Cooperativa La Juanita was born in the aftermath of Argentina’s deadly riots of December 2001, when the economy crashed and created social and political turmoil.
“We started as a cooperative formed by a group of unemployed workers who rejected the government assistance in the 2001 crisis, because we wanted to generate our own source of work and provide local people with a quality education,” said Silvia Flores, the cooperative’s executive director and one of its founders.
The cooperative is on Buenos Aires’ outskirts, in the working-class province of La Matanza that since the unrest has grown by about 750,000 people to 2 million.
“Cooperativa La Juanita has a kindergarten. We have a bakery, a textile workshop, a call center that works for a very important bank in Argentina, 20 trade courses, an employment office, and different social projects such as Potrero Digital—community adult technology courses,” said cooperative President Fabián Hamed.
Education, entrepreneurship, and a strong work ethic are at the heart of the cooperative, but the tool that has been essential to success is the computer. Education and business skills are tied to the availability of computers within the cooperative.
But until recently, Argentina’s government imposed a 35 percent import tariff on laptops and other electronics, choking off technology access and the opportunities that came with it. Libertad y Progreso, a Buenos Aires-based non-profit, helped change that.
Lower barriers let a community prosper
Libertad y Progreso worked with the government to eliminate the tariff. Then La Juanita was able to purchase new computers, which led to new educational programs and new job prospects.
“Many people believe that a public policy that makes computers cheaper is an abstract achievement,” said Agustín Etchebarne, the general director of Libertad y Progreso. “But there is nothing abstract about creating new jobs for poor people. And in the midst of the [current crisis], there are few things more important than getting a job.”
The computers and classes create skilled labor, for which there is a demand in Argentina. They made it possible to start Potrero Digital, which teaches technology and digital design management, animation, and game design that open international job prospects with companies such as Disney and Pixar.
“We train young people age 18 and over, and we also work with people over age 45 who have a hard time finding employment in today’s market,” said Hamed, who also runs Potrero Digital. “Everyone is used to cleaning, masonry, or plumbing, but these courses with computers open many more doors.”
The cooperative’s call center is staffed primarily by graduates of La Juanita’s computer education programs. Recently the call center landed high-profile contracts with banks and other major businesses, creating even more new jobs.
“What I love about the people of Cooperativa La Juanita is that these people want to get out of poverty with their own work. They did not accept government assistance payments. They want to train and see how productive work is achieved, and be included in society by their own efforts,” Etchebarne said. “What you see in La Juanita is something very unique in Argentina, and it is very inspiring.”
Critical mass and rising
La Masa Crítica is La Juanita’s on-site bakery. Its name translates roughly to “critical mass,” but in truth has many meanings.
When La Juanita was still in its infancy, regional government administrators told its organizers they could not form a cooperative without a critical mass of support. The administrators openly doubted the neighborhood would support the founders’ vision.
The people of La Juanita proved them wrong. From that the bakery received its name.
But masa can also mean dough, and the bread provided by the bakery is critical to about 250 struggling families in the neighborhood. It sells for 20 pesos a kilo, which is one-fourth of what it would otherwise cost.
Miguel is head baker at La Masa Crítica after working there for several years. He and his team are proud of their pan dulce and medialunas, or croissants, that are popular in the neighborhood.
“They come in at 4 a.m. to bake the best bread in the neighborhood,” Hamed said. “It’s more than just a salary. Our colleagues know they are helping others—and because they are also earning money, they see the possibility of getting ahead.”
“In La Juanita, lives are saved and, above all else, souls are saved, through work and education—these always go hand in hand,” Hamed said.
“The only thing we want in La Juanita is to be free, to generate our own work with our effort, not depending on anyone, and to teach our children that the only struggle that is lost is that which is abandoned.”
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