilities, shops, and factories. We made our way to an area of updated housing. In short, some basin residents living in the villages along the water were relocated and moved into modern apartment complexes with electricity, water, and sewage. These are all amenities many of their old homes lacked. The buildings are blocky, bricked monoliths with an occasional porch, accented by concrete and asphalt below.

Across from this new neighborhood is a villa miseria that has yet to be updated. Noise from construction projects—banging and hammering and the sound of generators—echoed into the steep canyon streets of the new neighborhood. 

We walked over to the forgotten village. Houses made of the thinnest materials, set together as boxy, Dr. Seuss-looking structures, all three or more squatty levels, lined the bank of the river. 

“Everyone is in a hurry to build and add rooms on, because when the government eventually relocates them, the payment they receive for their homes is based on square footage,” Pablo told me. 

One man traveling with our group shows off his Boca Juniors football jersey. Image by Jacob Boyko. Argentina, 2023.

The drive to Villas 21-24. Image by Jacob Boyko. Argentina, 2023.

Structures in Villas 21-24 are thinly-built with inside quarters often cramped. Image by Jacob Boyko. Argentina, 2023.

Our next stop was Villas 21-24, about a half-hour's drive along the river. Again, I began to get tired, lulled by the soft rumble of the small potholes and gentle maneuvering. When I regained focus, we were parked on a narrow street. I couldn’t tell if we were near homes or businesses—the buildings had a uniform and nonchalant appearance with flat roofs and stucco siding. 

We stepped out of the car, walked a quarter block, and stepped into one of the buildings. Inside, there were three other men. They were about my age or a little older. They all came to welcome me, their lips smelling like mate. 

Dallma told me that she has an audio visual company called Sismo Sur, and her friends we were with also produce audio visual content for their own companies. A man sitting at the computer showed me a sexual education video he had worked on.

Once the mate dried up, we set off for the villas. One of Dallma’s friends got on his cafe-racer-style motorcycle and guided us into the villas. 

We arrived at about 11am. The sky was overcast on this wintry August morning, the temperature sitting at about 13 degrees Celsius. We walked in a loose pack through the narrow alleyways of the villas. I’d been warned of the dangers here, but the only run-ins we’d had so far were curious looks. 

Atop a roof, geraniums and other flowers can flourish even on a cold—by Buenos Aires standards—winter day. Image by Jacob Boyko. Argentina, 2023.

Even with my camera and the handful of lenses I was dragging with me, I felt like I couldn’t capture the essence and peculiarity of the environment I was touring through. Cats stretched out, asleep on awnings, potted plants decorating window sills, and carts selling fried bread wrapped in the thinnest plastic I’d ever seen. As we walked, the men we were traveling with spotted friends, who also joined our pack. 

We made our way to the street right on the river. Cars sat here parked. Some—by the looks of them—would spend eternity rotting into their own tire track. Garbage was strewn around in the weeds, carpeting the ground from the street to the river. 

Immobile vehicles line the streets of Villas 21-24 near the Riachuelo bank. Image by Jacob Boyko. Argentina, 2023.

An aerial view of Villas 21-24 with the Riachuelo in the background. Image by Jacob Boyko. Argentina, 2023.

An older gentleman spotted us as our group made its way onto a wooden structure on the bank. Here, a large rowboat and oars sat in a cage. The man walked over to me, intrigued by my camera, drone, and details of my journey to his home. He took me over to see his boat, which was used by the rowing club. Posing for a picture with the paddle marked with 21-24, he told me about the work the Autoridad de Cuenca Matanza Riachuelo (ACUMAR) has done for his village and how conditions have improved. The man, whose name I later learned is Victor Cornejo, introduced me to his neighbor, Lorena Lencina, who also shared her story with me.

After several minutes of conversation, we walked to another part of town, our group now even larger with Victor and Lorena tagging behind. We were about 12 people strong when we arrived at the old garden, which ACUMAR made the residents remove due to metal contamination in the soil. 

Victor Cornejo and Lorena Lencina, both residents of Villas 21-24, stand at the riverbank. Image by Jacob Boyko. Argentina, 2023.

I played with the stray puppies and their mom while I photographed the littered and barren plot in front of me. That’s when fate struck.

On her bicycle, laden with crates and bags, was Veronica Elibre, who I found out was a neighborhood representative at the city’s housing institute. She, too, was more than happy to share her story about the river and ACUMAR.

Dogs walk the streets of villas 21-24. They’re friendly and interested in what food you may be carrying. Image by Jacob Boyko. Argentina, 2023.

The garden at Villas 21-24 was taken out at ACUMAR’s request. Image by Jacob Boyko. Argentina, 2023.

Veronica Elibre, neighborhood representative at the city’s housing institute, isn’t pleased with ACUMAR’s progress in her neighborhood. Image by Jacob Boyko. Argentina, 2023.

Dogs stay around the garbage and debris in villas 21-24 to search for scraps of food. Image by Jacob Boyko. Argentina, 2023.

This was my favorite day of the reporting because it surprised me. I was told by many Argentines that going into the villas was a dead man’s mission—that I’d need an army to stay safe. What I discovered, instead, was a subculture living life despite a harmful designation made by those above them.

I’m certain that through the rest of my career, this day will stand out to me. Not for the relationships I was able to make or for the interviews I was able to secure from a single stroll, but for having my expectations turned completely on their sides.

Two residents carry a branch for firewood in Villas 21-24. Image by Jacob Boyko. Argentina, 2023.


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