Buenos Aires Poor Make Meager Living from Trash

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What began for many as a way to find food and clothing in the garbage of Buenos Aires has become a recycling business — and not a very profitable one. Families whose livelihoods vanished in the economic crash of 2001 and 2002 collect trash, sort it and sell the recyclables for about 15 Argentinian pesos — or about $3 a day. The nation's recent economic recovery has been impressive, but an estimated 15 million remain poor.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Five years after an economic meltdown, Argentina continues its rebound. But the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened. And for many who slipped into poverty, climbing out is proving close to impossible. For some, survival means combing the garbage and reselling the contents for a pittance. As NPR's Julie McCarthy discovered, trolling for trash in Buenos Aires has become a way of life with its own rules and rhythms.

(Soundbite of music)

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

By 5:30 in the afternoon on the pedestrian thoroughfare Florida Avenue, Maria-Elena Gomez(ph) navigates her way past the gliding steps of tango dancers and their appreciative audience of passersby.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #1: Bravo.

McCARTHY: She pushes a cart piled with trash past street entertainers and a Russian balladeer.

(Soundbite of street performance)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in Russian)

McCARTHY: They eke out of living selling their talent for tips. Maria-Elena barely survives selling the bottles, papers and plastics she pulls from the garbage she sifts through into the wee hours of the morning, a haul that may fetch her $3 on a good day.

(Soundbite of cart being pushed; crowd voices)

McCARTHY: This mother of three, grandmother of four, is a foot soldier in an army of impoverished who have become the nation's recyclers, dubbed `the cartoneros' for the cartons they collect. They are among Argentina's estimated 15 million poor. The country has enjoyed a galloping 8 percent growth, but it's a bounty that has eluded the likes of Maria-Elena.

Ms. MARIA-ELENA GOMEZ (Cartonero): (Spanish spoken)

McCARTHY: `We live in a poor barrio, and when we can save enough money, we buy a canister of gas that lasts for a few days.'

A modest life became an impoverished one after Maria-Elena's husband left when the economy crashed in 2001. Her 15-year-old quit school, ashamed, Maria-Elena says, of her newfound poverty. She works alongside her mother in a 30-block area where they appear well-liked. A policeman stops to flirt with the young Mariana. Like conspirators, two female clerks rush from their upscale bookstore buzzing about clean cartons for the mother-daughter team. The work is humiliating, Maria-Elena admits, but says it's not without humanity.

Ms. GOMEZ: (Spanish spoken)

McCARTHY: `Making friends is the one good thing about being out on the streets,' she says. `My daughter turned 15 last week, and her birthday was out here collecting garbage. It was very painful for me,' she says, `but friends here helped me through it.'

Recyclers are not new in Argentina; their numbers are. Analyst Rosendo Fraga of the Buenos Aires think tank New Majority says the cartoneros represent the enduring nature of the economic collapse and the difficulty of escaping the poverty it created. Fraga says the situation is aggravated by what he calls a lack of vision.

Mr. ROSENDO FRAGA (New Majority): Argentina has not a long-term plan. If we have decided to continue being an average Latin American country, it's logic to think that the cartoneros will be a long-term social phenomenon.

McCARTHY: But the Argentine government, which calls itself progressive, says it has reduced poverty in this nation of 39 million and wants a more equitable society. The number of poor has dropped in the last three years from 22 million to 15 million. However, economists say the income gap has grown, as in much of Latin America. The Inter-American Development Bank says the richest 10 percent of Argentines make an average of $40 a day, while the poorest 10 percent average a dollar and a half. Watching Maria-Elena stoop to sort the trash illustrates the disparity.

Ms. GOMEZ: (Spanish spoken)

McCARTHY: `I have cramps in my hands and legs and my back aches all the time,' says the 46-year-old in a hand-me-down sweatshirt. `I feel like crying,' she adds, `when the tourists pass, plugging their noses.'

(Soundbite of cart being pushed)

McCARTHY: Across town under the moonlight, cartoneros carefully cover their trolleys of trash with tarps and push them up a platform to a train that will take them and their garbage home. Some say it takes up to two hours to reach their poor outlying areas that have grown up around the city. Thirty-five-year old David Iglesias(ph) stands beside his towering trolling and says he earned a decent wage as a welder before the economic collapse. He says collecting trash to survive has been devastating.

Mr. DAVID IGLESIAS (Cartonero): (Spanish spoken)

McCARTHY: `In my case, I feel extremely bad. We should not be forced into doing anything like this in a country with so many riches. We should be a lot better off,' he says.

(Soundbite of train)

McCARTHY: The last leg of their day's journey ends up on a beat-up train stripped off seats. The government removed them to accommodate the cartoneros in this late-night service exclusively for them. The mothers mend and children find a spot in the graffiti-filled, cattlelike cars and board. They lean against the mounds of garbage that were their night's quarry, and as the train lurches forward, rocked to the rhythm of the tracks that will carry them home for more hours of sorting. Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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