Esteban “El Gringo” Castro, jogging and sports jacket, advances walking on a bridge that crosses the murky waters of the Reconquista River. He carries a staff in his right hand. the secretary of the Union of Workers of the Popular Economy (UTEP) is one of the participants in a pilgrimage that started in Lujan and that now passes through Merlo, to the west of the Buenos Aires suburbs. The image itself has an epic halo, but what a pilgrim says to Stephen, evoking Moses, accentuates it: “Are you going to open the waters?”. This tour that a group of thirteen people started on Tuesday is the prelude to the march that social movements nucleated in the UTEP prepare for this Sunday in downtown Buenos Aires, on the day of San Cayetano and in claim of “peace, bread, land, shelter and work”.
Since 2016, to this date, the Missionaries of Francis –a Catholic movement born shortly after the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope in 2013, whose creation is linked to Emilio Pérsico– organize a pilgrimage that goes from Luján to Liniers and leads the mobilization towards Plaza de Mayo. That was the year in which, in full macrismo, the San Cayetano march began to take place, which sealed the unity of the popular movements. “The gringo says ‘we do not separate the faith from the fight’“, synthesizes Gabriel “Pato” Duna, regarding the spirit of religious-social corridor that is being assembled on the eve of each August 7. Pato is from Misioneros, from Luján, and belongs to UTEP. “We are the little feet of the Virgin”defines the man with a long beard, 55 years old, a former waste collector and now a municipal worker, at a stop in the square located in front of the Paso del Rey station, in the Moreno district.
The route that this sunny Friday begins after 9 o’clock from the headquarters of the PJ de Moreno is a small-scale expression of that hybrid of the religious and the social: Along the way, a small religious act takes place, in Paso del Rey, and an assembly of social movements, in a square in Merlo. The meeting anticipates the tone of the march on Sunday. In the speeches appear the stigmatization towards those who collect plans, the judicial and political persecution suffered by organizations, official measures that do not contemplate them.
They were Duck and the skinny girl, another of the pilgrims –the only “fixed” woman of a group that feeds on people who come and go–, those who devised this ritual, mates through La Casita de la Virgen, in Luján. La Flaca remembers that on an A4 sheet they pasted an image of San Cayetano, a stamp of Pope Francis and Pato wrote a few lines by hand. They took photocopies and so spread it. “We left with bags and sleeping bags, with little money, with bananas, peanuts and pâté, without knowing what it was like to spend so many days on pilgrimage,” he says. “This is the panacea,” they both agree. It is that, with time, the production became more sophisticated. They sleep in unions and chapels. In many places companions with food await them. A Hilux truck with the yellow flag of the missionaries goes to the front carrying belongings, also fruits –tangerines, apples, bananas– and water for the road. Municipal transit agents sometimes protect them. In the case of Moreno, they even provide trucks and motorcycles.
This edition is particular for the presence of Castro. The leader, figure of greater weight in the territorial construction of Evita and husband of Mayor Mariel Fernández, lives in Moreno. From that town he came supporting the pilgrimage. “Generates a lot of stuff, a little more buzz, peers expect it, everyone wants to see itPato says admiringly. “I never dared. I used to weigh 115 kilos, now 93,” says Castro, who has done other shorter stretches. He has just stretched his legs. “I lived in a popular neighborhood for more than 20 years and I come from a lower middle class. I was ideologizing and I did not get into the popular faith. The town got me and it was healing for me. The layers of individualism are taken from you by the people who have nothing”, he defines himself. Regarding the relationship with the Government, he points out: “You have to call us to discuss and give us ball. Leaders have to get closer to the most humble, learn and become aware. The community is showing ways to build popular power and we have to look at it more deeply. It’s what’s missing.”
Even more striking is the participation of Gustavo Beliz, fresh out of the post of Secretary for Strategic Affairs. He moves quite far away from the group. He talks little. It seems that his journey is inward. He has a bottle of water in his hand. Comfortable clothing, brown; a cap; a handkerchief that acts as a chinstrap. “I came in silence”: is all he says to this chronicler. Two twin brothers who live between the streets and hostels –and who have been missionaries for many years–, an evangelical pastor and Tamara Barbará, coordinator of the Afro commission of the Legislative Staff Association, also walk. One of those who enters and leaves is the journalist specializing in religious issues Lucas Schaerer. There are some young people, for example a 15-year-old girl who has just joined, and Nacho, one of those who carries the Virgin on her shoulders.
At the front are the showcases with the images of the Virgin of Luján, the Black Manuel and the Virgin of Aparecidafrom Brazil, where the pilgrimage actually ends, after leaving Plaza de Mayo.
Interesting comparison Matthiaswith a jacket Avoid Movement, at the doors of the municipal delegation of Paso del Rey, which provides the bathroom. He, an evangelist, is one of the organizers of the group. He takes care of the traffic. “This is different from a mobilization because there, if you cut traffic, they put you down. Here they cross themselves, maybe they give you a dozen bills or they go to the grocery store and bring you a kilo of apples. It is all love and peace. The Virgin leads the way“, he describes happily. The religious act just ended in the Plaza del Rey and suddenly, after crossing the train tracks, the column widens.
It is happening, says Matías. There are those who join for a while. Those who, like a girl getting off her motorcycle or a woman in her 70s, come to touch the Virgin. Those who cry when they see her. Those who ask to enter her houses. There are also those who ask strange questions (“are they carrying San La Muerte?” asks someone who observes from afar) or funny comments. For all the good that appears in walking, La Flaca (39) assures that the pilgrimage is “useful”, although her mother accuses her of “being crazy, to fart, wasting time”. She is an event planner. Her work suffered with the pandemic and the economic situation. She charges the Empower. She spends most of her time at La Casita. “I don’t want to nor can I live off the plan. It’s hard to feed someone and listen, but you can see the bad,” she says.
A lunch of pizzas and empanadas awaits the pilgrims at the headquarters of the Evita Movement, in Merlo. In the Plaza de los Héroes de Malvinas there is then a Assembly in which local leaders ask for “unity” for this Sunday. The most fiery speech is that of Dinah Sanchezof Dario Santillan Popular Front, which urges to demand “urgent answers for the last of the homeland.” “The UTEP has proposals, it puts on the table again the Integral Law of Land, Roof and Work. Guzmán, Batakis, and now Superminister Massa were there. I’ve been listening carefully to the announcements. Did you ever hear any proposal for the popular sectors? The only thing I heard was audit, order the plans. On Sunday we don’t have to say we want a job, because we have it. What we don’t have are rights,” she says, among other things, in a landscape that combines flags with statuettes, concern and faith.