First Steps in Buenos Aires: Understanding the Significance of the 2006 Luis Viale Fire

Part of the mural dedicated to the victims of the sweatshop fire at 1269 Luis Viale. "No olvidamos" "Con el maltrato, no hay trato"

A view of the whole mural and the burned out building

On March 30th, 2006, a fire in a clandestine textile workshop on Calle Luis Viale in the working class neighborhood of Caballito, Buenos Aires, killed  five children and one woman, all of whom were undocumented Bolivians living and working with 50 some other immigrants in the building. My project is to try to understand the way this fire was constructed in the media, the ways the Bolivian garment worker community, and various other actors responded to the tragedy and why they responded in the way/s they did. I am also interested in learning what, if anything, has changed as a result of the fire, as well as the way it has been remembered subsequently.

I have been in Buenos Aires for almost two weeks now. This is my first time here so this time has been as much about getting oriented, and learning to use the bus and subway, as it has been about starting to reach out to potential contacts.

Earlier this week, I spoke with the members of a workers’ cooperative, called Alameda. There seem to be several immigrant garment workers’ groups in the city and Alameda is one of the most vocal and politically active and had submitted testimony and evidence to the city about several illegal and exploitative garment shops even prior to the fire. Olga Cruz, one of the original organizers (alongside the president Gustavo Vera), spoke at length to me about the challenges facing immigrant workers in their search to making a decent living and the issues of corruption, particularly related to the collaboration of the police force and labor inspectors with the workshop owners, that allows this kind of exploitation to exist. Alameda has also formed its own garment clothing chain, along with a worker’s cooperative in Thailand.I am looking forward to attending one of Alameda’s worker meetings tonight.

In addition to speaking to workers and advocates, I have recognized the need for me to familiarize myself with Argentine immigration and labor law. In this respect, I have gotten some guidance from CELS, a long standing Argentine legal and human rights agency that does important policy work on immigration issues. Discussions with and readings provided to me by Diego Morales, an attorney at CELS, have shown me that, since 2004, important immigration legislation (La Ley Migratoria) has been implemented here guaranteeing immigrants, and even undocumented immigrants, rights to important social and economic rights such as health care, social security and education and also facilitating the naturalization process, particularly for immigrants from the neighboring countries.

On Monday Diego referred me to a talk about Argentine and US immigration law at CAREF an NGO that works to prevent the exploitation of immigrants. The talk was given by Barbara Hines, an immigration attorney at the University of Austin Texas, who has also done a lot of work in Argentina. Professor Hines pointed out the uniqueness of the fact that Argentine law recognizes the right to migrate as a human right. She also pointed out that the Argentine constitution itself is also very explicit in its commitment in that it both states that it encourages immigration and also defends the rights of all people residing within the country.

The other day I also met with Silvia Hirsch, an anthropologist who specializes in indigenous women’s issues, and who teaches at NYU in Buenos Aires to undergrad students. Silvia was very kind and helpful in giving me guidance regarding my initial fieldwork and interviews.

Wachs - Argentina - mural

A somewhat closer image of the mural--with the victims' names blacked out and racist graffiti above

As I begin the process of looking at the archives of the National Library and start to speak with workers, NGO and city representatives, it seems clear that the treatment of immigrants in the garment industry is not at all consistent with the progressive nature of the country’s legislation. As you can see from the above image –in which the names of the victims have been “erased” and above which someone has written “bolitas”, a depreciative word for Bolivians— ethnic/ racial discrimination is, sadly, still a major issue for Argentine society in its efforts to fully include and incorporate immigrants.

Posted by Katti Wachs — MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU

2 responses to “First Steps in Buenos Aires: Understanding the Significance of the 2006 Luis Viale Fire

  1. A quick question: besides these mural/graffities, is there any official commemoration honoring the victims, by the BA City Govt, National Govt, Bolivian Govt? I think of something like the name of the victims at the Brown Building at NYU.

  2. That’s a good question. As far as I can see there is nothing. I haven’t spoken with the Bolivian consulate yet, however, but when I do I will see if there is anything there.

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