Irene Caselli is a multimedia journalist based in Buenos Aires. She previously worked as a correspondent for the BBC in Venezuela and Ecuador. She reports from Latin America for media including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian.
The media project Mundo Villa chronicles life good and bad in the informal settlements of Buenos Aires.
BUENOS AIRES—Walter Felipe is used to receiving strange looks when he says he lives in Villa 31, one of the largest shantytowns in Buenos Aires.
"Once a TV producer told me, 'You don't look like you are from a villa.' And I answered, 'What does a guy from a villa look like?' He didn't know what to say," Felipe recalls.
A villa miseria, or simply villa, is what Argentines call slums or shantytowns. Journalist Bernardo Verbitsky coined the expression in the 1950s and used it in his novel Villa Miseria también es América ("Villa Miseria is also part of the Americas").
Felipe is the TV editor of Mundo Villa, an independent media project set up to challenge stereotypes of villa residents, raise their visibility, and give them better access to news.
"Prejudice has a lot to do with the coverage of mainstream media," says Sebastián Deferrari, editor of Mundo Villa's print edition. "According to the media, there are only thieves and murderers inside a villa. But 90 percent of those who live there are normal people, who work and send their kids to school, like everywhere else. And like everyone else, they want better living conditions," he says.
Villas are a common sight in greater Buenos Aires, where there are more than 1,000 such informal settlements, according to the non-profit organization TECHO. They have few services: Some have managed to get hook-ups to the electricity grid, but according to TECHO, only 10 percent have access to running water and 5 percent have sewage infrastructure.
Many of the villas' inhabitants come from other provinces or from neighboring countries, such as Peru and Bolivia, in search of work. They often hold informal jobs, so are unable to secure the documents necessary to rent elsewhere. (Contrary to popular belief, rent in villas can be as expensive as in other parts of the city.)
Villa 21, located in the southern district of Barracas, is the largest in Buenos Aires, but Villa 31 is the most visible—just yards away from Retiro, the central train station. Its fast-growing brick shacks with aluminum roofs appear in between the bridges of the city's main ring road.
The history of Mundo Villa is closely related to both.
It started in 2008 with a film called La 21, Barracas, which tells the story of two rival gangs. The director was Víctor Ramos, an activist in charge of a non-governmental organization called SOS Discriminación (SOS Discrimination). It was Ramos who initially thought of a villa-based community newspaper. The first edition came out in October of that year.
At the same time, Adams Ledezma, a community leader from Villa 31, wanted to improve the villa's access to news, since there was no reliable cable or internet. He worked on setting up a closed-circuit cable system to receive foreign channels but also to spread information locally.
"He played a triple role," Deferrari says of Ledezma. "He would find out what needed doing in the neighborhood, fix it, and take a picture to let the rest of the world know. He was the first person to become aware of what periodismo villero, or villa-based journalism, is."
Ledezma was murdered in 2010, but Mundo Villa kept growing.
It now operates as a TV station, a radio channel (called Mundo Sur), a monthly magazine, and a website. It reports on flooding, sewage overflows, and residents' demands for better conditions. But it also shows the positives of villa life, "all the cultural and community projects that are carried out and tell the stories of those involved in shaping our communities," says Deferrari.
Mundo Villa has a network of youth correspondents. There are weekly journalism workshops, where the older members teach new ones how to carry out interviews, find stories, and operate cameras.
Initially, SOS Discriminación alone financed the project. Now more funds come in via magazine sales, publicity, donations, and government grants, but they remain limited. Most contributors are volunteers; only a handful of editors receive a salary.
Mundo Villa's editors and contributors are regularly asked to appear on Argentine TV when there's news that involves their neighborhoods. Gradually, their work has increased and improved general coverage of what happens inside the villas, says Paula Stiven, who is in charge of Mundo Villa's website.
"Media absorb what we publish and broadcast, and that's how the good side of the villas emerges," says Stiven. "Our aim is that what we show becomes, little by little, a part of the big picture."
Helped by a 2009 law that gave more importance to community-run media, similar projects have followed Mundo Villa's example. In 2011, a new magazine called La Garganta Poderosa ("The Mighty Throat") published its first edition, focusing on villa culture. It features interviews with sports stars (including soccer legend Diego Maradona), politicians, and artists.
But Mundo Villa's ultimate fight is still ongoing: to make authorities recognize and address the needs of the villas. "The fundamental aspect of our work is to highlight that housing and access to services are basic citizens' rights," says Deferrari. "And in our case, these rights are being violated."