Margarita Barrientos’ soup kitchen Los Piletones feeds 1,300 mouths a day. As the institution’s founder, Barrientos has been recognised on numerous occasions for her work with the poor in the Buenos Aires suburb of Villa Soldati, most recently with a Diploma of Merit for Social Development from the Konex Foundation. She was named Argentina’s Woman of the Year in 1999, and a Distinguished Citizen in her hometown of Añatuya in 2000.
But her journey has never been easy. She was just 12 years old when her mother died and her father abandoned her along with two of her siblings. In search of her older brothers and sisters, she travelled to Buenos Aires from her native Santiago de Estero. There, she lived on the streets and frequently went hungry. At the age of 14 she met and later married her husband Isidro, with whom she had ten children.
In 1996, the pair first opened the doors of Los Piletones, the soup kitchen that has become a pillar of the community.
Now, at the age of 47, the feisty santiagueña heads a foundation which boasts a heath centre, a lounge for elderly residents, a childcare centre, a library, a bakery and a pasta factory, as well as the prodigious community kitchen that churns out up to 1,000 hamburgers and 800 milanesas daily. The foundation’s kindergarten has around 100 students, and there are plans underway to build a carpentry workshop and to increase the size of the health centre.
The Argentines talks to Barrientos about her inspiration, her challenges and her achievements.
You’ve been through some really terrible things in your life, growing up on the streets, yet you’ve survived. How did you manage to overcome your traumas?
A lot of things have happened in my life, but I always say to the kids when I give them advice that you have to take the good out of things, because there is always something good. And the bad things that happen in life are useful to learn from. I still have faith in people. Above all I am a big believer in God, and this has been useful for me. I don’t hold any grudges; I don’t feel anything for the people who have hurt me. You have to forgive to be forgiven.
People living in villas are often stereotyped through the news media as drug addicts or criminals. What kind of people are they really?
Many people say that the people in the villas are robbers or thieves. But no, the robbers are out there! They don’t know that the people who are here are workers. Like the 30 women who volunteer here. They are my rocks, because without them I couldn’t do this. They get up at 5.30am, start here at 6.45am, everyday. The only people who are paid here are the teachers who are brought in by the government. The people here work together. They like to share; they bring food from their regions of the country to exchange with other parents. Here they have the opportunity to share more.
Television news programmes occasionally show stories of children in other parts of the country dying from malnutrition. Porteños tend to equate poverty with the provinces and forget about their own backyards. Have you seen similar problems here?
When we started working in the with 70 families, there were problems with malnutrition and underweight children. We came and tried to help the families and to follow up on kids that had this problem. It’s improved a lot. Now, you might see an underweight child but it’s not a question of food, it’s a matter of some kind of gastro-intestinal illness.
Is it a battle to get the resources you need?
Yes, it is difficult, and frequently it’s tough for us. But I’m not a person who waits, I go out and look. I like it if they say yes, but if they say no, well that’s okay, there’s the next time. I’m very persistent.
The villa has a health centre, thanks to your foundation. What kinds of health problems are staff seeing there?
In winter there are bronchial problems, pneumonia, all of the things that come with cold weather. In summer there are problems related to clean water, which people don’t have, like diarrhoea, mosquito bites, and outbreaks of chicken pox. We have a community pharmacy where patients can take away their medications. Our health centre doesn’t belong to any government, not to the city government, nor the federal one. We manage with donated medications so that the people can be treated without needing to buy drugs.
You’ve also incorporated a childcare centre into the complex. How does that work?
The childcare we provide is for mothers who work. Many of those are cartoneras who go out sifting through rubbish, so they can leave knowing that their kids are going to be taken care of, that they can eat breakfast, that they’ll be looked after and that they’re going to learn.
Is there anything about working in this field that’s difficult for you to deal with?
The problem that you can’t solve is drugs. You always see the same thing, kids that are addicted don’t have the opportunity to get over their addiction because there aren’t places for them, and this is unfortunate, very saddening.
It’s painful, not just for us but for the family they are part of, because all of the help that they can give is not enough, there’s no way out because there is nowhere for these guys to be rehabilitated, or there aren’t enough spaces.
Although they [the government] say that they are doing a lot against drugs, they’re not doing anything. I think if they worked to throw those who sell the drugs out, a lot of things would get better in this country.
Do you find that poor families tend to be more fragmented than in other sectors of society?
I think families here are more united, but yes, there are break-ups. It’s more common that in poor families that people will put up with terrible things, that women are beaten and all of those kinds of things. I’m really against this. Whenever I see a woman hit I always ask them what their rights are. Women need to be aware of their rights and they shouldn’t have to be afraid. I don’t like to see a woman hit.
Who inspired you to create something like this? Was there someone you admired?
One always admires someone, and I’ve always felt admiration for Mother Teresa.
What do you feel most proud of in your life?
I’ve only completed the third grade of primary school, and I’m not a person who has managed to finish my studies or anything, but I’m proud of what I have done, with the childcare centre, the library, the health centre, to fulfil all of the basic necessities that were lacking, to be able to feed people. I always ask God for me not to make mistakes, although we’re human and we have the right to, I ask that if I make a mistake it should be a little one and something I can resolve.
Are things getting better here?
There’s a lot to be proud of and everything that we’ve done has been to support our future. We can take a lot of pride here. In November the daughter of a woman who makes cakes graduated from medical school, which was achieved with a lot of difficulty as she was a solo mum, and she had seven brothers and sisters. Another girl graduated as an engineering mechanic, and another finished high school.
What needs to happen for Argentina to eradicate poverty?
There has to be work. Like I always say, the soup kitchen doesn’t have to exist. People need to have dignified labour through which each family can bring something to the table, and then they wouldn’t have to depend on a soup kitchen to eat.