In 2003, as they had so many times before, reporter Silvina Heguy and photographer Maria Eugenia Cerrutti went to cover a story for the Clarin, the newspaper where they worked. They were to report on a protest by residents of Ezpeleta, a town at the southern end of greater Buenos Aires. Community members there were desperate because a high-voltage electrical substation was causing irreversible health problems and even fatalities in residents.
When Silvina and Maria Eugenia arrived they found much more than a daily news item. What unfolded before their eyes was a devastating scene: over years, apparently as a result of the high-voltage power lines, more than one people had died of cancer; another hundred had cancer. The survivorsâ€™ stories were written painfully on their bodies.
Silvina and Maria Eugenia understood that they were onto a significant story and they decided to give it whatever time it needed to cover it properly. They worked on the story for three years. Throughout that time they visited Ezpeletaâ€™s unfortunate underworld of illnesses and deaths time and time again. They spoke with people, they established delicate ties, and finally, in 2006, they presented an austere but powerful piece of journalism that addressed the health issues as well as the absence of a government response and the resulting inability of the neighborhood to build a future under these circumstances.
The article, â€śOne Neighborhood, Too Many Absences,â€ť was published by the Clarin in December, 2006. It received several awards, among them the King of Spain Prize. Maria Eugenia won the Best Photography award from the Foundation for New Latin American Journalism (FNPI). She saw her pictures cross from journalistic documentation to reflections on privacy and the body. The images were including in the book Body Politics that shows the uses of photography (and the body) as a political tool.
In 2006 Silvina and Maria Eugenia won a grant that allowed them to finance the publication of 132,000 Volts, a book that we are reproducing in part here in Nuestra Mirada.
Meanwhile the electrical substation continues operating.
One Neighborhood, Too Many Absences
Text by Silvina Heguy, Photographs by Maria Eugenia Cerutti
Translated by Ted O’Callahan
It has been years since the butterflies flooded the street in Ezpeleta the way they used to. Gladys Solioz misses them, especially in September when they used to dye the empty corner lot with their colors. Now, instead, she sees only a bare white wall that hides an electric power substation.
Under most circumstances the fact that the butterflies no longer come to Ezpeleta would be news only a lepidopterist would lament. But in this middle-class neighborhood thirty minutes south of Buenos Aires, it is only the start of a long list of absences. Gladys Solioz misses the butterflies but more than that she misses her neighbors. She points to houses, like some sort of funereal tour guide. â€śIn that house lived a woman who died of cancer. The people beside her are both sick. And here, in this garden apartment, a four-year-old passed away from leukemia.â€ť
In the empty lot on the corner of Padre Bruzzone and RĂo Salado there was a simple plaza the neighborhood boys called the â€ślittle fieldâ€ť and used to play soccer on it. In the early 1980s the municipality of Quilmes, of which Ezpeleta is a part, allowed the state electricity company, Segba, to install a substation on the land. It was opened with the name Sobral. The neighborsâ€™ protests about losing their plaza resulted in a promise from the civil servants that soon they would have it again, better than before. They would get a proper plaza. That never happened. Segba was privatized; it became Edesur, one of the main power companies in Argentina. One day in 1992 a team of workers appeared at the electrical transformer building. They were there to increase the substationâ€™s capacity by installing two cables capable of carrying 132,000 volts; each of them was six hundred times more powerful than those that typically feed electricity to a home.
Solioz was sure the absence of butterflies and the deaths of her neighbors had a common cause: the contamination created by the concentration of electricity at that corner near her house. Biologists say that butterflies never stay in contaminated places. They serve as an indicator species for environmental health. It was 1997, during one of the springs when the butterflies did not return, that Gladys Solioz began a laborious census. She taped together several sheets of paper and drew an eleven-block segment of the neighborhood. Nineteen hundred people lived in the area covered by her map. She drew a green cross to indicate a seriously ill neighbor. A red cross indicated that someone had died of cancer. She did this in remembrance of two children who had died at four and seven years old and in honor of the more than forty neighbors who used to gather on that corner in Ezpeleta to herald the arrival of the butterflies. And finally she drew a cross to indicate the death of her father.
Don GermĂˇn Solioz was retired and healthy when he started accompanying his daughter to the first neighborhood meetings about the illnesses. His lung cancer was sudden; Solioz died in August 1998 when the neighbors were still meeting once a week. At that time they were worried by what they were learning about the electromagnetic waves that emanated from the substation. Scientific studies warned that exposure could lead to cancer. One of them, from the World Health Organization, established that children exposed to more than 0.3 microteslas â€“ the unit of measurement for electromagnetic fields â€” could double their chances of developing leukemia. Edesur, supported by Argentine regulation which allows emissions of up to twenty-five microtesla in urban areas, argued and continues to argue that the Sobral substation meets the established standards.
At that point the residents of Ezpeleta only wanted the power company to move the substation to an unpopulated area. But Edesur was actually planning on bringing more high-voltage lines into the neighborhood. The companyâ€™s workers dug ditches day and night in preparation for laying the new lines. The neighbors threw themselves into an effort to stop the plans. It was 2001 and police were repressing all street protests. Gladys Solioz and her neighbors contacted the Coordinating Association of Users, Consumers, and Contributors, a nongovernmental organization that presented their claims to a lower-court judge in La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires province. After months of litigation, for the first time ever, Argentinaâ€™s courts ruled in support of health concerns even in the face of scientific uncertainty and scarcity of evidence.
The Federal Court of La Plata upheld the lower-court order to stop work on the extension of the Sobral substation and to carry out a statistical census that analyzes the environment, the possible contamination, and its consequences on the health of the inhabitants of Ezpeleta. The World Health Organization began a similar study on the consequences of exposure to electromagnetic radiation on an international scale.
Mrs. Solioz has continued to update her map of Ezpeleta with new crosses. Their fight has served as an example to others confronting power companies. They litigate and march in the streets to prevent other electrical substations being built in inhabited areas. In nine years, Gladys Solioz has marked 115 deaths on her map and 116 additional cases of cancer, as well as pregnancies that have resulted in children with birth defects, and dozens of cases of depression. Public health experts have told her that the neighborhoodâ€™s leukemia index is worrying: the norm would be one case of leukemia for each ten thousand inhabitants, but here they have had at least four children with leukemia in a population of less than two thousand. Here only impunity survives.
While justice moves slowly, Gladys Solioz canâ€™t forget the butterflies or her ill neighbors or her dead father. The majority of the survivors now live with the scars that cancer left on their bodies, and they continue to demand that the electrical substation be moved. They do not want to leave the place where they grew up. They know that, if they go away, others will come and will in turn become ill. And they want something more: they want the butterflies to someday return to Ezpeleta.
* * * * * * * * * *
Maria Elena Poljobich is the granddaughter of one of the ministers of the last czar of Russia. She smokes a Derby Suave cigarette in Ezpeleta. The plastic roses in the flowerpot on the table in her living room match the furious red of her nail polish. She handles the cigarette with her left hand. She raises it from the carved glass ash tray, brings it to the corner of her lips, and gives a long drag. She blows the smoke up, in a gesture copied from the divas in black and white movies. Thousands of little wrinkles on her face pinch into an expression of frozen despair.
She is someone for whom a wound takes a long time to close up. Her skin does not heal well. She is 73. Breast cancer has left her with a deep hole in her chest and a lack of energy to do anything. The death of her son was still more traumatic. That pain does not stop; she still cries. The sugar that her husband puts on her scars three times a day to heal them does not heal her.
Maria Elena Poljobich undresses with a gesture taken from her grandmother and traces the noble face of the Russian aristocrat who didnâ€™t even know how to comb her own hair. She begins to undo her blouse to show her body, pausing to take a drag on her Derby Suave. She removes the nylon filling from a part of the bodice, then undoes the garment. She shows herself. She holds up her one remaining breast as if it were the figurehead on the prow of a ship which in spite of the rain and sea spray retains a certain splendor. Maria Elena Poljobich becomes a sphinx. Her gaze fixes on the far wall of her house, the same wall against which electromagnetic waves bounce. Without looking at the camera she asks, like this?
Carlos Cordova had spent the greatest part of his time in his truck for more than 12 years. He was driving back from Villa Gesell when he noticed something strange. In one of those random gestures born of boredom his hand brushed across his neck and touched a lump. Carlos Cordova was 29 years old. His wife and two children, Luciano and Leandro, were waiting at home in Ezpeleta. He was planning to build a new bedroom for the older boy.
A fever that would not go away for several weeks left hCordova unable to drive. There were dozens of consultations and tests and finally the diagnosis: Hodgkinâ€™s lymphoma. The first time that he went to see Mercedes Melgarejos, a specialist in La Plata, Cordova swore he would keep fighting. In the waiting room a stranger approached him and said never drop your guard. The treatment was long; it lasted more than six years. The disease seemed to take its strength from his big body. He continued driving his truck. The chemotherapy wore him down and made him vomit at the side of the road. People driving past would shout, â€śDrunk driver!â€ť
â€śWhen I began with the treatments, I brought my medical history. I presented it to the doctors. I told them how old I was, that I had three children and that all three were breastfed until they were six months old. My grandmother died seven months ago. Of old age. Twenty days before dying she began to say: â€śEnough, Iâ€™m ready. Iâ€™m tired.â€ť My mother is healthy. The only thing she has is a bad knee. I never smoked. I didnâ€™t take drugs. I donâ€™t have allergies. I always ate well. And now Iâ€™ve got this. The doctor asked me a series of questions to figure out why I might have it. None of them seemed to fit me. Then he asked me: â€śMaâ€™am, why on earth are you sick? Did you have lead in your playpen?â€ť I said no to that too. Then I said: â€śI live near an electric substation.â€ť There was a silence, and he sighed. â€śThat could be it.â€ť
At first I thought that I was the only one. In fact when they first started talking about environmental problems I thought, â€śThis substation must be dangerous.â€ť But I was thinking about the danger of it exploding. If it blew up we would all be goners. I wasnâ€™t aware of the real danger until I found out that the transformers are full of PCBs, which cause cancer. Three boys in the school had become ill, so I began to read. At about that time I ran into Gladys, who was fighting to raise awareness about the possible consequences of the substation in the neighborhood. I thought, â€śShe is so committed to this issue. She must be sick.â€ť Later I found out she wasnâ€™t.
I experienced the early days of this effort from my bed, sick as a result of treatment. I saw my neighbors battling and I was convinced. Even more so when I began to tell people that I was sick and they would tell me they were too.