Katie McKiernan

Katie McKiernan

Hi, my name is Katie and I'm a junior majoring in Government and minoring in Spanish. I'm spending my semester in Argentina--mostly Buenos Aires--doing the SIT program on Social Movements and Human Rights. I'm looking forward to my final project of the semester, completing an Independent Study Project (the focus of which is yet to be determined).


When I think of the ballet, the opera, or the national symphonic orchestra I rarely view them as cultural events available to the masses.  Each of these has always had some level of elitism–in American popular culture, “going to the opera” is usually an activity performed by the wealthy, and often boring, characters.

This is not the case at the recently renovated Teatro Colón.  Once the largest opera house in the Southern Hemisphere (until Sydney Opera House was built), this massive theater, adorned with old paintings and carvings that make you feel like royalty, is filled with boxes for season ticket holders, and regular seating, for eight stories.  And, most surprising, the tickets are not incredibly expensive, for Americans or for Argentine’s.

Buying tickets online to go see the ballet, Manon, with my host mom, the prices ranged from 30 to 200 pesos; (about $7.50-$50 US dollars).  And once at the theater, I was surprised to find that even the least expensive tickets offered good views of the stage.  Some were standing only, and others were high up, but they all allowed the theater-goer to fully embrace the performance.

Most impressive, though, was the variety of people at the theater.  From the older couples, to families with small children; from people in dresses and suits and heels to people in jeans and t-shirts.  Argentines sat beside tourists, and everyone was in good spirits.

Behind us was a group of American’s eager to see the historic theater, to one side was an Argentine family, and to our other, a worker in the Chilean embassy who we talked with during the show, during both intermissions, and until we had to go opposite directions walking home.  Through it all, what really impressed me was how eager they were to share the culture.  The ballet was not reserved for the elite, it was for everyone to share in the beauty, and the magic (and it was magical- from the orchestra to the scenery to the dancers I was in awe the entire performance).  People from different social classes and different countries were all brought together to share art, and whether seated in private boxes or standing at the highest balcony, all that mattered was that they were all there to appreciate the performance and discuss it with each other.  The first words our new friend at the Chilean Embassy said to us, beginning an evening of pleasant conversation, translate to “how wonderful”.


La Quiaca, Argentina is the same city as Villazon, Bolivia.  Crossing from one side of the city into the other is truly effortless. Sometimes, passports are checked as you cross the border, but usually one can cross without any questions.  Were it not for the sign, “Bienvenidos a Bolivia”, you wouldn’t even stop to think that you’d left one country and entered another.

Once you enter Villazon, however, it is abundantly clear that you’ve changed countries.  From the traditional layout of La Quiaca, a quiet city with lines of restaurants and stores, you enter a series of chaotic streets overflowing with artisanal sweaters, hats, gloves, dolls, and shoes, wall decorations, pencil cases, wallets, handbags, backpacks, the list continues endlessly.  Intermittently, there are small stores filled with every-day clothing like soccer jerseys and blue jeans.  The streets are completely filled with people, both Argentine and Bolivian, buying as much as they can.  The prices of goods, already fairly inexpensive in Argentina, have dropped even more.  Once you begin haggling in Villazon, it’s easy to walk out with an alpaca sweater for 10 US Dollars.  Everyone accepts Argentine pesos, but they may deny having change.

Once you’ve crossed into Bolivia, children work in the stores, alongside their families.  And not all these children are Bolivian.  Many children are born in Argentina, and thus receive the benefits of being an Argentine citizen (free healthcare, free education), while their families are Bolivian.  This leads to several questions of migration and human trafficking that Argentina must face daily. The border, however, is kept open.  Each day, from 10am-1pm, there is a path where people use carts to cross goods from Argentina into Bolivia, and vice versa, sin taxes.  For those three hours, people run frantically, the Bolivians with the help of their children, to transport as much as they can.

Perhaps most interesting, is that no one discusses closing the border.  In our class to discuss our observations, we asked why stricter border controls didn’t exist- and if that may help with the problems of human trafficking.  The response was that the border in La Quiaca wasn’t the problem.  It was fine that people crossed freely, that the two cities functioned as one, that children could use the schools in Argentina.  The problem, our professor explained, was the river that could be crossed 24 hours a day and expanded many kilometers away from the city.  The problem was that roads outside of the border towns weren’t regulated to prevent people being transported into the interior.

And, as with all problems, people don’t always realize they occur.  At dinner that night, we began talking to our waitress.  She asked us what we were studying in La Quica and we told her we were learning about migration and trafficking, she said, clearly surprised “human trafficking happens here?”  And with that innocent question, we all began to rethink how we’d viewed our classes before and after our observation: the two cities, existing as one, was so natural to the citizens of La Quiaca that there was no need to stop and think about the problems that could be associated with the border.


I had no idea what to expect when I was told that I’d be spending three nights in a rural homestay in Quebrada del Toro, outside of Salta.   Even after the class on “campesino” life, where I learned that big families live and work together on small farms mostly focused on producing food for self consumption, I felt anxious to see what the community would look like.  How big would the farms and homes be?  How would they be managed?  How close would they live to their neighbors?

Arriving in Quebrada del Toro, surrounded by dry mountains and cacti, a new question came to mind.  How do they manage to plant crops in this environment?  My partner and I were the last to be dropped off at our homes.  After three hours of winding roads through mountains, we stopped and proceeded to walk to the property: through a field, over a small creek, past the remaining infrastructure of a destroyed home, past fields being plowed, and finally,to where we’d be staying.  All of the property we’d just walked through was the property of the family we’d be staying with, passed from one generation to the next.

There was no electricity: but there were solar panels to light the one light bulb in each room.  The rooms were all separated so that you walked outside from the kitchen to the bedroom to the bathroom (which, did not have a shower, but did have a normal toilette–our family’s “father” was the town nurse so they had some money).  All of the floors were dirt floors.  There were two kitchens: one, less used, with a gas stove and the other with a wood-burning stove.  There was no technology or modern luxuries, but it was an incredibly comfortable, safe, homey place to be.  The family was happy to work on the farm, proud of the goat cheese they produced, and peaceful as they herded the 50 goats and 23 sheep.

I genuinely loved every minute I spent in Quebrada del Toro.  I loved waking up early and having tea and some bread with the the family.  I loved helping to cook, learning to make soy gnocchi and soy milanesa, peeling vegetables for soup, and helping to make the bread.  I loved going out to help take care of the animals, especially the 3 day old baby goats.  I loved talking to the family and learning about why they chose that life, even after the mother had worked in the city of Salta.

Everything the family had they produced.  All of the food was fresh, and we’d even helped pick some of the herbs used.  To make money, they sold their goat cheese and the hats, scarfs, and toy llamas the mother knitted from wool that she spun.

Living there was new, and it was refreshing.  I realized how refreshing it is to live with nature, away from the trappings of technology.  I realized how much easier it was to sleep after working all day in natural light.  I learned how to really escape from the trappings of my normal day-to-day life of homework, working on a computer, constant communication with others.  I, for maybe the first time in my life, lived in the moment.  I experienced what it was to work for each meal, rather than just buy the ingredients (or, the already-prepared food) at the grocery store.  Throughout it all, I was at peace.


The province of Salta, in Northern Argentina, is referred to as “Salta la Linda”, or “Salta the Beautiful”.  And the name is fitting, the stretch of the Andes through Salta is drastically different than those in the South, they’re dry and desert- like, but they boast incredible colors and a variety of cacti.  Meanwhile, the architecture of the capital city is breathtaking.  Salta, however, also happens to be one of the poorest regions of Argentina.

Extreme poverty was something I’d only heard about before Salta.  Poverty exists in Buenos Aires, and existed in the South, and I was aware of how much the less fortunate neighborhoods I’ve seen with SIT struggle everyday.  There, it was what I expected poverty to look like, and although it was hard to see, it didn’t catch me by surprise.  In Salta, however, I took a visit to Barrio San Juan de Dios, just outside the city, which gave poverty a new meaning.

After visiting with a social movement that works for the right to a dignified life and work that has helped begun a construction cooperative in another neighborhood, we went to San Juan de Dios to deliver utensils and cup for the “comedor”, similar to a soup kitchen, that they’re starting and see a neighborhood that they’re starting to work with, providing jobs within the movement.  San Juan de Dios is what I always knew but never believed poverty could look like.

Walking into the barrio, you see the polluted river, that’s led the residents to lose everything due to flooding.   Then you come to the houses, makeshift shacks constructed from cardboard and, sometimes, scraps of plywood or metal.   The insides are lined with newspapers, to try and help with leaking in rain or flooding, and the roofs are constructed of tarps or, what looks like garbage bags.  The “comedor”, which we were there for the inauguration of, is a foldable table, outside of one of the shacks, with blankets hanging over it as a roof and some yogurt and juice to give out. The women who’s home is the temporary location of the soup kitchen explained to us their desperation with food: the government will give them free milk if their child is considered malnourished, but to keep getting the free milk, they can’t feed their children the day before appointments with the pediatrician to access their health or they won’t have enough milk to feed them.

This was their reality, and while they struggled, and each day was a challenge, they were so thankful for everything.  The children were especially the yogurt at the inauguration of the “comedor”.  Nothing I’ve seen has been more beautiful then the smiles of the children, with “yogurt mustaches”, holding their small plastic cups that SIT had donated (as well as plates, bowls, and utensils).  In that moment I was overcome with gratefulness: for all of the opportunities I’ve had both in the United States and here in Argentina.  I became overcome with a drive, to come back to the US and fight with F&M, through my involvement with THRI and the Ware Institute, to help try and alleviate this kind of desperation.


During my week long trip to Patagonia to learn about indigenous rights, environmental rights, and the right to a dignified life (a home with the crucial amenities and access to schools and resources) in Argentina, I spent one night in a mapuche community, Chiquihuilin.  The community is located in one of the northern provinces of Patagonia and is tucked away in hills and mountains.  The area around the community is breathtaking: surrounded by the Andes and with a view of a Chilean volcano the landscape is humbling.   I managed to be both overwhelmed by the immense beauty and isolation, and startled by the proximity to another country.

The experience in the Mapuche village brought many surprises.  I was expected a very rural community without any modern technology.  I was not surprised, therefore, by the squat toilet outhouses, the farm animals roaming the yard, or the lack of hot water.  I was surprised by the satellite tvs with the dishes perched in trees by the homes.  The televisions, along with the radios, are the only visible symbols of the connection between the mapuche community and the outside world.

However, the biggest surprise was the language barrier I experienced.  After several weeks in Buenos Aires without encountering any serious barriers to communication, I felt confident going into my one night stay in the community.  During the night, we were practicing participant observation and were meant to conduct informal interviews to learn about themes such as the connection to other mapuches, gender relations, and relationship with the government.  When I arrived to the community myself and two other students on the program were placed with a family of grandparents and their grandson.  We eagerly began speaking to the family, excited to learn about their culture and share ours.  Quickly, we realized that the answers we received didn’t always line up with the questions we asked.

My theme was the culture and connection with the mapuche identity, so I asked about the mapuche language, mapudungun.  I learned that the language is quickly dying, and many younger generations do not understand any of the native language.  In my family of grandparents, however, mapudungun was their first language.  Since they had less knowledge of spanish, they found communicating with us difficult due to our accents.  Although this led to some frustration on both parts–it was obvious they wanted to share more while we had to be very careful about how we asked questions to make sure we were understood–it became a blessing.  Although I did not understand everything that was said about festivals and music, I did experience the evolution of the mapuche relationship with language.  While the grandparents spoke mapudungun and spanish, the grandson knew spanish, the few words that his grandparents taught him of mapudungun, and was going to learn some english in the high school outside of the community.  The rapid evolution of culture, visible even within one family, has occurred out of necessity: spanish is important for their income while english is becoming important as tourism to the community increases.



When having a conversation, after a few minutes I’m always asked “where are you from?”  Although I’ve been able to communicate, my flawed Argentine accent is a clear indicator that I’m not a native.  When I answer the United States, the other speaker usually nods and often asks about New York.

My host mom is fascinated by how close West Windsor, New Jersey is to New York and how easy it is for me to visit for a day.  When she learned her friend would be taking a vacation to New York and Washington DC next week, she didn’t hesitate to invite her friend over for dinner to “spend time with her American daughter from the New York area”.  At dinner, I got to know her friend who almost immediately wanted to learn about things she could do in New York and DC.  And, although I don’t claim to be an expert in either, it quickly became a long conversation about everything from my favorite museums in both city’s, to an explanation of Ellis Island and why it’s an interesting place to visit, to the process of waiting in line in Time’s Square for discounted Broadway tickets for that day’s shows.  I wrote out the list as well, so that she could bring it with her, using both the American names “Museum of Modern Art” and the spanish translations, “Museo de Arte Moderno”.

Sharing information about the United States cities opened up a new avenue to talk about my hometown and about the things I love about Franklin and Marshall.  I explained the concept of the house system and we talked about the liberal arts, which are much more limited in Argentina (they exist, but people tend to enter with a pretty clear major and only seem to explore within the larger theme that interests them; truly engaging in the liberal arts is a rarity).  My host mom quickly equated my love for my hometown and my school to the pride that the people of Buenos Aires take in their “barrio”.

Now, my host mom’s friend feels better prepared for her trip to the States, but I also feel more connected to my life in Buenos Aires.  Sharing details about my life at home with someone outside my host family, rather than making me feel like a foreigner, made me feel more engaged in living in Buenos Aires because, while the communities are drastically different: I’m from a suburb and attend a small liberal arts school that serves as it’s own community while Buenos Aires is a massive city,  we all take pride in where we’re from.  Even though neither of my “barrios” use a massive subway or bus system as the major form of transformation like those of Buenos Aires, the sentiments of affection are consistent.  And after spending the past 3 weeks learning my neighborhood in Buenos Aires, I can call a third “barrio” a new home.


Embracing current Argentine culture has been a pleasure: visiting the weekend markets, sharing maté with friends, taking an afternoon pause for coffee or tea and a snack with a friend, introductions followed by a brief kiss on the cheek, and speaking using a new tense to refer to you have all been pleasant changes to my daily life.  Each holds a sentiment of kindness and a peaceful rest that serve as a nice break from the everyday speed of  the city and a lesson to bring back to Franklin and Marshall.  Yet, like any country, Argentina has experienced dark periods in history that have forever changed the country.

From 1976-1983, Argentina was ruled by a military dictatorship that partook in clandestine kidnappings, torturing, and killings of citizens who opposed, or were linked to someone suspected of opposing, the government.  Olimpo was one of these clandestine jails where the torture was carried out.  Going to visit Olimpo, knowing what had occurred there, is hollowing.  An open, massive, garage right in the city, the rooms that hadn’t been filled in with concrete by the military in an attempt to hide all  evidence of what had occurred are small and barren, surrounded by thick concrete walls.  Zones are clearly marked for excavation to find more, but standing are bathrooms, some rooms used for the torture, and rooms for paramedics to revive the torture victims so that none would die before the information the torturers wanted was extracted.

Although nothing remained in the small, concrete, windowless rooms, knowing what had happened there still caused me to feel unsettled, nervous, and even a little afraid.  Facing arguably the darkest era in Argentine history head-on was both eye-opening and humbling.  The moment of hope came in the small library at Olimpo, where researchers are working to compile life history’s of the victims, to insure that they are never forgotten and that history never repeats itself.  This dedication to justice for the victims, for preserving their memories, and the search for any who might have lived brings hope that may be the most moving aspect of the country: it has overcome.  This knowledge gives me hope, but also makes me motivated to pay attention to what happens around me–many didn’t realize that the torture happened to non-militants, or that it happened at all.  Even people living close to the Garage where Olimpo was located didn’t realize that it was also a center of torture.  The tour guide made comparisons to Guatanamo Bay, urging us all to avoid falling into an ignorance that permits human rights abuses.


When we arrived in Argentina, we began our stay at a small hotel in the country for orientation where everything felt simple and trapped in a simpler time.  Then we came to Buenos Aires, which, although I knew it was big, was not expecting to be the massive metropolitan it is.  For a minute, I forgot I was in South America.  Then I looked around and was reminded when observing all the signs and posters in Spanish.

Learning my way around Buenos Aires is a constant process of relearning everything I thought I knew how to do.  In my first week in the city I’ve become acquainted with my new family, learned how to navigate the extensive bus and subway system, and learned how to bring my clothes to a laundromat (which, in Buenos Aires, is more like a dry-cleaners since I can’t do my wash on my own- yet still filled with rows of machines).

I’ve learned that Buenos Aires has numerous cultures and that each barrio in the city has it’s own character and a slightly different culture.  I live with my host Mom in Palermo, which feels like it’s own town with streets lined with cafés, stores, and trees.  I’ve visited Recoleta, which has the cemetery where Eva Perón is buried, which feels much older but timelessly elegant.  I’ve seen Boca (home of the soccer team Boca Junior) and it’s vibrantly colored houses, which is said to be very Italian.  Every part of the city has it’s own personality: and it’s made the first week a bit overwhelming to absorb.

As expected, however, the hardest transition is into the language.  I’m pleasantly surprised to find that, when talking to most people, I’m able to communicate fairly well: with my host mom the language barrier hasn’t been a problem and I enjoy talking to her each day.  In classes I’m following along well and when I was lost and asked for directions, or when I broke my watch and took it to get fixed, I was able to communicate.  Yet the Spanish here still feels foreign.  If I’m caught off guard by a conversation, the speed with which the native Argentines speak and the new accent causes me to pause and wonder if I’m following the conversation at all.  In such a short time, however, I have noticed that my spanish is already improving.

One of my main goals while here is to become fluent and communicate (even when the speaker is fast, or it’s early in the morning or late at night) without doubting if I’ve understood correctly.  I’ve been the first of my group to sign a contract to only speak in Spanish during my time in Buenos Aires, even when communicating outside of the classroom with the other students on the program.  It’s been a little over a day since I’ve signed, and though it’s a big step to take, I feel ready to fully submerge myself in the language.


In less than 48 hours I will board the plane to Buenos Aires, beginning my life abroad.  In less than 48 hours I will be on my way to the program I’ve been counting down to since March–if Hurricane Irene doesn’t cause my Monday night flight to be cancelled.

Over the past several days I’ve finished my pre-departure assignment and questioned how to approach packing.  Alas, I’ve finally determined how to pack: I’m going to fit the majority of my clothes and necessities in a large rolling duffle and pack my books and laptop into a camping backpack, but I’ve been thrown a new challenge.  How do I pack with a tornado warning in my county, a quickly flooding basement, and uncertainty over how the weather might derail my plans?


Packing is going to need to wait until tomorrow morning since tonight is reserved for my family taking shifts emptying the wet-vac we’re using to catch the water from the leak.  Instead, I’ve reflected on the whirlwind of emotions I’ve been experiencing as my departure date grows closer–emotions that may be changing as quickly as the wind speeds are meant to be overnight tonight.

When (I’m choosing to be optimistic about the weather forecast) I leave on Monday night, I will be attending the SIT Social Movements and Human Rights program based in Buenos Aires.  This program includes a Social Movements and Human Rights seminar, a Field Research Methods course, an intensive language study, and, finally, a one month long independent study project.  What drew me to the program was the independent study component–I’ve always wanted to complete my own research and this serves as the ultimate stepping-stone for that dream.  When I begin my seminar, I hope to be inspired to embark on my independent study that, if all goes according to plan, I will be able to further pursue later.  I’m eager to learn about the history of Argentina, it’s culture, it’s struggles, and it’s abilities to offer solutions.  I’m eager to begin my journey.

My primary emotion since my acceptance in March has been excitement- for the life I’m about to live and the changes I’ll be experiencing.  As the time grows closer, however, new thoughts have hit me.   What once seemed exciting is now a source of concern.  How will I survive living in a city, after growing up in the safety of my New Jersey suburb and attending school at F&M, where I’ve never had to worry about my safety because I’ve been surrounded by such a strong support system?  How will I avoid unintentionally offending my host family?  How do I prepare for a brand new style of Spanish, different then the formal style taught throughout middle and high school, and into my time at F&M?  Will I understand them?  Will they understand me?  Concerns race through my mind, but one thing is certain; when I return in January I know I’ll be a different person.  I hope that that person is stronger, more independent, and more aware of life outside of the community I’ve always known.  Hopefully I’ll be better prepared to adapt to sudden changes in plans, especially since that may be something I need to do sooner than I expected.