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We travel to Buenos Aires with reporter Rosina Castillo who immerses us in the culture of a local community arts organization who saw a need in their community and took action during the height of the pandemic. La Casona de Humahuaca transformed their operations to host “ollas populares” or community kitchens to help support their community and make it through the toughest parts of COVID together, all the while learning more about their organization and purpose in the community. We follow that with a conversation with Belen Desmaison, an architect and urbanist who discusses the building of an innovative communal living space with modular food preparation areas in Lima, Peru.
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Making Contact is an award-winning, nationally syndicated radio show and podcast featuring narrative storytelling and thought-provoking interviews. We cover the most urgent issues of our time and the people on the ground building a more just world.
- La Casona de Humahuaca, a community arts organization in Buenos Aires
- Guillermo Castañeda, a teacher and volunteer
- Mariela Jungberg, social psychologist and cultural worker
- Belén Desmaison, urbanist and architect
- Episode Reporter: Rosina Castillo
- Host: Amy Gastelum
- Interim Senior Producer: Jessica Partnow
- Engineer: Jeff Emtman
Making Contact Staff:
- Hosts: Amy Gastelum
- Producers: Lucy Kang, Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, and Amy Gastelum
- Executive Director: Jina Chung
- Ergo Phizmiz – Gretchen’s Tango
- Blue Dot Sessions
Amy: On Today’s Making Contact
Guille: We started the olla looking for the pot. The size of the pot would determine the number of people we could feed. That was the first thing.
Amy: We hear how hundreds of people were fed during pandemic lockdowns in Buenos Aires at community kitchens called Ollas Populares.
Rosina: Olla is Spanish for pot and populares meaning “for the public” because anyone can eat from them and anyone can cook for them.
Amy: Volunteers at one olla explored how preparing the meals helped solidify a sense of identity for their arts organization.
Ana: We had a debate internally. What’s the difference between the olla popular in La Casona that has an identity in recreation, games, and social activities, and the olla in a political organization, or the olla from the army? What’s our special contribution?
Amy: If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because this story originally aired in November 2022. Reporter Rosina Castillo takes us through her Buenos Aires neighborhood for the story.
Rosina: I live in the southern part of the city of Buenos Aires. My neighborhood area is called Abasto Almagro and Boedo. It’s a working class neighborhood. Many of 1920s anarchists, communists, and later union workers lived and thrived here. Their ideas still float around. They are like a community ghost, uniting us. Now, it’s still known for social and culture organizations and art. Lots of art.
Rosina: Here we are at the intersection of San Juan and Boedo, an historic corner. Many tango orchestras performed here, turning it into a hub for tango music and poetry culture. When I get to the iconic corner, people wave to each other. They talk at little coffee tables.
Rosina: I am a journalist. When lockdowns were announced, I remember thinking, Okay, I can work from home. Not much will change for me. But I also love to sing in amateur chorus. After a few weeks alone without singing, I started to wonder who am I if I can’t do what I love?
Rosina: La Casona de Humahuaca is an organization in my neighborhood. It’s a cozy storefront painted in bright colors. It stands out from the more modern buildings next door. Normally, they host game nights and put on plays. These activities connect neighbors and help the community process trauma. During the lockdowns, they couldn’t gather. La Casona de Humahuaca came under the same lockdown rules we felt inside our homes, so the question applied to them too. If they can’t do what they love, who are they? They returned to the basics. Law said you could not gather but for the essentials. Okay, eating is essential. They have a little restaurant in which they sell food or afternoon coffee. So La Casona put their kitchen to use, feeding and nourishing people, and there were plenty of hungry people. In 2020, half of the population in Argentina struggled with poverty. For children, it was worse. La Casona so was one of hundreds of political and social organizations that started community kitchens. Here in Argentina, these pop up meal spots are called ollas populares. Olla is Spanish for “pot” and populares meaning “for the public” because anyone can eat from them and anyone can cook for them. They’ve been a part of Argentine culture for a long time. When things get bad, people pull out their pots, their ollas and start cooking for everyone.
My friend made this recording of La Casona’s olla. The food was cooked and they opened the window from the kitchen out to the street. They offered a plate to a man walking by. You can hear him say, “but I don’t have anything.” Like, he can’t pay. A volunteer responds “igual te damos”: we’ll still give it to you.
Ollas happened all over South America during the lockdowns, all of them with their regional distinctions. In Buenos Aires, we make the famous guizo, a stew, but a guiso’s ingredients change based on the region.
In Almastro, Almagro and Boego, we make guiso with rice, lentils, or pasta. We try to add some meat and vegetables to give it flavor.
Guillermo: Entonces juntamos las olla que teníamos nosotros. Eso daba la cantidad de gente que la cantidad de ollas que podíamos hacer con el recurso. Eso fue lo primero.
Joaquin: We started the olla looking for the pot. The size of the pot would determine the number of people we could feed. That was the first thing.
Rosina: Guille is a teacher. He has volunteered at La Casona de Humahuaca for the past 20 years. One of the members was sure they had a big olla somewhere in the kitchen.
Maybe it had been used during another difficult time, maybe during the 2001 economic crisis. They looked in the basement. They asked around. Who has the olla, who has the pot? They never found the pot, but that didn’t stop them.
Guillermo: Tuvimos que, creo que es de, la que vino, la que quedó al final. Entonces juntamos las olla que teníamos nosotros.
Joaquin: We asked around and another organization lent us the pot that we are using. We also use the other small pots that we had in our kitchen.
Rosina: La Casona made a flyer with all the ollas happening in the neighborhood. If you went to one, you’d get the flyer and in it you could find out where to eat that same night or the next day at a different olla. They call this network Committee of Solidarity, and Emergency.
Through the committee, the organizations also helped each other get donations for the ollas. I know this because at this point I had many friends that were helping in the ollas. I offered to develop their website, and that’s the thing, everyone offered what they could.
Mariela: Mi nombre es Mariela Jungberg soy psicóloga social, y trabajadora de la cultura.
Ana: My name is Mariela Jungburg. I’m a social psychologist and a cultural worker.
Rosina: Mariela says a cultural worker is someone who promotes culture through art or food, and in her case, games and theater. This is a widely used term in the country.
Before the Lockdowns Mariela worked at La Casona. She used games and theater to interact with the neighborhood. Community contact was essential for her identity, so when La Casona shut down, joining efforts to make an olla was obvious for Mariela, though, she felt a bit insecure in the kitchen.
Mariela: nosotros no tenemos ni idea de nunca hicimos una olla, pero nos aseguramos de que en el equipo haya alguien que sepa
Ana: We had no idea. We never made an olla before. But we made sure that there was someone on the team who knew.
Rosina: One thing sorted, but they needed money. Soon, other organizations in their network pitched in.
Guillermo: Fue tal cual acá nosotros pusimos la olla con el agua que en la casona, la vecina puso el esfuerzo. Muchos de nosotros pusimos el esfuerzo. Después vinieron las don.
Joaquin: We borrowed the pot, we added the water. The neighbor added the effort. Many of us put in the effort. Then the donatives came.
Mariela: Si vos me preguntas, ¿cuál es el ingrediente que no puede faltar? Es la participación. El el amor y la participación hacia el otro. La empatía.
Ana: If you ask me what’s the ingredient that cannot be missing in each olla, its participation, the love and participation towards the other, the empathy.
Rosina: And it was fun. Mariela and Guille told me the cooks would challenge themselves to improve at each meal, they made internal duals to produce more flavor and more difficult dishes.
Volunteers at the olla told me they needed the ollas to feed themselves and to provide for the neighborhood, but something else came out of the olla for La Casona.
Mariela: A este debate que tuvimos interno es, ¿es lo mismo, una olla popular, en la casona de Humahuaca que tiene una identidad desde la recreación del juego desde el tejido social a una olla en una organización, partidaria política a una olla en un ejército a una olla en entonces, qué aportes tiene? Qué aportes desde la recreación? Puede dar la casona a una olla popular.
Ana: We had a debate internally. What’s the difference between the olla popular in La Casona, that has an identity in recreation games and social activities, and the olla in a political organization. Or the olla from the army. What’s our special contribution?
Rosina: Stopping to ask themselves this question helped them understand their identity. What makes La Casona, La Casona?
Mariela: entonces tiene como, bueno, qué aporta la casona? Una olla popular desde la recreación. Bueno, nada porque nuestra lente está mirada en en en en lo artístico, lo lúdico lo lo colectivo. No es que lo pensamos, lo hacemos directamente
Ana: Then we have the question of what are we providing? What are we bringing to the table? Our vision is embedded in artistry, play, collective action, it’s not that we give that touch to the olla consciously, we do it because it’s who we are.
Rosina: I get what Mariela is describing here. Technically, their olla is not different from other ollas, but while they cooked, they established certain rituals and celebration days. Their unity was maintained.
Mariela: Logramos sostener los rituales barriales a pesar de estar en nuestras casas
Ana: We managed to maintain the neighborhood despite being in our homes.
Rosina: Through forming an olla, La Casona strengthened their identity, but the organization was also transformed by the process and started working with the network of agriculture workers that united to combat the abuse they suffered from big distributors.
This is how they learned about sustainable agriculture, changing the way they look at food and consumption. La Casona started cooking with their products. Now they use these new products at the restaurant.
Mariela: Que a mí en lo personal me transformó saber que detrás de esa verdura o del producto del emprendimiento cooperativo que que consumimos cuando vos consumís esos alimentos sentís otro sabor que creo que es lo mismo que siente la gente de la olla cuando come ese plato, que que siente que no es solamente un pedazo de verdura o una carne, hay otra, hay otros condimentos. Aplauden a los cocineros “que rico”.
What personally transformed me is knowing that behind the vegetable or the product of the cooperative enterprise that we consume, when you eat those, you feel another flavor. and I think it’s the same for the people of the olla. When they eat our food, they feel that it’s not just a piece of vegetable or meat. There are other condiments. There is an effort to be better. They applaud the cooks. How delicious.
Rosina: When I started reporting this story, I could barely talk about those difficult lockdown days. At that time, I felt inspired by people who took action during such a crisis.
I was paralyzed. They took action. I wanted to know why and how. I wanted to talk to them, learn with them, and get some of that strength. I am still working on all that has happened. I haven’t finished processing, but the collective experience of the olla, keeps inspiring me to this day.
As a tango says, there is nostalgia for the past times, but I believe transformation is here too. Now, I know it’s possible to do things differently than they have always been done. I can transform how I do things. This is now part of my identity. And my identity walks and sings side by side with this neighborhood and its rituals.
Amy midroll break:
Amy: The group at La Casona de Humahuaca was one of thousands of ollas populares that emerged across Argentina during pandemic lockdowns. In other places like Peru, ollas are called ollas communes.
Ollas comunes were especially prevalent in the poorest areas, the outskirts of the city.
Lima is tucked between the Pacific Ocean to the West and the Andes Mountains to the east. The population has swelled in recent years with people relocating from the countryside. They come to the city looking for opportunities for work and education, and they settle in the outermost ring of the city, which is increasingly creeping up to foothills of the Andes.
These communities are self-built on terraced ground with limited flat space. They often lacked official infrastructure like lines for electricity and sewers. It’s an area subject to earthquakes and mudslides. This means, traditional approaches to gathering and building and cooking have to be rethought.
We sat down with Belen Desmaison, a Peruvian architect and urbanist who helped conceptualize and build modular food prep structures for one Lima Hillside community’s olla comun. In 2020, she was working in the Jose Carlos Mariategui neighborhood with a group called the Action Research Project. The group included academics from Lima and London and an NGO, but also the people living there.
They were building infrastructure to help provide basic services like sanitation and electricity, but all of their projects were put on hold when Covid started to spread.
Belen: This crisis of food insecurity, the inability to feed themselves like quickly emerged. So it was also I think, a, a response from, um, researchers, but also like, uh, people themselves, the NGOs, like this is what, what we need to do. And this is what, how we need to engage with, uh, the rest of the, of the research project that lasted lasted till, uh, March 2022.
Amy: Since gathering was restricted, the team met primarily over Zoom and chatted on WhatsApp. They figured out pretty quickly that the flexibility of those communication platforms actually enabled greater participation for busy community members, which is important because the community members drove the design process.
Belen: And, uh, I think one of the positive aspects of the pandemic is that we all became aware and, and like familiar with zoom and other virtual media platforms. So like comparing the work or the level of engagement and networking of the ollas that emerged during COVID 19 and the previous ones, like you didn’t have that level of communication engagement, uh, as constant as it was during the pandemic, when everyone was able to join some meetings or WhatsApp groups. So communication work was quite constant.
Amy: Together. The team came up with a plan for five structures that could be built with cheap, local materials. They prioritized a simple roofed pergola, as shelter for the cooks. They also built a stove, a hand washing station, a storage unit, and a garden unit, including raised beds and bins for composting. Desmaison says the fact that these structures are modular is key.
Belen: So you can like replicate them or like use them change the, the nature, the size. So it’s idea of being able to adapt to different spaces where the community kitchens take place, so like, it’s, it’s a kitchen, it’s also a roof, uh, storage facility and, uh, bathrooms. The community kitchens also needed, um, community gardens. So this is a whole idea of what kind of food we’re providing for our communities. And like, if we grow our own food, perhaps have a better diet, better food, organic food, because right now the, in donations that they get, uh, are not necessarily like the best kind of food they sold processed food.
Amy: The modular structures were only built in two locations, but the idea is that what they did can be replicated elsewhere. The thing is, each olla, even within Jose Carlos Mariategui is different. Some were simply pots set up in the open.
Belen: or they take turns in different houses. Others happen in a park, some attend like 50 families. Others, up to 200. So it’s like also important to be able to, um, acknowledge those differences. Um, recognizing that some community kitchens already have like a roof or a toilet or a kitchen, or like none. So how do you add up with, with those things?
Amy: So each neighborhood is unique. In Jose Carlos Mariategui, people couldn’t afford gas for cooking, so they built a modular stove in a way that could use fuel from wood.
Belen: Or like whatever they can find. This is not really architectural. It’s more engineering. This was a very multidisciplinary team. Yes. I’m an architect, but we work with, uh, mechanical engineers, with sociologists psychologists. So this whole idea of like how do we create spaces, both metaphorically and physical that respond to the necessities and the aspirations of people.
Amy: Desmaison is particularly concerned with the aspirations of women. She’s interested in how communal spaces for cooking and childcare can help free up their time to pursue other things. But this isn’t a new concept. In fact, it’s very old. She says, cooking and childcare used to be communal, but were privatized during the industrial revolution, and since then have increasingly isolated women in homes.
Belen: Cities and households have been designed from like a male perspective. So yeah, like predominantly white male that goes from the house to work. So the whole transfer system, um, the house itself, like it, it felt like this place of refuge for him, cause he gets to the house, uh, rests after work. Like I’m talking about like the 1950s sixties, like the 20th century. So how is that changing now? How do we create places, uh, for women, for children, uh, and, and, and for caregivers really that are many times not recognized, not remunerated? They have to do these activities at, uh, individually. Like what would be the benefits of engaging with more communal aspects of these caring activities, which is cooking, taking care of the children of the elderly? Uh, should it just be like a more like share responsibilities within the household, but also between the household, like communities and, uh, a higher sense of responsibility from municipalities, the government itself.
Amy: the team designed the modules and prepared the terraced land with this communal caregiving responsibility in mind.
Belen: These kitchens serve the purpose of, at the moment, um, food insecurity. But like those spaces, uh, could become something more like expanding care beyond cooking right? So. They normally live in very small houses that may lack water, sanitation, electricity. Uh, so these community centers that now work at for food production can also become places for children to be able to do their homework after school, to, uh, for the elderly also to have places. So making communal caregiving activities that were happening at the individual level by offering a better infrastructure for where those activities can take place. And that would also mean like mothers have to stay home when their children are from school, that they can take turns using this community center to be able to engage with our activities, uh, whether it’s working or studying or sleeping. Cause it’s not on my turn today to take care of everyone’s kids. Like I think, uh, it’s something that’s really appreciated by, by them. And they, they were the ones that had that necessity clear from the beginning. It’s not something that we came up with, um, as architects or designers. I think we are all dependent on care at one point in our lives. Uh, and it should be integrated to allow caregivers to have not even like more income. It’s more about time for themselves as well to decide whatever they want to do. Cuz it creates a lot of dependency and like the ability to do other, other things.
Amy: The gendered aspects of the labor of caregiving has been a hot topic surrounding the pandemic. Women have borne the brunt of caregiving work during lockdowns, but women are also innovating. Demaison says, When the research action group was looking for a community to build with, they were walking through a prospective neighborhood in Jose Carlos Mariategui…
Belen: and, uh, this woman came chasing us while we were walking. And said like, you need to work with, with us. Like we have it all figured out. We have the, the plot there we’re already working with these people.
Amy: Her name is Eliana, Achata. We weren’t able to get ahold of her for this story.
Belen: And she was the one that really pushed us through the whole process. Uh, like literally like with sweat and tears and blood, like she had to, her whole community got together to be able to flatten the, the lot, cause it was like on the hillside. So it’s a lot of work of like breaking stones with whatever you have to be able to then build something on, on there to be able to like stabilize the, the terrain and like, yeah, she was someone who didn’t even know how to build, but like through the process, she helped with the construction of the walls, the roof. Um, and I think it’s like a really interesting experience to see how it is, uh, a mutually learning experience. Like we all get something from, from there, uh, beyond like the research, like how people’s life knowledge, capacities change, uh, during the process.
Amy: the project was propelled by the pressure of hunger. And there was no option to wait until lockdowns were lifted to plan a solution.
Belen: The municipality of Lima also created like a, how do you call it like a discussion table? With community kitchens, but also other institutions. So like the ministry of social development or NGOs as, uh, se, but working in other areas of the, of the peripheries, you have academia as well beyond the Catholic universities.
So people from different backgrounds in, uh, environmental engineering, food production or sociology, psychology. So it’s this whole discussion of like how to also work and enhance, share experiences, share limitations, struggles, problems, and, uh, coming up with ways in which to provide solutions for the emergency, but also thinking and recognizing the importance of, of sustaining these practices of solidarity and care, uh, beyond the, the COVID 19 pandemic. So that also falls like in the whole, uh, working as, as an architect, as an nervousness, like all this discussion on, uh, feminism, uh, care as something that should be promoted and inserted into, into design, both of architectural, but also like in planning and, and urban design.
Amy: The multidisciplinary action research team was able to offer resources and ideas to the Jose Carlos Mariategui neighborhood, but Demaison acknowledges that they were simply an addition to the organizing that was already taking place in the area.
Belen: Like it was us, uh, coming into something that was already happening and like, uh, to see ways in which we, from our like knowledge of, of technical knowledge, being able to design build, how can we help, uh, or processes that we’re already going. So I think in that sense, knowledge that, uh, research academic research nowadays, at least the ones that I engage with, like participatory processes or production are, uh, are also trying to render visible and acknowledge other ways of knowing and being like beyond academia, cuz academia itself research has like? for many, many decades being more conceived, more like an extractivist scenario. When like, I go, I do my interview, I publish a paper, but like nothing happens to, to you. So like, uh, we’re trying, I think, uh, at least in my research, I’m very interested in like seeing ways in which research can benefit, not only me as a researcher, but mostly communities and, and people that we work with, I mostly work with historically marginalized communities. So like this whole recognition of like inequalities of research, seeing like being one way, uh, I think it needs to, needs to change. So that’s why, uh, I prefer to talk of like them leading the research project.
Cause most of the time they really know exactly what they want, what the problems are, uh, who do they need to talk to, uh, from the municipality of the national government, what are the, their expectations for the future? So it’s really more about, uh, the university or academia becoming facilitators, uh, that are able to. Um, bring their voices to those people that need to hear like working in, in, in union with them, for, for them to be able to achieve their objectives.
Amy: That’s it for Making Contact today. Thanks for hanging out. If you want to learn more about Ollas Populares the action research group or La Casona de Humahuaca check out our website. We are radio project dot org . There, you will find links in the show notes. I’ve been your host, Amy Gastelum. Until next week.