Buenos Aires, always a strong tourism pull, has become more popular as a foodie destination in recent years as well thanks to the sophistication of the legendary Argentine asados and hot new fusion restaurants littering the culinary scene. But even some of the most dedicated food lovers who come to tour the city with their taste buds are likely to miss out on one of the most intriguing aspects of the Buenos Aires food culture.
Cooperative restaurants, tucked away throughout the city, occupy a fascinating place in the social history of Argentina. Established by groups of colleagues that found themselves jobless when the economic crisis hit Argentina in 2001, these cooperative projects are the result of intense labour and dedication to a common goal of survival. Often beginning with nothing more than a destroyed building and whatever personal funds they could salvage, these people came together from diverse backgrounds to pool their efforts in creating a business that, through income equality, would sustain them all. The result: unique restaurants with an effective form of self-management among the workers and a truly familial atmosphere.
La Cacerola is one of these cooperative restaurants, located on Franklin 26 in the neighbourhood of Almagro. It was founded in 2002 after several neighbours in the area found themselves unemployed and decided start a business of their own that would coexist with the surrounding community. Since then, the workers in La Cacerola have been moving forward together, reclaiming a run-down neighbourhood lot and turning it into a beautiful café in which, despite different responsibilities, all of them receive the same pay. The workers have developed a unique café culture in which they promote the community they cultivate more than the food and drink they put on the table.
This grassroots attitude is apparent in the diverse backgrounds of La Cacerola’s employees. While many are family members and friends of the original founders of the cooperative, the only prerequisite for the job is commitment to the project and the network of people it supports. For this reason, the heads of administration within La Cacerola have hired former convicts, homeless people and drug-addicts, people typically not considered reliable or appealing by employers.
However, as the president of the cooperative, Walter, says, the foundational ideals of La Cacerola are “solidarity and trust”. This allows traditional weaknesses to become strengths, because those former at-risk individuals become the most reliable and loyal workers available. Walter elaborates: one of the top three administrators within the La Cacerola heads up the high management duties despite his history as a juvenile delinquent; an ex-convict tends the cash register unsupervised; and a worker with HIV/AIDS shares mate with her colleagues.
Bar Mu is another type of cooperative establishment, located a few blocks from Congreso on Hipólito Yrigoyen 1440. While officially it can be classified as a restaurant, in truth it is a mix of a library, bar, meeting place and artisanal shop. Most clients are regulars who have grown close with the staff. Bar Mu began in the virtual world as an online journal, founded after the 2001 crisis to promote the cooperative movement in Argentina and create awareness of human rights issues. Its creators then decided to found the Bar Mu space to amplify the cooperative’s reach and establish a permanent, physical place for themselves.
Like La Cacerola, Bar Mu has a unique management system. As a cooperative, all workers receive equal pay and respect, despite varying roles of responsibility. Interestingly, the majority of high-responsibility positions tend to be filled by women. The president of the cooperative, Claudia, mentions that this relates to the belief that women manage domestic economies more effectively than men, though men are more dominant in Argentine business due to a historically machista society. She says that in Bar Mu, women are far more effective in cultivating a familial atmosphere, because they translate the rules of the home into the workplace. These “powers of the woman,” as Claudia calls them, forge Bar Mu’s unique environment. As such, the space feels like the extension of someone’s home, with a cosy and motherly feel. It has the same free speech and comfort that exists within a tightly knit family household.
As my conversation with Claudia ends, a Senegalese immigrant walks through the door and comes up to her, planting a big kiss on her cheek. They chat for a bit, she offers him some mate and he heads back out into the cold. Claudia then tells me that the man is a street vendor. She’s known him for years after he stumbled into Bar Mu offering his wares. Since then he’s been coming around weekly, and she’s even taught him to drink mate. Claudia then frowns and says, “His brother was murdered last week.” She pauses. “It’s been tough for all of us.”
La Cacerola and Bar Mu represent just two examples of this powerful cooperative movement, which in Argentina is not limited to restaurant and cafés but can be seen throughout society, from cooperative living spaces in squatted buildings to worker-run recuperated factories. Often hidden from the eyes of tourists who stick to the main sights, such cooperative establishments offer a glimpse at a profoundly Argentine trait: creative adaptation to overcome hardship and the coming together of community in the face of adversity.
Matthew French is currently working for Buenos Aires Delivery (www.badelivery.com), where he often writes about food and restaurant culture for their blog. He also works with Open Movements, an organisation dedicated to developing social economy and fighting economic exploitation.