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ImageIn this post I contest traditional liberal conceptions of citizenship rooted in the nation-state and consider the role played by memory in the ways in which Santiago de Chile’s disenfranchised produce contentious politics.

I suggest that, by referring to the past in their meetings and conversations, local neighbourhood organisations in Santiago de Chile’s poor settlements (poblaciones) assert a particular, anti-hegemonic interpretation of history. Through stories, historical anecdotes, and different types of memorials, poor residents produce a neighbourhood identity, giving rise to innovative forms of community membership.

Referring to the influence of the past in contentious politics in the favelas, James Holston has also proposed novel approaches that allow a rescaling of citizenship. In his book Insurgent Citizenship, Holston (2008) argues that history lurks below the surface of our porous present, sometimes leading to the eruption of movements that question historically entrenched regimes of urban citizenship. However, Holston does not explain precisely how this determining relationship between history and contentious mobilisation occurs. My ethnographic research in Santiago’s poblaciones explores this issue directly, examining the role of memory in the production and re-production of an identity of struggle.

In the first half of the 20th century, South American cities grew rapidly due to rural-urban migration. The Chilean government’s inability to provide proper accommodation for urban newcomers resulted in very poor living conditions. Overcrowded and living in informal housing, the poor experienced health and sanitation problems, insecurity, lack of social services, and many other difficulties.

As a way of demanding their right to housing, what became known as the movimiento de pobladores (the dwellers’ movement) coordinated land seizures, occupying brownfields and abandoned areas and erecting dwellings. After 1945, squatting became a common method of obtaining urban land, shaping Chilean cities – especially in Santiago. Seen as a way of challenging capitalistic dispossession, occupations were coordinated and helped by leftist political parties and other groups. Under the banner of popular power, the Leftist Revolutionary Movement (MIR) coordinated several land seizures – especially in the late 1960s – becoming highly influential within these poblaciones. Despite being severely repressed by the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-89), poblaciones organised resistance initiatives, protesting against social and economic deprivation and oppression. Población local activism flourished throughout the 1970s and 80s, supported by the Vicariate of Solidarity – progressive branches of the Catholic Church – internationally funded NGOs, left-wing political parties, and radical armed groups (such as the FPMR and the Lautaro Youth Movement).

In 1988, led by a coalition of parties called ‘Concertación por la Democracia’, Chile regained democracy through a referendum. The Concertación ruled until 2010, consistently deepening the neoliberal policies implemented by Pinochet’s regime. Different authors have sought to explain why, despite democratisation, the Chilean urban grassroots movement became significantly less active after 1990. In line with a few other local scholars, my research shows that, although the dwellers’ movement ceased to exist in the form it had taken in the 1980s, there were several substantial initiatives that marked a continuity of mobilisation during the 1990s and 2000s.

During my fieldwork I spent a large amount of time with local organisations. In meetings, other informal gatherings, and interviews, I noted that, instead of referring descriptively to the past, people involved in población organisations tended to perform a particular, independent narrative of the past in a way that produced a position of agency in the present. When talking about the past, informants started by presenting an oppressive, frustrating situation only to subvert it through successful stories of collective activism. For example, after the military decided to appoint local neighbourhood committee leaders undemocratically to control poblaciones at the micro-level, contentious activists successfully infiltrated those committees, influencing decisions and secretly expanding local access to information.

Unlike in most other Chilean social spheres, people in población contentious organisations spoke of the 1989 democratic transition as a defeat and a betrayal. For them, the national political elite betrayed the leftist revolutionary project, which aimed to topple Pinochet’s regime from the grassroots. Along these lines, and echoing other opinions and informal communications, a leading resident stated: ‘back then we called people not to vote in the referendum (…) After all we fought and suffered, the No’s victory [in the referendum] was a terrible defeat for us, because it meant negotiating with the dictatorship.’ For neighbourhood organisations, parties not only coordinated the democratic transition with the military, they agreed to implement an unequal economic system that strengthened class segregation.

Accordingly, for población dwellers, the creation of the Concertación during the 1980s and the democratic transition led to a separation between the grassroots and political parties – resulting in increasing neglect of the former’s political role and ideological concerns. Expressing a strong identity of struggle, contentious politics emerges in these neighbourhoods as a reaction to and subversion of historical developments that are understood as oppressive. This identity affords legitimation, recognition and pride. Accordingly, for example, población contentious organisations tend to reject any interaction with authorities and political parties (only some compromise to obtain government benefits).

In addition, emulating some of their principles and repertoires of action, neighbourhood organisations express admiration for past radical groups, hence reaffirming their subversion of an oppressive past. Narrating memory in their own way, población dwellers produce an alternative form of belonging through activism, prioritising informal connections and working primarily at the neighbourhood level. Residents’ capacity to produce their community by defining the meanings of their urban habitat is one of the most crucial – and yet highly overlooked – rights to be exercised in current society. While it is true that most Chilean poblaciones demobilised after the 1990s, my research demonstrates that a few of them have been able to produce alternative forms of citizenship.

This post is part of our Sociology of Citizenship series, hosted in partnership with Oxford’s Department of International Development


Holston, J. (2008) Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil. Princeton: Princeton University Press.



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