Let’s talk about… books: Coffee and Commutes Edition

I just got back from an incredible weekend trip to see Puerto Iguazu to see the breathtaking Iguazu Falls. They really do make you feel quite sorry for Niagra Falls… I’m currently working through a backlog of blog posts that I want to write about all my little excursions. More on Mendoza, Uruguay, and of course, Iguazu, to come! For now though, I’d like to write a little about something that I have recently welcomed back into my life with open arms: leisure reading.

I regret how little extra-curricular reading I do during the semester. It’s a damn shame that I only find the time to read for fun during breaks and the summer. That said, due to my lack of regular leisure reading, a good book has always been associated with travelling. In fact, I never travel without a handy paperback tucked into my carry-on. Now that I’m in Buenos Aires, reading has come to be associated with two other things: caffeine and commuting. I’ve loved finding a seat on a packed subway and hunkering down to read. And does anything really beat the tranquillity of settling down in a beautiful cafe with a rich cup of coffee and an even richer story?

Here’s what I’ve been reading so far:

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ft. An amazing crostini de salmon at El Gato Negro, one of the cities historic barres notables

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I picked this up because it was light and lying around my house the day I flew out. I’m glad that I wasn’t forced to read this in high school. Being forced to read anything sometimes has the adverse effect of making the material seem dry and arduous. My experience reading this classic was the opposite! I really liked how unlikeable Holden was and found it very relaxing to read about one boy’s experience of one great city while zipping around another. It may sound phoney but this is one of the best books I’ve read in recent memory. 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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ft. Colombian coffee and banana bread from Catoti, one of my favourite cafes

I bought this while browsing a beautiful bookstore in my neighbourhood. I knew I wanted an autobiography for my commute – something that I could easily pick up and put down in between subway stops. I was mistaken in thinking that this particular autobiography would be something easy to start and stop. Angelou’s raw account of her  difficult childhood growing up as a black girl in the deep south was incredibly powerful and engrossing. This is a fearless book. I know it will stay with me for a really long time.

Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal by JK Rowling

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ft. An incredible breakfast at Petit Colon, another bar notable in the heart of the theatre district.

Reading in a non-native language is always effortful… unless you happen to know the source material word for word. As exposed in this post, I am a huge Harry Potter nerd. I’ve always wished that I could experience reading the books for the first time again and reading them in Spanish is probably the closest I’m ever going to get to that experience! It’s so magical seeing the iconic lines from the first book in a new language. What’s even more magical is the degree to which I’ve surprised myself with how much I’m able to understand. Check out this video on the story behind Harry Potter translations. Interesting stuff!

The Pelican Brief by John Grisham

I found this gem lying around my host mom’s house. Having binge-watched Suits and The Good Wife, I knew I would enjoy this legal thriller. I devoured it on the plane rides to and from Iguazu. 10/10 would recommend.

Aside from what I’ve been reading, I’ve loved living in what is obviously a literary city. After all, Buenos Aires is the city of Cortázar and Borges. Avenida Corrientes, a road right next to my office, is famous for its many used book stores.

Speaking of book stores, no trip to Buenos Aires would be complete without a visit to El Grand Splendid Ateneo, hands down my favourite bookstore in the world. This old theatre turned libreria is a true paradise for book lovers. I could spend hours amongst the bookshelves dividing my time between staring at the titles and at the beautiful ceiling.

The undeniable truth, at least in Hong Kong and in the States, is that bookstore culture is slowly dying. I’ve slowly seen my favourite bookstores back home, bookstores in which I used to spend hours sitting on the floor reading, slowly get replaced by H&Ms and the like. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly old man, I sincerely think that there is still something so special about going to an actual store and weighing beautiful stacks of paper and ink in your hands.

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A staircase of books in Palermo.

Called me old fashioned but I am thankful that Buenos Aires has helped my reconnect with my love of reading and of bookstores. Here’s to more slow mornings spent in the company of a good book and a cafe con leche.

That one time I went to a BA drag bar…

Latin America gets a bad rep for sexism. Many point to machismo culture as one of the main factors in inhibiting gender equality. I don’t think that I’ve spent enough time here in order to really say anything definitive about the state of machismo culture in Argentina. I am also very aware of the fact that as a visible foreigner, my experience of the local culture will always be somewhat filtered. Though I’ve gained a better understanding of the political status of women in this country through my internship with ELA, I still have a lot to learn about what it is like to be an Argentine women.

Upon arriving, I was expecting the city’s incredible boliches to be one of the places where I could really observe machismo culture up close and personal. And while there have been a couple moments in boliches where I’ve been approached creepily (this one guy stroked my hair – not a cute look), I can’t really say that it was any more sexist than a club in Hong Kong or a frat party in Cambridge. In fact, I can actually report the opposite after a great experience that I had at a very special boliche just last week.

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Every Thursday, Niceto Club in Palermo turns into the aptly named Club 69, Buenos Aires’ premier drag club. It’s not hard to get in. One simply has to sign up online with an email address in order to get on “the list” so Nat and I decided to check it out last Thursday. Not going to lie, even though I had literally just typed in my email online an hour before, it felt super cool to be able to march to the front of the line and say “Hola, me llamo Rachel Chiu, estoy en la lista” (Hi, my name is Rachel Chiu, I’m on the list *insert optional hair-flip).

The interior of Club 69 consists of a long bar, a large dance floor, a balcony, and a stage with flashing strobe lights. What really set Club 69 apart though was that there were these incredible drag queens stationed on the balcony fiercely posing to the trance beat. It was really just a taste of what was to come.

At 2:00am, the performance began in proper. The theme that night was very Little Mermaid inspired and these gorgeous, fishnet clad, red wig wearing, shell bra rocking, snorkel donning, dancers were completely bewitching the audience from the stage. Other than the Hasty Pudding show back at Harvard, this was my first experience dipping my toes into drag culture. I must admit that I’m not very knowledgable of the importance of drag culture and it’s relationship with LGBTQ movements. I need to read up on this. What I do know though, and what I experienced that night, is the fact that there is something deliciously subversive about a group of gorgeous men in sky-high heels, all incredibly confident in their own bodies and their own sexualities, dancing around a stage in front of an adoring crowd.

But aside from the wonderful rupture of socially imposed gender norms, the drag show was just a sheer display of talent. Any one of these drag queens could have been on an episode of So You Think You Can Dance. And no, this isn’t the mojitos talking. Do you think it’s easy looking so sexy while wearing a snorkel? I was so mesmerised by the amount of energy they brought to every routine and the spontaneity behind every improvisation. Everything about the performance worked. The set design: fabulous. The music: so hip, so cool, so edgy. The vibes: so positive, so free, so loud.

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I think what’s powerful about drag culture is that it is so unapologetic. And when it’s done as well as it was at Club 69, it is a great showcase of dance, personality, and, of course, pride. I bet you didn’t know that Argentina was actually the first Latin American country to legalise same-sex marriage and the tenth world-wide. I certainly didn’t before coming here. This progressiveness really shows at a place like Club 69 where the crowd was visibly LGBTQ friendly.

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Thanks for a great night Club 69!

I can safely say that this show/club/rave was one of my best night-life experiences so far. And in truth, it was one of the most interesting and empowering experiences from a feminist perspective from my time in Argentina thus far. I am in the process of dissecting the generalised Latin American stereotypes about sexism in this part of the world and while there are certainly fights that must be fought here, I have thankfully had the privilege of experiencing other moments of female empowerment as well. These moments include: that time I watched women taking care of each other on the subway, that time I was inspired by feminist street art, that time I bonded with my host mom over good food and the importance of motherhood, and, last but certainly not least, that one time I went to a Buenos Aires drag bar.

The Intimacy of Home Cooking and the Importance of Motherhood

When I first applied for this internship in Buenos Aires, I greatly overlooked how significant the homestay experience would be. I was just so excited to be in Argentina, to see Iguazu, to drink wine in Mendoza, to see tango, and to fulfil any number of other Argentine stereotypes. I completely underestimated how a significant chunk of my experience would revolve around this concept of building a home in this city with my new Argentine family.

If you really think about it, the entire idea of a host family is actually quite amazing. A local family literally decides to adopt you for a prolonged amount of time based on nothing but the trust they have in the program coordinator. The family knows nothing about you other than your name and your university before letting you stomp all over their home upon arrival. For all they know, you could be a totally inconsiderate jerk and yet they’d still have to feed you and wash up after you. The generosity and trust that these host families possess is really quite astounding.

I completely lucked out with my host family. Strictly speaking, I just have a host mom, but I used to have a host sister as well (Olenka, another girl who just finished a semester abroad), and we were a lovely little family. Now, it’s just me and Ivonne, my host mom, but we still make a cozy family of two. Words cannot express how grateful I am for madre, as I call her.

Of all the amazing experiences I have had so far in Argentina, I’d say the one I value the most is building my relationship with her. This happens primarily over the dinner table where madre and I break bread and work on my equally broken Spanish. I love it though! It makes such a difference that I have someone to ask me how my day was every time I come home.

I don’t think I really realised how intimate cooking is until I started eating with madre. I could see that she was concerned with whether or not I enjoyed her cooking which made me extremely aware that every bite I was taking was not only a bite of her hard work, but also a bite of her culture. And while I was tempted to just nod and say that I loved everything, madre was thick-skinned and insisted on honesty. Luckily, we do have very similar tastes and she is a fantastic cook so I genuinely loved most of what she cooked the first week. But after I told her that I didn’t like mayonnaise, coleslaw disappeared from the table and was replaced by a green salad. After I told her I was meh about bananas, apples and oranges suddenly filled the kitchen drawers and the bananas were banished.

After the first week, it’s really just been hit after hit from madre. In particular, I genuinely appreciate how seriously she has taken my request to eat healthy. You are what you eat which is what makes cooking for someone else so intimate. What you cook directly impacts someone else’s health. For the most part, madre and I eat incredibly delicious yet nutritious and light food. Madre really moved me one night when she made a healthy chop suey (veggie stir-fry) with rice after asking me about food from back in Hong Kong. Other favourites of mine include her wonderful pea soup, her grilled vegetables, and her delicious steamed fish. She’s an artist by trade and you can tell that she loves working with her hands and puts care into everything she touches.

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Only an artist would have such an aesthetic cutlery organization system.

Sometimes though, we eat a little naughty (all in the name of cultural immersion though of course). Madre cooks a mean steak (this is Argentina after all), a banging milanesa, and great homemade gnocchi.

On the 29th last month, I walked into the kitchen to see a little ten peso note laid underneath my plate.

“Madre, ¿has perdido diez pesos?” (Mom, have you lost ten pesos?).

“No Rachel, es porque hoy es el día de ñoquis” (No Rachel, it’s because today is the Day of Gnocchi), while loading a mountain of gnocchi and tomato sauce on my plate.

Yeah, you heard that right, Argentina has a monthly gnocchi day. The story of the tradition is that the 29th of every month use to be the day before payday so money and supplies would always be low. Families usually only had potatoes left at that point so delicious little gnocchis, essentially small pillows of potato, was the obvious way to go. Now, families gather on the 29th to eat gnocchi together for good luck. For extra prosperity, the tradition is to put pesos underneath the plate.

Little stories like this have greatly enriched my experience here (at the expense of enriching my waistline as well). I’ve loved learning about my madre and her culture through the amazing food that she puts in front of me every night. After each meal, I wash the dishes while she drys. We’re a perfect team. I am so thankful for being let into this home and for being so welcomed. This experience has shown me the importance of home cooking. It has reminded me how linked home food is to motherhood (I don’t call her madre for nothing), to nourishment, to wellbeing, and to tradition. As I sit here writing this, I can’t help but salivate a little at the thought of what madre is going to serve up tonight. Whatever it is, it is sure to be made with love and entirely mayonnaise free!

Let’s talk about… the Subte

Little known fact about me: I’m from Hong Kong. Ha! Who am I kidding, I might as well have “HK” tattooed on my forehead seeing as I talk about it so incessantly. An actual little known fact about me though is that I wrote one of my college essays about my love of the MTR, the Hong Kong subway system. This isn’t as weird as it sounds, I swear. Hear me out. Subways are by far my favourite mode of public transportation. Subways are democratic and used by people of all walks of life. In Hong Kong, subway stops dot every part of the city and are connected in a rainbow grid of lines as vibrant as the neighbourhoods they service. Subways are great – easy to use, traffic free, and predictable. Though no subway system in my opinion comes close to the 99.9% on time, pristine, and air conditioned Hong Kong system, I’ve always enjoyed taking subways around the world.

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I’ll always be a Hong Kong kid, at my core.

You see, there’s nothing more local and authentic than taking a subway during rush hour. In Buenos Aires, I have gotten myself into a short-term but extremely committed relationship with the Subte (short for “subterranean”). I have a thirty-minute subway commute to work everyday. And while this seems mundane, some of my greatest personal victories, little moments of triumph and empowerment, have occurred while zipping around underneath the streets of this chaotic capital.

Little victory número uno: There’s nothing more satisfying than a good life hack. Something as small as figuring out the best place to wait for the train in the morning in order to guarantee finding a seat or a comfortable spot has really made me feel like I belong in this city. It’s very hard for me to look like I’m a local by virtue of my chinese-ness. Other than my Chinatown wanderings, I think the only times where I have come close to passing for a local have been on the Subte. I’ve really started to fit in with the dreary-eyed morning commute crowd, especially since I’ve started to read books in Spanish during the journey. Finding a good spot on my morning trip and relaxing with my book really just sets me up for success for the rest of my day.

Subte moment número dos: I knew I had made it in this city when I was one day stopped on the way to the Subte by an elderly couple that was lost. Like I said before, I definitely don’t look like a porteña local. However, I guess something about my fast-paced, self-assured, rush hour stomp to the Subte signalled to this lovely couple that I knew what I was doing. They stopped me on a street corner and kindly asked me where the closest Subte stop was. The poor things were visiting from one of the provinces and had been walking in the wrong direction for almost ten minutes! Feeling good about myself, and as surprised as ever by my actually decent Spanish, I walked with them to the station and even managed to tell them how many stops they needed to go before reaching their destination (I have the green line almost memorised at this point. Wasn’t kidding about being in a seriously committed relationship).

And finally, my favourite Subte moment: One day, at crammed-in-like-sardines-level rush hour, I managed to squeeze myself into a corner seat. However, at the next stop, this old lady who looked like she was about to faint stumbled onto the train. Naturally I let her sit. She looked extremely ill and I was very concerned for her. I worked up the nerve to talk to her in Spanish.

“Perdon señora, está bien?” (Are you ok ma’am?) 

“Me duele la espina” (My spine hurts). I truly felt for her as I watched her grimace with every jolt that rocked the train. However, what inspired me was how all the other women around me came to her aid as well. This old lady had managed to find herself in a corner composed entirely of women. One of them offered to give her water, another to hold her bag, and another gave her a piece of gum. She asked for updates on how many stops she had to go and I gladly talked to her until she finally reached her destination. When I first got here, I was a little nervous about taking public transportation after hearing stories about robberies and what not. And while I’m still very cautious (I rock the front backpack/pregnant lady look everyday), I am happy to report that women on the Subte take care of their own.

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The ceiling of Retiro, BA’s main train terminal.

Now, I’ve had my fair share of mishaps underground. One time, I had to wait for three trains to pass before I finally managed to elbow my way into a carriage during rush hour. It wasn’t that there wasn’t enough space in the first ones. It’s that I wasn’t confident enough to push myself in. Sometimes, the Subte really requires some grit. I’ve also found myself on trains that suddenly go out of service halfway up the line and have more often than I’d like to admit climbed out of a station at the wrong exit. That being said, the rhythm of taking the subway everyday has really made me feel like a porteña. I’ve loved spending hours reading on the train and I feel more and more local every time I swipe my Sube card or give someone directions.

And while I still think that the MTR is far superior, I will give Buenos Aires this: you’d be hard pressed to find a violinist playing Despacito in any other subway system in the world.

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Despacito virtuoso in the Plaza Italia station!

The Origins of Imperfect Feminist

This past semester, I took part in a photo project by Diana Im, one of the cool seniors in my history of feminism class. For her final project, she decided to tackle the pressure that many young feminists feel to be perfect. To be intersectional enough, to be well-read enough, to be woke enough, and to be inclusive enough. While these are all wonderful aspirations, fear of imperfection often leads to silence for fear of getting something wrong. Diana’s project chose to highlight growth and effort – the process of being what she coined, an imperfect feminist. I’ve been struck by this phrase and I’ve decided to borrow it for some of my own writing.

This is a piece of what I originally wrote for Diana along with some cool photos that she took to go with it:

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 I think that it’s a beautiful phrase to capture how I feel about my own feminism, as someone who is still learning, I think that there is a tendency to want to be perfect because very ironically, I think studying institutionalized women and gender studies just ties feminism in at least for me with all the trappings of academia. It’s like always having to have read the right authors, to have been exposed to the certain theories and being able to talk about them and apply them properly… And so just being able to balance the imperfections of reality and of my own life with the want to be perfect in an academic sense has been really interesting. We talk about it a lot but there’s almost no way to translate what goes on in the ivory tower to what goes on in the real world, and so I am so down to embrace this idea that we’re all imperfect and we’re all bad feminists.”

Please check out her blog and the other entries here!

 

Let’s talk about… Harry Potter

As with all things pure and good in this world, Harry Potter has been talked about far more eloquently and by far better writers than myself. However, I can not think of a better subject to start my “Let’s Talk About…” column. The timing is also fortuitous seeing as the world is currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first book. So, accio nerds, let’s talk about Harry Potter

Like many others, I am truly one of the Harry Potter generation. I haven’t lived in a world in which Harry Potter doesn’t exist. I’m one of those true potterheads who has read each book at least 20 times and can quote the movies backwards and forwards. I am the proud owner of a cloak, a Gryffindor scarf (I’m a gryffindor, obviously. Do not fight me on this), a stuffed toy cow named Hagrid, and all the spin-off textbooks.

But apart from falling in love with the characters, getting charmed by the spells, being engrossed by the storylines, and yearning for Hogwarts, Harry Potter is tied to real emotion for me as well. One of my favourite memories with my best friend Ashley is staying up all night racing each other to the end of the last book. We sat back to back through the night in total silence yet we had never felt more connected.

–Me and Ashley: Circa the time HP books were still coming out (taken somewhere in Japan) vs. As high school seniors (still a couple weirdos though)–

Another one of my favourite memories is watching the last movie with my dad. I remember walking into the theatre with my cloak on (we dressed up – obviously) with a knot of confused emotions in my stomach. I was excited, yet sad that this was the last one. This was it. At the end of it all, when Harry’s scar had stopped hurting for 19 years and all was well, I was in tears. I looked over and saw that my dad, my stoic dad, had glistening eyes as well. Harry Potter had been the one series of books that we read together and fell in love with together. I was glad to be sharing this moment with him.

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“Platform nine and three quarters? But Hagrid, there must be a mistake. This says platform nine and three quarters. There’s no such thing is there?”

The two of us, being the nerds that we are, later went on the Harry Potter studio tour in London together. I’m only half kidding when I say that it was the best day of my life. We walked through London to get to King’s Cross with my dad pointing out locations from his medical residence days in the city. We took the obligatory Platform 9 3/4 photo before heading to Leavesden Studio. It was a pilgrimage of epic proportions. I could hardly contain my excitement while walking through the studio turned museum, and my dad, my serious dad, wasn’t much better. The true magic of Harry Potter has always been the power of love and friendship – themes that were just as resonant with me, a geeky teenage, as they were with my father, an incredibly intelligent doctor. In my dad, I have always seen the wisdom of Dumbledore, the reserved dignity of Minerva McGonagall, and the level-headedness of Remus Lupin. That day though, I saw in him the fun of Fred and George, and the wonder of Harry the first time he walked through Diagon Alley.

–Other photos from that trip to London back in 2014–

Not to be left out, my mom also plays a part in this. Back when I was a freshman in high school, we watched JK Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement speech together. I didn’t want to admit it, even to myself, but I knew that Harvard was my dream school. Even as a freshman I knew I wanted to attend Muggle Hogwarts and Jo’s incredibly moving speech, as dumb as it sounds, felt like a positive omen (like a reverse Grim). Throughout the next years of high school, I kept this dream to myself, for fear of the stigma and of jinxing it by saying it out loud.

With my dream in mind, I threw myself at school in my best impression of my idol, Hermione Granger. Like her, I was a bit, shall we say… intense. But also like her, I grew confident in my own intellect and in the fruits of hard work and diligence. Despite all this, I knew that applying to Harvard was a total crapshoot. I knew that any number of factors, luck included (and I sadly had no Felix Felices), would be the difference between acceptance and rejection. And so, when I got my Owl from Harvard in the form of a 5:00am email, I was totally stupefied. Then came the flood of emotions: relief, joy, excitement, disbelief. All this was only amplified by my mom’s cries of “OH-MY-GOD-IS-THIS-REAL? Oh my god! OH MY GOD! CHECK IT AGAIN!”.

While I say that Hermione is my idol, my real idol has, and will always be, my incredible mom. Though my mom, having only read four of the books, is decidedly the muggle of the family, she is my Lily Potter, my Molly Weasley, my Nymphadora Tonks, all rolled in one. She was the one who calmed me down after episodic breakdowns when the stress of classes and test prep got to be too much. She was the one who drove me to band rehearsals, softball practices, piano recitals, dance classes and any number of other activities, all while being a full-time business executive. She was the one who held my hand in my high school counsellor’s office when I at last blurted out that I wanted to pull an Elle Woods and go to Harvard.

And on graduation day, she was the one who knew what present I would find most meaningful: a hardback copy of Very Good Lives, the book version of the text from Jo’s original Harvard 2008 Commencement speech.

–My wonderful parents at my graduation, Very Good Lives indeed–

So thank you Jo and thank you Harry Potter. You have been there for the entirety of my 20 years and you have made my family, my life, and the lives of so many others, immeasurably more magical. Happy Birthday Harry!

An important reminder:

I stumbled upon this beautiful piece of street art the other day while wandering around Palermo Soho, the chicest barrio of Buenos Aires:

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“Mujer ¡Empiece una revolución! Ame su cuerpo”

It reads: “Woman! Start a revolution! Love your body!”

Wow. What an important reminder to us all.

I am currently doing a 2 month internship in Buenos Aires at ELA, el Equipo Latinoamericano de Justicia y Género (The Latin American League for Gender Justice), an Argentine NGO dedicated to improving women’s rights, increasing female political participation, and bettering the lives of Argentine women. It’s a great organization and I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to work with them. I am very excited to learn more about women’s rights in this country and to learn about how advocacy groups operate and fight to make the world a better place.

I also encountered another more sobering reminder while walking the streets of Buenos Aires:

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“1 femicidio cada 24 horas – Vivas nos queremos!”

It reads: “One femicide every 24 hours – We want to Live!”

Estimates put the rate of femicide in Argentina, or the killing of females due to their gender or factors related to their gender, at somewhere between one every 18-24 hours. That. Can’t. Stand. The fight for women’s rights is one that very much must still be fought and I am constantly in awe of my colleagues at ELA for the work that they do.

It’s safe to say that  I have been inspired by the incredible street art in Buenos Aires. The following photo was taken in La Boca, a colorful old barrio. Notice that little hood in right corner? That’s the symbol for Las Madres, a group of mothers who’s children were “disappeared” by the government during Argentina’s Guerra Sucia (“Dirty War”) of the 70s.

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To this very day, las madres gather in the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday to publicly protest government corruption and to raise awareness for los desaparecidos, the term given to the dissidents that were taken against their will. The whole topic of the Dirty War is still quite controversial and it has been interesting talking to locals and hearing a wide range of opinions. I hope to head to the Plaza de Mayo myself one of these Thursdays to hear directly from these brave women.

Until I do though, here are some pics of other beautiful street art – work that reminds us that as much as art can be political, it can also just be beautiful.