Official Blog of the Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

LACIS Undergrad, Jess Schwartz, Reflects on Time Spent Volunteering in Buenos Aires

The following is LACIS Outreach Intern Jess Schwartz’s reflection on her time spent in Buenos Aires over winter break utilizing a LACIS travel grant.


Te extrañamos mucho, she wrote on my Facebook page. We really miss you. It was a small gesture, but these words represented everything to me. The friendships I formed in Argentina have changed me for the better. In the end, I think the best thing we can do is change and be changed.


With the generosity of the LACIS program, I volunteered for over three weeks at Casa Santa Clara, a home that provides support for girls ages 13 to 25 living in the slums, forming a safe space of compassion and learning. The house offers a home away from life in the streets, especially from the ranchadas or groups of adolescents that are dependent on paco (cocaine paste). Casa Santa Clara also provides community support for teenage girls enduring domestic violence or facing unplanned pregnancy. Several of the girls have had babies at age 11 or 12, without parents to support them or their new child. The girls face the incredible challenge of balancing motherhood, middle or high school, and work, and many need time to simply be kids themselves. In all these cases, Casa Santa Clara tries to establish a network of professionals and role models to help girls have successful futures.


These bright and compassionate girls, who belong to a frequently marginalized community, have stories of their own. Eighteen-year-old Rocío taught me the history and the rhythmic steps of the traditional dance called murga. Even at eight-months pregnant, she kept dancing. Nineteen-year-old Mayra explained the difficulties of balancing work and school, and she was happy to know that I shared the same challenges. The girls and I shared a secret love for Justin Bieber and One Direction. We liked the same movies and did the same things on the weekend. Even from across the world and with different backgrounds, we had almost everything in common.


The girls introduced me to everyday beauty. During my first week volunteering, fourteen-year-old Marisol had her second baby. I met her the year before, and I was immediately inspired by her maturity and compassion. On a hot summer morning, beautiful Benjamín was born, and all of Casa Santa Clara illuminated joy. I had never truly experienced a baby’s birth before, and I found myself holding back tears of happiness.


The girls taught me that sometimes the little things, like friendships and simple art projects, make the biggest difference. Despite my limited crafting skills, I helped teach the girls art projects, such as making friendship bracelets and gluing magazine collages.


I learned that glue binds everything. I looked around the room at Casa Santa Clara, at my friends and myself, laughing at the beautiful hodge-podge mess we were creating. We were from different corners of the earth, with distinct pasts, but we had far more similarities than differences that bound us together in friendship and laughter. We served as teachers for one another, exchanging not only factual information but also new experiences. The more I grew to love these girls, the more I vowed to fight for social justice. Using the academic knowledge I gained in my social science class on social issues, I hope to develop future programs to assist those in urban slums with psychological and financialneeds.


In the end, glue can repair. Anything that is broken can become beautiful. When I first arrived to Buenos Aires, everyone warned me to stay clear of the slums or “neighborhoods of misery.” Yet, I gained a different perspective. Rather than misery, I saw opportunity. Casa Santa Clara provides adolescent girls with workshops each week, which cover topics such as health and sanitation, personal and professional development, and leadership training. Other workshops feature art projects. As the girls use glue to create beautiful designs, they begin to see the beauty of accomplishment, the beauty of themselves. Through social efforts, we can fill the social cracks that lead to marginalization and exclusion. With a little glue, learning and effort can facilitate the integration of populations, of knowledge, and of experiences.