Ever since Pope Francis became the pope, people have been traveling to Buenos Aires to walk the streets where he walked and to see the city that made him who he is today. Most of the tourists don’t get to see what they came looking for. Many, especially Americans, don’t make it any further than the ritzy barrio of Puerto Madero, or the worlds-largest-flee-market in San Telmo which is as much rip off as anything where Chinese mate cups are sold. They dine in Palermo, walk past Evita’s tomb in Recoletta and basically miss turning the postcard over.
It’s a shame. It’s not on the face of a Buenos Aires postcard that Pope Francis’ Argentina can be found. It’s on the other side. You have to flip it over and go where tourists don’t go if you want to see the sights that made the Pope who he is today.
It wasn’t too long ago that Pope Francis was a Cardinal in Argentina known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio. In the boulevards of Buenos Aires and the plazas of barrios like Palermo and Recoletta, where the tourists hang out, it’s easy to miss what Argentines call the “villa de miseria” or misery villages. Some of the villa de miseria are close to the airport, almost in its shadow. Others are close to the city’s center and still more stuck behind the main railway station.
When Pope Francis was just plain Cardinal Bergoglio, he would take time to visit the villages. Bergoglio would go to the slums so often to conduct mass, hear confession and be with the people that he picked up the informal nickname, “Bishop of the slums.”
He wasn’t a radical among Latin America. He lived simply in a downtown apartment across the street from the Metropolitan Cathedral. He didn’t live, as some Jesuits do, among the city’s poorest. While he wrapped himself around a preferred option for the poor, he stayed away from the class struggle that can come with liberation theology. Regardless, the time that Bergoglio spent with the poor made an impression on him and his outlook towards economics.
The villa de miseria are off the grid. They don’t have water, electricity or sewage. Often, they’re home to immigrants coming from Argentina’s neighbors. Walking among these people, Bergoglio found out first hand how unjust the system is. He was amazed that this kind of poverty exists.
As Cardinal, Pope Francis would stay away from the driver and limo that was at his disposal. Instead he would take the city’s “subte,” subway, to get around. If he was in a real hurry, he would hail a cab, but he would always pay for it out of his own purse and not spend the pesos which poor Argentines had sacrificed for.
The future pope wasn’t born into poverty, but he wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth either. He and his family enjoyed a lower middle class lifestyle. The barrio in which he grew up, Flores, is just as austere today as it was then. But the streets are clean, the kitchen tables piled high with food and the kids still play unmolested in the streets.
For the biggest part of the twentieth century, Argentina had one of the highest standards of living in the world. A strong middle class made the country among the wealthiest. Juan Peron, and his wife Eva, or Evita, grew a political party that took his name. Peronism would come to influence the future pope.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the corrupt government of Carlos Menem, bought into Washington’s thinking. Cut budgets and subsidies and privatize state assets and services. While the wealthy invested in US dollars, the bust came in 2001 and it devastated the middle class. With their savings dissipating like the fog over Rio de Plata, they took to the streets.
Bergoglio watched this happen. The fall of the middle class became etched in his mind and helped shape his attitude toward finances. We see the lessons he learned then in his speeches and writings today.
In May 2013, shortly after becoming Pope, he called on world leaders to end the money cult. In December he strongly criticized free market dogma. He went on to decry the gap which is growing between the wealthy and the poor. For his comments, people like Rush Limbaugh in America accused Bergoglio of talking “pure Marxism.”
If a person really wants to understand why Pope Francis thinks as he does, they need to come to Buenos Aires. Leave the wealthy areas of town behind, the part where the tourists visit. Get out and visit some of the misery villages and see how the real Buenos Aires is. Turn the postcard over and look around as you walk where the Pope walked. You’ll go home a better person for having done so.
Pope Francis’ influence is still felt around Buenos Aires, you just have to know where to look.
Editorial by Jerry Nelson