Coffee with Strangers: Rocio Roitman from Buenos Aires

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We are very excited to present the first in a series of interview based articles called Coffee with Strangers, where we sit down for a coffee and a chat with local strangers in the cities and towns we visit in order to hear all about life in their city as they know it. 

Introducing Rocio

Rocio, age 24, was born and raised in Buenos Aires in a middle class Jewish family and lives in Palermo. She attended a private school in her primary school years and then decided to move to a public secondary school. She is nearing the completion of her bachelor degree in architecture at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) and is currently working on a street art project called Pensamiento Ritmico.

What can you tell me about your life growing up in Buenos Aires? I think I had a very nice childhood here. After school I would go and play with my friends, have sleep overs on weekends, things like that. We used to go on holiday to Uruguay to the beach in the summer. My school was very good. In primary I went to a private school and in secondary I went to a public school. Both were very good. In Argentina we are very family focused. Family is the most important thing and we spend a lot of time with our friends and family. Some countries are very focused on work work work, but we put a lot of importance on enjoying time with our loved ones. We are a people who like to enjoy life. We don’t wait for the summer holidays or the weekend to enjoy life. We make enjoying everyday and spending time with people a priority. I had a lot of fun as a teenager going out a lot with my friends. We would drink a lot, vodka, tequila, Fernet etc. I drank a lot of vodka and tequila. Now I can’t drink tequila, I can’t even look at it or smell it, it makes me sick. We would go to parties in people’s houses because we were too young to go to bars. Really I had a lot of fun in my teenage years.

What can you tell me about your life as a young adult living and studying in Buenos Aires? I have a very good life. I feel positive about my future possibilities. I think Buenos Aires has plenty of opportunities for people my age. You can study what you choose and expect to find a job in that field. I mean, you will have to start as “the bitch” and work your way up but there are definitely opportunities. I live with my parents now but I’m looking at moving into my own place soon. Many of my friends have their own apartments. 24- 25 is a normal age to leave your parents home and live alone. In Almagro there are a lot of new apartments, they are very small but they are affordable so a lot of young people live in that area. It's normal to have your own apartment, not a shared flat and it's pretty affordable. We like to go out and dance to the cumbia villera. It’s interesting, it’s somewhere where the wealthy and the poor mix, whereas in other areas of life they probably wouldn’t socialise. You can see a cheto in a club of cumbia villera. Cumbia is an old style of music but the cumbia villera comes from the villas which are like slums, so cumbia villera is a new version that’s remixed, the words are not that nice though. A cheto is like a posh person, this can be intended in a bad way or in a good way. Nowadays it's more common to see young chetos in the same bars as the villeros, everybody dancing and enjoying the music. I am enjoying my life in Buenos Aires, there is always lots to do. We are very social in Argentina, we like to go out a lot, doesn’t matter if it’s Monday or Friday. I mean of course the weekend is better but we still like to go out on a week night for a coffee or a drink. 

Tell me a bit about the street art project you are working on. So it's called Pensamiento Ritmico which in English would be rhythmic thinking. I'm doing it with a friend. We take lyrics from well known songs, most of them from Argentinian artists, and the interesting thing is to read them out of context. They are all handmade posters and we paste them on buildings, there are many in Palermo. We have an Instagram account @pensamientoritmico 

Argentina faced serious financial crisis in the early 2000s, when you were just 8-9 years old. What memories do you have of that time? I remember it was just chaos. Chaos chaos chaos. I was very young so I didn’t really understand what was going on. There was rioting and people were stealing everything from shops like electronics, furniture etc. I remember watching the news and asking my mum “why are they taking things they didn’t pay for?”. We had 5 presidents in two weeks because everybody kept stepping down. There was a lot of rioting outside Casa Rosada and the President escaped in a helicopter. Was he in danger? No I mean, he had security to protect from the people rioting but he didn’t want to face it.

How do you feel about your country and culture? What makes you most proud to call Argentina home? I love my country; I love my city. Buenos Aires is a beautiful city. I have just been in Italy for 6 months and that made me really appreciate it more. Sometimes you have to go away to realise what you have. I think the thing that makes me proud of Argentina is the people. The people are very resilient. We have had a lot of problems but the people are always resilient and looking to the future. 

If you had the power to change one thing about your country, what would you change? (laughs) There are a lot of things that need to change but I think there needs to be better communication throughout the country. The country should run more federally. Now the provinces are all governed very separately. I think the country should be more united.

Argentina is a huge and varied country in terms of both land mass and cultures, do you think many Argentinians travel extensively in their own back yard? I have been in the South and the North but no, I don’t travel a lot in my own country. I recently went to visit a friend in Rosario which is the third largest city. I hadn’t been there since I was young. We all do a trip as young school kids to Rosario to see the monument to the national flag, but since then I hadn’t been. So when I went recently I was like “why don’t I ever come here, it’s such a beautiful city". My friend comes to Buenos Aires often and really knows the city and how to get around but I really don’t know Rosario well at all. I need to travel more in my own country.

Argentina has had a fairly tumultuous political past, from colonisation to revolution, neighbouring country wars, British invasion, Peronism, dictatorships, mass disappearances, economic booms and busts. Do you think your generation of students and young professionals take a vested interest in politics? Do you think they participate actively in political discussion? Do you think there’s any apathy amongst younger generations? I’m actually the worst person to ask because, personally, I’m not that into politics. However, many of my friends are very interested in politics. In my school and at my university there were student organisations you can join that were very political. The high school student organisations used to protest so much they would close the school down for a whole month at a time. Older people were very critical of them for closing the school down with protests but actually it’s impressive that they were so organised and passionate. They would lock themselves in the school and sleep there. 

What were they angry about when they protested? Facilities? Not just facilities but also like, there was a teacher who was unfairly dismissed and the students protested this, and fought for the teacher to get her job back. Another time the heating was broken and the school was freezing cold so the student organisation protested to have the school closed until it was fixed, things like that. They wanted to show “hey, we are watching, we matter and we have power too”. And the student organisations at the universities are even more organised and powerful. People are very passionate.

Do you think the past political problems, the dictatorship etc has resulted in young people keeping a close eye on politics? Yes, definitely! We don’t trust the politicians. We watch and we say there are no good politicians but we try to choose the least bad ones. So no, I don’t think the young people are apathetic at all.

Do people talk about the disappearances during the Dirty War?* I wasn’t sure if it would be a taboo subject. No it’s ok, we talk about it a lot. At the time people couldn’t talk about it but afterwards people talked about it and remember and protest because we say “never again”. But you would be better to speak to someone of my parents age that was there. I wish my parents talked to me about it more.

Yes, they would have known people who disappeared? Yes, my uncle had to leave Argentina and go to Israel for a while just because of someone he knew. Even if you were suspected to know someone who the military believe opposed them you could be in danger.

Can you tell me any lessons or attitudes your grandparents taught/tried to teach you? I am Jewish so my grandparents were very traditional, they placed a lot of importance on maintaining their European traditions and Jewish traditions. My grandmother used to say “you need to have a Jewish boyfriend” but nowadays we don’t worry about that sort of thing. Were your grandparents born here or in Europe? They were born in Argentina but their parents were born in Europe, in Poland and Romania

Lastly, do you have an absolute favourite home cooked meal a parent or grandparent always cooked? What is your ultimate Argentinian comfort food? My grandparents used to make some Jewish things like knishes but my absolute favourite thing to eat is Milanesa con puré (Schnitzel with mash potato). Milanesa con puré is my ultimate comfort food.

A big thank you to Rocio for taking the time to chat, we really appreciate it and it was great getting to know a little about your life in Buenos Aires!

*The Dirty War, from 1976-1983, was a seven-year campaign by the Argentine government against suspected dissidents and subversives. Many people, both opponents of the government as well as innocent people, were "disappeared" in the middle of the night. They were taken to secret government detention centres where they were tortured and eventually killed. These people are known as "los desaparecidos" or "the disappeared." - An excerpt from globalsecurity.org. Read more here.