In the south of the La Matanza district, in the town of Libertad, Merlo, there are twelve residents of the Barrio Nuevo neighbourhood who have become essential players in the fight against the current pandemic. Local men and women, struck by the sudden disappearance of jobs, are making more than 10,000 face masks per week. These masks are then distributed and donated to eight hospitals in the City and Province of Buenos Aires.
This handmade production line is coordinated by the nuns from the local chapter of the Congregación Esclavas del Sagrado Corazón (Congregation of the Slaves to the Sacred Heart). The nuns were able to connect vulnerable and unemployed locals with a nearby ceramic and metalworking company who was looking for workers to make face masks for donation. The company took responsibility for logistics, purchasing materials and developing guidelines for the design of the face masks, as well as paying wages for labour.
However, the new workers are the ones who have learned to sew face masks and contributed their time and efforts towards ensuring that their products meet high-quality standards.
Merlo is one of the worst affected by coronavirus in the Province of Buenos Aires, with over 246 infected cases. To meet lockdown restrictions, some neighbours set up temporary workshops in their homes, whereas others who were already working in similar industries had access to facilities, but all have had to adapt to the new limitations in order to "survive and support the family" and "feel useful" in the face of this exceptional situation that has made meeting even basic needs a challenge.
Carlos Maria & Carolina Simbron Pereira
"It’s not easy. I’ve had a very ugly year. It was all very bad. I was about to leave all this and now it’s even worse."
"The whole economy slowed down. My only option is to make these face masks. If this project stops, we won’t have anything to eat. It’s that simple", Carlos summarizes, whilst showing different pieces of winter clothing from his previous jobs. He was never able to deliver or receive payment for these garments as the companies that placed the orders never showed up to collect them.
Carlos is the most experienced member in the network, making around 850 face masks per week. He is the one who, because of his experience in the textile industry, prepares the fabric pieces, organizes the packaging of the elastics and delivers the material to each neighbour every Sunday. He even produced a cardboard template that complies with the required specifications and that speeds up the production process.
Due to the lack of orders, his workshop seems to stand still in time: "I use two sewing machines to make the face masks. The rest are for different types of garments, which as you can see, are dusty and unused. It’s not easy. I’ve had a very ugly year. It was all very bad. I was about to leave all this and now it’s even worse." he laments. Carlos is Paraguayan and has worked as a workshop owner since he came to Argentina in 2004. His family moved three years later because one of his children was ill and needed medical attention. The boy, who today would be 13 years old, died in the Garrahan Hospital a few months after his arrival.
Today he lives with his two other children and his wife Carolina, who helps him with production: "We bought the sewing machines through hard work and effort. We were lucky to have a boss who bought me the first one and allowed me to pay him back by discounting 10% of my salary. And so I made bits and pieces, but it was hard."
Despite these difficulties, Carlos remains positive and considers that being part of the network is a positive experience. "On the one hand, I feel useful for health workers. I am helping them and they, without knowing it, are helping me too. It’s mutual." he summarizes.
Audelina Beatriz Vázquez Cabral
"It’s also about knowing that I’m useful"
Audelina speaks from behind a self-made printed face mask that matches the colours of her clothes. In her eyes you can see tiredness: "It suits me, this is a good arrangement, but I can only make up to 50 face masks per day because I have to clean the whole house and do the chores with the boys. Now with the quarantine I have to take care of everything."
Audelina is a mother of three, her oldest son Mauricio (14) attends a special school for children with disabilities. "I have always had to worry about him and work at the same time. That hasn’t changed. Only now he has to study from home. The truth is that he is much more independent," he says, pointing to him with pride.
But Audelina's main challenge is not quarantine but her financial situation. Although the face masks represent a significant income, her son Mauricio stopped receiving the state benefits (known as Universal Child Allowance) he is entitled to due to a bureaucratic error. "From one day to the next they told me: 'he doesn't live with you'. And I showed them his National Identification Card with the address on it, I went to all the offices. But they still stopped giving me that money and we were counting on that," she explains.
The family is also unable to claim for other disability allowances as Mauricio is Paraguayan. Today they only receive vouchers for food, and until the lockdown is over this issue cannot be resolved.
Meanwhile, Audelina keeps herself busy with her routine. She makes her 200 face masks per week and every Thursday delivers them to Carlos. "I like to know that I am contributing and that the doctors use my face masks. It makes me proud. It’s also about knowing that I am useful," she says.
Nilda Rodríguez y Ezequiel Esquivel
"Totally unemployed. Today the face masks are the only job we have."
Nilda and her nephew Ezequiel have worked together for several years making women's underwear. But ever since the health emergency was declared, they have been left without orders. Today their only source of income is the face mask project, which they agreed to after speaking to one of the nuns from the congregation.
"Totally unemployed. Today the face masks are the only job we have. Until the quarantine is lifted this is the only thing there is. Thank God there is something. The truth is that it’s not much, but at least it helps", explains Nilda.
Nilda and Ezequiel have asked their order of 200 face masks per week to be increased, as these only occupy two working days. They cannot sell face masks in the area either "because everyone makes and sells. There is no longer any demand for them, and it would mean spending money that I don't have on materials."
The prospect for the future does not seem promising. "The problem is that even before the coronavirus started, there was no work. We make bras and pants. When summer ends, production ends. We can stretch it out a little, but not much," says Ezequiel.
When asked about several of the machines resting on the counter, Nilda clarifies that three are hers but that the rest belong to companies who used to order from her: "They left them for when the job resumes. But they've already said it won’t be the same as before. That there will be very little, but at least something to survive on."
Ezequiel agrees, and reiterates: "That’s what we do, we graft any way we can to survive. We’re surviving."
"I was suddenly alone and forced to stay at home. It was horrible"
During the beginning of quarantine, Graciela looked for a way to keep herself entertained, but the days passed and nothing eased the heaviness in her chest. "I started crying with anguish and sadness, I was desperate and each passing day it got worse. I was terrified about the pandemic," she recalls.
The situation reached its peak when Graciela's husband resumed his work routine: "I was suddenly alone and forced to stay at home. It was horrible. Being diabetic and hypertensive, I was discouraged from leaving the house. I was depressed." Her discomfort even triggered gastroenteritis that prevented her from sleeping.
Sofia, one of the sisters from the local congregation, heard about Graciela's situation and offered to lend her a sewing machine so that she could make the face masks.
"As soon as she told me, I sent my son to pick up the sewing machine. I couldn't believe it, it was the same as the one I had owned back home. But we went to check and saw that a part was missing. But I remembered that I had the same piece stored in an old cookie tin as a souvenir. We tried it and it fit perfectly", says Graciela, her eyes shining with emotion.
Now, Graciela sits enthusiastically in a chair every afternoon and sews by pressing down through the old Singer pedal. She already makes 200 face masks per week. "From now on, I’m no longer afraid. Now what I want is for all this to finish and it to be over. This sewing machine opened doors for me. When I finish the job, to stay busy, I’ll ask my daughters if any of their sons' clothes need fixing" she laughs happily.
Graciela Funes Llanos
"We are looking for more work and stretching it out as far as it’ll go. I have no other options and my husband isn’t working."
Graciela bought her sewing machine in instalments during 2004, the year her oldest son was born. The original idea was to make clothes for the newborn, but soon the acquisition became a job opportunity. Today she designs and fixes clothes for neighbours and makes face masks as part of the project coordinated by the Congregation.
"It is increasingly difficult to find a job. Because of the coronavirus, everything stopped and my main income comes from the face masks. But I also make some to sell myself, and if I can fix clothes that people bring me, I do it," says Graciela.
Graciela is shy and her gaze wanders as she speaks. She admits that she is nervous, but when expressing her financial concern, she sits up firmly. Her husband stopped working in the construction sector due to the pandemic and leaving her as the sole breadwinner of her family, which includes her mother who needs ongoing assistance. Every day she cleans, helps her children with their homework and makes face masks.
Regarding the charitable aspect of her work, Graciela explains that "it’s nice to help and work to take care of the doctors in hospitals. And I appreciate this because it helps us as well. We are looking for more work and stretching it out as far as it’ll go. I have no other options and my husband isn’t working".
Today Graciela's main support is her faith that everything will improve. She believes that the pandemic "is a test of God" and she is sure that "this is going to pass quickly. Everything happens for a reason and this will eventually make things better, for everyone".