This article analyzes practices of collectivizing care work by popular sector women in a social organization in Berisso, Argentina. It focuses on their work in community soup kitchens, in which they collectively organize food and childcare, while simultaneously building the political fabric that sustains protest and the organizational structure. The soup kitchens are community spaces often located in neighborhoods inhabited by the popular sectors live, in which a group of people cook, usually daily or several times a week, to offer food to their neighbors. They are operated and managed differently depending on their origin, however, in almost all cases, those who attend do not have to pay for the food, making them into key spaces for neighborhood survival. The main users of the soup kitchens are children, young people, and the elderly.
This text is an extract from the doctoral thesis “Mujer bonita es la que sale a luchar” (“A Beautiful Woman is the One Who Goes Out to Fight”) carried out as part of the Doctoral Program in Social Sciences of the Humanities and Education Sciences School of the National University of La Plata. The fieldwork focused on the experience of twenty women participants in the organization Frente Popular Darío Santillán Corriente Plurinacional (FPDSCP) [Popular Front Darío Santillán Plurinational Current] in the Villa Arguello neighborhood of Berisso, in the province of Buenos Aires. These women work daily in one of the three soup kitchens that the FPDSCP operates there.
In recent decades, the neighborhood territory has become an essential space for the construction of political and community fabrics for the popular sectors. For women, the main and most consistent protagonists in this process, the neighborhood is the privileged space for resolving personal and family needs, in other words, for sustaining life. Therefore, in many cases, it becomes an important space for their political education and learning. Integration in social, political, religious, neighborhood, and other organizations is part of a set of relationships of exchange, conflict, and cooperation that women engage in that shape the community. In the case of popular neighborhood organizations, women are the main participants (in numeric terms) and driving forces behind these organizations’ everyday activities.
The FPDSCP or the Frente, is an organization with a piquetero background. By that we are referring to the social organizations that emerged in popular territories in the late 1990s and early 2000s as part of the struggle for jobs and food, characterized by their primary method of protest: the “piquete” or roadblock. Among its political and organizational definitions, the Frente identifies as anticapitalist and antipatriarchal, positions from which it proposes transforming oppressive social relations within the collective and in society as a whole. In terms of organization, the space for political deliberation is the assembly, which operates according to principles of “direct democracy.” Furthermore, the Frente raises the issue of the construction of spaces of “free and shared work” in opposition to work under a boss. Related to this, it characterizes its work with the idea of “prefiguration,” that is, creating experiences in the present based on the values that are desirable in a future that it seeks to construct.
This article analyzes women’s work in the Frente’s community soup kitchens. This work allows us to address the centrality of care work that sustains families and communities, and which is fundamentally carried out by women as part of a continuum of work in which different everyday tasks overlap.
The Community Soup Kitchen: Collectivization and Politicization of Care Work
In the construction of neighborhood organizations, women from the popular sectors, migrants, workers, Indigenous, unemployed, and peasant women make up the strongest component and are responsible for the everyday support work maintaining productive activities, collective care, administration, and community self-management. Despite this fact, they rarely represent organizations’ public face, either in the media or in events or meetings with governmental authorities. Behind the visible, women live their lives, traversed by political participation, but also by families, multiple jobs, neighborhood relations, desires, and projects, certainties and questions, in an everyday movement that makes it so that the collective element is experienced differently by each one.
In the neighborhood organizations, women’s work in the soup kitchens never ceases yet it is rarely analyzed in its social and political depth. It is often the space that women join as an entryway to organizations such as the Frente and, additionally, it is the activity that tends to initiate the organization’s neighborhood insertion into a new territory. In the everyday, despite the fact that a few men intermittently collaborate, the operation of the soup kitchens is guaranteed by feminine hands.
Entering the popular organization by the kitchen door and with ladle in hand is explained by the fact that women are called based on what they know how to do and what is expected of them according to the traditional gender division of labor, the so-called “reactionary ethics of care” that puts reproducing and sustaining life under the feminine and domestic orbit. As one interviewee affirmed, “for women, thinking that you have to do a soup kitchen based on your prior individual and collective experiences is natural. That idea is always around.” Cooking collectively is a practice that has precedents in every woman’s life, whether in the family or in other neighborhood, social, and/or religious organizations. These previously learned tools are rekindled with the integration into the new space, generating new relations and encounters.
The women express a wide range of motives to behind their decision to get involved in the soup kitchen of an organization like the Frente: “I joined to cook,” “I come so I don’t have to be alone with my problems,” “for my children,” “for necessity,” “to have something better for my life,” “because it makes me feel useful.” In the collective work in the soup kitchens, powerful social bonds are created, based on sharing family and relationship problems, political debates, stories of neighborhood episodes, sexual and reproductive concerns, and a constant organizational effort related to sustaining life in common.
Thus, women’s involvement does not tend to be solely defined by obtaining material resources. Besides resolving basic needs, relational, subjective, and affective elements are also put into play in the soup kitchen. These are key for explaining women’s participation. Sustaining life, therefore, is not reduced to the management of material goods, but rather to the construction of a network of social relations. Here the notion of “decessities” is relevant, which Amaia Pérez Orozco borrows from the field of popular education to resignify the notion of necessities, breaking down the division between needs and desires. The women who participate in the Frente spend many hours a day in the soup kitchen where they cook, care for children, arrange clothing donations, work in the garden, talk about their problems and those of other people, organize activities, coming and going between their houses, the soup kitchens, and other institutions several times a day.
The idea of care work, taken from feminist economics, is useful for thinking about this everyday political burden of the work carried out in the soup kitchen. For Cristina Carrasco, care work is that which addresses the physical needs of the reproduction of life, but also those emotional necessities that are satisfied through affects and recognition. From this perspective, its relational aspect stands out. In other words, it is an activity focused on the recognition of human vulnerability and interdependence, for which the defense of life is in the center. Care attempts to reach those places where the state does not provide guarantees and consumption does not reach, those spaces damaged by the logic of accumulation. This care work is largely carried out by women and sexual dissidents, and organized according to what Pérez Orozco calls a “reactionary ethics of care,” which is characterized by isolation, compartmentalization, and devalorization, as well as being confined to the household.
However, what happens when women escape the boundaries of their homes (the so-called “private sphere”) and place the reproduction of their lives and those of the people who depend on them in common? Or, going further, when their common labor allows for sustaining their neighbors? Drawing on feminist economics, we can respond that the soup kitchen is shaped as a space of of collective management that is organized to resolve not only physical needs, but also the whole set of aspects that are connecting to supporting life. But women cooking together in the context of an organization gives new meaning to care. Here, in contrast to the invisibility and isolation in which women guarantee that labor in private sphere, something different and essential occurs with care.
This collectivization generates a powerful ambivalence. On the one hand, it maintains the gender division of labor because this work continues falling on feminized bodies. But, on the other hand, this collectivized care work in the soup kitchen ceases to be individual and to reproduce feminine isolation in the household, which enables the production of new meanings. It is transformed into shared work and made visible as community and social support work. It creates the possibility of overturning the dichotomies that sustain capitalism and patriarchy: the public/private and the personal/political.
There is thus an ambivalent meaning to the commoning of care work in the soup kitchens. On the one hand, women continue being assigned those tasks related to care, but, at the same time, it produces a certain slippage of the “reactionary ethics.” First, because its collectivization transforms care into an issue of common deliberation and the foundation for the generation of collective agreements. On the other hand, because it produces the need for new organizational bodies that make care into a collective responsibility. For example, it leads to the creation of preschools, popular schools, or neighborhood day care centers that allow women to participate in meetings, mobilizations, and workshops. Logics of cooperation that contrast with the individualization of capitalism and the isolation promoted by the patriarchy can be seen in this new institutionality.
Care work in soup kitchens is only one part of the work carried out by these women. Different feminist studies have rendered visible the volume of work carried out by women, including paid and unpaid, reproductive and productive labor, using different names. This involves broadening the category of work, taking into account all the work carried out by women on a continuum, which fluctuates according to the context and also individual and collective practices. In this way, for women, the day is a long working day, in which different unpaid and paid jobs are intertwined, in different spaces, organized according to contingency and overworking their bodies. However, it is not all overwork, we also see women’s agency. In fact, the soup kitchen, as a way of collectivizing part of this work, is a tactic to reconcile times and tasks to resolve issues of care and take part in a community environment.
On the other hand, the neighborhood soup kitchen, far from being a routine and repetitive workplace, is the organizational space that serves as the foundation for the rest of the collective activities and structure. Here the nexus can be seen between the soup kitchen and the two spheres that the literature on the piquetero movement highlights as the spaces in which its politics is created: the roadblock and the assembly. These episodic instances, which are more visible to the academic world and the media, could not exist without that space rooted in the everyday activity of feeding people. It is in the soup kitchen where the proposals, demands, and debates are cooked up that will be established in the weekly members’ meeting. In turn, one of the main objectives of the mobilizations is to obtain resources for the soup kitchens. And without the food prepared by women in the soup kitchens, it would be impossible to sustain the mobilizations. In these relations we see how much more than food is prepared in this apparently routine activity: it also produces everyday political fabrics that guarantee, in an invisible way, popular organizations’ other activities.
Obligation and Knowledge: The Powerful Ambivalence of Care
Using the community soup kitchen as a jumping off point for our thinking, means centering the common practice that emerged, on the one hand, from the inability of much of the popular sector to achieve food security through the market. But, at the same time, it is not only explained based on a lack, but is also connected to a history of feminine communitarian knowledge related to care. In our case, the construction of soup kitchens is not experienced by the women only as a proposal to organize the territory. For them, starting a soup kitchen is a tactic to organize food and sustenance, as well as a way to generate networks and bonds with other women, in which desires for personal and social change are also channeled.
The collectivization or commoning of domestic work, along with the dispute around the gender division of labor, can become a way of questioning patriarchal relations and the idea of work as a whole. First, because it takes care out of the private sphere, it gives it a new visibility, and, then, because it creates possibilities for encounter and organization of women based on logics of cooperation in opposition to the individualization promoted by capital. From here, we ask up to what point this ambivalence can be resolved in pursuit of the generation of a “politics in feminine,” that is, a practice of organization and deliberation that questions the very nature of care work, its unequal division based on gender, and women’s confinement.